Shi Tiesheng, a Chinese writer, says: “To write is to prevent suicide.”
He died on the last day of the year 2010, four days before his 60th birthday. Having spent 38 years in a wheelchair, making matchboxes with other unskilled workers for a living for over a decade, he knew what he was talking about. Shi is one of the most profound and unpretentious writers inChina.
He had not expected to live to almost 60. His illness had brought him to the verge of death more than once. Daily living was difficult. He had to rely on medical help to clean his blood every two days, after his kidneys failed. Energy was of limited supply. If a friend was to visit in the afternoon, he dared not move much the whole morning, in order to save energy for the visit. It was a thoroughly tortured life, a life without health and all the pleasures health bestows. How could you buy the pleasure of taking a walk? He found he could not even recall the sensation of walking. The memory was gone soon after the departure of the function.
It was not a life lived by common standards. There was no feeling well or looking well. Yet he lived. And he wrote.
He lived and died in abundant, genuine love, love from his wife, his friends, his doctors and nurses — some of these health workers were his lifelong caretakers and lifesavers. Instead of a funeral, his friends gathered and celebrated his 60th birthday, in their brightest and handsomest clothing. They brought him colorful fresh flowers. “This time,” said his wife to these friends, “he has plenty of energy for the party.”
In his work, Shi says, “Death is something we don’t need to rush to. Death is a festival that is bound to come.” It had finally come.
He donated every part of his body to anyone in need of a transplant and to medical research. He hoped an autopsy would finally discover what went wrong in his spine at age 21. At that time, everyone was praying it was a tumor, which would mean it could be removed and he cured. Yet whoever he prayed to with all his might did not grant him this favor.
People say his profession is writing. He corrected that view. “My profession is being sick. I write in my spare time.”
A hot-tempered youth who yelled at his doctor and threatened to chop the doctor up alive if he could not be made to walk again, he came to a profound peace with a fate that seemed most unjust. If such a life is the price to pay for a mature soul, he made the price worthwhile. His writing is free of pretense, of shallowness. The clear, simple, earthbound words awaken deep sorrow and love in his readers. It is the soul behind the words that his readers feel.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could clear up their own thoughts first before they debate with others, if everyone could understand or even try to understand what the other is saying before disagreeing? Much antagonism and even war could be avoided if this were the case. Meetings would be a lot shorter, relationships a lot easier. But the majority of people are ready to take a stand on any issue before they have a chance to think about it and collect the facts. Shallow, unclear, and heated discussion based on shared ignorance is characteristic of most conversations. Often a dialogue is nothing but two monologues intertwined, propelled forward by a lot of positive or negative misunderstanding, sometimes echoed but never heard.
It helps to have an ordinary intelligence if accompanied by audacious honesty. Such a mind will keep asking for clarity until it gets it. Not being afraid of looking stupid forces the other party to be clear and straightforward. Such a person will not buy superfluous arguments and muddled reasoning, and thus drives them out of existence.
Average academics write in big words, dry style, and cumbersome structure. Outstanding intellectuals write in simple words, vivid style, and clear structure. The empty brain spends all its effort on the façade, while the substantial mind only seeks to get the message across. The small intuitively try to intimidate, while the great just let themselves be seen.
Depth, substance, magnificence do not lend themselves to those looking for quick success. People learn to cheat because it works in the world of humans. A lot of things work in the human-developed world: vulgarity, cruelty, hypocrisy, self-deception, flattery, corruption, evil, stupidity, incompetence. None of these works in truth-seeking.
The natural laws cannot be cheated. There is no shortcut. On this scale I too am constantly being measured, and each time inevitably find myself worth exactly the work I have done, no more, no less.
If one cannot think well, then one cannot read well. This explains why so many well-read people get no wisdom out of their reading. The quantity of books read and the number of degrees attained do not count. It is better to read fewer books well. It is better to be less educated but equipped with a few well-digested fundamental truths verified by experience. A grasp of the natural laws is much more important than “the wordy ignorance that is often called knowledge” (George Eliot: Middlemarch, Lydgate’s moment of vocation), much more important than cunning and so-called worldly wisdom.
Preferably, thinking should precede reading. Only when the questions have been generated and have been boiling in the mind can learning happen. For a person whose brain has never exercised the thinking process on real problems encountered, whose heart cares about nothing and nobody, books can add no value. If a book does not address your own set of puzzles and dilemmas, pains and longings, I say drop it. You can always come back to it when you have thought about the questions it addresses. Then it will speak to you, if it is a great book. You can critique it, absorb the nutrition you need, and obtain the vocabulary to express your thoughts.
