What do you call writings and stories about the future? A long time ago, we used to call them prophecies. You could argue that today, we call them science fiction. Whatever you call those stories, the futures imagined in most of them never came to happen in our universe. But a few of those stories show us our future, or at least glimpses of it. The problem is just that we don’t know which until they happen.
The difference between science fiction and prophecies as a genre about the future, is that prophecies often say that this WILL happen, while science fiction says this MIGHT happen. Some of these stories are tales of darker futures, warning us to avoid them, like “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Others are dreams of brighter days, like “Star Trek”. The prophecies that become popular in their age, whether they are in the form of scrolls, plays, books, movies or video games, say something about the current state of our collective consciousness. What humankind dreams of, what we yearn for and and what we fear.
Many believe that technology is what defines science fiction, and it’s not a hard conclusion to make. The genre tends to be heavy on technology, and in a society driven by technological innovation the marker of a future society is more advanced technology. Before technology, magic was what opened doors to potential futures and other worlds that may be. Magic has no restraints and can invent impossible worlds. But just like Arthur C Clarke said: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Technology is anchored in science, and so technology is a more concentrated form of magic, focusing our imaginations on more plausible futures. When we come too close to realizing the dark futures, we use symbols from these stories to warn others that we are getting dangerously close, like all the women who have protested removal of women’s sexual and reproductive rights wearing the red dresses and white wings of the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is why people wear Guy Fawkes masks, like V in V for Vendetta, to protest laws that bring us closer to a fascist future.
Popular science fiction stories are our collective dreams and fears of the future. In the sixties, when our future looked bright thanks to technology and we sent humans to the moon, we dreamt of Star Trek, a universe where humans no longer have to work, everyone has what they need provided and everyone is free to advance science, art and culture in whatever way they want. We dreamt of “Lost in Space”, where humanity is exploring and colonizing space. Then, at the end of the seventies, our dreams of the future shifted. We got the first Alien movie, a warning of how corporate greed can lead to sacrifice of human life and endangerment of the human species, all for potential profits. This warning grew darker in the later movies. Alien was unique, and ahead of its time. In general, sci-fi movies focusing on encounters or relations with aliens not designed by H.R. Giger, were positive, or at least neutral. Like E.T., Cocoon, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This lasted well into the 90s. Contact was released in 1997. Sure, you had the occasional horror science fiction, but that’s literally on the horror genre. It’s hard to write a horror movie about a kind alien.
Science fiction movies focusing on technology and the future of our society quickly got dark in the 80s. Blade Runner, Terminator, Robocop, 1984 and The Fly were just the beginning, and they kept getting darker in the 90s with Terminator 2, The Matrix, Gattaca, Total Recall and Twelve Monkeys. Now, one may object: some of these are based on books written long ago, like 1984 which was released in 1949, or Total Recall which is based off a Philip K Dick novel from the sixties – when dreams were bright. But books are cheaper and less complex to write than movies are to make, and successful movie studios have tapped into the collective consciousness. The successful studios are good at choosing stories that resonate with us, that entice enough of us so that the movie studios can make a handsome profit. And so the top three science fiction movies of the 90s on IMDB (based on user rating) are The Matrix, Terminator 2 and Twelve Monkeys, with Gattaca in sixth place and Total Recall in 12th. This dark trend continued into the aughts, where stories like V for Vendetta, Children of Men, Minority Report and Equilibrium are among the top rated sci-fi movies of their decade. I believe that the appeal of Wall-e was that it dared to dream of a society beyond the dystopia of A Brave New World, a dystopia that we are well on our way towardards, if we’re not already living in it. This is the real age of Aquarius.
Then there is a specific subset of technology focused prophecie… sorry, sci-fi movies: the one that deals with Artificial Intelligence. And this genre is DARK. The Terminator, Terminator 2, The Matrix trilogy, “I, Robot”, Battlestar Galactica … we were afraid of a superior technical intelligence for the better part of two decades. I believe this is because we have so long seen intelligence as the justification for being assholes to each other, our planet and other living beings, and so we feared that something more intelligent than us would do the same to us. We still do, with stories like Westworld, Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049 and Morgan, but the advent of smart assistants like Siri and Google and human collaboration with AI, like Watson, has allowed us to dream of companionship and camaraderie with AI, like TARS and CASE, the two robots in Interstellar. We know that smart assistants won’t kill us, but what happens if they become sentient? What is consciousness anyway? At what point is a robot truly alive, and can it ever be human? Those are our big questions now.
I may not know the difference between a two year old human, a pig and a dog, but I can tell you what separates homo sapiens from other animals: telling stories. Other animals have languages too, but our language is so complex that we can look at a cave painting of two humans with spears and say “this is us” and then point to the animals drawn running from the humans and say “we hunt these”. Language allowed us to collaborate, which in turn allowed our language to evolve. When we were hunter-gatherers and lived in relatively small tribes, whatever we dreamed of, or feared, died with us because we had no way to speak to future generations. We were isolated from other humans by both time and space. Everything we know about the culture of our early ancestors consists of more or less educated guesses made by anthropologists.
One thing we know is that we started telling stories long before we began writing them down. We know this because in order to collaborate with humans outside our tribe, with people we have not yet met and maybe never will, we need shared beliefs and common goals. How do you create shared beliefs and common goals if you cannot tell stories? The invention of writing allowed us to talk to people in the future, and to convey ideas without being physically present. The process was slow, as every copy of a book had to be written by hand, and by 1450 there were about 30,000 books in all of Europe. That’s about the time we got the printing press, which considerably sped up the dissemination of ideas and knowledge to our current speed, where a well-read fifteen-year-old knows more about our universe than ancient philosophers like Socrates and Pythagoras. Pythagoras spent a large portion of his life gathering the knowledge and wisdom that eventually would lead him to the Pythagorean theorem, and today we teach it to teenagers. When it comes to math, a mathematically gifted teenager today starts where many an educated man ended two thousand years ago. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation, and the overall trend is that each generation lifts the next higher, than their parents lifted them.
If writing language conquered the barrier of time, the telephone conquered the barrier of space: with the invention of the telephone, we could communicate in real time with people in cities far, far away. This allowed information and knowledge not only to be transmitted, but also to be expanded and evolved through discourse. Our collective consciousness learns things at the speed of information. The internet is for the telephone what the printing press was for written language. More than 4000 years passed between the invention of writing language and the invention of the printing press, which gave us an exponential increase in available information. Only 400 years passed between the invention of the printing press and the invention of the telephone. And then, only about 120 years passed from the invention of the telephone to the beginnings of the Internet. We have conquered the forward barrier of time (the backward cannot be conquered, at least not with our current understanding of the universe) and we have conquered the barrier of space. At least in theory, 3 billion people can access and discuss ideas, information, knowledge and wisdom in real time. So what’s the next barrier, after time and space? Consciousness.
Here is my prophecy:
The next big breakthrough, akin to the printing press and the internet, will be communicating at the speed of consciousness. Exchanging thoughts with other individuals. Telepathy through technology. There’s already a company working on such interfaces, and if Neuralink succeeds with creating the brain-machine interface (a feat which many scientists in relevant fields believe quite possible) then that will be how history remembers Elon Musk: not as a founder of an electric vehicle company, but as the founder of the company that broke the consciousness barrier of communication. If we can connect two people’s brains and create a shared consciousness, we will be on the path to connecting more people, until we have a shared global consciousness. I truly believe this path is inevitable, and I believe that more and more people having awakenings is an indicator of this. Once enough of us are ready for a shared consciousness, the technology will be there.
But all that is still some decades away and until then, we have reached the limit of conscious communication. All common forms of language, whether written or spoken, are being used at pretty much at the highest speed possible. Sure, people learn to speed read, and listen to podcasts or books at double speeds, but those are just marginal improvements of old technology. A problem with language is that words are disconnected from feelings, and whereas feelings don’t change – the feeling of awe was the same three thousand years ago as it is today – feelings don’t change, but words do. I believe this is why animated gifs are so popular on the internet today. Take the word awesome for example. In the beginning it meant something that inspires awe, a feeling consisting of a mix of reverence and amazement tinged with fear. Today, we use the word about things that are really great, and the more we use a word, the more mundane it becomes. It loses its connection to the feeling, and so sending a gif of Chris Pratt’s awed face in Parks and Rec much better communicates the feeling of awe than a text saying “That’s awesome!”.
The words describe the feeling, the gif expresses it. In that, the gif conveys much more information than the word, in just as short a time. And it’s not just feelings that we can convey in a much more effective way, the same goes for knowledge and information. Take Einstein’s general theory of relativity: he was 26 years old when he published it, and had spent a considerable amount of his time and attention in figuring this out. He didn’t start from scratch, he too stood on the shoulders of earlier generations. Today, 102 years after Einstein published his theory, any well prepared fifteen year old can grasp the fundaments of it by watching Interstellar. Well prepared, I say, because you need some understanding of physics and spacetime to grasp why seven years pass for each hour they spend on Miller’s Planet. But we, too, stand on the shoulders of earlier generations, and so we can prepare fifteen year olds to grasp in a short time, things that took Einstein many years to figure out.
But information and knowledge are impotent without stories. Stories add context and evoke feeling. They can express information in a way that knowledge cannot. Even if that well-prepared fifteen year old doesn’t grasp the concept of time dilation in Interstellar, the story can make him or her curious and interested enough to find out. We only learn things that in some or other way feel important, and schools have a long history of making intake of information seem important by way of judgment and grades. Only recently have we realized that adding context and emotion to learning results in much more creative and self-sufficient students. I believe that had I watched “Cosmos” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a thirteen year old, I would have learned more physics in half the time, compared to what I actually learned in grades 7 through 9.
Simply put: the best way to spread information to many people is to weave it into stories. And since stories contain more than just information and knowledge, they become a language of their own: a language of our collective consciousness.
Have you ever heard someone say “we only use 10% of our brain?”. Next time, tell them that just because a part of our brain isn’t very active at a particular time, doesn’t mean that we’re not using it. Think of it as a traffic light: just because only one light is active, doesn’t mean we aren’t using all of them. The brain is hardware, and we use all of it. But what you could argue, is that we use less than 1% of our consciousness. The focused part of your consciousness, your attention, can handle about 40 environmental stimuli per second. The subconscious can handle 20 million environmental stimuli per second. But the subconscious is not some isolated box, it communicates with us. We have many words for it: intuition, gut feeling, suspicion, hunch, or simply feeling. As the Swedish proverb goes: “beloved child has many names”. There’s even scientific evidence for this. In one study, where participants were asked to play a card game with the goal of guessing the pattern, their subconscious understood the pattern 70 cards before conscious processing figured it out.
