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Ten Guiding Principles

It’s harder than it sounds.


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Ryan Frowley

3 years ago | 8 min read

Ordinarily, when I talk about myself (and I do. A lot.) I try to find what might matter to others. Our lives are different, but our hearts are the same. Nothing human is alien.

But Rosennab tagged me in a challenge she received from Rasheed Hooda to write about ten guiding principles I follow. Ten sounds like a lot. But I have the garden to myself in the rain, and I can’t stand a blank page. So here we go.

First, do no harm

Primum non nocere, if you want to be pretentious about it. Normally used as part of medical ethics, this is an optimal rule for living with others.

Before performing any action, we ought to think about what harm it may cause. To other people. To other forms of life. To the planet we live on.

The goal is not to be harmless. Just by existing, we are all dangerous in our own ways. We need to be. It’s a rough world, and one where the only way for one life form to eat is for another to die. The unarmed let the armed build Auschwitz.

No matter where you stand, you’re going to cast a shadow. The trick is to pick a spot that does as little harm as possible, and then stand in the light you were born for.

Everything is connected

We breathe the same air Caesar breathed. We drink dinosaur piss. The universe is a closed system when nothing is ever destroyed. It only transforms.

Knowing this, that the atoms in your body make you a relative of the distant stars above, makes it possible to see the invisible connections between everything. The dandelion on your lawn is part of the same story as the hordes of Genghis Khan or the poetry of Rumi or the glorious death of Cassiopeia. Look closely enough at anything, and the story of the whole world unfolds. The earth and everything in it shine reflected in a single drop of rain.

None of this is real

It feels like it is. We tend to think it must be. After all, what about our money? Our possessions? Our lives? If I put out my hand, I can feel the warm surface of the table beside me. It must be real.

Not really. We can only experience the world through our senses, and it takes time for electrical signals to travel along the twisting path of our nerves. Sometimes, we are a full quarter of a second behind reality.

And our senses are painfully limited. Most of what exists is completely invisible to us. We don’t hear what bats can or see what flies do. Everything we know is just a tiny strip of what’s actually there, the grand throne room we can only glimpse through the keyhole of a locked door.

We don’t live in the world as it is, but in a mental construct cobbled together from what our inadequate senses tell us. It’s no real than any other dream.

No kings, no gods, no masters

I grew up in a monarchy, albeit not one with any real power. I grew up in a religion that copies its ritual and monarchical sensibilities from Byzantium and Babylon. I grew up under the shadow of spurious authority that I was supposed to believe in.

I don’t consent to be ruled. Not by kings and not by fairytales. Every creature that rises under the sun is born free. To bend the knee, to a crowned head or a mythological symbol, is a rejection of what we are.

All we will ever own in our time on the earth is our thoughts and the meat we’re made of. Any person or any idea that claims more than that has already started out on the road to tyranny.

Style over everything

Nothing about me is new. I have my grandfather’s nose, my mother’s eyes, my father’s hairline. Genetically, I’m a variation on a theme, a slight reordering of the same old ingredients.

There’s nothing I can say that’s truly original. I’ll never have a thought in my head that hasn’t been thought before. Only the very greenest of writers are concerned with originality, terrified of their great idea being stolen.

But you can’t steal what nobody owns.

The only thing that really interests me about people is how they express the ideas and feelings they have. It’s not the ideas that are unique, but the way we come to them. What’s most precious in the language of Shakespeare or the ideas of Plato is not what the author intended, but what the audience receives.

Ours is the most literate culture in history. But we’re told to write as though we all suffered a head injury. I disagree. If you can’t say something with style, it’s better not to say anything at all.

The Roman Emperor Nero murdered his mother and both of his wives. He used live Christians as torches to light the streets at night. He cheated at the Olympics. Finally deposed and forced to flee Rome, he killed himself. His last words were, “What an artist dies with me!”

He was a terrible human being. But clearly, he had style.

