Category: Good Living

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

Crossing the world to find yourself: How to use traveling as a tool for personal growth

In the Tortuga Boluuda hostel in Léon, Nicaragua, I was examining a Land Rover Defender parked outside when an English gentleman arrived on the scene. It turned out that he and his wife were on a two year long car trip around the world that had already taken them through the whole Asia and was now taking them through America from north to south. I saw the opportunity and immediately asked what such a long trip had learned them about good living. The most important lesson was clear: Traveling changes your worldview, whether you want it or not. They had experienced it themselves and everyone they had met who had done a similar trip told the same. Are you prepared to change? Would you like to use traveling as a tool for your personal growth?

The vehicle of the couple. Picture from their web page. Learn more about their travel on goingoverland.com

The gentleman explained that by living in your home country you learn to look at the world through the lenses provided by that culture. The people around you condition you to look at the world in a certain way. You acquire the feeling that certain forms of behavior are normal and acceptable while certain others are not. This is what changes when you travel long enough. You become aware of other ways to look and evaluate the world around you. As a mundane example the gentleman told how in Kazakhstan the public toilets lacked doors:

So there he was, sitting in the toilet with his pants down when a local farmer with a donkey passed by. The Englishman looked at the farmer, the farmer looked back at him, and he felt that this was totally normal. Back in Britain the same scene would have felt extremely embarrassing.

To use traveling as a tool for your internal growth three conditions have to be met:

Firstly, any deeper change of worldview requires time. A week or two is not enough because you carry your cultural package wherever you go. Only through time you learn to gradually look beyond it in interpreting the behavior of others. This is why everyone should at least once in their life live amongst a culture that is not their own. One doesn’t have to take such a ambitious trip that spans all continents to achieve that, it is enough to stay put in some other country preferably a bit further away from home. More important than the location is time, the longer you stay the deeper insight you achieve about the new culture – and through that of your own culture.

Secondly, one needs some courage, the gentleman told. When you step outside your worldview and examine it critically you simultaneously step outside of your comfort zone. It can be quite a painful experience to learn that something you have believed in and based your life decisions on isn’t so certain after all. Abandoning your deeply-held beliefs is hard. To achieve that you have to have enough strength of character. Otherwise you easily fall into a defensive state where you blind yourself from seeing what could be detrimental in your current worldview and furiously defend it against all differing ways of living.

Thirdly, you need to expose yourself to the real life of the country you are in. It is perfectly possible to travel around the world without leaving the comforts of western living behind. One can take sunbaths in a gated resort on the coast of Tansania feeling lucky that the realities of the poor life of the local people is out of sight. But this kind of disneyland-traveling doesn’t learn you anything. What you need to do is to step outside the tourist traps and encounter the local way of living. Visit their homes, walk around in their farms, eat with them. Only in meetings with ordinary people does genuine cultural exchange occur.

The gentleman told also another perhaps even more revealing example of how important the skill to interpret situations from the perspective of the other is. This time the scene took place in Honduras:

The couple had camped in the jungle near a village where indigenous Mizkito people lived in very rural conditions. Driven by curiosity the local kids had come to look at them and befriended them. The couple was eating and the kids asked for food so they gave a little food for the kids. Next day the kids who again had come to play around with them asked for some cooking oil. They even suggested that they can wash the car and get some oil as a reward. The couple running low on the cooking oil told that they can’t give it to them. Later they noticed how someone had stolen the oil bottle. When one of the kids returned the man told him how disappointed he was. Embarrassed the kid returned the empty bottle and said that the oil went to his mom.

From the western point of view the situation is clear: The kids stole the oil and stealing is morally wrong. End of story. From the local, more collective perspective where ownership is not such a holy cow the situation is more complicated. In these kinds of cultures it is regarded as common place that those who have share with those who haven’t. Even though the couple from their own perspective was running low on food and had a tight budget ($20 per day which is already quite little), compared to the kids they were extremely wealthy. From the perspective of the village people the car alone confirmed that. They might have felt it unjustifiable that the couple was not willing to share even a little bit of oil with them. So they took the justice in their own hands.