Whether you choose to call it gut feeling, intuition of something else, it’s simply tapping into more of our consciousness. We do it all the time, when we read a person’s body language, facial micro expressions or listen to the space between the words. Some of us are better at it than others, but that is from practice, not because we are born with it. We are all pattern recognition machines, and intuition means identifying a pattern based on feeling, rather than reasoning and logic. Whether you call it feeling or intuition, it helps us arrange known patterns into new, more advanced, and yet unseen ones. This is why no idea belongs to one person alone, it belongs to every human who ever lived. You cannot come up with the general theory of relativity from nothing, it’s a creative evolution of knowledge found and refined by earlier generations. Once our collective knowledge is sufficient, ideas and discoveries often independently pop up at the same time in different parts of the world, found by individuals who identified the same patterns. Ideas and discoveries are like mushrooms, finding them is a question of perception, of knowing where and when to look. And this, perhaps, is where we come to the moral of this particular story:
If our brains are the hardware, then our consciousness is the software. It is how you perceive reality and existence. What you believe to be true. Your consciousness is first configured by your immediate family, by the way the interact with you and the stories they tell, and which cultural programming they choose to pass on to you. Perhaps they believe that boys should be strong and good at sports, and girls should be pretty and quiet – then that becomes part of your initial programming. The language you learn plays a vital part in this programming, because it will determine the pattern of your thoughts and how you see the world, and yourself. For example, speakers of a language that has the same word for yellow and orange have a harder time distinguishing between these two colors. Speaking a language with strong future tense, like English where you say “I will go see the play tomorrow”, programs you to separate your future self from your present self. This does not happen as much in speakers of a language with a weak future tense, like Chinese where you would say “I go to the play tomorrow”. The result of this is that speakers of languages with weak future tense are 30 percent more likely to save money for the future and 29 percent more likely to exercise. They are also less likely to smoke. All of these are investments in your future self, and it is believed that the grammar structure of languages with weak future tense is responsible: what you say about the future is grammatically equivalent to the present, which makes us see our future selves as less separate from our current selves.
Then, as you begin making your own choices, you start programming and expanding your consciousness with the stories you read, watch, listen to and play out. Every interaction with another living being, every social media post, every news article we read is an ever so small configuration or expansion of our consciousness. Once information is in there, it cannot be unlearned. That is the true message in the story of Eve and the apple. It can be temporarily forgotten, but only by our conscious mind. Our subconscious always remembers. And so if you only read news about how bad things are, you start reprogramming your consciousness to perceive the world as going to hell in a handbasket. If you believe you were made, which is what we in the western world tell children they were, your consciousness will be configured in a slightly different way than that of a Chinese child, who asks “how was I grown?”
The larger the consciousness, the more parameters it can take into account. A small mind cannot find great ideas, and a mind can only be as big as the consciousness it exists in. But even big minds can be programmed to do the most horrible things. So, friend, be picky in what you allow to re-program your consciousness, and choose wisely what you dream of. Even dreams configure our reality, both our present and our future. I wish you dreams that further expand your consciousness, friend. Sleep well, until you wake up.
What’s difference between a two year old human, a pig and a dog? This may sound like a setup for a dubious joke, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Imagine that you would be in charge of educating an artificial intelligence about the differences between these three, what would you say when it asks “apart from the physical appearance and the DNA, which tells all three apart from each other, what are the innate differences between a two year old human, a pig and a dog?”
As I have talked with people around me, there have been many different answers: empathy, complex emotions, the awareness of death, language, creating art, the mirror test… The mirror test is where you test whether an individual who looks at themselves in a mirror recognizes that they see themselves, and not just another individual of the same species. Human babies pass this test sometime around 20 months. It is a learned skill, not something we are born with. There are at least ten other species that have passed the mirror test, including pigs, the Eurasian Magpie and three species of ants. This is not what makes us unique.
Neither is empathy. Human babies show empathic behavior as young as fourteen months, which points to it being an innate trait. But elephants, mice, ravens, gorillas, dogs and pigs all display clear signs of empathy – and whether that is innate or learned matters little. Many animals are aware of death too. Elephants interact with bones of loved ones when they come across them. They clearly mourn their dead, and on rare occasions, even humans who have been kind to them. Dogs who get to say goodbye to their deceased humans stop waiting for the human to come home. Ravens can identify a dead bird, and separate a dead raven from other bird species. And if you can have empathy, you can also have antipathy – a thirst for revenge, which both ravens and elephants display. Crows remember the faces of people that mess with them for at least five years, and probably longer. Back in 2014, as conflicts between man and elephants had driven elephants to desperate measures, one of them tore down a wall in a building where humans lived. The debris ended up on a 10 month old baby, who started crying. The surprised people in the house watched the elephant using its trunk to remove every single piece of debris from the baby, before the elephant ran away. Some animals are better at restraining their anger than many humans.
Language, then? No, this isn’t it either. We know that many animals have rudimentary languages. Some can even lie, like capuchins that have been observed using their call to warn for lions and other big cats, to scare more dominant members away from a bunch of bananas. Capuchins also grasp basic symbolism like currency. Dolphins understand basic grammar and can engage in two-way communication with humans. They even have individual names for each member in a pod, and there is a Swedish company working on translation software between the dolphin and human languages.
And as for complex emotions: many animals can bond with members of other species. Many animals mourn. Ask any person with a dog whether they believe their dog loves them. And if dogs can feel love, why shouldn’t pigs who are equally complex living being, not be able to? If love isn’t a complex emotion, then I don’t know what is. But I do know that the argument about complex emotions isn’t it. Art, then? If you believe animals cannot create art, I dare you to google “Japanese pufferfish art” or check out how the male lyrebird in Australia composes birdsong. Now, you may say: but that’s unintentional art – and in doing that you move the goal posts from “creating art” to “intentionally creating art”. Intentions are really hard to define and test for, and by moving the goal posts we can feel safe in our ivory towers of science, pretending that we humans are objectively more valuable, better and more intelligent than other animals. We have a history of doing that: moving the goal posts so that animals always seem to be less than humans. We’ve used this as an excuse for things that would be considered psychotic mass-murderer behavior that makes Hannibal Lecter look like a well-behaved choir boy, if they were done to humans. We have a long history of using intelligence as an excuse to dominate others. It wasn’t long ago that we were sure that “intelligence” was what separated not only human from animal, but also human from human. The slave trade, the Holocaust, the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced sterilization of people in Europe during the 20th century – there are many examples of when “intelligence” was used in the worst imaginable ways by humans against other humans. In the slave trade and the Holocaust, intelligence was denied specific humans to dehumanize them. In the nuclear bombs, the intelligence of a bunch of humans was used to build devices capable of destroying life on earth as we know it.
We have long bundled consciousness and intelligence into the same, or at least related, categories and when we have been asked to justify our mistreatment of animals we have asked the clergy of the western world, those who tell us the truths about how the universe works: the scientists. And they said “we must not give human attributes to these simple creatures”. Instead of assuming that animals are like us and looking for differences between us, we started by assuming that animals are unintelligent and unconscious biological automatons without feelings, and then put the onus of proving otherwise on a few scientists, whose results then got questioned since they contradict what the majority of the scientist clergy wants to believe. What we want to believe. The majority of the scientific clergy, that we look to for guidance, were unsure of whether animals really feel pain as late as the 1980s. Veterinarians trained in the US before 1989 were taught to ignore animal pain instead of using anesthetics. We haven’t come far since then. Denmark still allows for fixation of sows, which means that they’re caged lying down, without the ability to move, so that their piglets can suck milk without getting trampled by a stressed mother confined in a space too small to be considered a closet in an average human home. Everyone agrees that this is awful, but Danish pork is a big export and every store and restaurant selling Danish pork hides behind the capitalist mantra “it’s not illegal and we just provide options for our customers”. We, the customers are as much to blame for this as the business owners. Customers that only care about prices deserve companies that only care about profits.
But hey, the scientific clergy are the most intelligent people in the world, and that makes it right… right?
Collectively we are still stuck in that old, mechanical paradigm when it comes to intelligence. We see intelligence as something individual, centralized: you have your geniuses like Einstein or RuPaul. We see the brain as the center of our intelligence, and what naturally follows is that our brain also becomes the boss of our bodies and every other organ is a subject of the brain. But you could just as well see the stomach, which is older than many parts of our brains, as the boss and the advanced brain is just the stomach’s way of getting more food. My point is: our bodies aren’t hierarchical organizations where the brain is the CEO. They are more like independent networks collaborating without the need of governance. The brain is not the CEO, it’s more of a conductor of a very complex orchestra of organs. The brain isn’t even one single thing, it is in itself a complex system of networks that often are at odds with each other. Just ask someone who is on a diet to lose weight, and in a hungry moment encounters a delicious piece of chocolate cake.
We may acknowledge that being able to improvise a beautiful piece on the piano is a form of intelligence, just like being good at interactions with humans and other animals, or conveying complex emotions through dance, but in our current economic system those are considered less important than type of intelligence we can measure: IQ. Our hierarchies even extend to intelligence. When we talk about a person with a high IQ, we are talking about someone who is good at predicting sequences in “progressive matrices”. Here’s a simplified explanation of how you measure IQ. You get a sequence of frames, and each frame contains one or more objects on a grid. The objects move or change between each frame. By studying the differences in the given sequence of frames, you have to find the pattern for each object, and correctly predict what the last frame in the sequence should be. These patterns become increasingly complex with more objects and more complex patterns. So what we’re testing for in an IQ test, is how good you are at identifying patterns and making predictions. We have gotten intelligence right, and yet so wrong.
You see, everything is patterns. Arrange two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom just so, and you get a water molecule. Arrange enough water molecules just so, and you have a drop of water. Arrange the molecules in another way, and you have ice. Arrange the right atoms just so, then arrange the resulting molecules in the right way and you have organic matter. Arrange that organic matter in the right patterns together with other types of organic matter, and you have a human. Arrange sounds in the right pattern and you have a piece of music, and when you add words in a matching pattern you have a song. This is what life is, being able to spot patterns and act on what you perceive. Unlike a rock that cannot flee a stream of lava about to swallow it, even the simplest of organisms can move away from threats and move towards growth in the form of food. That basic drive of life stays with the organism as it evolves over billions of years, and as it becomes more complex, so does this basic drive. The drive to move away from threats becomes “living in fear” and the drive to move towards growth becomes “living in love”. Somewhere on this evolution timeline, it becomes aware of itself, and in a narcissist era tinted with megalomania decides that it is the most intelligent thing on earth, the crown of creation, the very reason that the universe was created. The ability that got us here was to be able to predict patterns: combining understanding for the pattern of the seasons with the pattern of the life-cycle of wheat allowed us to farm. Understanding the pattern of an infectious disease allows us to take precautions so we don’t get infected. Understanding the pattern of fire allows you to safely start your own. Understanding your own behavior patterns can help you break unwanted habits, and more easily create new ones.
Flavors are patterns, and so a good chef is good at knowing which patterns to combine to create new and more interesting patterns. Stories are patterns. Each story weaves a pattern, and sometimes the storyteller weaves several patterns, one is the obvious one that makes the reader believe something, and the hidden one with the actual truth. Professor Snape from Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. Sometimes the storyteller weaves a pattern that at the end, in one scene, is turned inside out and like an origami postcard reveals an even more complex pattern. Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects is a great example here. And if you see movies as patterns, Inception becomes a fractal pattern, with four patterns nested inside each other, each moving faster than the previous.
Patterns really are a part of intelligence, and intelligence is a result of patterns, but we cannot objectively measure anything else than IQ and so we worship one type of intelligence over others. We believe that we owe our dominance over the planet and the life here to that intelligence, the one that allows us to create complex tools like cars, machine guns and smartphones. That intelligence is narcissist, focused on the individual. 65% percent of Americans believe that they are more intelligent than the average person. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that most of them are wrong, but that doesn’t stop many people who believe themselves intelligent to look down on those they perceive less so.
But that type of intelligence would be nothing if we didn’t work together. No single human could have gone to the moon unless they lived a billion lifetimes. No single human can compete with an orchestra. Nobody knows everything, but together we know a lot. The ability to collaborate effectively is arguably our true intelligence, but that is not unique to our species either. Elephants collaborate in their herds, dolphins in their pods and bees in their hives.
