Category: Meaningful lives

Jumping on a grenade: To become a hero you have to think beyond self-interest

19th December 1941 Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn showcased the ultimate limits of human heroism As his group became divided from the main battalion in the hills of Hong Kong and had to withdraw against an overwhelming enemy he stayed behind to single-handedly engage the enemy while others ran to safety. After joining the others they soon found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Several enemy grenades were thrown towards them but the soldiers picked them up and threw back. Suddenly, a grenade landed in a position where it was impossible to return it in time. To protect his troops, Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade. He was killed instantly.

There are many lessons to be learned from this dramatic real-life story. One of them is about human motivation. All too often we hear people saying that people are motivated solely by their own happiness. That human beings are self-interested creatures whose every single act contributes towards their own well-being. It would be quite absurd – and dishonoring – to say that John Robert Osborn was motivated by self-interestedness when jumping on the grenade. Instead we should see that he was moved by something that he considered to be so worthwhile that he was willing to sacrifice his life for it.

Many people love to debate about whether human beings are essentially egoistic or altruistic creatures. In my opinion the whole distinction is founded on a mistake. The mistake is to think that altruistic behavior must be something which is against your personal motives. Instead we human beings can be motivated by many different things, some more related to our own well-being while others are more about the well-being of others. Osborn’s case was not an isolated incident. There are several recorded incidents of similar deeds of saving your comrades by sacrificing yourself. Less dramatic acts of self-sacrifice are a significant part of everyone’s life.

So instead of this imaginary polarization between two opposing positions the real question is this: To what extent a certain person is motivated by his own well-being and to what extent by some wider concerns? Some people lean more towards egoistic end of the continuum while others are more able to take others into account. Test here where you are located.

How egoistic or altruistic we are is largely determined by our cultural upbringing. Some cultures put more emphasis on self-interest while others learn children to value more the perspective of the others. In this regard there haven’t been many cultures during the course of human history that would have emphasized more egoism and self-regard than the current western culture. The catch is here: The way we see ourselves and others is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the politicians, economists, media and we all as individuals talk about human beings as rational and strictly self-interested, the more we become such cold and calculating creatures. And the more we have to suppress our natural tendency for empathy and regard for others. No wonder economy students demonstrate the least other-regarding behavior in tests.

Yet despite this cultural propaganda to behave egoistically all of us transcend the limitations of such a selfish lifestyle and demonstrate remarkable deeds of acting in the name of the well-being of those around us. When the situation calls for it there are greater capacities for other-regarding behavior in us than most of us would ever imagine. John Robert Osborn’s act is a testimony for this.

By emphasizing such acts and the general human capacity for empathy we can strengthen the other-regarding tendencies in our society and in our own lives. Therefore the most essential question as regards egoism and altruism is this: In what direction do you want to develop yourself and those around you?

Statue of John Robert Osborn19th December 1941 Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn showcased the ultimate limits of human heroism As his group became divided from the main battalion in the hills of Hong Kong and had to withdraw against an overwhelming enemy he stayed behind to single-handedly engage the enemy while others ran to safety. After joining the others they soon found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Several enemy grenades were thrown towards them but the soldiers picked them up and threw back. Suddenly, a grenade landed in a position where it was impossible to return it in time. To protect his troops, Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade. He was killed instantly.

There are many lessons to be learned from this dramatic real-life story. One of them is about human motivation. All too often we hear people saying that people are motivated solely by their own happiness. That human beings are self-interested creatures whose every single act contributes towards their own well-being. It would be quite absurd – and dishonoring – to say that John Robert Osborn was motivated by self-interestedness when jumping on the grenade. Instead we should see that he was moved by something that he considered to be so worthwhile that he was willing to sacrifice his life for it.

Many people love to debate about whether human beings are essentially egoistic or altruistic creatures. In my opinion the whole distinction is founded on a mistake. The mistake is to think that altruistic behavior must be something which is against your personal motives. Instead we human beings can be motivated by many different things, some more related to our own well-being while others are more about the well-being of others. Osborn’s case was not an isolated incident. There are several recorded incidents of similar deeds of saving your comrades by sacrificing yourself. Less dramatic acts of self-sacrifice are a significant part of everyone’s life.

So instead of this imaginary polarization between two opposing positions the real question is this: To what extent a certain person is motivated by his own well-being and to what extent by some wider concerns? Some people lean more towards egoistic end of the continuum while others are more able to take others into account. Test here where you are located.

How egoistic or altruistic we are is largely determined by our cultural upbringing. Some cultures put more emphasis on self-interest while others learn children to value more the perspective of the others. In this regard there haven’t been many cultures during the course of human history that would have emphasized more egoism and self-regard than the current western culture. The catch is here: The way we see ourselves and others is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the politicians, economists, media and we all as individuals talk about human beings as rational and strictly self-interested, the more we become such cold and calculating creatures. And the more we have to suppress our natural tendency for empathy and regard for others. No wonder economy students demonstrate the least other-regarding behavior in tests.