I often think about how wise it was of Hermann Hesse to call the contemporary academic enterprise “the Glass Bead Game,” one that is intellectually satisfying but has nothing to do with the creative force. Such endeavor centers on the interpretation, study, research, and the manipulation of the intricate structure of its subjects, yet exists only in the ashes of past great creation. The vigor is wasted on argument instead of advancement, on trivial details instead of significance.
Mortimer Adler, in his bestseller How to Read a Book, proposes four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and the highest: syntopical. I’d like to propose yet another, even higher level: applicational reading. By this I mean that you apply what you are reading to at least one troubling case currently in your life. Thus, you follow the author through his discourse, all the while critically relating the content to your situation, smiling or frowning, nodding or shaking your head, hesitating, questioning, conversing, and debating. If you cannot do this, you should put aside this book, at least for now. Or, if it belongs to the Great Books list, give it a quick once-over at best.
When there is nothing that appeals to a person below the head, no change will happen. In this case, do not read; instead, live. Go out into the world, experience nature and people. Your real university lies there. This is what Gorky calls his university in his autobiography. All learning should be visceral. I disagree with the academics. I disagree with the dispassionate and indifferent.
The old monk faced the wall of his cave for 10 years, meditating on truth. What we lack in today’s life is long span of silence and solitude. It is considered abnormal and unnatural, if at all available. If you are not working you are supposed to spend time with your family. If you are not married you are supposed to be dating. If you can’t find a date you are supposed to hang out with your friends. Strangers and acquaintances look at you as a weirdo when they hear you just want to be alone. Parents and friends worry about you. Few understand the needs of individuals for long enough spans of silence and solitude. Yet this is essential for us to grow to full human beings. Only with fully-grown human beings can true society come to existence. What we have now is a bunch of intellectual and emotional cripples depending on each other. If nobody is self-contained and self-reliant, there can be no true relationship. Independence must come before interdependence. Unless you are a true individual, you should not attempt to enter into any relationship on equal terms.
What society is developing is in the opposite direction. Social media networking websites make it possible for individuals to stay connected, while the connections grow extremely diluted and superficial. The individual receives endless stimuli from his connections, never needs to face himself. The short and easy exchange makes the telling of deep inside stories impossible. The many updates make one’s attention span very short. No thinking can be done. No deep conversion and thorough exchange of life experience take place. I don’t use Facebook much. If my friends need me, they will write me long meaningful emails. Meantime I don’t need to know the superficial side of their lives. They all appear to be happy and healthy on these media. What they truly want to reveal, they will only reveal to me, and they will find time to do so.
If we want nothing but truth, we shall have no fear or concern, for all paths lead to truth, should we just try less hard to self-deceive. Things are what they are, as stars shine no matter if you look at them or not. We may see partial truth, but more truth will be revealed to us in due time, provided we do not resist.
If what we want is gain or benefit, whatever it may be, then we have a reason to fear, a motive to deceive our originally truthful mental eye. It is from here a thousand complexes spring, a thousand knots multiply, a thousand conflicts emerge, and we are forever at war with ourselves, subject to all kinds of mental disorders.
As a living being we have needs and wants. Therefore the reason to be afraid and the motive to deceive our own mind are always there. For example, in order to survive in a society and civilization, you have to adapt to the dominant orthodox beliefs of your society, also to the many little norms of your civilization. Society and civilization, as systems developed for collective survival and goal-achieving, have an intrinsic tendency to manipulate individuals. Therefore their doctrines and values are often not genuine. This is only a small example. The human mind has many reasons to temporarily or permanently deceive itself to be able to survive, collectively or individually.
All monks try, all philosophers try, all scientists try, to overcome this natural tendency of self-deception, to eliminate this ever-persistent end-gaining mindset, to come to truth, complete truth. To be able to do so is to get beyond the limitation of one single living organism, to have a share of eternity and the infinite universe.
The most pressing danger, for this human race and for each individual, is the lack of ability to understand, respect, pursue, and defend liberty.
On the individual level, this deficiency leads to voluntary dehumanization of oneself, to a life that is either mechanical or animalistic, to surrender of freedom and growth, to oppression on others in domestic or public life, to willing or acquiescent cooperation with crimes committed to fellow human beings.
The crimes an individual participates in can be completely lawful, such as killing civilians of another country, manufacturing a drug that research has proven to have detrimental side effects, producing food with legal but harmful ingredients to lower cost and improve flavor, or issuing financial statements in compliance with the letter of accounting standards but meant to deceive the public. These crimes are common practice today, performed by large groups of highly educated and qualified professionals.