So what is it that separates a two year old human, a pig and a dog? I still don’t know, and if I had to train that artificial intelligence in the difference between these three, I would answer the question like so:
“I don’t know, but we are more alike than different and so we shouldn’t enslave, torture, kill or eat either of them.”
In searching for the answer to this question, I have found kindness and respect towards life in general and animals in particular. In treating life kinder, I have found that life treats me kinder in return. Or perhaps I’m better at seeing the kindness that life has always been treating me with. I hope you’ll find something worthwhile too when pondering this question. If this episode piqued your interest, check out the website for the transcript where you’ll find some bonus material. You’ll also find ways of supporting this podcast, like leaving a review on iTunes or becoming a mini-mecenate on Patreon. Thank you for listening, friend. Sleep well, until you wake up.
I love you Keanu Reeves. This may seem like the hyperbole of a fan who is a little too into a celebrity, and had I said this two years ago, it would have been true. But I love you in the same way I love Alan Watts (who, funnily enough has made me feel the loss of never knowing my father in a way that my biological father never was able to). It is the same way I love my chosen family, regardless of whether we share blood or not. It notin the same way that I love my husband, who is the person who helped me realize what love really is. It’s not the same way because love can have many expansions that make us experience it differently. Love is a force that manifests in so many different ways depending on which expansion we experience it with. Some expansions are better, some are worse. Sometimes the expansions that some people enjoy are completely impossible to grasp for others. Some expansions lead us to do horrible, horrible things in the name of love. Some expansions turn love to hate. But at the core of each expression of love, regardless of expansion, whether it’s for a romantic partner, a mother, a brother, a sister, a friend so close you consider them family regardless of whether they are human or not, a love for telling stories, going on adventures, your favorite book or song or movie or artwork – at the core of each such experience a is a pure, unconditional love that transcends time and space. I know that it transcends time and space, because of Oliver Sacks. I love him too. I never had the opportunity to tell him like I tell you, because I didn’t know of him until Radiolab dedicated an episode to him after his death. Yet in the stories of his life, which he shared generously and kindIy, I found a comfort and guidance in a way only a truly kind and wise person can provide. He has been an important mentor for me and although we’ve never met, my love for him transcends time (and therefore space, since earth hurls through space at a staggering 621 miles per second towards the Great Attractor, which means that both you and I have travelled at least 1863 miles just since this story started).
What is love? I’m sorry if I gave you an earworm, but I believe that Haddaway actually answered his own question in that 90’s song. At least partially. It’s in the chorus: “what is love? baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more”. You see, “no more” implies that Haddaway has been hurt before, perhaps even by the same person he is asking the question of, yet Haddaway asking the question implies that he is ready to trust the person not to hurt him again. And trust is an expansion that makes love that much more accessible. Trust is a scaffolding on which love grows, and once you experience enough love, it becomes a scaffolding on which trust can grow, if you just let it. Passion is a scaffolding for love too, but in my experience, unless you add some other expansion, it tends to fade and the love that was spiring on it fades with it.
I learned this from my husband and our open relationship. It may seem controversial, the notion that an open relationship can strengthen the love, and perhaps it is. Perhaps it didn’t strengthen our love for each other, perhaps it just allowed us to experience more of it. Passion was the scaffolding on which our love grew. It took about twenty minutes from us shaking hands in a bar until we were making out, and not much longer until we sat in a cab on the way back to my place. The passion was strong enough for us to quit our jobs and find new ones on another continent, which in turn implicitly added the expansion of trust, which let even more love grow. Then, one day, we had an awkward discussion about trying an open relationship. We agreed that we wanted to try. It wasn’t as much adding trust, as testing the scaffolding of love and trust that we had built so far. Would it hold this additional expansion, or would it implode into a black hole that not even love could escape? It seemed to hold, but I was afraid at looking at it too closely, as if examining it would be like observing the state of a quantum wave, which is changed by simply the action of observing it. But although love may well be a quantum phenomenon, it does not seem to behave like a quantum particle in this specific regard. I didn’t dare look, afraid that I the inspection would reveal an expiry date on our love. But on our fifth anniversary I realized that it wasn’t just my imagination, my love for Mike really grew more and more each year. It was a phenomenon that I’ve seen in movies and read about in books, where love between romantic partners just grows as time goes on, but I wasn’t sure I would ever experience it. This made my curiosity stronger than my fear, and when I looked at the core of our love, I saw us. Me and him. Even though we could enjoy the expansions “passion”, “physical attraction” and “horniness” with others, after every experience we returned to each other. I returned because he is who he is, not because he forced me to. He returned to me out of his own free will, although he had the freedom not to. If I returned to him because I saw something that a great body and a gorgeous face cannot replace, that meant that he saw that same ineffable thing in me. The thing that made me worthy of loving in a way that transcends a very profound physical expression of love (profound at least to our species and our current culture). When I realized that he saw that ineffable thing in me, I saw it in myself too. I realized that I had started to discover it about three years before we met, but just like a sailor that sees the tip of an iceberg for the first time, I didn’t realize how much more there was to it.
In order for me to get closer to love, I had to take off some of the burden we put on our romantic partners today: they’re supposed be your best friend, your best lover, the best parent, your safety and comfort and emotional support, but we want danger and excitement too! Most of us want monopoly on some of these things, and some of us on all of them. But in many relationships, you can’t fulfill all the sexual needs of your partner, just like a single song – no matter how beautiful and amazing – can fulfill all musical needs.
There’s a name for the different types of sex you have with a stranger (adrenaline sex) and with someone you love and know (oxytocin sex). One entails the thrill of exploring something new, of trusting a potential stranger with your body and your desires, of not knowing exactly what will happen – or even if it will happen, of fulfilling sexual fantasies that in their very nature require strangers. The other is a vitalizing and deepening of a bond, a deeper exploration of a territory you know and love, of discovering and appreciating the changes of that territory, perhaps even discovering areas neither of you knew were there. In my experience, most people have need for both, some have more need for either, and some have need for neither.
One of the first quotes that I can remember hearing as a kid, that stuck with me to this day is “if you love somebody, set them free”. It turned out to be true for me, because looking at our love without the need to own any aspect of Mike allowed me to see that he didn’t need a cage, however golden it was, to stay by my side. This made me realize that I love him unconditionally. Even if he broke up with me today, I would not be angry. I would be heartbroken, but I know that he is capable of knowing what makes him happiest, and this is where love and happiness can be expressed in simple math: his happiness is just as important to me as mine. If he doesn’t want to stay with me, there would be no happiness in the relationship for either of us. Better that one of us is happy, than that both are miserable. Realizing that if-you-love-somebody-set-them-free-love is the same as unconditional love, I realize that my concept of love had been incomplete all my life.
We never talked about love at home. There was so much love, but the words “I love you” were never uttered, and so I never connected that feeling to my conscious concept of love. I built most of my concept of love through pop culture. But love is ineffable, it cannot be explained, only experienced. This is what the Oracle meant when she told Neo “No one can tell you your’re in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”. Love is at its core ineffable, but different expansions make it more tangible. The expansion “lust” is arguably the most common one in pop culture. It is so common, that scenes of romance and lust have become a shorthand for makers of movies and tv-series when they want to show just how much love two characters feel for each other. Who can blame them? Passion and lust can be powerful manifestations of love. This is why many major religions try to control them. They require celibacy from their clergy, and shame everyone else by calling “lust” and “passion” sins in all cases except in monogamous relationships sanctioned by said religion. Even if we call ourselves secular, we still suffer the effects of it: marriage is still the gold standard of relationships and therefore of love (perhaps only surpassed by the love between a child and a parent). Marriages trump friendship. When someone asks “are you guys dating?” about you and a friend, chances are you’ll say “no, we’re just friends”. Imagine answering “no, we’re just married” when someone asks if you and your spouse are friends.
Creating hierarchies of relationships based on love also creates the illusion that love is finite, that we each have a fixed amount of love to give. “I love you with all my heart” is an symptom of that. If I love you with all my heart, how can I possibly love someone else? It is an illusion, but illusions are real if enough people believe in it. Look at gold. It has few practical applications outside electronics and medicine, yet it is expensive because people believe it is valuable. It is valuable because it is finite. Most things get less valuable the more of them there are, and perhaps this is what lies at the heart of the illusion of love being finite: if I feel as much love for you as I do for Mike, then either I’m a liar, a delusional fan who doesn’t love my husband with “all my heart” or I have devalued love. But love is not finite, it is not a zero-sum game.
Love is like a campfire, its warmth and light is not diminished by someone joining you by it. But unlike a campfire, which has limited room around it, each person who truly loves becomes a campfire themselves, and now we have two campfires with room for even more people, who in turn can expand the light and warmth to even more people.
We all have a deep, profound, unlimited capability of feeling love for ourselves, for each other, for our planet and for our universe, but in our current society, where it’s manly to suppress your feelings, to be alpha-as-fuck and replace love with fear or terror, where emotions are considered to be feminine and therefore less valuable, we are taught not to practice love, unless it’s for ourselves or our immediate families. The less we practice it, the weaker our link to it gets, leaving a void that we try to fill with money, trinkets and things. But things cannot fill that void, because the void is infinite and things aren’t. It takes something infinite in itself, like love, to fill an infinite void. But how can something that is so abundant have such high value? Because of spacetime. We have limited time, and therefore we can only give so much of our infinite love in a lifetime. Space and time separate us, and love is togetherness. Love is oneness.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
“How are you feeling?”. Isn’t that a weird question when you really think about it? It’s like asking “How are you seeing?” or “how are you smelling?”. Science, with all its wonders, has made us focus so much on the question of “how” that we ask “how we feel” instead of “what we feel”. But “what” we feel is arguably a more important question than “how” we feel. Just as understanding howsomething works, like gravity, allows us to ask the question “why does it work like that?”, so does “what am I feeling” allow us to ask the question “why am I feeling like this?”. And each such why is a step towards knowing our true selves, if we are brave enough to answer that “why” truthfully.
I used to control my emotions a lot. Keep them pushed so far down that I didn’t have to feel them. I trained in so many ways. I love amusement parks, and one of my favorite rides is the Drop Tower, you know, the one where they pull you up to the top and suddenly drop you. Apart from the fact that the ride triggered my fear of heights, there was the added dread of no control of when they drop you. Some of these rides take a photo of the riders right after the drop. In that moment, it’s rather hard to not convey any emotion with your voice, let alone with your face, but I have a photo where I look completely bored next to my friend whose face shows all the excitement he felt at that exact moment. I was proud over not showing emotion even in the most distressing/exhilarating situations. I knew this was what men did – see, the dangers of knowledge? – men did not express emotions. They controlled them. I practiced hard, and I got so good at it, that when I saw Brokeback Mountain at the movies, I didn’t bat an eyelash during the movie, nor on the car ride home. But as soon as I closed the door to the studio where I lived alone, I broke down and cried for three hours. I cried in that heartbroken way that I hadn’t done since I was twelve, when I came home from my last year at the summer camp where I had spent three weeks a year for a quarter of my life. This is the curse of the modern man: there’s no evidence that men feel less than women, yet we are expected not to show our feelings. Boy’s don’t cry, and a man is so far removed from a boy that a grown man crying is sometimes equated to a little girl in culture (especially in comedy). So I practiced controlling my emotions, and I became a master of it. It came to a point when wasn’t sure I had that many emotions. After all, if you cannot put a name to it, does it really exist?