Hearing this story was a learning point for me. If I would have been in their situation I most probably wouldn’t have been able to look at the crime from this perspective. And most probably if this had happened during one of the first days of their trip the gentleman wouldn’t have had the widened perspective either to look at the matter from this angle. But after more than a full year of travel and contact with different indigenous people he had already learned a thing or two about their worldviews. The long nights spent at small villages in Ukraine, Mongolia, Guatemala and other countries along the way had paid off.

The expedition on the road. Picture from the web page goingoverland.com

But be warned, the internal growth comes with a price. It might be surprising to learn that the hardest part of a long-term trip is going back home. It is quite understandable, however, given the changes you have gone through. You are a different person, most probably enlightened in many ways compared to your old self. And there you are, back home where nothing has changed: Your friends are the same, your work and colleagues are the same, the society and everything is the same. How are you able to cope? There seems to be a place carved for you by your old self but somewhat you feel that you don’t fit into it anymore.

Two issues in particular worried the gentleman. Firstly he felt that in some ways his views about the upsides and downsides of modern western societies had changed. And he was afraid that his old friends and colleagues would not understand his changed viewpoints. Secondly, he had been a quite successful leadership consultant before their trip. But given all he had experienced and all the ways in which his attitudes and values had changed during the trip he wasn’t sure that he simply could jump back in that career.

They still had a long way to go – through the South America, cross the Atlantic, and through the Africa – but sooner or later he would have to take issues with what way of living he could commit himself to in the future. What kind of place could he find in the society that had been his home throughout his life but that he had to learned to look from a new angle because of their trip?

By exposing yourself to different people with different world-views you run the risk of changing yourself, your values and your way of living – sometimes even radically. That is called evolution of thinking, it is personal growth. But are you ready for that?In the Tortuga Boluuda hostel in Léon, Nicaragua, I was examining a Land Rover Defender parked outside when an English gentleman arrived on the scene. It turned out that he and his wife were on a two year long car trip around the world that had already taken them through the whole Asia and was now taking them through America from north to south. I saw the opportunity and immediately asked what such a long trip had learned them about good living. The most important lesson was clear: Traveling changes your worldview, whether you want it or not. They had experienced it themselves and everyone they had met who had done a similar trip told the same. Are you prepared to change? Would you like to use traveling as a tool for your personal growth?

The vehicle of the couple. Picture from their web page. Learn more about their travel on goingoverland.com

The gentleman explained that by living in your home country you learn to look at the world through the lenses provided by that culture. The people around you condition you to look at the world in a certain way. You acquire the feeling that certain forms of behavior are normal and acceptable while certain others are not. This is what changes when you travel long enough. You become aware of other ways to look and evaluate the world around you. As a mundane example the gentleman told how in Kazakhstan the public toilets lacked doors:

So there he was, sitting in the toilet with his pants down when a local farmer with a donkey passed by. The Englishman looked at the farmer, the farmer looked back at him, and he felt that this was totally normal. Back in Britain the same scene would have felt extremely embarrassing.

To use traveling as a tool for your internal growth three conditions have to be met:

Firstly, any deeper change of worldview requires time. A week or two is not enough because you carry your cultural package wherever you go. Only through time you learn to gradually look beyond it in interpreting the behavior of others. This is why everyone should at least once in their life live amongst a culture that is not their own. One doesn’t have to take such a ambitious trip that spans all continents to achieve that, it is enough to stay put in some other country preferably a bit further away from home. More important than the location is time, the longer you stay the deeper insight you achieve about the new culture – and through that of your own culture.

Secondly, one needs some courage, the gentleman told. When you step outside your worldview and examine it critically you simultaneously step outside of your comfort zone. It can be quite a painful experience to learn that something you have believed in and based your life decisions on isn’t so certain after all. Abandoning your deeply-held beliefs is hard. To achieve that you have to have enough strength of character. Otherwise you easily fall into a defensive state where you blind yourself from seeing what could be detrimental in your current worldview and furiously defend it against all differing ways of living.

