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.
My classroom is out there, by the lagoon. There is always so much to learn. When I look at the incomprehensible beauty of the scenery, I try to understand, not only with my intellect, but with my whole being. The blue mountains with snow caps, the sky with soft feathery clouds, the forests, the gardens, the lake, the fountain, the swans, seagulls, mallards, geese, pigeons, raccoons, and squirrels all seem to be teaching me something, so very beautiful, lively and grand, more than anything I have learned from books, from society.
The masses take pride in being practical and scorn imagination. They have no idea that their whole lives have been shaped by imagination, and they fall for it all the time. The imagination of Homer alone created the foundation of Western culture. The tale of Creation still reins the crowd. They believe in a future state. They go to churches to worship. They spend money on festivals, games, rituals, fluffy movies, and escapist fiction. Yet they mock “imagination”. They mock their innermost longing.
The masses drink coffee to stay stimulated, take drugs to be ecstatic or free from anxiety and depression, but refuse to do any serious work to improve their minds. Shortcuts are always preferred. The outer quality of life always outweighs the inner quality of life. You can boast about a trip to the tropics, and get plenty of oohs and aahs, but your friends won’t envy you if you have just read a thought-provoking book. That’s simply not cool, man. You’ve got to go out more. Travel rocks.
I want to find out what screwed up the lovely and lively children the majority of adults once were. What in society, in education, in employment replaced their beauty with ugliness, depleted their spirit, made them mean and coarse? If we can find these things, can we change them? Can each person develop from a lovely and lively baby to a lovely and lively adult? Why not? Is society anti-human by nature? Does growing up have to be the death of the spirit? Why?
We are really still in a primitive stage, despite all our technologies and sciences. Despite the complexity of all the derivatives, we are basically still animals living a life of feeding and breeding. Everything else is just decoration.
The human side of us is still far from developed. Most people do not live a life of the mind. Most people cannot appreciate the finest poetry and music. Most people work for pay, not passion. Their jobs often bring neither satisfaction nor growth. Many of them blind their conscience to be able to do their job. Many people do not have the urge to live life in an honorable way. Look at all the spammers, and even worse, scammers.
Acceptance, approval, and admiration are dangerous. Like punishment, reward is a part of our conditioning. It is called positive reinforcement. If you do not get any of it, life is miserable. However, if you get it, you can become attached to it to the point of addiction. This addiction induces fear, because once you have something, you fear its loss. Thus, the admirer controls the admired with admiration. The approving boss controls the subordinate with praise. Friends control you with their good opinion of you. Community controls you with its acceptance. Any slight change on their part, or threat of change, will disturb you consciously or subconsciously. Any loss of these conditions will grieve you dearly. We can be enslaved by love without our knowing. We can become dependent on another’s dependence on us.
We need an immune system here, just as we need some inner immunity to brave the storm of rejection, criticism, even condemnation, and, quite often, the Dead Sea of indifference. It is bad if we succumb to life’s beating. It is equally bad if we succumb to life’s bribery. Regardless of beating or bribery, we must dare to be ourselves; we must dare to do what we are meant to do.
An inner core has to be built; otherwise we are subject to corruption. Our daily reality is overwhelming, and our needs are urgent. The interaction is constant. The pressure is always on.
We are social animals, but we are also meant to grow on our own, quietly, in our own lot. Solitude must precede true society, as Emerson said. A complete self is the precondition for any mature relationship on equal terms between adults.
To build that core, that complete self, is no easy task. Much tribulation and conflict has to be endured before we can attain a solid ethical consciousness. Those innocents who have not fought adversities and resisted temptations are not to be trusted. Those who did not choose their inner calling over external pressure are corrupted. The redemption is harder, as now the core is weaker. They easily slip down the slippery slope from there. Only those who have made the courageous choice can take the next, possibly more severe, or more subtle and better disguised, test. In due time, through many trials, the core of a self is built. The danger of falling for even such a self will always exist. It is an uphill struggle. It is worthwhile, but not easy.
Despite our need for social interaction, our longing to be of great service to society, we must not compromise ourselves too much. Since anything outstanding will likely be misunderstood and beaten down, years of isolation may be necessary before we gain mastery.
Therefore, one seeking an authentic, empowered self has no choice but to learn to live with oneself comfortably. Emotionally, we should be as little externally reliant as possible. We need to reacquaint ourselves with nature, with quiet, with great books and classical music, with productive loneliness. Solitariness is necessary for our wounds to heal, our inner turmoil to settle, our thoughts to grow, our boundaries to expand.
No doubt we should reach out to connect with people from all geographic areas, all walks of life, all ages, all colors, all cultures, and all creeds. However, we should not fill our lives with chatter. Our well-done work should be the currency of exchange in any meaningful interaction. It should be the only permit to enter into the circle of great contributors where you belong. True friendship is based on mutual admiration for each other’s character. The proof of our character is our work. The work done verifies not just the talent, but more importantly, the determination, the endurance, and the conquering of many difficulties and temptations.
Regardless of outcome, the most important measurement of a life’s work is how little you have compromised, how much in you has been brought forth whole and entire, in the original form you have envisioned deep in your heart. This is the secret of great art, great achievement: the refusal to compromise, the stamina to see to the last detail cast in the mold of the mind’s highest dream. This is Stanley Kubric, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet. This is Confucius, Jesus, Sakyamuni, Socrates. The courage to stand by one’s conviction in an otherwise humble spirit is always the sign of greatness and mental maturity.
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. (–Ralph Waldo Emerson) This self, after its humble search of wisdom, comes to maturity at middle age, confident in the knowledge that actually nobody knows better how to live. The decision is yours. The risk is yours. The stage is yours. The best freedom life grants you is the freedom to make mistakes. To take risks and to make mistakes are better than to leave a life unlived, which is the worst sin. There are threats and punishments from the establishment. As a fish in a fish bowl, when you jump out, instead of finding the ocean, you may well die of thirst on a waterless table. All the other fish in the bowl, witnessing your terrible end, will celebrate their captivity, their decision to not seek freedom. There is no right or wrong. There is always risk. There is always hope. Walk out of slavery or forever remain in the false peace, it is now or never. At middle age, the inner fire burns into panic, in the hope of final awakening and action-taking. Otherwise it will be too late.
Since this world we are not satisfied with
We will create another world for ourselves
Let the unknown force take us to the unknown path
Along the unknown path to the unknown grand entrance
— Translated from a popular book in China in the 1980s: The Fourth Generation
The world is my playground, though it took me many years to learn the rules. Many of the rules are hidden. Those explicit are often false. Actually, there aren’t that many rules. There are a few iron laws. The rest is left to you to define. Seeing through the false rules and breaking them are part of the fun, not known to those serious people.