Lesson #1 and #2 To Live Instead of Merely Existing

If you haven’t read Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, go and read it now. Done? Awesome. So, the chapter that I like the most, was #5, when Billy meets the Englishmen. 

The Englishmen were clean and enthusiastic and decent and strong. They sang boomingly well. They had been singing together every night for years.

The Englishmen had also been lifting weights and chinning themselves for years. Their bellies were like washboards. The muscles of their calves and upper arms were like cannonballs. They were all masters of checkers and chess and bridge and cribbage and dominoes and anagrams and charades and Ping-Pong and billiards, as well. They were among the wealthiest people in Europe, in terms of food. A clerical error early in the war, when food was still getting through to prisoners, had caused the Red Cross to ship them five hundred parcels every month instead of fifty. The Englishmen had hoarded these so cunningly that now, as the war was ending, they had three tons of sugar, one ton of coffee, eleven hundred pounds of chocolate, seven hundred pounds of tobacco, seventeen hundred pounds of tea, two tons of flour, one ton of canned beef, twelve hundred pounds of canned butter, sixteen hundred pounds of canned cheese, eight hundred pounds of powdered milk., and two tons of orange marmalade. They kept all this in a room without windows. They had rat proofed it by lining it with flattened tin cans. They were adored by the Germans, who thought they were exactly what the Englishmen ought to be. They made war look stylish and reasonable, and fun. — Kurt Vonnegut

In comparison to the Americans portrayed in the book by Vonnegut, the Englishmen didn’t lose their sense of decency. Not even at war. All the contrary, they believed that the sense of decency was what kept them alive, and not only alive, but alive and well, alive and proud, happy to be there.

Rule #1 Engagement

Life can be entirely fucked sometimes. It has been for many people. Some examples are Viktor Frankl, surviving Auschwitz, and the Holocaust. James Stockdale, as a POW during the Vietnam war. And you. I’m sure life hasn’t been all rose-colored for you all the time, but here you are. We all have gone through periods of personal wars. 

Life is full of troubles and contradictions. You want to thrive, you know that. You want to be Achilles fighting valiantly in the Trojan War and even laughing at your enemies while doing so, you want to be Perseus cutting the head of Medusa, you want to be Link ending Ganondorf. But at the same time, you want to lose and fail. Your body tells you that it’s tired and that it doesn’t want to exercise. Your mind doesn’t want to study and learn new things that would probably get you to unimaginable places. At the same time, your comfort zone wants you to stay stagnant doing nothing. Your fears trap you with their tentacles in the same old situation, pushing you down, farther and farther into the abyss. 

This is why rule #1 is engagement. Life cannot be lived involuntarily, the decision must come from you, no one else will live life for you. It also needs to be a holistic decision. That being, you need not embrace purely the comfortable and the nice parts of life, but all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

The Englishmen from Kurt’s story knew that. That’s why they trimmed their beards and exercised, and sang along together every night, always preparing for war. Because at the moment you stop engaging, you die. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose your battles, what matters is that you willingly engage in them. 

“What the Englishman said about survival was this: “If you stop taking pride in your appearance, you will very soon die.” He said that he had seen several men die in the following way: “They ceased to stand up straight, then ceased to shave or wash, then ceased to get out of bed, then ceased to talk, then died. There is this much to be said for it: it is evidently a very easy and painless way to go.” So it goes.”― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

So it goes, Amor Fati. Engage and meet your destiny with a smile, or else… 

Truly Living

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”― Oscar Wilde

Who are those rare souls that actually live instead of merely exist? 

The ones that engage. You cannot say yes or no to the different aspects of life. You must say yes to everything. The people that actually live are the people who willingly engage in their battles and morph themselves to what is needed at each moment, like water. 

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

So, it’s settled then, you want to be amongst the living, right? 

This leads me to the second part of this post. Now that you’ve made the decision, now that you’re engaged, we need to make sure you’re placing your effort in the right place. 

So I need to ask you a question:

Are you constructing yourself, or are you discovering yourself? 

The constructed self — VS —  the discovered self

“Is [our] self-concept based upon our job title, income level, physical attributes, age, educational level, the present location of [our] home, the car [we] drive, or having important friends?” — Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage

If your answer to the previous question was yes, then you’re constructing yourself. This poses a problem. If your sense of identity comes from external factors such as your job title and your income level, then every time this gets taken away from you, your sense of identity will shatter. 

This will not do. You need something stronger, something inside of yourself, something that cannot be taken from you. Your will. 

“The ordinary man places his life’s happiness in things external to him, in property, rank, wife and children, friends, society, and the like, so that when he loses them or finds them disappointing, the foundation of his happiness is destroyed. In other words, his center of gravity is not in himself; it is constantly changing its place, with every wish and whim. — Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life

Life will throw many things at you. You need to be swift like water and be able to change according to the situation. 

While constructing your life outside of yourself should not be disregarded you still need to achieve and do your deeds in the world, you shouldn’t place your main focus there. Your focus is way better located in the discovery of yourself and your stance against or with the world. This way, you’ll be constantly adapting to what a situation demands of you and learning and discovering yourself through life. You’ll be better suited for responding to your environment. And in the process, you’ll become more and more yourself. Uniquely you. 

You’ll also want to be rational about this. What can you control? Your money? Your social stance? Your reputation? Nope. Sure, you can influence them, but you cannot control them. With a life of discovery, in which you switch the external compass for the internal, you’ll be focusing on the only thing that you can actually control, your will. 

What values do you find important? Engage with the world in a way that puts those values outside and to the test. Live for those values, and live instead of merely existing. 

Like the Englishmen, who thought their sense of decency so important. In your life, what values and standards do you find so important as to die for it? Remember it and live by those standards all the time. 

Wrapping up

First, engage, make the decision to live, difficulties, and all. Second, like the Englishmen, discover what you find important, and live according to those values. This way, you’ll live a fulfilling life, either on war or peace, and you’ll be proud of yourself, ready to leave this earth, knowing that you lived by what matters. 

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself, and if they will not adapt to me, I adapt to them.” — Montaigne, Of Presumption

Thanks for reading, 

Ricardo Guaderrama

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