This is the problem with controlling your feelings: you become unable to name them. You need to be able to name emotions to sort them, to untangle them and to convey them. To process them so you don’t get stuck. When we’re born, we are capable of feeling a rainbow of e born even if are unable name them. We have no egos yet, no impulse control and so we act on our emotions. When we feel pain, or are hungry, we cry. When we’re surprised by the universe, we laugh. Not knowing about object permanence can result in the most amusing surprises. Just look at any baby playing peekaboo. See, knowledge. Can’t live with it, can’t die without it.
As we grow up, we learn to identify and name more and more complex feelings. This is anger. This is sadness. This is love. This is lust. What is happiness? We learn of combinations of feelings, like melancholy. Feelings, just like colors, can blend to create new feelings or colors. The feeling of the coziness you feel when you’re having dinner with two of your best friends in your favorite homey restaurant is called “gezellig” in Dutch, “hygge” in Danish and “mysigt” in Swedish. The feeling of joy you feel when you see someone you like but haven’t seen in a long time is called “gjensynsglede”. Feelings are contextual, and some feelings describe a chain of events, like “vemödalen”: it starts with experiencing something exceptionally beautiful, like a magnificent sunset or the fjords of Norway, and you try to photograph it, which turns into frustration as you realize that there are thousands of identical photos of this, which makes the amazing subject suddenly feel hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture that you happen to have assembled yourself. Some emotions are such a complex mix that it takes years to understand them. Liget is such an emotion. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo found this emotion in 1967, when he and his wife Shelly visited the ilongot tribe in the Philippines. It took fourteen years, and the tragic, accidental death of his wife Shelly for him to grasp the emotion liget.
Since we’re talking about new words for contextual emotions, I’d like to talk about another new word: “ställtid”. It’s the Swedish word for the time you spend between tasks to be able to write notes, clean up or prepare for the next task. Emotions typically have “ställtid” too. It’s hard to jump from sadness to joy in no time without any event that triggers the change. Even empathy has “ställtid”. When you’re surprised by an event, it takes about seven seconds before the empathic part of your brain kicks in. This is why it’s always wise to slowly count to ten when you get angry, so that you give yourself a chance to be empathic.
We are taught to stop acting on our feelings, which in many cases is a useful skill. Like not acting on your anger, because when you act angry, you also become more angry. This is why cognitive behavioral therapy works so well for many people: actions, feelings and thoughts influence each other and so acting angry will make you feel angry. If you hear a something breaking in your house late at night, thinking “someone’s breaking in!” and “oh no, the cat must have pushed something off the table” triggers two different emotions. Feeling angry at someone begets thoughts of more reasons that your anger is justified.
But if we throw out the baby with the bathwater and stop acting on the feelings we want to foster, like love, we lose our connection to it. This is what has happened to large parts of the world. After all, feelings cannot be described – they must be experienced. Acting is experiencing, but above all: acting is contagious. How do you get someone to like you? You start by liking them. If you really like a person after hanging out with them, chances are that feeling is mutual.
We are born capable of such rich emotional lives with endless nuances. As we grow, our family and society teach us to identify and name some of those feelings. The labels are an attempt to create stable borders around certain hues of specific feelings. It’s oversimplifying and controlling at the same time, but we need ourselves and others to be predictable, to be stable and feelings aren’t. They are in constant flux, mixing, waxing and waning, creating mixes we can only feel and never name. But we need to have predictability and so we say this is ‘love’ — or rather, we describe how love makes us feel and act, and hope that everyone feels and acts the same in love — and create a handy and simple label. We took one of the most powerful emotions we humans are capable of, and put it a straightjacket designed by some Nordic minimalist collective named Fjättra (with that a with two dots over it). This is why we can love so many different things. Partners. Hobbies. Children. Movies. Knowledge. Ourselves. Putting the label ‘love’ on that potent an emotion is like watching photos of a particularly magnificent sunset instead of being there in person. It’s Vemödalen-by-proxy.
I have always experienced emotions in technicolor – even the bland gray of depression has shades, dull as they are – but until that Saturday in June last year, when I lost my fear of not having control, until that day I was only able express these technicolor emotions in grayscale words.
The feeling that has scared me the most is love. It’s so immensely powerful, capable of inspiring us to be our best selves both as individuals and as species. At the same time: it means that it has an equally powerful opposite, one that is seductive with its ease and rewards. I thought I knew what love was back when sixteen-year-old Past-Michael fell in love for the first time. But that was just one of the layers of love: infatuation, physical attraction, lust. I didn’t learn what comes next, once the relationship leaves that state and reveals the layers beneath. I think this is one of our problems with love: we cannot put words to this amazing, powerful feeling, and so we describe what it makes us do: buy things, spend time, have sex (which we call “making love” as if love could be fabricated). But we also tell stories how it makes us lie, betray and kill. And that is what love makes us do before it has turned into hate. Love is so complicated that until we have really experienced it, we keep revisiting stories that try to explain it, in hope of realizing whether we ever have been in true love. If this was The Matrix, those stories would be to us, what the Oracle is to Neo.
In the scene where they meet, the Oracle points to a sign saying “Temet nosce” and says “You know what that means? It’s Latin. Means “Know thyself”. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Being The One is just like being in love. No one can tell you your’re in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”
And once we experience love, we realize that the Oracle was right, You can’t be told, you just know. And once you realize what it truly is, you’ll realize that you’ve had it all along. It may have been shown to you in the most horrible way, like physical or psychological abuse, but when you’re unprepared and incapable of experiencing the full force of love, it puts stress on your being that can make you do the most horrible things. Love is a force much similar to the strongest fundamental force of nature: the strong force (the other are gravity, the weak force and electromagnetism). The strong force can give us life in the form of the sun, and death in the form of Little Boy and Fat Man.
I didn’t get the chance to experience the deeper layers of love until my current relationship. I spent the 34 years before I met my husband as a single. Sure, I dated, and I consulted the Oracle about love countless times, but I still had no idea. I had spent most of my adult life as a single on the prowl, and going out to a club was associated with chasing mr. Right or at least mr. Right Now. This created a struggle in me during the first years of our relationship. I had spent so much time enjoying the hunt, that I had forgotten that you could simply go to the club to have fun. It took me a long time to find a reason for going out clubbing, to find out who this new me was in the club context
I had to get to know my new self, in addition to getting to know the guy I was so madly in love with, and allow him to get to know not only my old self, but also the new self that I was discovering. It’s funny, how I used to look for shared interests on dates. It’s human to want to bond with people we like, and bonding requires common ground. I thought interests was a perfect common ground for a relationship, but had I met my husband under more traditional circumstances, I might have thought “we have too different interests”. He likes the outdoors, swimming, sports. He runs marathons and listens to hipsterish bands like Mumford and Sons, or to artists like Junglepussy and Lizzo (he can actually sing most of her hits, and it’s amazing). I like video games, technology, being a complete psychonaut and the only label you really can put on my taste in music is “music I like”. I’m like the Stephen King to his Bear Grylls. We’re so different, that my husband once described himself as a cat, and me as a Golden Retriever-type-dog at a nail party we went to. A nail party is when you throw a party and offer the guests a wide selection of fake nails. Everyone has to put on at least one fake, glamorous nail (although at least a whole hand is encouraged), all in honor of Alaska’s famous quote: “If you’re not wearing nails, you’re not doing drag”. Maybe our differences just prove that Paula Abdul and that cartoon cat were right when they sang “Opposites attract”. But at the same time, we have so much in common, me and my husband. Our values, the people we love, our love for experiences and adventure, our love for each other.
I was afraid of thinking too much about my love for Michael (yes, my husbands name is the same as mine, but it doesn’t cause nearly as much confusion as you’d think since people use the Swedish short version, Micke, for me, and the English, Mike, for my husband) – I was afraid of thinking too much about my love for Mike once the infatuation started to fade. I had no idea what came after that, and I was afraid that if I looked, I would only find a memory of the infatuation. Like a fire that has gone out, but the embers still give off some warmth. It was scary, especially on our fifth anniversary, when I realized that it really was true that I loved Mike more for every year. I decided to look inside that Schrödinger’s box where I had placed love. In it, I found out what love really is, but that is for another story.
A friend of mine once said “you can choose to live in love, or live in fear”, and synchronicity would have it that shortly thereafter I listened to the audiobook “The Biology of Belief” by biologist Bruce Lipton, which said pretty much the same thing. Living in love means trusting, whether its your future self, loved ones, strangers or the universe. It means assuming good will or taking a loss for someone else’s gain. Living in love means being curious and exploring, having an open mind. Living in love means collaborating, it means accepting change, and trying to make the world better for everyone. People who live in love show vulnerability. They grow, and allow people around them to grow.
People who live in fear don’t explore. They don’t change their minds about truths that make up their identities and worlds. They are suspicious to strangers, afraid of new cultures. People who live in fear are afraid of change, and never show vulnerability. Living in love or living in fear is one of the most fundamental choices that a human can make, but we are never alone in making that choice. Our environment, the society and culture we live in, our friends and families, they all influence how easy it is to make that choice. You can never force someone to live in love, you can only inspire them to. You can, however, force someone to live in fear – but only for as long as they accept it.
So, friend, what are you feeling right now? I hope that whatever it is, it brings you dreams of a world where more people live in love than live in fear. Of moments and views that will never suffer Vemödalen. Until next time, sleep well, until you wake up.
Last week, I told you a story about love. This week, I’m going to tell you a story about time. But don’t worry: it has love, too. This story is seven years old, and it was originally written by my past self. Prepared by Past-Michael if you will. Stories are a little bit like fish in that way: best prepared fresh.
This story starts where the last story ended: the night I met my husband. Past-Michael called this “How I met my boyfriend”, but I took the liberty to change the title to “How I met my husband”.
How I Met My Husband — Episode 1: The one where it all began
Wednesday, August 3, shortly after midnight at Golden Hits in Stockholm:
“I’m going to kiss you“
We started talking fifteen minutes earlier; his name was Mike and he was visiting from the US.
I had noticed him earlier that evening. He was making his way up the stairs at Golden Hits when our eyes met. A slight smile gave his lips a nice curve. He looked like a young, more handsome Ed Harris, with a curious twinkle in his eyes and an open face. Later, as he stood in the bar a few meters away, I saw that he had very nice hands too. Our eyes met again, we both smiled and that was about where it was decided.
It was as if everything else became unimportant when we were kissing. My brain switched off and the next morning I was pleasantly surprised that I had invited him back to my place. This was the first time in almost ten years that I brought someone back with me after a night of (heavy) drinking. I was even more surprised that my hangover-induced angst wasn’t projected on him. On the contrary, his presence had a soothing effect on me. We ate breakfast and spent a couple hours in bed talking and making out.
Wednesday, August 3, shortly after 7 pm at Tunnelgatan, Hötorget
“I’m sorry that I was weird this morning. You kissing me in the subway threw me off. I’m not used to public displays of affection and got uncomfortable”.
Thursday, August 4, shortly after 9 am in my apartment:
“So do your friends and family know about you?“
He stood naked in my kitchen, washing the dishes after breakfast. I admired, and enjoyed, the scenery. He handled the bowls and glasses with a deliberate care. I noticed how good his legs looked. You could tell by the tan line that he had worn shorts that went halfway down his thigh. I walked up to him, put my arms around him and kissed his neck.
