James Harmon published his book, Take My Advice, as a collection of letters written to him by creative artists, writers, and philosophers. Some of the letters are very short, lasting only a page or two, and some of the letters are full essays. Joe-Peter Witkin is one artist and photographer who supplied a short page-long letter for Harmon’s book. His letter is all about perspective and interpretation, “Your life is the life of the world.” Witkin uses this quote to explain that we get to choose how we want to see the world and assign meaning to the events that occur around us. Witkin continues, “If your life is of love, the world will love. Anything less and the world will continue to bleed.”
I truly believe that we all have something inside us that urges us to be the best version of ourselves possible, and pushes us to do positive things each day. Each small positive action on its own may be meaningless, but I like to view each small positive action as a tiny grain of sand being added to the good side of a giant balance beam. The more positive acts that we put into the world, the more sand piles up on the good side, and when everyone begins to adopt this focus we pile on the positivity to outweigh the negativity.
The quote from Witkin shows that we can choose how we want to react to the world, but also how we want the world to react to us. When we begin to see good things in other people as opposed to the negative, then we change how we act towards others which in turn causes others to act more positively towards us. When we adopt a softer and more compassionate view of reality, that reality will then begin to reward us by providing us with new opportunities and positive events. Richard Wiseman in his book, 59 Seconds, would agree with Witkin, and he would push people a level further. Rather than just deciding that one would like to see the world more positively, Wiseman would return to scientific research to encourage everyone to journal about the positive events in their life, or to write about what they enjoy in other people, their job, or their city. This process forces the individual to process the good things and to truly evaluate their situation which drives the meaning to a new level in their mind. When we turn to journaling we truly shape our mind to become more positive as we learn to avoid fixating on the negativity.
I will end this post with the anecdote that Witkin used to end his letter, “Recently, I heard a story of two men who worked carrying stones. One of the men was asked what he was doing. He replied, “I carry stones.” When asked the same question, the other replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Vera Countess von Lehndorff continues in her letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, to write about self confidence, striving towards our goals, and persevering through the difficult moments. She writes, “Believe in yourself and be determined in all activities as you strive for your accomplishments. Do not give in to despair in your weak moments or when you feel discouraged.” In my mind I can combine this viewpoint with Richard Wiseman’s discussion about visualizing success and journalism. Wiseman in 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, wrote about the scientific backing to the advice in many self help books. When it came to moving forwards towards our goals, the research shows that those who journal are more likely to reach their dreams.
Wiseman offers us a way to actualize the advice from von Lehndorff. Believing we can accomplish something is a huge first step, and it requires creativity and imagination to put us in a place where we see possibilities and a future that we want to pursue. We are able to look past the challenges that will hinder us as we journey towards our goals, and this can help us build more motivation for chasing those goals. What Wiseman advises, is that we pause at the outset of our journey to examine and understand not just what goals we want to pursue, but what difficulties will arise in chasing those goals. We will all struggle and hit obstacles, but if we have a plan for how we will overcome obstacles, then the challenges become less daunting when we actually face them.
Von Lehndorff encourages us to fight through despair, but does not offer any insight in preparing for or overcoming that despair. She is aware of the fact that we will have moments when we are weak and unable to perform at our maximum level and seems to encourage us to push through the doubt with increasing action. Following the science and journaling about not just the positive points of the journey, but how we will face the challenges will prepare us to fight through the difficult moments we may or may not be aware of.
Vera Countess von Lehndorff wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her letter she discusses goals, ambitions, talents, and our journey. She encourages us to have courageous goals, but she also brings in a bit of self awareness with out goal setting. “You want to be the greatest? You want to just feed your ego? That’s not so great.” This quote is her response to lofty goals and visions of success.
When I read over this quote I think about the goals that I have had throughout life, and how many of them are less about me, and are in one way or another more about fulfilling other people’s expectations and looking impressive. These types of goals promise us a land where we will feel high and mighty because we will gain the respect and admiration of others as a result of our greatness. However, these goals may not always be aligned with our true purpose or talents, and pursuing them relentlessly could cost us our peace of mind, happiness, and relationships.
For me, building habits of self awareness and learning how to look inwards to examine my goals has helped me understand where my goals originated. When I began to examine my goals I found I pursued some because society had determined that they were lofty and valuable. When I return to von Lehndorff’s quote I can see the ways in which pushing towards goals that simply feed an ego are more damaging than positive for the individual and the world. Losing sight of other people to pursue a goal that will build your ego will direct you to a place where people may be impressed by your title or your material possessions, but you may risk jeopardizing true friendships along the way. If you set out on a goal that only serves your ego, you also risk missing the chance to provide something meaningful and unique to the world. I am currently reading The Go-Giver by Bob Berg, and Berg would agree with this point of view. He would argue that you can provide value and find success by chasing goals that only serve yourself, but that in order to reach a level of stratospheric success you must focus more on the value you provide to others. This means that you must forget about your own ego and find goals that serve others as much as yourself.