Yet despite this cultural propaganda to behave egoistically all of us transcend the limitations of such a selfish lifestyle and demonstrate remarkable deeds of acting in the name of the well-being of those around us. When the situation calls for it there are greater capacities for other-regarding behavior in us than most of us would ever imagine. John Robert Osborn’s act is a testimony for this.

By emphasizing such acts and the general human capacity for empathy we can strengthen the other-regarding tendencies in our society and in our own lives. Therefore the most essential question as regards egoism and altruism is this: In what direction do you want to develop yourself and those around you?

Statue of John Robert Osborn

Meaningful lives: José Angel – a seventeen-year-old with a dream

What are you going to do when you grow up, I asked the 17 years old José Angel in the remote countryside village of Lagartillo in Northern Nicaragua. What I got for an answer was an enthusiastically delivered two-hour long lecture about the revolutionary history of Nicaragua and how radios played a central role in this process. He wanted to join this historical chain and study media communications to become a host of his own political radio show in the future. His performance left me energized and thinking how enormous impact such young people with a calling can have for the future of a country.

José Angel

In his book The Path to Purpose, William Damon argues that the best thing that can happen to a young person is to find her or his calling: ”This clarity of purpose generates in them a prodigious amount of extra positive energy, which not only motivates them to pursue their goals passionately but also to acquire the skills and knowledge they need for this task. In the process, they become very good learners; and they develop a practical effectiveness unusual for people their age.”

Here I was listening to a living example of Damon’s argument. A young person whose life was not revolving around himself and his immediate gratifications. Unlike most western 17-year-olds – the past me included – whose long-term visions meant asking where is the party next Saturday this guy was carried forward with a passion to make a difference. This didn’t mean that he would turn a blind eye to the delights of the youth either – from his tales I understood that his enthusiasm was well received by many girls – but simply that his life had a purpose that reached beyond simple hedonistic pleasures.

Even the language barrier couldn’t stop him from delivering his lecture. He told how his grandparents – along with the majority of the population – had been illiterate and how his grandfather had listened to a clandestino radio station during the Somoza dictatorship. He told how these revolutionary radio stations had delivered education to the villages, told news that the dictator tried to hide, mobilized people to counter the regime and encouraged their spirits by playing revolutionary songs. He told how the revolution finally succeeded, but also about the problems that his country encountered during the following years. Nevertheless, he had great faith in the current government. With a zest he told what good things the government had brought to this village during the last few years, most important being 24 hour electricity and a secondary school.

José Angel and family

For him it was clear that if his home country wanted to carry this torch of development into the future, the engagement of young people into the local and nation-wide politics was the key. They must be educated to understand the importance of the political process in making the world a better place. He didn’t want his fellow youngsters to turn into passive and selfish idlers for whom the high-point of life is winning the NHL tournament on PlayStation and whose horizon is narrowed to include only me, myself and I. He wanted to make a difference by helping young people in his home-country to find a cause beyond themselves.

As said his own recipe for contributing to this development was radio. He wanted to study media communications in the university and after that host a radio show of his own in which he educates people about the political matters and plays Nicaraguan songs that promote the revolution. His own grandfathers liberation from ignorance started from listening to radio. He wanted to offer the same opportunity for the generations to come.

Throughout his tale I kept coming back to wondering how dramatically different his appearance was compared to an average seventeen-year-old in my youth. We were not interested in great causes, we were interested in who could buy us the alcohol for the weekends party and if some specific girls were coming there. Future meant for us studying and building a successful career. Pleasures in the short term, success in the long term, those were our goals. In other words, our lives revolved around ourselves and the satisfaction of our personal needs. He had found something better.

Naturally, there will be many people who will tell him that his dream is not worth fighting for. They will tell him that radio is a media of the past, nowadays TV is the only media that matters. They will tell him that his ideals and his understanding of the Nicaraguan politics are naïve. When he enters the university he will surely encounter many objections against his political ideals and his ideas of fulfilling them. These objections and the acquired knowledge will surely more or less redirect his calling into new directions. So it might very well be that he never realizes his vision as it stands today.

What I am sure about, however, is that these encounters will not take away the wave of positive energy that carries him forward. And wherever such a great concentration of willpower is heading at, there will be those who want to support him and there will be significant results. His goals might change along the way but I am sure that the new ones will be as filled with meaning as the present one. He is heading towards a meaningful existence – a life that is dedicated to making the world a better place through the means that he finds most fitting for himself. What greater blessing could a young person have?