Thirdly, you need to expose yourself to the real life of the country you are in. It is perfectly possible to travel around the world without leaving the comforts of western living behind. One can take sunbaths in a gated resort on the coast of Tansania feeling lucky that the realities of the poor life of the local people is out of sight. But this kind of disneyland-traveling doesn’t learn you anything. What you need to do is to step outside the tourist traps and encounter the local way of living. Visit their homes, walk around in their farms, eat with them. Only in meetings with ordinary people does genuine cultural exchange occur.

The gentleman told also another perhaps even more revealing example of how important the skill to interpret situations from the perspective of the other is. This time the scene took place in Honduras:

The couple had camped in the jungle near a village where indigenous Mizkito people lived in very rural conditions. Driven by curiosity the local kids had come to look at them and befriended them. The couple was eating and the kids asked for food so they gave a little food for the kids. Next day the kids who again had come to play around with them asked for some cooking oil. They even suggested that they can wash the car and get some oil as a reward. The couple running low on the cooking oil told that they can’t give it to them. Later they noticed how someone had stolen the oil bottle. When one of the kids returned the man told him how disappointed he was. Embarrassed the kid returned the empty bottle and said that the oil went to his mom.

From the western point of view the situation is clear: The kids stole the oil and stealing is morally wrong. End of story. From the local, more collective perspective where ownership is not such a holy cow the situation is more complicated. In these kinds of cultures it is regarded as common place that those who have share with those who haven’t. Even though the couple from their own perspective was running low on food and had a tight budget ($20 per day which is already quite little), compared to the kids they were extremely wealthy. From the perspective of the village people the car alone confirmed that. They might have felt it unjustifiable that the couple was not willing to share even a little bit of oil with them. So they took the justice in their own hands.

Hearing this story was a learning point for me. If I would have been in their situation I most probably wouldn’t have been able to look at the crime from this perspective. And most probably if this had happened during one of the first days of their trip the gentleman wouldn’t have had the widened perspective either to look at the matter from this angle. But after more than a full year of travel and contact with different indigenous people he had already learned a thing or two about their worldviews. The long nights spent at small villages in Ukraine, Mongolia, Guatemala and other countries along the way had paid off.

The expedition on the road. Picture from the web page goingoverland.com

But be warned, the internal growth comes with a price. It might be surprising to learn that the hardest part of a long-term trip is going back home. It is quite understandable, however, given the changes you have gone through. You are a different person, most probably enlightened in many ways compared to your old self. And there you are, back home where nothing has changed: Your friends are the same, your work and colleagues are the same, the society and everything is the same. How are you able to cope? There seems to be a place carved for you by your old self but somewhat you feel that you don’t fit into it anymore.

Two issues in particular worried the gentleman. Firstly he felt that in some ways his views about the upsides and downsides of modern western societies had changed. And he was afraid that his old friends and colleagues would not understand his changed viewpoints. Secondly, he had been a quite successful leadership consultant before their trip. But given all he had experienced and all the ways in which his attitudes and values had changed during the trip he wasn’t sure that he simply could jump back in that career.

They still had a long way to go – through the South America, cross the Atlantic, and through the Africa – but sooner or later he would have to take issues with what way of living he could commit himself to in the future. What kind of place could he find in the society that had been his home throughout his life but that he had to learned to look from a new angle because of their trip?

By exposing yourself to different people with different world-views you run the risk of changing yourself, your values and your way of living – sometimes even radically. That is called evolution of thinking, it is personal growth. But are you ready for that?

Why are you sweating your ass off in work when you could be fishing right now?

Have you heard the famous story about a Harvard business graduate and a poor fisherman? If not, start by reading it. Because already twice this trip I have felt that I’ve met a living example from that story. Yesterday, finding myself in the home of a twenty-something fisherman on the small coral island of Caye Caulker and learning that he goes fishing three or four times a week I asked what does he do on the other days. ”Hang out with friends, eat good food, drink some rum, go partying, hook up with girls, have sex” was his answer.

I would imagine that many young guys would dream about that kind of simple life filled with earthly pleasures and taking place on the stunningly beautiful Caribbean coast of Belize. But if you find that kind of lifestyle attractive ask yourself why are you not living it?