Ultimately, I believe the problem with chasing a goal fueled by ego is the likelihood that you will burn out. You run the chance of pushing yourself into situations that serve your ego rather than your purpose, and you miss out on actively working towards goals that excite you and fuel a passion. In the end, aiming for greatness takes you away from happiness because your ego is built by your accomplishments and outside recognition. If you abandon ego and learn to operate without requiring the praise and admiration of others, you can find a level of greatness where you understand that you are great independently of outside recognition and ego serving applause.
In a later written to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, the late Murray Bookchin writes, “Our ideas must always be completed, fully thought out, and richly informed by a knowledge of the past. To separate oneself from the past, to maintain a sense of mere nowness, to deny what reason has to give us, as well as intuition, and most dangerously to leave ones thoughts unfinished, is to risk the grave dangers of manipulation and ignorance.” This quote speaks deeply to me about the importance of awareness and presence in our daily lives. Bookchin would argue that we must develop a sense of connection in our lives that unifies us with the world around us in multiple ways. We must be aware of our surroundings and current situations, but we must also be aware of our past and how our past influences our actions today.
I frequently focus on self awareness and for a long time I have worked to cultivate my own thoughts and ideas about the planet away from the television, but I never put things in the perspective of Bookchin. The television according to Bookchin, isolates us in a space that is neither past nor present, it is a suspended reality where we give up our thought and allow outside forces to shape us. Our unique background, our independent existences, and our individual thoughts are pushed aside for a vision of life created by others. In this quote, the idea that people are influenced by television is pushed beyond the simple and benign world of advertising influences and driven to a perspective of people being shaped by the television they watch. When we abandon our complete thoughts of the past and fail to analyze our current situation, we open ourselves up to be manipulated by another. We become easily influenced and accept one perspective as our ticket out of ignorance.
I think that Bookchin would encourage in depth journaling as a way to process the events that happen to us, and help us begin to build an awareness of the world. This aligns with many of the ideas that Richard Wiseman presents in his book 59 Seconds in which he describes the importance of journaling and writing as reflective exercises. Writing according to Wiseman provides a chance for the brain to systematically organize and express information. This systematic approach to reviewing our thoughts and actions helps us build awareness and create new connections in our lives.
In a letter of advice written to James Harmon to be published in the book Take My Advice, a compilation of letters that Harmon received from creative writers, actors, designers, and artists, Murray Bookchin writes about how difficult it can be to fully think through something in today’s television filled world. Harmon’s book was published in 2007, and many of the letters he received were written many years before that, but the knowledge shared with him is just as useful today, and Bookchin’s advice is a perfect example. The author and political theologist who died in 2006 before his letter was published wrote, “I have also learned that it is important not only to adhere to ones ideals but to fully and consistently think out one’s ideas. In a time when television gives us one dimensional images of human experience and mere shadows of the vibrant reality around us, it is easy to leave one’s ideas incomplete and be satisfied with half-finished thoughts.” With the increase of technology around us and the intrusion of smart phones and devices into almost every part of our lives, Bookchin’s insight is more accurate today than it was when he wrote his letter.
When I first read this section I had only highlighted the part about television providing us with one-dimensional images of human experience. I had focused in on this part because I was working on reducing the amount of television I watched. I was not happy with spending lots of time inactive in front of the television, and I wanted to gain a more full experience of life. In addition, I have really come to dislike television because it limits our focus and perspective. Everything in a show is perfectly manicured and tailored to create a world that does not exist. The conversations people have and the ways in which people act in television shows does not reflect the true experience that most people have. The worst part about television is that it projects a false reality and way of living. I wanted to get away from watching television because I did not want advertising companies to project images of what I should want directly at me, and I did not want to pick up indirect ideas of what my life should be like based on the experiences of the characters in the shows.
When I came back to this quote to write about it, I was stuck by the idea of television, and really all technology, limiting the time we spend thinking deeply about any one thing. Bookchin’s advice to fully think through our ideas requires that we spend time on reflective processes. Writing, meditation, and reading are ways that we can spend time refocusing and dialing in on our values or ideals so that we truly commit them to our sense of self. Without this time we can become lost in a sea of noise generated from television, email, and social media notifications.