José Angel playing the guitar

Meaningful lives: Gioconda Belli – a poet, a revolutionary, a lover and a mother

At twenty she was a bourgeois upperclass girl, married and with one child, living just the kind of ordinary life that was expected of her. At twenty-four she had published an award-winning book of poetry that shocked with its erotic imagery – and was tailed by secret police because she had joined Sandinistas, a rebellious underground organization working to overthrow the dictatorship. In her autobiography she describes intimate conversations with poets and political leaders such as Fidel Castro, who took an interest in her, – and intimate love affairs with guerrilla warriors cut short by death. The Nicaraguan Gioconda Belli (born 1949) has lived quite an extraordinary life. It almost seems that she has lived a few separate lives and in fact that was what she herself felt from time to time.

Hers is a life of opposites: Combining undercover revolutionary activities and love affairs with guerrillas with motherly responsibilities of taking care of small children is a hard task. But she couldn’t help to notice how irresistible a strong man with a mission and with death written on his forehead can be. At one point she tells about how she made love to a guerrilla warrior called Marcos – who was gunned down in the backseat of a car a few years after – and how before lovemaking on the cold, hard floor of his hideout he ”placed the gun and the case with the hand grenade against the wall”. Marcos wants her to stay the night but she refuses because she has to tend her daughters. And half an hour after this passionate and secret love scene she is again the bourgeois mother cuddling with her daughters.

Gioconda Belli

Reading her autobiography it becomes clear that what made all the difference to her life was the fact that Gioconda Belli is that relatively rare kind of person who thrives strongly on meaningfulness. In her twenties she realized that her desire for meaningful existence is so overwhelming that she is willing to jeopardize everything she has – her family life and even her own life – in her pursuit for it. When she is about to join the clandestine Sandinista movement she backs up a few times because of being afraid of the very real consequences. But then, ”all of a sudden, I realized I was on the verge of closing a door that was my only way into a more meaningful existence.” She gathers her courage and takes a step out of the bourgeois life, into the life-threatening world of a revolutionary movement within a dictatorship.

Because of her bourgeois public image she becomes the courier who passes important messages from one part of the organization into another. The life of a rebel is hard, many were the companions that suddenly were killed and whom she had to grief in secret in order to not reveal herself. And these losses hurt:

”At some point I fell apart, and began weeping in despair. The intensity of the pain startled me – it was as if one of my own brothers had died, someone close that I loved and not a person I barely knew. That was when I understood how strong the bond between those of us who were in the struggle was: we were a team, a unit.”

This was when she learned about the killing of Ricardo Morales Avilés and Oscar Turcios, persons she had only met briefly a few times. Later on she would loose a man she passionately loved. That pain stayed with her for years.

Despite its dangers, the rewards this lifestyle gave made it impossible to stop. The bond with the organization was so strong, participation in the revolution filled one’s existence with such a insurmountable sense of purpose, direction and meaningfulness that it justified all the sacrifices. At some points even she herself was baffled by how deeply she had connected her faith and identity with the revolutionary cause:

”Were we all mad? What mystery in human genes accounted for the fact that men and women could override their personal survival instincts when the fate of the tribe or the collective was at stake? What was it that enabled people to give their lives for an idea, for the freedom of others? Why was the heroic impulse so strong? What I found most bewildering and extraordinary was the real happiness and fulfillment that came along with commitment. Life acquired unequivocal meaning, purpose, and direction. It was a sensation of complete, utter complicity, a visceral, emotional bond with hundreds anonymous faces, an intimacy of multitudes in which any feeling of loneliness or isolation simply evaporated. In the struggle for everyone’s happiness, the first happiness one found was one’s own.”

There are many ways to go through the human existence. Martin Seligman separates between three forms of happy life: The pleasant life, where one chases after pleasures and happy emotions; a life of engagement where one’s existence is filled with some activities into which one is absorbed; and a meaningful life where one has a sense of working towards goals that transcend oneself. Of these three, the last-mentioned provides most solid forms of happiness according to Seligman. And if one wants to learn what this meaningful existence is all about, I can’t think of a much better book than Gioconda Belli’s autobiography ’The Country Under My Skin – A Memoir of Love and War’. In her life the innate search for meaningful existence is combined with a unique historical situation provided by the revolutionary movement to follow those instincts to the max – and an ability to carefully reflect the psychological landscapes in which these desires for purpose dwelled.