Life is a game

Like the unoriginal cliché I am, I like to watch sports. But whenever I watch millionaires chase a ball around, I never fail to notice that no one looks like they’re having a good time. It’s life or death out there on the field, even though we all know it doesn’t really matter. The joy of the game is in pretending that it does.

All of us will die and be forgotten. Even Shakespeare. Even Nero. In as little as 100 years, everything you ever worried about will pass from the earth forever.

In the Italian town I lived in for a while, there was a Roman milestone we would pass on the way to the supermarket. It wasn’t protected. It wasn’t admired. Such things are far too common in Italy to merit special appreciation.

The Old Man, the Haircut, and the Four Days of Naples

Google Translate won’t help you here.

medium.com

But as I passed, I would think about the tradesman who carved it thousands of years ago. Maybe he was excited to get the government contract. Maybe he was training his son to take over the business one day. Maybe he had bad teeth or an ulcer. Maybe his wife was sick. His head would’ve been a steady buzz of hopes and fears and dreams, just like ours.

The stone he made is still there. But everyone and everything he worried about has vanished. So finally and completely that it may as well never have existed at all.

We are part of the process

Every atom in your body was formed in the Big Bang. Every part of you has existed since the beginning of time. It’s only the forms that change, not the raw material.

And chances are, not one of those atoms will ever be destroyed. Instead, they just move, recombining with others in different forms. The colored sand of a mandala, easily wiped away.

There is only one law in the universe, and it’s the law of change. Not even stars live forever. It’s all flying apart, all the time. It’s all miraculous.

Our brief inglorious lives are just part of a process that began billions of years ago and will go on for billions of years more. There’s more grandeur and majesty in that than any chanted prayer.

All of our demons are gods in different light

No matter how little harm you try to do, you’re going to be the bad guy in someone’s story.

We mythologize our lives. We pick sides in the battle of good and evil and insist that good must win. But the glory of life is the struggle. Eyes that don’t see darkness can’t recognize light.

We all have our shadows. The nasty parts of ourselves we would like to ignore. But sometimes, our darkest sides are our best. The monster always protects the temple door. It takes a demon to break through the fortress our minds can become.

How to Live With The Shadow

Shadow work isn’t easy. But the reward is a life fully realized.

medium.com

To participate in the sorrow of the world joyfully is the great challenge of human existence. To live your life knowing that your gods can easily become demons. And vice versa. The things that torment you, haunt you, rob you of your joy and strength, maybe the very essence of who you are. They may be the best thing about you.

It’s easy to miss it all

I write this as though I’m some wise philosopher, as though I’ve peered into the hidden heart of existence. But that’s not how I live.

The world makes its demands on us. We need food. We need shelter. For that, we need money. Therefore, we need to work. Everything seems designed, deliberately or not, to distract us from reality. The bills. The car maintenance. Familial obligations. TPS reports.

All of these things claim our attention. That doesn’t make them inherently bad. The trouble is, our lives are nothing more than what we choose to give our attention to. When you live on a treadmill, you will quickly find a whole lifetime can pass by while you were looking elsewhere.

Live like you

Comedian Doug Stanhope tells a story about a soccer player who was hired by the NFL back in the 60s to teach players how to kick the ball. He didn’t know he was a genius, Stanhope says. He just didn’t want to embarrass himself kicking in the awkward, stiff-legged way NFL players did at the time.

He kicked the way he kicked. Instead of conforming to the way every else did it. And now, everybody kicks like him.

People are basically stupid. Some are kind and some are cruel, but few of us are actively malevolent. We’re all just trying to survive a world we don’t understand. Ignorant apes squinting down the barrel of a loaded gun, unable to understand what we’re looking at.

So when some other ape tells you that you shouldn’t do what you want, that your ideas are foolish, that your dreams aren’t worth chasing, ignore them. None of us know anything about anything. Live your life knowing it’s totally, completely, fully yours, and not for anyone else to dispose of as they see fit.

There is no meaning to life other than what we bring to it. That’s what life means. So go out and live your life, not somebody else’s. Disregard anyone who tells you to do it differently. Especially me.

This article was originally published on medium

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