Writer Steven Stern sent a letter to James Harmon for Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. Stern ends his letter to Harmon with the following quote, “it’s been some solace to me, as I hope it may be to you, to remember that we are at least more than meets the eye.” Stern reaches this point after discussing our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to the united states with oftentimes very diverse and unique backgrounds. In Stern’s words, no matter what we are now, and where we find ourselves, we are all full of backstories and histories that were handed down from our family. His main point is to remember that we are not the social projection of ourselves that society may recognize us as on the surface.
Stern’s idea can be very powerful, and for me, it reaches a greater strength when I turn it around and think of other people. I think that Stern’s viewpoint is an excellent and in many ways necessary first step for us to develop a greater understanding of other people. In my life, self awareness has helped me reflect on who I am, what parts of myself and my personality I choose to share with the world, and what parts of me are recognized by others even if I do not think the parts that others always recognize are keystone pieces of what makes me the person I am. Understanding how I fit in these types of societal relationships has allowed me to expand that vision and apply it to other people.
Each day that we get out of the house we have an opportunity to see another person and practice this mindset. It is very easy to look at people and apply general stereotypes and judge them based on their outward appearance. Taking Stern’s perspective and understanding that we are all more than we appear, allows us to pause before accepting those judgements. Ultimately, it affords us a moment to truly think about the other person. Seeing the world through their eyes, with the pressures that society has placed on them and how those pressures combine with the advantages or disadvantages of their upbringing can help us greater understand why others act the way they do. I have found that the more I practice these exercises the more compassionate I become towards other people, especially those less fortunate than me. I do not chastise myself for the judgmental thoughts that I have towards other people, and I try hard to be aware of those feelings rather than simply ignoring those feelings or pretending they do not exist. Accepting that when I see other people my first reaction is to judge them as someone I would or would not trust allows me to understand how I am treating them. I can then take steps to understand my negative (or positive) feelings, and act in a way that treats the other with dignity and equality.
In James Harmon’s collection of letters published in his book Take My Advice, he includes a letter written by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In her letter Nussbaum writes about our connection and dependence on others, and what we should focus on to build meaningful and successful lives. Nussbaum writes, “We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.” This quote reminds me of a topic that I have written about before in regards to social media. With our digital lives we spend a lot of time focusing on the lives of other people, and we compare ourselves to our friends and judge ourselves relative to what we see of others online.
I believe that Nussbaum would find our social media comparisons to be a dangerous thing for each individual because we will begin to judge ourselves based on the things we have in our lives relative to others. When we see people taking exciting trips, buying new things, or just being fully happy with some situation, we inevitably build a small block of envey towards others. On the other end of the equation when all of our actions relate back to impressing other people and finding encouragement through social media, we fail to live a life that has a deep meaning. When our happiness is dependent on the approval of other people we do not have the support system necessary to help us through rough patches.
Nussbaum in her quote is advocating for a society that focuses more on the reality of life and not the fantasies of material possessions. When our entire focus is on outside rewards, buying things, and receiving praise for monetary success, we become trapped in a box where our lives are defined by materialism. Without achieving a certain level of financial success or without purchasing certain cars or clothes a person who judges the world by outward displays of material success will feel like a failure. The quote above shows that this lifestyle may be sustainable when things are going well, but once a promotion does not occur or an illness presents itself, the individual does not have a strong moral foundation to stand upon. When we base all of our actions and lives around achieving more, we lose a focus on building real relationships and risk forcing ourselves down paths that will not benefit us in the long run.
If we shift our focus and ideas of success then we can eliminate the little voice in our heads that tells us we need to achieve a certain job to impress our friends, family, or the strangers in line at the grocery store. We can begin to work towards things that truly excite and interest us rather than striving to pursue what advertisements and society has told us to work towards. This helps our lives have a deeper meaning, and can create a greater sense of self confidence so when we do reach points of struggle, we can focus on the important aspects of life, and overcome our challenges.
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote of confidence, relationships, and dependence in her letter to James Harmon to be published in the book, Take My Advice. On dependence she wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” This quote struck me as being very honest about our nature and our inner feelings in a world where we go out of our way to project visions of our best and happiest selves.
As our lives fill up with Facebook and LinkedIn, our online persona becomes a competition to see who can lead the most exciting, the most attractive, and the most impressive lives in both our social and professional lives. The images we share with the world are our personal highlights, and the goal is to make us look strong, confident, and happy. What we miss when we compare our lives to the lives of others on social media is the moments between the highlights, when each person must deal with self doubt, uncertainty, and fear. Nussbaum’s quote helps me remember that I am not the only person who experiences these doubts when I compare myself to others online or in person.