Thursday, August 4, 10:55 outside Kulturhuset:
“Brace yourself, there’s going to be a public display of affection. I’m going to kiss you.“
A couple seconds later:
“So, I guess this is it?“
“It’s not the last time we see each other“
“I hope so”
It didn’t take long to reset my brain for the first seminar of the day. Perhaps it was equal parts focus and escapism. It wasn’t until early evening, when lack of sleep and the tiredness after a day full of seminars at Pride House kicked in, that the sadness that he was gone hit me.
How I Met My Husband — Episode 2: Where the summer romance ends
Thursday, August 4, outgoing message:
Hey Mike! My thoughts exactly. I wish you were here right now. About the onslaught of feelings: Sometimes I guess that we’re… aligned for lack of a better word. Aligned both in feelings and openness. When two people who both are aligned meet, and you add that awesome attraction, both mentally and physically, that’s when the stuff that good stories are made of happens.
Thursday, August 4, shortly after 9 PM, on my way to Bögjävlarna’s underwear party
There were many similarities between my movie-like summer romance with Arnaud, but this was different. Maybe it was the fact that we got more time together. Maybe it was because we met on my home turf. Maybe the attraction between me and Mike simply was stronger.
I was hoping the story would continue, but my rational side knew that it was over. What could we do? He lived in Cleveland, I lived in Stockholm. It’s not like you cross the Atlantic Ocean to visit a person you’ve seen for 35 hours. The first step one of us had to take to stop this story from fading as summer became fall, was simply too big.
On the other hand, what were the odds of us meeting? He was attending a wedding in Copenhagen, and took the opportunity to visit Stockholm for three days. I was at Golden Hits for the first time because they happened to have a pre-Pride party. He happened to pass by and saw the rainbow flag, which made him go inside.
I make a decision to be happy for what we had instead of grieving that it was over.
Sunday, August 7, incoming message:
“Just told my friends that I met a great guy in sweden. They were happy for me. The wedding was great. I’ve decided that I will be seeing you again, no maybes.”
He came out to his friends by telling them he had met me? This was bigger than big. Sometimes it’s not the length of the meeting that matters, it’s the intensity.
Monday, August 8, incoming message:
“Sitting in the airport and dreading the fact I am traveling so far away from you. In good news I got upgraded to first class.”
Wednesday, August 10, outgoing message:
“I have the tickets. Will be at Cleveland International on the evening of the 1st. I hope you’re not too tired today. Talk to you after you’re done with work!”
This was no longer a summer romance. It was more than that. The rational part of my brain was desperately screaming that this was emotional madness, but I didn’t care.
How I Met My Husband — Episode 3: where the cheerleader begins to play
I’ve always considered myself a brave person, and I have acted bravely in many situations. No matter if it’s jumping out of an airplane, telling someone to put out a cigarette in the subway, or giving a lecture for 200 persons, I’ve rarely hesitated and almost never backed out. I’ve always preferred to do and participate instead of watching and theorizing.
It was very painful to realize that I, when it came to relationships, was the antithesis of my ideal self; I was the scared spectator. I confessed to Sofia, one of my best friends. “When it comes to relationships, not only have you been sitting on the bleachers. You’ve been reviewing the people playing, and you’ve been the cheerleader chanting ‘I told you so!’ when someone fell and got hurt”. It takes a good friend to say something you don’t want to hear, but need to. The anger and shame I felt when hearing that statement were a validation of it. I realized how often I’ve used logic and rationalization to control, explain and justify my lack of showing other emotions than anger or happiness
I pretended to be Spock in Star Trek when I really am that guy who wells up when the strings begin to play.
Suddenly, everything seemed so clear. I saw the pattern: that I never cried in front of other persons, that I didn’t tell the persons I love that I do love them, that it’s easier for me to have sex with people I don’t have emotions (other than lust) for.
No matter what happens between me and Mike, this is one of the best things I could have learned at the age of 34: it’s not logical, rational or a show of strength not to show emotions, or to control any show of emotions other than anger or happiness. It’s like always wearing a dark suit when you really want to wear a bright red t-shirt, because you’re afraid what others will think.
I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so easy for me to accept and act on my feelings for Mike. One reason, perhaps the major one, is that there is no judgement between us. Another reason is that the language creates a distance, an airbag of sorts, which makes it easier for me to handle the feelings. A third is about our individual experiences — it’s as if our backgrounds made dents in us that the other smoothes out in the exact right places.
The cheerleader in me had reluctantly accepted that I had left the bleachers and wandered out on the playing field, but when I two weeks later changed my Facebook status to “in a relationship” he totally freaked.
“What are you? A fourteen year old emo? What will everyone else think? THIS IS BEYOND IRRATIONAL. IT’S MADNESS!”. As per usual, I was my own harshest judge. But I am out on the field, playing, and it feels way too good for me to quit and return to the bleachers. Sure, there are lots of people sitting there, reviewing my game. They judge and criticise me, ready to say ‘Told you so!”. I don’t mind. Either they’ll stay there, watching life instead of living it, or they’ll go out on the field and start playing — and then they will understand.
Now, friend, if you’ve paid attention, you have probably asked yourself “what does that story have to do with time? I can see love, but time? Where?”. Well, it depends on where you choose to begin the story. When does your story begin? When you were born? But that would mean our parent’s stories weren’t our stories, and that is simply not true. So was it when your parents met? How about their parents? You can keep doing that as far back as the universe is old: 13.8 billion years. That’s when the process that now is you began for real. If we look at the atoms that you are comprised of, over 60% of them are hydrogen. Most hydrogen atoms that exist came into being with the Big Bang. That means that 60% of the atoms in your body are as old as the universe itself. Mind you, it’s only about 7% by weight, but do you know what the other 93% are? Star dust. Literally. In addition to hydrogen, your body consists of carbon, oxygen, iron, calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen. All those elements were made in stars. Phosphorus, for example, is believed to be made in massive stars, more than eight times the mass of our sun. So in order for you to exist, not only had your parents have to meet at the right time, but many stars had to go supernova to create the stardust that you are made of. So be careful where you begin your story, otherwise your story may fool you that you are separate from the universe, and stop you from realizing that you ARE the universe. Not only is it important where you start your story, it’s also important where you end it. For a long time, I ended that story of following my heart to Ohio at seventeen, with the flight home. Shame prevented me from giving it even a fleeting thought for twenty years. As I was thinking about stories, and decided to brace myself and open that tomb of shame, I gave that story a new ending: an ending where the seventeen year old comes home heartbroken, but fourteen and some years later, he meets a handsome, intelligent guy for 36 hours and again follows his heart on a whim to Ohio. And this time it ends with love. At least for now.
What stories have you not told yourself or others? Think about it, perhaps you will find a new, better ending to some of your painful stories. Dream about it. Until next time, sleep well my friend, until you wake up.
I’m glad you’re back. Let’s follow the white rabbit some more, shall we?
Let me tell you a story about my quest and how you’ve helped me. You see, I’m on a quest to confirm that I really have found my ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that literally means “value in life”, but a lot of the meaning is like Bill and Scarlet – it gets lost in translation. It is often translated as “finding value in one’s life”, “discovering one’s purpose” or “a reason for being”. The answer to your ikigai lies at the intersection of four questions: “what do you love?”, “what are you good at?”, “what does the world need from you?” and “what can you be paid for?”. I believe “telling stories” is my answer to all four questions – I know I love it, I believe the world needs stories like this, and I hope I am good enough to some day get paid for it. But some things that are true to me don’t become objectively true until enough other people see it as truth too. I need confirmation from others that “telling stories” indeed is the right answer. You finishing four episodes and starting the fifth is a confirmation which I am very grateful for.
As a thank you, let me tell you a story I haven’t told many people yet. I actually even stopped telling it to myself for twenty-some years, because it was too painful for me. As many a story about pain, this is story starts with love. I was sixteen the first time I fell in love. He was a classmate in the school we both had just transferred to, a good looking jock with good enough grades to get accepted into our rather competitive program. He was one of the most handsome guys I’d ever seen in the flesh. His name doesn’t matter, but let’s call him John for the sake of the story. We became good friends, and I don’t think John ever knew that I was in love with him. I was in the closet and knew him to be straight, so confessing would both mean coming out and gambling our friendship. In a way, he saved me. You see, about four years before I met him, I made the connection between myself and those nasty, bent “homosexuals” and “fags” that the grown-ups whispered about. I had known that I liked boys since at least six years of age, and never really thought that it was weird or strange until I made that particular connection. Of course, they never talked about me, since they didn’t know that I actually was gay, but they were talking about people who were like me. In seventh grade, I opened the biology book and looked up “homosexuality”. I was so nervous that I still remember that moment, sitting in the second row, pretending to lazily flip through the book, ready to jump pages if anyone so much as glanced my way. The chapter I was looking for was called “Variations In Sexual Behavior”. This is what it said about homosexuality:
There isn’t much known about the causes of homosexuality. The sexual development during childhood can have been disturbed. No physical causes have been found. In puberty it’s rather common that young people of the same sex have sexual relations. The cause of this could be that the sexual drive hasn’t yet stabilized and this is not considered homosexuality in the normal sense. It also occurs that the sexual drive is aimed towards both your own and the opposite sex. This is called bisexuality.
Adult homosexuals often look for a partner among youths of the same sex. Such a relationship can become a big problem for a young person. It can lead to future disturbances in one’s own sexuality. But you do not become homosexual from such experiences.
It can be difficult to be homosexual in a society where most people are heterosexual. It can be hard to find a partner and get other people to accept that you live together with someone of the same sex.
I saw a promise in those paragraphs. A promise of a way out. If this was just a phase, that meant I could get better from it. Although deep inside I knew it to be untrue, I so desperately wanted it to be true that I jumped at even the most demeaning chance to avoid the horrible, tragic fate of being a lonely old faggot who couldn’t find someone to love him, and who tried to satisfy his longing for love by preying on confused young people of the same sex. I remember how I, right then and there, started making plans to commit suicide, if this phase was not over by the time I turned twenty. I was very practical and matter-of-fact about it. To spare myself and my family the shame of having a bent pervert in the family, I would jump off one of the ferries going between Sweden and Finland, hoping that my body was never found. It gave me seven years for this phase to fade, and seven years is a lifetime for a thirteen year old. It also gave me seven years to come to terms with being gay. I only needed three, because when I fell in love with John, and realized that that is what being gay is, I also realized that being gay could not possibly be as bad it was made out to be in the space between the horrified words whispered by adults. And at that point, I knew that I had only skimmed the surface of love, because madly in love as I was, John did not love me back. It would be many years before I experienced love in all its glory, before I understood the full depth of the feeling that hopefully grows out of that initial burst of passion and horniness that is infatuation. But at sixteen, I had no idea what it was like to love and be loved in return. You see, we never really said “I love you” at home, and I don’t think I ever reflected on what love really is to me, until rather recently, so to me, romantic love was the only love I was aware of. And boy, was I in love.
Me and John hung out a lot. I almost got into golf because he was a golfer. I started to listen to the same music he listened to. I still associate Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun with him to this day. I don’t know if I ever influenced him in any way, and I didn’t care as long as he wanted to hang out with me. It’s a story that many a young gay man has experienced, and funnily enough it keeps happening even though there are now people who can tell how those stories end. With heartbreak. I believe it’s because great as the risk of heartbreak is, the potential reward of a happy ending seems worth it. The chance is infinitesimal, we know this going in, but hey, someone has to win that jackpot sometime, right?