The 'Budgetman' selling lobster on the main road of Caye Caulker

For most of the young western guys living that dream would be possible: There seemed to be plenty of fish in the ocean and the skill needed to get it up from there is not exactly any rocket science. Besides, living in Belize is cheap compared to western countries so one can make ends meet with going out fishing only a few times a week. Many western travelers staying on the island were saying that living here is awesome and that they would like to stay for a longer time – yet everyone of them were going back home to get back into the corporate treadmill. What is holding us back? I’ll tell you in a minute.

The second encounter with happy fishermen was perhaps even more ’authentic’ and happened in the tiny, remote and rural village of Orinoco on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua where I was the only tourist. Observing their daily living I couldn’t help but being impressed by their life. Here they are, living in extreme poverty by all Western standards. Yet they don’t seem to be lacking much: their food is good by any standard – fresh seafood, organic fruits and vegetables -, they live close to their extended families and friends with a strong sense of community, and the weather is pleasant. And above all, to achieve this lifestyle they work much less hours per day than we ’wealthy’ westerners.

The reason me and other travelers impressed by the coastal lifestyle of Nicaragua and Belize are not relocating is that the western standards of proper living have an internal hold of us. I couldn’t enjoy being a fisherman in the long run, despite the beauty of that way of living. Why? Because certain sense of progress, achievement and career advancement is lacking from that life. With that way of living I would ’already be there’ and we in the west are told that what we want in life is always ’behind the next achievement’. Ours is a world of go-getters, hunger is what keeps the wheels greased. Be a tiger, not a happy sloth! It is this attitude we carry in our souls even on our vacations. We are able to chill out only because we know that it is only a temporary break-off from the ’real life’. And real life is a life where you should have a clear sense of progress.

Living the simple life in Orinoco

There was not a trace of this strive for achievement in the village of Orinoco – they were happy to work only to the extent that they have some food on the table. Some days a few hours, on others more, some days not at all. And on Caye Caulker the fellow tourists I met were all telling how the slow pace and chilled out atmosphere grows on you from the moment you step your foot on the island. They learned not to look at the watch and many of them realized at some point that they had spent much more days on the island than they had planned for. Yet when their time was up they returned to their home countries with the more achievement-oriented lifestyle again grabbing a hold of them.

So what is the takeaway? Am I suggesting that every western person should break the chains our culture has captured us with and escape into a more easy, less stressed and happier lifestyle? If I would, I would be practicing hypocrisy because I myself am still possessed with a strong urge to achieve something in my life. But awakening to the knowledge that there are alternatives available is relieving in itself. With alternatives in view one can take a more relaxed attitude towards one’s choice of living. If at some point I realize that I am not achieving what I want to achieve that is not the end of the world. Winning the rat race is not the only way towards fulfillment. By changing the way I want to live my life I can be as happy or even happier in that new situation.

And most importantly, when you truly realize the existence of other ways of living you loose your innocence. From that moment onwards you are making a conscious choice about which of the alternatives you are committing yourself to. I know that with enough time spent on this island I could internalize its way of living and from that moment onwards the western striving would seem alien to me. So change is possible even thought it requires time and effort. The fact that I am not trying to change is already a choice, a commitment to my current way of living. So ask yourself, is life of ease your cup of tea or are you willing to consciously commit yourself to a more stressing lifestyle of pursuit?

The classic story about a Harvard business graduate and a poor Mexican fisherman

On his well-earned holiday, a Harvard business graduate watched how a small fishing boat approached the harbor in a small coastal Mexican village. It was still late morning but the boat was full of fish so he asked how long time did it take to catch them?
”A few hours.”
”And what are you going to do now?”
”You know, the usual: Play around with my kids, have some quality time with my wife during the siesta. Stroll around the village in the evening hanging out with my amigos, drinking some wine, playing my guitar.”