I think it is important to consider how dependent we are on the planet for our own survival. We are not just dependent on natural resources, but in many ways we are dependent on the systems we have built, people who maintain those systems, and supportive people around us. When we focus on how much we depend on others we can be grateful for the guidance, assistance, and services we receive from others. Cultivating this awareness can help us see how important it is to reciprocate those actions and feelings. When good things happen in our lives it is tempting to blow up social media with our awesomeness and take credit for our accomplishment or good fortune, but I think Nussbaum would encourage us to instead give thanks, and to recognize the incredible system of support and assistance on which we depended, and from which our accomplishments materialize.
I have thought a lot about fear recently, and revisiting the sections I highlighted when I read James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, has helped me approach fear from multiple perspectives. In Harmon’s book the photographer Horst writes, “Don’t be afraid. One learns through pain, and suffering. Patience helps!” His quote explains his thoughts on the difficult and painful parts of life that we all strive to avoid.
What I have come to notice with failure is that I am not afraid of the act of failing at something, but I am afraid of the consequences that follow failure. I think this is an important distinction to make. I am not afraid of what I can control with a given situation and its result, but I am afraid of the consequences that will follow in the form of other people’s reactions to my failure. On a second and deeper level, I am for some reason, afraid of hard work. Whenever I get a great idea in my head I can go crazy with what I want to do and how fun it would be to actualize my idea, but then the realization of how much work it will take often paralyzes me. I have no problem working hard, I graduated Cum Laude, but the idea of additional work in an already busy life becomes overwhelming.
I think that Horst would advocate for me to have patience and plan my goals out over a long time so that the work becomes less daunting. The problem I have with this idea is the fear of working hard with something, only to find out halfway or two thirds of the way to my goal, that I want something else. I don’t want my hard work to accidentally steer me away from what I want and into something I had not intended. Patience and a long term goal in this sense can be something to fear itself.
Richard Wiseman in his book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change a Lot, does offer a solution to this dilemma. Wiseman reviewed popular self-help and advice books to see if any of their suggestions had real scientific backing. What he found in conquering fear and chasing goals is that those who journal are more likely to reach their long term goals. He would combine Horst’s idea of patience with a level of self-awareness. Wiseman’s advice is to be honest about what you want and why, and then examine what you could to do get where you want to go. Along the way everyone will face obstacles, and Wiseman says that spending time journaling about how you will overcome those obstacles will help you understand the difficult parts and plan ahead. This way, when you do hit periods of turbulence and hard work, you don’t need to be afraid. Instead of fear of hard work, I can journal to understand what kinds of hard work I can expect and how I will solve problems to mitigate the hard work. This focus can give me more confidence and reduce the fear of consequences and the fear of hard work.
Spiritual leader Ram Dass wrote a letter to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, and in his letter he quoted Mahatma Gandhi by saying, “What you do may seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Dass continued on adding his own idea about Gandhi’s quote, “It is important for yourself, as well as for the balances in the world.” This quote resonates with me because it is very easy to feel like a small, isolated, and powerless individual in such a large and complex world. However, approaching the world from the standpoint of this quote, all action seems to have meaning, even if it is small and nearly unnoticeable.
This blog may go unnoticed and it may often feel insignificant for me. However, when I take the approach laid out by Dass, I see that the blog serves a higher purpose than attracting attention or representing me. The blog gives me a chance to reflect about important ideas and work over my thoughts. It helps me return to ideas that I had come across in reading, and as my mind reprocesses ideas I gain a greater mastery of those ideas. Dass would argue that these little steps help me fortify my mind in what ever direction I happen to read and study, which in the end establishes my position on the universal balance beam of understanding vs. ignorance for whatever it is I write.
I think a metaphor that can apply to what Dass is explaining using Gandhi’s quote would be the image of a hanging balance scale. If we compare positivity and negativity, in a broad sense we can imagine the scale has one bucket on each side, and each side is being filled with sand. Every act of kindness in the world becomes one grain of sand dropped into the bucket on the left, and each act of negativity becomes one grain of sand dropped on the right. Our actions of holding a door open for someone, picking up a soda can off the street, or becoming more self aware of our actions towards others will build up the sand pile on the left, and increase the amount of positivity being weighed on our balance scale. However, if we assume that every action is meaningless and allow ourselves to disregard negative activity because the action feels insignificant, we inadvertently pile more sand onto the negative scale. Off hand comments, lazy acts of pollution, and a disregard for the feelings of others are all tiny grains of negative sand that build up and depress the world with negativity.
Thinking about working towards a positive tilt in the universal balance of good and evil gives our lives and actions a new meaning. Rather than focusing on how small our actions seem to be, we can think of whether or not our actions add value to those around us or the universe in general. If it is unclear how our actions add value, then we can at least ask if our actions become a grain of sand on the positive or negative side of our balance. These tiny actions can add up, and help us create a life that leans towards positivity, or whatever attribute we seek.