Judging from such reality, schools have failed us on humanity, certifying professional bodies have failed us on ethics, laws have failed us on justice. The only protection we have is the few persons who refuse to participate in crime, who choose to act on their understanding of human rights. These are the protectors of liberty, for whom the punishment is severe, without whom mankind would be extinct.
On the largest scale, this deficiency has led to nearly all catastrophes to the human race, including but not limited to genocide, world wars, concentration camps, man-made famine, and epidemics. In each of these incidents, there have been either none or not enough qualified soldiers to defend mankind.
It is owing to those who understood liberty and fought for it that each of us lives to see the sunlight of this day and enjoys the rights we take for granted.
The future, whether it will be an era of hope and freedom or a new age of darkness, depends on the current and future soldiers of liberty.
For humanity as a whole, the problem is: how can we have enough soldiers of liberty to prevent future catastrophes? Unless the majority of the population has been orientated with the fundamentals of liberty, a livable future cannot be guaranteed. Relying on an enlightened few to defend mankind has proven to be risky business. Adolf Hitler knew this. He said: “The great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil…therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds, they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one…” The masses must be enlightened and truly educated in the human sense. The majority must become qualified fighters for liberty. Otherwise, we are not safe.
On the individual level, the question is: how can we enlighten ourselves, so we live our lives free from unjust limitations, aware of and resistant to mental manipulation, propaganda, brainwashing, and indoctrination that surround us every day and everywhere?
Autocratic or democratic, a system—be it a mechanism, hierarchy, organization, war machine, or society—tends to dehumanize, explicitly or implicitly, to different extents. It runs more smoothly on standardized, obedient parts, not on unique individuals with thoughts and edges. But more smoothly to what end?
If we agree that the ultimate end of every honorable human endeavor is the prosperity and freedom for all, then to achieve liberty by any means of depriving liberty cannot be justified as logical. However, the fallacy prevails.
A system dislikes a component that questions the purpose of the establishment. There are vested interests in any system, hence the inertia is strong and personalized. Therefore, such unwelcome components must be punished and silenced, if they cannot be made identical with the “good ones”.
Since punishment and censorship are only after the fact, it is considered much better to preclude the making of troublesome free-thinkers. As proactive methods, mass media and schools are charged with the task of making standardized and obedient citizens. School accomplishes this task by rote learning, by standardized tests, mass media by endless dumb entertainments, by constant feeds of sensational news, by luring insatiable consumers with exaggerated advertising. The underlying, inherent message is: Don’t think.
Culture helps by providing conventional opinions. Religion assists by diverting attention to a future state. Employment implements control by offering or denying livelihood. Government presents patriotism. Community imposes peer pressure.
From birth to death, rewards and punishments—mental, emotional, physical, but mostly material—mold our psyche, induce fear, determine behavior, condition the mind, shrink the soul. As long as you live, you are boxed; a number represents you to the system.
As result, a small life is satisfactory, inhuman conditions are acceptable. Society runs smoothly, fulfilling nothing but the basic mission: reproduction. The advance is only in technology, not in real evolution. In fact, it is quite the opposite: the degeneration in mind and body is alarming.
You have to be very attentive to personal conscience and capable of independent thinking to be able to see through the lies and bullying we receive every day, from TV and radio, from school, from peers, from managers, from government. The Collective means to assimilate you, make you not a human, but a tool. Is resistance futile?
We think not. The time has become too dangerous for pessimism. It is your life as a human that is at stake. Moreover, it is the future of human beings that depends on you.
There is no cause nobler than this, and no need more urgent.
Therefore we are calling on you, freedom lovers, come here, get the training, face life with an equipped mind, defend liberty on small and large scales wherever you are, enlighten the stupefied, encourage the frightened, promote independent thinking, fight for a future in which life is safe, dignity is respected, and individuality can flourish.
Real learning happens on the subconscious level, causing real changes. This is the paradox: we must verbalize to communicate knowledge, yet real thinking happens in a non-verbal way.
We invented languages, written and spoken, to convey messages, to preserve knowledge. The mastery of a language is considered a valuable skill, and indeed is. A newly learnt language opens up a new world.
Language conveys yet distorts the message. During the transmission, the real power of the original message is lost. For example, at first, the founder of a religion lives his belief with the entirety of his life, the words spoken are from the bottom of his heart. From him to his disciples, the message loses some of its original living power, personality, passion, and depth. Afterwards, the next generation of followers does not even have the luxury of exposure to the master’s silent direct influence, to correct any misinterpretation. On and on the doctrine is diluted and distorted. By the time a belief is institutionalized, doctrine has become dogma, spark has left the ashes.