SandinistaVictory

What we learn from Belli is that if you have a change to find a purpose you could believe in, a cause you can strongly identify with, values you are willing to sacrifice your life for, then be prepared: Chasing them can lead to unimaginable forms of fulfillment and happiness. The highpoint of Belli’s life as a revolutionary is encountered in 1979 when the freedom fighters had taken control of the capital and the dictator had fled. After living in exile for four years and using her time to handle press relations and gather international support for the Sandinistas, Gioconda Belli was finally able to return to her beloved home country, to the streets of Managua:

”And so we began yelling out ’Freedom’ as loud as we could … People responded ’or death’ completing the Sandinista war cry they were all so familiar with. … That cry was now a symbol of victory, of the courage that had brought about that hot day when freedom finally showed its face in the streets of my city for the first time in half a century … I will never forget the eagerness, the hope, the joyous optimism of those faces. All the grief, tears, everything I had lived through had been worthwhile if only to live through this moment. What more could I ask than to bear witness to so much happiness? What had been the goal of all our efforts, if not these smiles? Whatever existential doubts one had disappeared right here. This was our life’s purpose: to see others smile, to take human joy to its full potential.”

Meaningful lives: Pablo Neruda – enriching our capability to appreciate the beauty in life

What can we learn about good living from Pablo Neruda, the greatest Latin American poet? Reading his autobiography I argue that at least for me the most important lesson is about learning to embrace the richness and beauty of life. From the way he depicts his life-story one can’t fail to see that here is a person who finds tremendous beauty in whatever he happens to encounter. Be it some person he meets or a snail shell he finds on a beach, Neruda is able to have his eyes open wide enough to capture the beauty that is inherent in it. When Neruda let his passion run free ”everything is seen in its best light, everything has value, everything deserves to be the subject of a poem”, as Strand so aptly puts it in the New Yorker. To let the poet speak for himself, here is Neruda getting ecstatic about a stamp album:

Album of perfect stamps!

Butterflies,
ships,
sea shapes, corollas,
leaning towers,
dark eyes, moist and
round as grapes,
album
smooth
as
a
slippery
fish,
with thousands
of glistening
scales,
each page
a
racing
charger
in search of
distant pleasures, forgotten
flowers!

[– –]

Insatiable
spiral,
comet’s tail
of all earth’s
highways,
dictionary
of the wind,
starstruck album
bulging
with noble
fruits and territories,
treasure keeper
sailing
on its treasure,
garnet
pomegranate,
nomadic
stamp album!

Yellow street corner

Neruda’s autobiography starts with an exalted description of the Chilean forest. He describes its small details and smells, how ”the wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being.” In describing his encounters with nature words such as ”euphoric”, ”fascination” and ”miracle” are lined one after the other. He exclaims that if one wants to understand himself and his poetry one must understand where he came from; how he and the land were united: ”I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”

Neruda extended the same enthusiasm that nature received also to the people he met. The book is filled with small odes to the greatness of certain poets, artists and politicians that Neruda had the honor of crossing paths with. As only one example, in describing his late friend and colleague Paul Eluard (in a section entitled ’Eluard the Magnificent’) he closes with the following words: ”Tower of France, brother! I lean over your closed eyes, they will go on giving me the light and the greatness, the simplicity and the honesty, the goodness and naturalness you sowed on earth.” I stopped counting how many times Neruda exclaimed how – sometimes after a brief meeting – he and someone he met became dear friends for lifetime.

All in all, his autobiography itself is not a chronological recounting of the major points of his life but rather a collection of small stories and snapshots from here and there along the path he walked. Small moments of beauty, encounters filled with wonder, tiny bits that make human life so beautiful. I guess that this was the only way a person like Neruda could write his memoirs.

Reading Neruda I feel myself to be an engineer cursed with the gift of ’concentrating on the essentials’; only taking into account the facts that matter and ignoring everything else. This might be an effective strategy when one wants to build a bridge or an airplane. But living one’s life in a way where all the unnecessary stuff is extracted out will miss out so much beauty in the world. Concentrating on the important facts might lead one effectively from one place to another. But life itself is not so much about getting from A to B than it is about enjoying the trip itself. And in here, embracement rather than ignorance of detail is the recipe.

What is thus the most standing legacy of Neruda’s life is the way he reminds all of us how beautiful even the small details of life can be – if we just watch them with eyes wide open. As Mark Strand writes: ”There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets.” The best way to make one’s life experience more aesthetic is to understand that richness of observation is as much the feature of the eye as it is a feature of the world. When we learn to look at the world in the right way, we can find beauty even in a plastic bag.

Watching football

Neruda found his gift of appreciating the beauty of life early on: ”Along endless beaches or thicketed hills, a communion was started between my spirit – that is, my poetry – and the loneliest land in the world. This was many years ago, but that communion, that revelation, that pact with the wilderness, is still a part of my life.” We should make the same pact with the world promising to remain open for the beauty of it all to flow in. We should enrich our lives through embracing the inherent beauty of the world.

I’ll let the master himself close this post, describing how he felt when he wrote his very first poem:

And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
void,
likeness, image of
mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.