During our first year, John decided to do a year as an exchange student in the US. I looked into it too, not as much because he was going, as because I had grown tired of school. Well, maybe they had an equal part in it. Up until a certain point, school was fun because the things we learned were fun. We went to museums and on field trips. We got to draw while our teacher read “And then there were none” by Agatha Christie for us, and we tried to figure out who dunnit’ and why. As the subjects got more isolated and boring, and the school game of being a parrot wasn’t challenging anymore, I started questioning why we learned things. Why should I know how to calculate derivates? In which situations that I can see myself in will I ever use it? The teachers had few answers, and none of them felt real enough for me. I felt unchallenged in school, but had a major challenge in the gay thing. One of my dreams ever since I found out about San Fransisco as a gay haven, was to follow Pet Shop Boys’ call to “Go West”. I spent countless nights, smoking in my bedroom window to the soundtrack of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, watching the stars and dreaming of moving to the US and finding true love. San Francisco seemed like a place where society didn’t constantly remind you to hate yourself, fag. I remember that I even kept track of compass directions, and preferred to move west because it felt like I was moving towards my real home. Towards freedom. If killing myself at twenty was the worst-case scenario of my nightmares, moving to the US was the best-case scenario of my dreams. To be free, to be me, without being judged. The darker one was, the brighter the other had to be. It was so bright that I could not look at it directly. I couldn’t even dream directly of it, only of the symbols of it; I was like a sick person who yearns for health, but only dreams of hospitals. So as John looked into a year of studies abroad, so did I. But it was expensive, and we could not afford it. I even applied for a scholarship, but didn’t get it. John left for his year in Youngstown, Ohio and I decided to take a gap year to work. John and I kept in touch, sending letters to each other, writing about whatever happened in our lives. We talked on the phone a couple times. He was in the homecoming court and on the soccer team, I worked in the shoe store and tried competitive pistol shooting. I mentioned thinking about visiting him, and he seemed okay with the idea. So I worked, saved up money and used it to book a ticket to Youngstown, Ohio, departing in February 1995. With two days stop-over in New York.
The flight over the Atlantic had a smoking section where I sat, and a lady from first class came to use the free seat next to me to smoke. She ordered champagne for the both of us, and I felt exhilarated in that way I still do when I’m at the start of a potentially epic journey. As I got off the airport coach at central station, I gawked at the incredible buildings until I remembered that I must look like a tourist begging to be robbed. I stayed in a cheap hotel not far from Empire State building. The room had a window overlooking a shaft, which I felt was very pertinent for New York. I got breakfast at a local diner. When I saw that they had pancakes that you ordered in twos, I ordered three portions, thinking they were the thin crêpes we call pancakes in Sweden. These were American pancakes, and huge even for those. Fortunately, I got them to go, or the staff would have a story about a weird tourist kid who ordered three portions of pancakes and failed eating two of them. Despite the warnings from many a worried friend and acquaintance in Sweden not to take the subway — I still don’t know if it really was dangerous, or if it was just exaggerations — I rode the train to take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Waiting for the ferry was cold, the February sun had nothing on the cold winds. I had a coffee, and ate my first real donut. At Ellis Island, where you could search the names of people who had immigrated to the U.S. through that station, I found one person that shared my last name, which means we’re related. The Statue of Liberty was not worth the walk up, but I liked the museum. I listened to “Zombie” by the Cranberries on the minidisc player I had borrowed from my friend Tomi, and enjoyed the freedom to smoke without having to look over my shoulder.
Two days later after arriving in Manhattan, I flew to Youngstown, Ohio, connecting in Pittsburgh. I had only flown once before this trip, but I could tell that the place I was going to wasn’t big judging by the propeller plane I boarded in Pittsburgh. I called John’s house from the airport. The mom of the family answered. She told me he was at the hospital, but that it wasn’t serious and he’d be back home soon. It didn’t sound as if she knew who I was, and I wasn’t sure what to do – so I asked a cab driver to take me to a motel. I can’t remember if all rooms were smoking ones, or if I chose a smoking room, but I remember spending the time smoking cigarrettes and watching Golden Girls in the motel room, not knowing what else to do. As John got better (I don’t remember if it was one or two days after my arrival), I took a cab out to visit him. I have very vague memories of the details of that visit, but I remember the revelation and the pang of emotions that followed it: he had a life here, and didn’t really want me to be part of it. I knew that I could never be his lover, and now I wasn’t even his friend. I took a cab back to my motel room and comforted myself with more cigarrettes and Golden Girls, and whatever snacks they had in the machines. It was the gay version of the song “Flowers on the wall” from Pulp Fiction.
I don’t know which was worse, the heartbreak and the rejection, or the shame of having acted on emotions, like some teenage girl. At seventeen, I saw myself as an adult man, except that I had no idea what it meant to be a man. I knew what society had told me, which is what a man isn’t: gay, a woman, a sissy, a girl. A little girl was the antithesis to an adult man in my head, and a teenage girl was not far behind. The shame of having been pretty much the opposite of an adult man was so deep that I didn’t tell this story to anyone, even to myself. Even after I dealt with my insecurities about being a man, that story remained hidden behind a painful wall of shame. Untold stories hold a power over us. This story held so much power over me that I barely told people that I was in the US as a seventeen-year-old, afraid it would lead to questions I didn’t want to answer, and I didn’t want to lie. Time had long since healed that wound, but I hadn’t dared to look out of fear, the same fear a person who doesn’t want to check their bank account feels. Time had also offered perspective. Now, I see a sad, but beautiful story about coming of age. A story of a precocious young adult who follows his heart overseas, on a quest for love. A story of a high-risk gamble that didn’t pan out. But every chance you take won’t result in a jackpot. It can’t, by definition, because taking a chance means accepting the risks of failing, of losing, of being rejected. How boring would life be if there never was risk involved? Looking back on it, I did not fail in Youngstown. I stumbled and fell, and from this I learned that I really do have the capacity to fall down ten times and get up eleven. It would have been so easy to give up, and never take the risk of following my heart again. Then, at least I wouldn’t have to deal with all the pain and shame. But life, being the rollercoaster that it is, seems to follow the law of gravity: you need real lows to be propelled to real highs. Eliminate all the lows, all the suffering, and you’re on the kids version. Some people may prefer that, but I like life like I like my rollercoasters: high, fast, with loops and spirals pushing the extreme.
About fourteen and a half years after that trip to Ohio, I was with my friends in a bar. Not a gay bar, a regular bar. I remember this day because this was the first time I didn’t only feel okay with being single, I felt amazing about it. I trusted myself in a whole new way. I felt so elated, so free, so happy to go out with my friends, and for the first time I wouldn’t be spending more time desperately looking for mr. Right, than I would spend on having fun. The funny thing about trusting yourself is that it’s the same as trusting the universe. And the universe delivered: there was fun, there was beer, there were shots. Then there was meeting my husband for the first time. The universe is funny that way, just when you think you’ve figured things out, it throws in a loop-the-loop you never saw coming. I wish you dreams of trust, friend. Until next time, sleep well, until you wake up.
I trust you’ve dreamt of the most amazing realities since last I talked to you. A while ago, I said that what matters not who, but what I am. And what I am not. I sometimes get the question if I’m religious now. All my friends knew me as an atheist, and they ask the question in the same way high-school friends who had heard that I am gay asked it: “so, are you, like, you know … into god now?”. This question, “are you religious?” has been a complicated question to answer until now. I typically answered “no, I’m spiritual” which of course led to the follow-up question “What’s the difference?”. Since I didn’t have an answer to that question, it became a complicated attempt at trying to figure it out. This is still new and confusing for me. If you have a hard time imagining the confusion, perhaps I can frame it in a context that works for you. Imagine being straight, and one day waking up realizing you’re soooo gay. Imagine being a pro football player, waking up one day and realizing that singing, which you’ve done in secrecy most of your life, is your real passion and that you have to go for it, even if it means ending your career. Imagine being a good and kind person, and one day realize that you’re not, because a good and kind person would handle many things differently than you have. Imagine being an atheist and waking up one day, with a deep, unshakeable belief that god exists, because you experienced it.
You have to re-examine everything you know at that point, to become a new person both to yourself and to others, and that takes time. And courage. I think this is the source of the most resistance I encounter as I work to be my true self. It takes a lot of courage to be your true self. My true self, the one I am within, is a slightly different person than the one the collective consciousness sees. They can only paint the image with my actions, and my ego often made me act as someone else. It still does. You see, we need the ego, because the ego is control and without it we would not be able to control our bodies, but then, as it grows too powerful, we slowly start deteriorating into narcissists. This is why it’s so hard to diagnose them, because most of us are a narcissist to one degree or another. Narcissism is like a darkness that clouds our inner true selves. We need it, because without darkness there cannot be light, but we want to keep it at a reasonable distance. If you’re afraid of the darkness of narcissism, I’ve found kindness to be a good patronus against it.
So, if you judge me by my actions, I have not shown my true self, because I have been acting as an atheist that only believes in what natural sciences believe to be reasonably proven. And I still believe in everything which natural sciences believe to be reasonably proven, but I am not an atheist. I was an atheist, both a pretend one, and a real one. I’ve found atheism to be very similar to spirituality in that regard: If you practice either long enough, even if you’re not serious – just as long as you’re sincere – you will become one.
In its true sense of the meaning, atheism is something we learn, not something we’re born with. You see, the word atheism comes from Greek: the prefix “a”, meaning without, and the word “theos”, meaning god. Without god. An atheist is not just one who believes the question is unanswerable, it’s a person who believes god does not exist. The proof is in the lack thereof: since nobody has been able to prove that god exists, even though many have tried, therefore god doesn’t exist. There’s an interesting comment on humanity in that logic. It’s the belief that we understand so much about the universe now, that if we haven’t proven that god exists at this point, god must not exist. After my adventures as a psychonaut so far, I have come to the conclusion that the existence of god can never be proven, but it can be experienced. It’s funny, the experience of being a psychonaut. I know that people have been here before me, I have learned about their encounters and visions in many books and stories. But they are relatively few. Most of us are still inside the dream, the play, the video game that is so beautiful to watch. I imagine I feel the spiritual equivalence of what astronauts feel about the view of earth when they are on the International Space Station.
One of my biggest issues with atheism is that it made existence seem finite. I’ve never had a problem with the concept of an infinite universe as a kid. I loved to learn stuff and everything I learned allowed me to ask an additional question. There is always one more question. Each question you answer discovers a bit more of the universe, and it reveals another question. It’s questions all the way down. Since there could be no end to knowledge, it was easy to understand that there could be no end to existence. And since the universe is existence made manifest, it must be infinite. But for the kind of atheist I was, there was one question that stops the expansion: “what is outside our universe?”. Speculating about different options requires considering the possibility that god does exist. I could never speculate whether the universe is a construct or not, because a construct is made by someone or something, and if someone or something can create our universe, aren’t they then god by our standards? When you have one question that you cannot stop asking, but one which you cannot answer with science, you either need to be fine with it, or you need to take a leap of faith. I tried to be fine with it, to feel like an atheist and not only act like one. It took some practice, but one day, my last superstition disappeared. Even though I called myself atheist, I had a lot of superstitions. According to Swedish urban legend, stepping on manhole covers marked “A” brings bad luck, especially in love, and I avoided stepping on them as a kid, as a teenager and well into my twenties, just to be sure. I didn’t dare telling people about good things that could potentially happen, out of fear that I would jinx them. I made small bets with something undefined, but perhaps best described as fate, every time I wanted something really badly. Like when I had been on a date and really liked the guy, but he hadn’t called back even though I had called and left a message. So as I was on the subway platform and the train was coming in, I thought “if the subway train stops so that a pair of doors is right in front of me, he will call”. I never named that which I made a bet with, almost as if daring it to reveal itself by taking the bet. Of course, since everyone said that god is good, if she or he or it took the bet, I would of course win. Superstition is divine intervention for almost-but-not-quite-atheists.