Upon hearing this the successful business man knew that he could help the poor fellow:
”You know, I am a Harvard business graduate. If you follow my advice you could change your life!”
”What do you mean?”
”With that amount of fishing you can support your current lifestyle, right?”
”Yes, quite much so.”
”Then, if you would work also the afternoons you could use the gained extra money for investments. Soon you could by another boat and hire some guys to run it. Your revenues would increase again and soon you would be operating a fleet of fishing boats.”
”And then what?”
”Then you could leave the fishing to the others and concentrate on the business part. You could cut out the middle man by selling directly to American distributors. You would of course have to relocate to LA or New York but that would be a necessary sacrifice for the success that awaits you.”
”And then what?”
”By working hard you could be a millionaire in twenty or so years.”
”And then what?”
”Then comes the best part: You would sell it all, cash in the money and retire into a small coastal fishing village where you could just play around with your kids, have some quality time with your wife, stroll around the village in the evenings and hang out with your friends, drinking some wine and playing the guitar.”On his well-earned holiday, a Harvard business graduate watched how a small fishing boat approached the harbor in a small coastal Mexican village. It was still late morning but the boat was full of fish so he asked how long time did it take to catch them?
”A few hours.”
”And what are you going to do now?”
”You know, the usual: Play around with my kids, have some quality time with my wife during the siesta. Stroll around the village in the evening hanging out with my amigos, drinking some wine, playing my guitar.”

Upon hearing this the successful business man knew that he could help the poor fellow:
”You know, I am a Harvard business graduate. If you follow my advice you could change your life!”
”What do you mean?”
”With that amount of fishing you can support your current lifestyle, right?”
”Yes, quite much so.”
”Then, if you would work also the afternoons you could use the gained extra money for investments. Soon you could by another boat and hire some guys to run it. Your revenues would increase again and soon you would be operating a fleet of fishing boats.”
”And then what?”
”Then you could leave the fishing to the others and concentrate on the business part. You could cut out the middle man by selling directly to American distributors. You would of course have to relocate to LA or New York but that would be a necessary sacrifice for the success that awaits you.”
”And then what?”
”By working hard you could be a millionaire in twenty or so years.”
”And then what?”
”Then comes the best part: You would sell it all, cash in the money and retire into a small coastal fishing village where you could just play around with your kids, have some quality time with your wife, stroll around the village in the evenings and hang out with your friends, drinking some wine and 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.”

Facing death is a wake-up call to live your life to the fullest: The most important legacy of Steve Jobs

At first sight death seems to be the opposite of good life – it is quite literally the end of it. But philosophers throughout the times have known that by acknowledging one’s own mortality one is able to rid oneself of the trivialities of everyday life and chains of conventionality to live a more authentic, personally expressive and fuller life. Few contemporary people have, however, expressed this insight more precisely than the late Steve Jobs as is evident already from this quote:

”Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs did many marvelous things in life. Founded Apple and lead it into developing stuff like the the Mac computer, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iWhatever. Lead Pixar into revolutionizing computer-based animation with films such as Toy Story. But for me personally by far the most impressive thing he ever did was a commencement speech he held at Stanford University in 2005. In this short speech he gives three invaluable lessons about how one should approach one’s life to live it to the fullest.

Firstly, life makes a coherent story only when we look at it with hindsight. The problem is, of course, that we have to live it forward. Steve illustrates this with a story about how he as a young college drop-out took a course in calligraphy without it having any practical application in his life at the moment. Ten years later, however, this knowledge of beautiful typography partially made the base for the sophisticated visual design that has ever since been the trademark of Apple products. For Steve, this is a lesson about dots: ”You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Secondly, make sure to love what you do. Steve recounts the difficulties he faced when he was 30 and suddenly fired from the company he had founded and which had been the focus of his entire adult life. The experience was devastating but eventually lead into many great things such as founding and leading few other companies – and finding a wife – before returning to steer the Apple. He was convinced that the only thing that kept him going was that he truly loved what he did. And this is the lesson: ”You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

These are important lessons but perhaps the most important advice for successful life is the third one: Put your life into perspective by thinking about your death. As a teenager, Steve found great inspiration in the quote: ”If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” He tells that since then he has looked into mirror every morning and asked himself: ”If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” This is a powerful question. If one would seriously ask it everyday one could avoid many lukewarm choices and stagnant phases of life in which one is too lazy or too afraid to effect the necessary change. The question pulls one out of the comfort zone of conventionality and puts the mirror in front of oneself: Am I really living the life I want to live?