However we have not found a better way of communicating, and must try again with the only tool we have, again and again, in any creative way we can imagine, in all literatures, in all conferences, in all presentations, in all documents.
Yes, we have also sounds and colors and shapes and touch and movements; therefore we invented music, painting, sculpture, dance, etc. But the majority of human messages are still carried by words.
There are very diluted messages, or pure junk. There are also forms of condensed wisdom. Great books are the latter. Though our interpretation is different from one another, or even from each read, some valuable messages get across. We are therefore nourished and grow in the rich soil cultivated by generations of our ancestors, not the barren environment called daily life we are thrown into. Whether to take this inheritance or not is up to us. There is no obligation.
To be able to live a good life in the full human sense, one’s given default setting is not enough. If it were, education and thought and action would not be necessary. Going with the flow is not an option. To be able to exercise consciousness and rationality and choice, there must be a reflective element in one’s life. A life that does not allow time and energy to think will be a life of ignorance and passive reaction. The command “slow down” has the beginning of wisdom in it. Too bad most lives do not have this element. People do not reflect, therefore they never learn the lessons hidden in life’s pains and frustrations.
One must reflect or remain at the psychical state of a 3-year-old, which is common in adults and even elders. They never mature or blossom in the true human sense. Their beauty is external, if it ever exists, given by nature and gone with youth. They contribute nothing to the human heritage other than their reproduction, which they usually fulfill instinctively and irresponsibly.
The default life is not a good one. We live in a society defective in many ways. Without wakeful individuals, it will not be able to correct itself. Unthinking herds contribute to its evil. If one cannot command him/herself, he or she will have to obey society, which makes one a part of a machine, inconsequential, unimportant, not a human being that is unique and full of its own spirit.
An unexamined life is not worth living. But an examined life may still be unworthy of living. There must also be a creative element, a learning element (which I would like to think is supplemental and subservient to the creative element and without exception comes with it), and a meaningful element, through which an individual’s learning and creative action extend to others, and connect to the whole universe.
These, I think, are the conditions of having a good life. Reflection must come first and life must be examined, once the individual has gained independence from his family of origin in both mentality and financial means. This reflection must also be done continuously, as life more often than not poses unexpected and unwanted lessons to us. Paying attention is the key. Pretending to be dumb will make one truly dumb.
Nobody can be more disillusioned by human beings than Socrates was. His countrymen, by a vote of (though marginal) majority, agreed to put him to death. He was already 70 years old, but his fellow citizens had no patience to let him die naturally. This most just man, who preferred risking his life to committing any injustice even under tyranny, had the reputation (a true one) of being the wisest man in his time. Having done nothing but discuss fundamental ideas all his life, he was considered an intolerable criminal and sentenced to the ultimate penalty. His country, where the majority of citizens were his murderers, was the city state of Athens, the most illustrious of all places in human history, the source of Western civilization.
As he calmly drank the hemlock and embarked on an unknown journey, what was his final impression of the men of Athens? Judging from his tranquility throughout the trial, his opinion must have been finalized long before. Unlike politicians and revolutionaries of his time and of later times, he would not consider “the masses”, or “the public”, or “the people”, to be qualified as the ultimate judge in any matter. Any honest man, such as John Stuart Mill, could not help but objectively define them as a group made of a few wise and many foolish men.
What can be done about this human predicament? How is history progressing? History does progress, to our amazement. All our material comforts, civil rights, and mental enjoyments, owe to the efforts of people before us. And these efforts, I imagine, are not just made by the great individuals, but also by the unconscious blind following herd.
So this collective of the human race is much like a monstrous, gigantic individual human being: clumsy and heavy, slow and blind, savage and timid, selfish, desiring both self-preservation and self-destruction, capable of both good and evil, committing right and wrong in no particular order, waddling through his muddy cognition, fumbling and tumbling, making many mistakes along the way, suffering and inflicting sufferings upon others, killing and mocking his benefactors, admiring vices. With a moment of luck, sometimes he rises from the mud pit he was born into, wipes his eyes, and casts a glimpse to heaven— a glimpse into what life can be. Chances are he will fall back again. But in his dark, chaotic, subconscious dreams, will he remember that sight of heaven, that clean windswept height which for a moment seemed within his reach?
I think I started off in life by seeking an experience of noble feelings, epic emotions, deep sorrows and love. I ended up with something even better: I became a truth-seeker and a wisdom-lover. From this pursuit, I hope, I will be free from fear. Since truth will not change no matter how I feel, how I err, I can be assured that if truth is what I want, then it is inevitable that I shall get it, through whatever paths of stupidity I may invent.