My last superstition was that of balance. For every really good thing that happened to me, I just waited for the bad thing that would cancel it out. I was constantly looking over my shoulder for that bad thing which would restore the balance took, and it took focus from the joy. It was much like I imagine living in a relationship and trying to love someone, but not really daring to love them and so thinking that the relationship could end any day. That particular day, I realized that I did not understand balance at all. I was sure there must be some sort of balance – we cannot have a thing without something else to define it after all, but I realized I didn’t understand it. If good persons could have suffering piled on them by randomness and chance, like losing your family in some tragedy and surviving, only to be diagnosed with cancer and when you are in remission you lose your house and all memories in a fire – if good persons can have so many bad things happen to them without seeming to get a break, then other persons can have so many good things happen to them without breaking the spell. Perhaps this is the true meaning of karma, it doesn’t apply to us as individuals as much as it applies to us as all living beings. After all, it’s not unusual that people with a lot of luck become rich, since luck in our society is largely dependent on money. And with riches comes a dementor of the ego that requires a powerful patronus. Too many lack any patronus, let alone a strong one, and so luck leads to corruption. Karma. On the other hand, people who go through trial upon trial of suffering and aren’t destroyed by it and start perpetuating the suffering by inflicting it others, they often become kind and loving individuals. The inner peace they find in the process of suffering is often perceived as sadness by others, but I believe it’s these others that just don’t understand. I believe that these individuals, those who have gone through these trials, understand that as sad and painful as life and existence can get, as joyful and amazing it be, and become kind in a very profound sense. Humble. They discover secrets of the universe that you only can find in suffering. In our world where extroverts are embraced, having a rich introvert life that brings you peace is often perceived as sadness, but if you look at their actions, they are often very kind. Their actions inspire other people, and so their suffering evokes more kindness from others. Karma. I believe Keanu Reeves is a perfect example of this. I must remember to high-five him too, if I ever meet him.
Atheism made existence seem finite because my universe could not expand past “this is all there is”. That unanswerable question meant the end; the final question in this direction. And even though there’s more to discover in our universe than you could discover in a thousand lifetimes, I felt claustrophobic. After all, if there’s a limit to existence, to universe, then that means there’s a limit to mind as well. But my mind is infinite, this I know. So I kept drinking from the glass of natural science, and at the bottom, there was god.
There is a deep, profound and still growing spirituality in me, a connection not only to all life on our planet, but also to something outside that which we know to exist. But what’s the difference between spirituality and religion then? To me, it’s values versus rules. My spirituality provides values, but not rules. Values give birth to actions, and as long as ego doesn’t overrule them, the actions of a person with good values become good actions. But that voice inside, of the true self, is so hard to hear, and the illusion of being separate from the world turns the ego into this cartoonish devil in your head, its chatter drowning out out the voice of reason, which is the same as the voice of love, and the voice of now. And so, even though we are capable of choosing the kindest option in every moment (treating others as we would want to be treated ourselves), the corruption of a rampant ego makes us act selfish more often than not. This is where the negative connotations of the word egoistic come from.
Values give birth to actions, and most of us know the actions of a good person. We all want to be good persons. But we also want things fast, and so instead of spending time, finding our answers to questions which science by its very nature cannot answer, we create rules so that we know what a good person does and doesn’t do. Rules are a way of enforcing behavior, the behavior of, if not a good person, then at least a decent person. But rules are rigid. Actions are by their very nature dynamic.
Some try to enforce behavior that stems from deep spirituality. Religions do that a lot. It’s almost as if organized religions are afraid that most people really don’t have the values that derive from believing in god, and therefore try forcing the behavior of believers. Add to that the corruption of power and money, and you have the many (often contradicting) rules of organized religion, when all you really should need is the most basic one: treat others like you want to be treated by them.
Then, the nation state copies that system and calls the rules “laws”. This is why a courtroom and a church have the same layout. The priest and the judge are separated from the people, who sit in pews. Both pass judgment derived from a higher power. But laws are good, right? They give us a civilized society. Yes, laws are good. Until they’re not. If laws were always good, then a good action would never be illegal. There are plenty of examples of good, but unlawful actions.
The problems with rules is that as soon as you make one, that makes the most sense in the world, you will eventually need to make others, which in turn give birth to others, and you’ll end up with a law book, or a holy scripture, that requires a lot of study. Of course, we require people to study this, so they know how to be decent people. Take killing a human for example. I think most of you would agree that killing another person just feels wrong. It’s not the action of a decent person, let alone a good person. But what if it’s in self-defense? What if it’s an accident? What if the person who did it is mentally ill? Rules are tricky.
All of a sudden, I understand libertarians. And anarchists. They both want to get rid of as many laws and rules as possible. They want it in different ways and for different reasons, but their goals are the same, and I believe the rules and laws chafe because we shouldn’t have to regulate our true selves. Libertarians and anarchists want the system to end. They are met with resistance from the majority, because the majority understands that we are corrupt. So corrupt that we need rules and laws to behave like “a decent human being”.
So I am not religious, because I don’t have any rules other than the most basic one: be kind. Actually, my motto is “Be honest and do good shit. Be open, generous and connected.” but just like Leeloo Minai Lekarariba-Laminai-Tchai Ekbat De Sebat can be shortened down to Leeloo, you can shorten down my motto to “be kind”. I am not religious, but I am deeply spiritual. The thing with spirituality is that it is very similar to kindness. You can’t become kind from reading books, taking courses or watching movies. You can read books that tell you how it can be manifest, but just like good actions aren’t necessarily an indicator of good values, kind actions aren’t necessarily an indicator of kindness. But kind actions change you in a way that following the rules does not. You see, rules are almost always negative. You cannot do this. You shall not do that. And so you follow the rules, and you don’t do this or that, and yet you don’t feel like a good person. But acting kindly changes people around you. Soon, they will see you as a kind person, and when you feel brave enough to look at the real you, you will see that too. Each time you act kindly towards others, you will find it easier to act kindly towards yourself. Every time you act kindly, makes the next time that much easier. You just have to remember to do it often, and that’s the hard part. Once you feel kind, you find that kindness is a very effective patronus not only against narcissism, but also against fears. It comes really in handy when you’re about to face your fears.
Fears are the only thing that stands between you and pursuing your dreams. So, go dream, friend. Sleep well until you wake up.
Hello again, friend. Did you find the answer to the question I gave you? “What do you really believe?”. I did, but It took time, and a detour over transhumanism and the Singularity, before I arrived at now. Transhumanism is a life-philosophy of sorts, that mankind should use technology to enhance human minds and bodies. One of the biggest goals is “eliminate aging as a cause of death”. I was such a devout follower, so convinced that it would happen soon, that I stopped saving for retirement – what’s the point, if the system would collapse under all the centenarians who just kept on living way past their statistically calculated deaths. Mind you, I still believe humans will one day, perhaps soon, slow aging so that we can live seemingly forever. However, unless they also find a way to reverse time, we’ll all die eventually anyway, in the heat death of the universe. But that thought, that we could get eternal life through science became my patronus against the dementor that is fear of death. It didn’t just leave the area, it fled to another country. I think I was buying myself time to answer that question: “what do I really believe?”. I knew that the answer to it was the only thing that could slay my fear of non-existence.
Time is valuable. We all know it. Even the most corrupt person knows that “time is money”. An the most kind person gives give the gift of time. We have devalued that gift. The internet — the One Machine, as Kevin Kelly called it in his TED-talk— this Machine we see so much promise in, has left our office desks and home PCs and started to meld with our bodies as our devices first became portable, then wearable. Internet is in everyone’s smartphones, and everyone’s phone is in their hands, ready to serve up entertainment, information, even wisdom… and distraction from the mundane. Back when access to the internet was restricted to physical rooms equipped with a computer with an internet connection, the default state was offline. Today, the default state is online — as soon as our phones are on, we are within the reach of the Machine. The Machine is like a mindless giant that you can control with your time and attention. If you pay the wrong things time and attention, the Machine may well destroy you. But give the right things your two most precious resources, and it may lead you to the greatest of treasures.
Our smartphones look rather death-like to me. Like black slabs of aluminum and glass. Dystopian, black mirrors ready to relieve us of awkwardness, boredom, suffering, sadness. Of loneliness. We feel so connected as persons, yet we are so divided as human beings. We spend time documenting our experiences, our meals, our meetings, our adventures, creating a highlight reel of all the perfect moments in our lives, forgetting that every time we take out our smartphones, they make us aware of the moment and how perfect it is. Instead of being immersed in that moment, we share the perfection of it, chasing approval from others that yes, this really is a perfect moment. And when we look at everyone else’s highlight reels, we compare them to our raw footage with all the mistakes, the embarrassing moments, the shame, the inadequacies, the doubt. But maybe posting more highlights will convince others, and by extension ourselves that we, too, are perfect. So we keep our phones close at hand, ready to capture that next perfect moment we will experience. We still give the gift of time, but we aren’t fully present because part of our attention is in our phones. I’m sorry if I have tarnished your shiny image of the internet, but hey, we’re still using it, so high as the price may be, collectively we get our value’s worth even if we’re losing time.
I love science, but I believe that as we cut ties with religion in the wake of the scientific revolution, we lost touch with spirituality – the yin to the yang of science. I think the movie Contact captured this beautifully in the exchange between Jodie Foster, playing the role of our inner scientist, and Matthew McConaughey, playing the role of our inner spiritual:
“Did you love your father?”
“Your dad. Did you love him?”
“Yes, very much.”
I remember this dialogue by heart. It taught me that some things simply cannot be proven, they can only be experienced. It took twenty years for that wisdom to sink in.
Transhumanism allowed my old self, who only believed in what science could prove, to believe in eternal life. I was buying myself time, but most of the time, well, in hindsight, I didn’t spend it well. Instead of starting to look for answers to the hard questions, and putting time into things and people that really matter, I put time into escaping. I believed I had all the time, that I would never die, because I placed my bets on two horses in the race: transhumanism was one, the Singularity the other. If either won, so would I.
The Singularity movement is a belief that humanity will build a computer so intelligent (and conscious) that its intelligence surpasses that of all living humans. Now, that goal could also be achieved through a third world war, because the few surviving humans will soon be so demented from nuclear fallout, so that any still functioning Japanese high-tech toilet will be smarter than all of them together. It would be a fitting end to humanity. But the Singularity is a peaceful movement, and they want to achieve that by building an AI, or rather AGI, Artificial General Intelligence.