Now Steve Job is dead. He didn’t want to die but he had accepted the fact that it is the destination we all share: ”No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” His contribution to the technological development has been enormous but in ten years the products he helped to design have become antiquated and new, better and more powerful ones have replaced them. He knew it himself: ”Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

On the other hand his wisdom for life will not be outdated as long as there are human beings who struggle with life and with the inevitable death. I hope that the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs will be that we should keep in mind the inevitable fact of life he himself today faced. Because facing your mortality is a wake-up call to seize control of your own life:

”Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”At first sight death seems to be the opposite of good life – it is quite literally the end of it. But philosophers throughout the times have known that by acknowledging one’s own mortality one is able to rid oneself of the trivialities of everyday life and chains of conventionality to live a more authentic, personally expressive and fuller life. Few contemporary people have, however, expressed this insight more precisely than the late Steve Jobs as is evident already from this quote:

”Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs did many marvelous things in life. Founded Apple and lead it into developing stuff like the the Mac computer, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iWhatever. Lead Pixar into revolutionizing computer-based animation with films such as Toy Story. But for me personally by far the most impressive thing he ever did was a commencement speech he held at Stanford University in 2005. In this short speech he gives three invaluable lessons about how one should approach one’s life to live it to the fullest.

Firstly, life makes a coherent story only when we look at it with hindsight. The problem is, of course, that we have to live it forward. Steve illustrates this with a story about how he as a young college drop-out took a course in calligraphy without it having any practical application in his life at the moment. Ten years later, however, this knowledge of beautiful typography partially made the base for the sophisticated visual design that has ever since been the trademark of Apple products. For Steve, this is a lesson about dots: ”You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Secondly, make sure to love what you do. Steve recounts the difficulties he faced when he was 30 and suddenly fired from the company he had founded and which had been the focus of his entire adult life. The experience was devastating but eventually lead into many great things such as founding and leading few other companies – and finding a wife – before returning to steer the Apple. He was convinced that the only thing that kept him going was that he truly loved what he did. And this is the lesson: ”You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

These are important lessons but perhaps the most important advice for successful life is the third one: Put your life into perspective by thinking about your death. As a teenager, Steve found great inspiration in the quote: ”If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” He tells that since then he has looked into mirror every morning and asked himself: ”If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” This is a powerful question. If one would seriously ask it everyday one could avoid many lukewarm choices and stagnant phases of life in which one is too lazy or too afraid to effect the necessary change. The question pulls one out of the comfort zone of conventionality and puts the mirror in front of oneself: Am I really living the life I want to live?

Now Steve Job is dead. He didn’t want to die but he had accepted the fact that it is the destination we all share: ”No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” His contribution to the technological development has been enormous but in ten years the products he helped to design have become antiquated and new, better and more powerful ones have replaced them. He knew it himself: ”Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

On the other hand his wisdom for life will not be outdated as long as there are human beings who struggle with life and with the inevitable death. I hope that the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs will be that we should keep in mind the inevitable fact of life he himself today faced. Because facing your mortality is a wake-up call to seize control of your own life:

”Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Who pays for the beers? Traveling dilemmas in the face of huge income differences

I’ve now spent some time on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Mostly it has been a great time – I’ve enjoyed the calm sea, the beautiful small villages, the friendly people – but what has constantly irritated me is the fact that almost everyone I talk with wants my money. I walk around the village and somebody says hi. We engage into a conversation and when I attempt to leave, if not before, the other asks if I could spare a dollar or two because he really needs to buy water, beer, medicine, whatever. I walk towards a hotel and some friendly person starts to walk with me to guide me there. Whilst there he tells that his service costed me 3 dollars. I chat with a bar-owner and amongst the merry conversation he starts to push me to move into the hotel he also owns.

