Filling the Void: Thoughts on Learning and Karma 154 Comments
Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
-Viktor E. Frankl, Holocaust survivor, author of Man’s Search for Meaning
I believe that life exists to be enjoyed, and that the most important thing is to feel good about yourself.
Without the latter, little else gets done.
Each person will have his or her own vehicles for achieving both, and those vehicles will change over time. For some, the answer will be working with orphans, and for others, it will be composing music. I have a personal answer to both–to love, be loved, and never stop learning–but I don’t expect that to be universal.
Some criticize a focus on self-love and enjoyment as selfish or hedonistic, but it’s neither.
Enjoying life and helping others–or feeling good about yourself and increasing the greater good–are no more mutually exclusive than being agnostic and leading a moral life. One does not preclude the other. Let’s assume we agree on this. It still leaves the question: what can I do with my time to enjoy life and feel good about myself?
I can’t offer a single answer that will fit all people, but, based on the dozens of fulfilled people I’ve interviewed, and the thousands who’ve provided feedback on this blog, there are two components that are fundamental…
Continual learning and service.
What follows is how I think of both.
LEARNING UNLIMITED: SHARPENING THE SAW
Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.
-Dave Barry, American writer and humorist
To learn is to live. I see no other option. Once the learning curve flattens out, I get bored.
Though you can upgrade your brain domestically, traveling and relocating provides unique conditions that make progress much faster. The different surroundings act as a counterpoint and mirror for your own prejudices, making addressing weaknesses that much easier. Learning is such an addiction and compulsion of mine that I rarely travel somewhere without deciding first how I’ll obsess on a specific skill.
A few examples:
Connemara, Ireland: Gaelic Irish, Irish flute, and hurling, the fastest field sport in the world, and perhaps the most amazing sport I’ve ever played (imagine a mix of lacrosse and rugby played with axe handles)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Brazilian Portuguese and surfing
Berlin, Germany: German and locking (a form of upright breakdancing)
I tend to focus on language acquisition and one kinesthetic skill, sometimes finding the latter after landing overseas. The most successful serial vagabonds tend to blend the mental and the physical. Notice that I often port a skill I practice domestically-—martial arts-—to other countries where they are also practiced. Instant social life and camaraderie. It need not be a competitive sport-—it could be hiking, chess, or almost anything that keeps your nose out of a textbook and you out of your apartment. Sports just happen to be excellent for avoiding foreign language stage fright and developing lasting friendships, while still sounding like Tarzan.
Language learning deserves special mention here. It is, bar none, the best thing you can do to hone clear thinking.
Quite aside from the fact that it is impossible to understand a foreign culture without understanding its language, acquiring a new language transforms the human experience and makes you aware your own language: your own thoughts.
The practical benefits of this are as underestimated as the difficulty of language learning is overestimated. I know from research and personal experience with more than a dozen languages that 1) adults can learn languages much faster than children when constant 9-5 work is removed and 2) it is possible to become conversationally-fluent in any language in six months or less. At four hours per day, six months can be whittled down to less than three months. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain applied linguistics and the 80/20 of language learning, but here are a few starting points.
Don’t miss the chance to double your life experience. Gain a language and you gain a second lens through which to question and understand the world.
Cursing at people when you go home is fun, too.
SERVICE FOR THE RIGHT REASONS: TO SAVE THE WHALES OR KILL THEM AND FEED THE CHILDREN?
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike.
Service to me is simple: doing something that improves life besides your own.
This is not the same as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the altruistic concern for the well-being of mankind–human life. Human life and comfort have long been focused on to the exclusion of the environment and the rest of the food chain, hence our current race to imminent extinction. Serves us right. The world does not exist solely for the betterment and multiplication of mankind.
Before I start chaining myself to trees and saving the dart frogs, though, I should take my own advice: do not become a cause snob.
How can you help starving children in Africa when there are starving children in Los Angeles? How can you save the whales when homeless people are freezing to death? How does doing volunteer research on coral destruction help those people who need help now?
Children, please. Everything out there needs help, so don’t get baited into “my cause can beat up your cause” arguments with no right answer. There are no qualitative or quantitative comparisons that make sense. The truth is this: those thousands of lives you save could contribute to a famine that kills millions, or that one bush in Bolivia that you protect could hold the cure for cancer. The downstream effects are unknown. Do your best and hope for the best. If you’re improving the world–however you define that–consider your job well done.
Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives.
Service is an attitude.
Find the cause or vehicle that interests you most and make no apologies.
Afterword: My Current Passion
I’m passionate about many things, but one of them is timely.
In one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Bahamas, I am working with Summit Series and others to help create a Marine Protected Area (MAP). Think of it as a ocean-based national park. It would be patrolled and run by the Nature Conservancy. I am passionate about saving the oceans upon which we depend.
To get this protected area to the finish line for funding, it needs just one last nudge. I’m therefore offering a match:
As a bonus, anyone who donates $10 or more is automatically entered to win one of five seats on a shark tagging trip with the University of Miami research team (all the fine print here). I did this myself, and it’s AMAZING.
Please take a look at it all here. It’s tax-deductible, and everyone who donates will get a tax receipt seconds after they donate.
If we raise less than $50,000, I’ll still match dollar-for-dollar, but I think we could raise $25,000, don’t you? Then I’ll make it $50,000.
Thank you in advance to anyone who decides to give this a shot. Thank you also to everyone who politely declines but asks themselves: how might I make my own dent in the universe?
Be the change you want to see.
Posted on November 16th, 2011