That AGI, in turn, will be able to build an AGI immensely smarter than itself, just like we built the first AGI although we’re dumber than it. Since it’s so much more intelligent, it will build it’s successor in almost no time. Sooner rather later, version 8 or so of the AGI, will know everything, be aware of everything. It will solve all our problems, and give us answers to all our questions, including those concerning aging and death, ushering in a veritable utopia. It’s the geek version of the concepts of god and heaven in one: we will build a machine that will give us all the answers, and keep us from dying, while providing anything we might desire. Mind you, this may well already have happened. Imagine a future where humans basically live forever and are able to get anything they can imagine at the press of a button. Literally anything. It’s like playing an immersive video game, like in Ready Player One, except the universe in this game truly is immense and you can experience anything it just like you experience the real world. You choose the genre, the script and your own role in any story. You can have a dinner party with Margaret Atwood, Keanu Reeves and Tim Urban (the guy who writes “Wait, but why?”), or a spit roast with Chris Pratt and Jake Gyllenhaal (I know I would, and I’m not talking about the kind that involves cooking). You can be any super hero you want to be. You can be the villain, although I would recommend you be careful with that. Villains are often angry, and we all know that anger leads to the dark side. But I believe Yoda was wrong about the irreversability of the dark path. You can always choose to turn back. Anyway, imagine living virtually forever and having access to such experiences at the press of a button. It would be exciting for the first hundred or thousand years, but eventually, you’d get bored and you’ll press the button thinking “surprise me!”.
Then you’ll realize you can experience the wildest things, but just like a video game on the easiest setting is boring to any gamer worth their salt, you’ll want a challenge. Nothing you can’t handle, of course, just enough to keep you occupied. You’ll start playing hardcore characters, those that only have one life and when they die you have to start over. Then you’ll have a brilliant idea: you can get anything, right? What if you played that game, with your own script and your own genre, but you add a twist: you’ll play a hardcore character and forget that you’re playing it. That way, losing your life becomes a real risk, adding the exhilaration of being near death. And right after that final moment, as you leave the game thinking you’ve died, you wake up and joke with your friends what an awesome session you just had, with the craziest experiences. Then you’ll dive in again to keep building this amazing multi-player existence called “the universe”. Eventually, the game of Universe you and your friends are playing becomes so advanced that you create another game of universe inside it. But good as that button is, it cannot override life, the energy on which all these Russian doll-like universes operate on, and life has a memory. And so we dream of all the other universes we exist in, and our dreams manifest as art. How else do you think Christopher Nolan came up with Inception? When I meet him outside this universe, I must remember to high-five him, his human avatar makes movies that are simply amazing.
While I do believe our universe is a construct made by us, I don’t believe our way there will be through the kind of AGI we are dreaming up today. You see, we have this view that we can create something that is immensely more intelligent than us because we have gotten intelligence wrong. It’s our egos’ fault. We got God wrong, corrupted god with power and money and believe ourselves to be the crown of creation. Intelligent beings created by a stupid environment. This is why randomness becomes important for natural science, since it requires some real freakish random event for a stupid environment to create intelligent beings. And since a stupid environment (whether you believe that to be the Universe, nature or the Earth) created us, we must be able to create something vastly more intelligent than us. Now, I believe we will be able to build an AGI one day, but it will not be more intelligent than us. Sure, from our current mechanical view of the universe, it will seem as if it’s super-duper-ultrea-extra-mega-intelligent, much it the mechanical view dictates that we’re vastly more intelligent than honey bees. But the answers to questions like “what happens after death?” don’t need a computer and intelligence. They just need a mind and some wisdom. And we are borns wise, we have just forgotten it as we became adults.
Let me give you an argument for why you already are wise: You know when you hear or read words of wisdom and you just go “of course!”? You don’t learn anything new in those words, because there is no new information in those quotes. Take this one for example: “You cannot be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you”. No new information, but a lot of wisdom. Wisdom is simply someone drawing new lines between dots you already know. It’s a reminder that you know this. So, you are already wise, you just need to be reminded of it. The more reminded you get, the things that make you go “of course!” make less and less sense to those who don’t remember yet, like “want is a growing plant whom the coat of have was never large enough to cover”. My moment of realization about what I really believe happens after death, was one of those “of course!” moments. I had forgotten, and as I long as I called myself an atheist – which I did for almost half my life – I couldn’t be reminded of them. But it didn’t matter. The beauty of the Church of the Singularity is that technology acts as the “no homo” of spiritually curious atheists. That, and “as long as the souls don’t touch”. The Church of Singularity offers a haven from having to really think about questions of death, and if you happen to do, you simply have a cookie, and when you’re finished eating it, you feel right as rain.
So I spent time and attention on understanding our world and our universe. One important part of our narrative about nature and the universe is what we call “the laws of nature”, and while natural sciences weren’t my favorite subject in school, as an adult I found myself reading about everything from biology to astrophysics. Werner Heisenberg was right when he said “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” But before I met god (and boy, is God a Mad Hatter!), I had to face my fear of not existing. I knew that a good way of dealing with fears is exposure therapy. It worked well enough on my fear of spiders. Now I no longer feel the need to kill it, kill it with fire.
But exposure therapy for not existing requires a leap of faith while you’re tripping on LSD. At least it did for me.
They say that the moment of enlightenment has to be instantaneous, but I’d say it’s more like finding a piece that connects two puzzles I’ve been building all my life, knowing them to be completely separate, only that piece connects them and makes them whole. Both are puzzles with a gazillion pieces, but the more you learn about each, the faster you can build it. Towards the end, the speed curve became exponential, I had one awakening after the other, each showing how the two puzzles connect and then, when I had it, I simply stopped existing. The particular piece of wisdom that started all this was a synchronicity initiated by me admitting to myself that I didn’t understand. You see, the problem of knowing too much is that it’s easy to believe yourself to know it all. And since you know so much, you end up being right more often than you are wrong, becoming a victim of confirmation bias. At least, that is what happened to me. I knew so much that my friends had a nickname for that part of me. In Swedish, the short version of Michael is Micke, and so my nickname became “Mickipedia”. This, of course, appealed to my ego. Who doesn’t want to know so much that your friends equate you with the most amazing source of knowledge we’ve collectively built so far? It was such a rare occurrence for me to admit to myself that I did not understand, that I remember this particular time well. It was Thursday, July 7th, 2016. I was looking for answers, and had discovered Syntheism, a movement for secular spirituality. I tried reading the book, and after finishing the first chapter I turned off my Kindle and thought to myself “If someone asked what this first chapter is about, I could not explain it to them. What is metaphysics anyway?”. Perhaps this moment was so historical to me not only because I admitted to myself that I didn’t understand, but also because I admitted it to others. I talked to people about forming a book circle around it, to help each other understand, when someone told me to look up Alan Watts on Youtube. I had heard that name before, but didn’t really associate it with anything. I searched for Alan Watts, and the first video that I watched became my “of course!” moment. It reminded me of what I already knew, and it was a perfect foreshadowing of the journey I was setting out on. I’d like to share it with you, perhaps it will remind you of something too:
When you’re ready to wake up, you’re going to wake up. And if you’re not ready, you’ re going to stay pretending that you’re just a ‘poor little me’. And since you’re all here engaged in this sort of inquiry and listening to this sort of lecture, I’ll assume that you’re all on the process of waking up. Or else you’re teasing yourselves with some kind of flirtation of waking up, which you’re not serious about. But I assume maybe you are not serious, but sincere that you are ready to wake up. So then, when you’re in the way of waking up, and realizing who you really are, what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call here and now. You are what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing. The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around, the real deep, down you IS the whole universe. So then, when you die, you’re not going to have to put up with everlasting non-existence, because that’s not an experience. A lot of people are afraid that when they die, they’re going to be locked up in a dark room forever, and sort of undergo that. But one of the most interesting things in the world — this is a yoga, this is a way of realization — try and imagine what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Think about that. Children think about that. It’s one of the great wonders of life. What will it be like to go to sleep and never wake up. And if you think long enough about that, something will happen to you. You’ll find out, among other things, that it will pose the next question to you: what was it like to wake up without never having gone to sleep? That was when you were born. You see, you can’t have an experience of nothing, nature abhors a vacuum. So after you’re dead the only thing that can happen is the same experience, or the same sort of experience as when you were born. In other words, we all know very well that after people die, other people are born. And they’re all you, only you can only experience it one at a time. Everybody is I, you all know you are you. And wheresoever beings exist throughout all galaxies, it doesn’t make any diferrence: you are all of them. And when they come into being, that’s you coming into being. You know that very well. Only you don’t have to remember the past in the same way you don’t have to know how to work your thyroid gland, or whatever else is in your organism. You don’t have to know how to shine the sun. You just do it. Like you breathe. Doesn’t it really astonish you that you are this fantastically complex thing and that you’re doing all of this and you never had any education in how to do it?
This particular piece of wisdom made the connection in my head. The moments of enlightenment made me feel that connection through and through. Balls to bones.
The fear of not existing was like a hydra. It was the fear of death, the fear of not being loved, the fear that this is all there is, the fear of not having control. Once I was ready to face it, I stopped existing for a while just to try it, and realized it was the purest bliss I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve done my fair share of MDMA to tell you that even your first trip in the most perfect setting imaginable is like holding a candle to the sun, compared to the bliss of not existing. In that state I understood the whole existence in that nothing needed understanding. In that state, I as I’ve known myself for all my conscious life, does not exist. Logic does not exist. Nothing exists, a nothing built out of one paradox upon another, forming the most beautiful illusion in existence. The most beautiful dream so vivid it may as well be called reality. I wish you such dreams, my friend. Until next time, sleep well, until you wake up.
So, you’re here despite the dangers? Good for you! If you have no clue what I’m talking about, I recommend you listen to the first episode. Or be a daredevil and don’t, it’s up to you.
Let’s continue down the rabbit hole, and find out where – and if – it ends, shall we? I think you may have an important question: who am I?
I’ve pondered that question a lot ever since I was born. It started with realizing that whenever I met people at, say, at a party, and they asked me “what do you do?” I almost always started the answer with “I am …” and then stated whatever title or position I held at the time. Had you met me two years ago and asked that question, I would most likely have answered “I am the head of innovation at a communications agency”. It’s absurd, really, that our job titles are not only what we do, they are who we are. But if I’m not my job title, then what am I? I could say that I’m a son, a brother, a friend, a husband (we’re not married yet, but English doesn’t have a good word that fits between boyfriend and husband. Swedish does: sambo. It’s short for “samboende”, which means living together. It’s not only a practical word, it’s also a legal term. You legally become sambo after living together for six months. It entails more rights and obligations than being partners, but fewer rights and obligations than being married. If I have to describe my relation to the the handsome, funny, loving, smart, caring man that I’ve spent almost seven years with, I’m rounding up to husband in English.). Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, I could say that I’m a son, a brother, a friend, a husband – but those words don’t describe me. They describe my relationship to different people.
I could ask you the same question: who are you? Who are you in every context imaginable? Whether it’s in the office at 10 am on a Monday, or at the club an early Sunday morning, Thanksgiving dinner with your family, or a weekend trip to Barcelona with your friends. There is a sameness to the person you are in all those contexts, but which words do you use to describe it? You could play it safe and say “I’m a person”, but are you, really? The word “person” comes from the Latin “persona” which in turn comes from the Greek “prosopon”, which means “mask”. Persona originally meant “mask”, referring to the mask worn by actors in a play. I’m trying hard not to be a person anymore. I learned not to be one in October, when I realized that the image in my mind of my own identity, was hollow due to being a person. It was an outline drawn by every person I’ve met. It was clearly recognizable as me, but it was the collective consciousness’ image of me. They couldn’t tell me what was inside, and since I never looked, neither could I. I had spent all my life