This post is not about Donald Trump. This is about how much agency we actually have in the world, and why shitty things happen.
A little while back I wrote a piece on why I think we have control over our lives – that we can “set the trajectory of our own soul’s experience.”
Regular reader Rick (never afraid of a lyrical flourish) commented:
“Too much jungle juice on your yacht in the Mediterranean has addled your brain Jon… Calm down, take a deep breath and ask yourself whether you seriously believe that your prescription would help a person to “set the trajectory of his own soul's experience” if they were:
- a Jew under Hitler; or
- a peasant farmer slaughtered to achieve Stalin's industrialization goals; or
- a Tootsie watching in agony as his intestines were being eaten by a Hutu soldier; or
- a wife being burned alive on her dead husband's funeral pyre;…
… Get real Jon and stop rabbiting on about what the impersonal “universe” can do for us.”
I hear this argument a lot, so I thought I’d take it apart carefully.
First up, my position that we have freedom and control in our lives, and that we can create our own experiences, is not an absolute position.
I do not believe that we can do literally whatever we want in space and time. No matter how much positive thought energy I give it, I am not going to be a world-famous ballerina. These little Snoopy legs are not cut out for it.
Just to be clear, in case it needs stating, I do not believe I am a god.
That said, I do believe we have freedom and power and more freedom and power than we currently believe.
For me the best analogy I can come up with is surfing. The surfer gets up and rides the wave.
Now you might look at this and think, that surfer has no freedom at all. Their course is completely determined by the wave. And no matter what they do, at some point the ride ends.
But I look at that and say the surfer has a huge amount of freedom. They can pull moves. They can drop back into the barrel or shoot out into the open air. What they do with their time on the wave is totally up to them.
And importantly, the more skilled they are with working the wave, the more freedom they have. (Read that line again.)
Now it is true that some waves are better than others. Some waves give you glassy barrels that roll on forever. Some waves dump you on the reef before you’re off the board.
In this life, there’s not much we can do about that. We’ve all got to work with the waves we’re given.
And so does my philosophy of radical agency apply to someone who is a victim of oppression – a Jew, a peasant, a Tootsie?
Absolutely. The way I see it, they’ve just found themselves on a particularly gnarly wave.
And given it seems to take 40 years on the wave just to figure out how the wave works, they don’t have a lot of scope to enjoy the freedom and power I enjoy.
But that absolutely does not mean that the dynamic I’m talking about – about how we can set the trajectory of our soul’s experience – does not apply.
I remember reading Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Incredible book. In it, he relates the story of a young Jewish woman who decided that it was an honour to be asked by God to endure such cruelty and suffering, and by taking it on, she freed other souls from the burden. Her torment became a transcendental experience and she had visions of angels at her death bed.
This is a woman taking an incredibly gnarly wave, and pulling some incredibly righteous moves.
Likewise, I don’t want to be an arrogant turd. I recognise that everything I enjoy, and everything I’ve been blessed with, comes from landing a very, very sweet wave.
And I feel I owe it to everyone in history who has ever wanted a wave like this, to make the most of it.
My point is, the physics of soul surfing are the same, whether you land a glassy barrel or whether your wave has you dashed across the rocks before you’ve found your feet.
My message is, given I don’t think many of my readers live under life-threatening tyranny, is that you have landed one of the sweetest rides in history. Learn how to work it. Pull some sick moves. Have some fun.
The other point I’d make is that I’d agree that the universe is impersonal. Totally. I think it totally doesn’t care whether you enjoy the ride or spend the whole time looking at your toes complaining about the heat.
It doesn’t care. But the physics of surfing are the same, regardless.
Lastly, I have enough awareness to know that there’s no real way to know. The evidence in my life points to something like this, but I could be kidding myself. I could be high on the jungle juice.
But if the evidence can be interpreted either way, why wouldn’t you choose to believe the story where life is a playful, creative wave and you have freedom and creative power.
Why would you believe that life is nothing but a meaningless flight from suffering?
Given we’re humans and humans don’t know nothing, why not choose the story that gets you most excited about life.
Surf’s up, dudes.
Like the surfing analogy? How else can we think about it?