These kinds of experiences, when repeated all over the day, start to have a toll on one’s morale. Is it simply impossible to meet with anyone who doesn’t see me as a walking wallet? When encountering the locals in such atmosphere one can never put one’s guards down and relax because one never knows from what direction and through what shape the request for money comes from. One starts to seek the company of fellow travelers who one can trust. Unfortunately, I hadn’t met any for six days. These remote villages are clearly still waiting for the tourists to come. Amongst all this, I started to wonder is my anxiety simply the result of my cultural upbringing?

For us westerners, ownership is everything. It is a basic right, the one principle around which our society is built. Ownership is our culture’s holy cow, worshipped and never put into question. But this individualistic take on ownership is not shared by all cultures. Many indigenous cultures put much more emphasis on sharing and joint ownership. My house is your house, if you are hungry and I have food, the food is also yours. In conditions where one’ security network are the people one knows, people have learned to share.

My friend's mother in her kitchen
My friend's mother in her kitchen

Nicaraguans, especially in these poor villages, were clearly closer to ideas about the shared nature of ownership. I learned this even before arriving when reading some books about the cultural customs of people in Nicaragua in which I encountered several times the warning that if one marries a local man or woman one marries his or her whole family. Suddenly the family sees it as your responsibility to pay for the aunt’s dentist bill or the nephew’s education. For them it is perfectly ordinary that in the extended family those who have help those who haven’t. So when they ask for money they are not exploiting you but only doing what is natural in their culture. It might be added that this attitude of sharing lives well in some marginal groups in our home countries as well. I’ve learned to know some hippie people for whom it is common that the one who has cash at the moment pays the beers of the friends also.

I don’t feel like a rich person. My salary is quite much around the average Finnish salary level. A few years back, while living in Thailand for half a year I met with a young Danish guy who had made a fortune through some IT business From time to time, when we went to a bar in a big group, he bought the table full of drinks and shared them with everybody. I appreciated this and thought that if ever I have my hands on equal fortune, I will behave the same.

Yet, compared to these people in the villages of Nicaragua I am the one who possesses a fortune. Many of them live practically outside of the financial economy, getting their needs met through doing things themselves and through exchanging and sharing. During an average month, most people in these villages live with less than a hundred dollars. This means that my average income is actually around thirty times bigger than theirs. That is a huge difference in income if something. It makes oneself wonder what really is morally right and wrong in these situations.

So this one day I walked towards another village around half an hour walk away. En route I met a girl who had the same destination. We engaged in a conversation and whilst in the village she showed me around and introduced me to people. I wanted to repay this generosity and offered to buy a beer to her and her cousin who had joined our tour around the village. They gladly agreed. After the first beer, why not have a second one? Without anyone saying it aloud it was clear that I am going to pay this round also. And the third round into which another cousin joined in. There would have been a fourth round unless I had run out of cash.

Drinking in Marshall Point
Drinking a few beers in Marshall Point

Was I exploited? I think not. The interest these people showed in me was genuine, we had real conversations about the differences of life in our respective countries and we laughed. In my travels I’ve met all sorts of scam artists whose evil intentions are easily spotted behind their supposedly friendly smile and ”my friend, my friend” shouts. These were not that kind of people. They wanted to have a good time with me, drink some beer, and most probably lacked the cash to buy it themselves. So the only genuine other option was for me to drink alone. It might be added that even when I paid for the four of us, I paid less than I would pay for one beer in the bars I frequent back home.

The next night, I was drinking a few beers with a guy who was barefoot because he couldn’t afford new shoes. Having at least ten pairs of shoes back home, it would have felt rude and unjustifiable to ask for him to pay his own beer whilst we were drinking together. The next day the favor was returned when he showed me around the village, introduced me to people and offered a meal his mother had cooked. A day after that his cousin (in these small villages everyone seemed to be cousin with everyone) took me to a jungle trek to see his family’s farm.

So given the huge income difference it might just be right that I pay the bill. Of course, it becomes crucially important to be able to separate two sorts of people from each other: one the one hand those who befriend me only for the purpose of ripping as much cash out of me as possible – and who often are willing to use every trick and scam to get it. And on the other those who are really interested in me as a person and want to be friends with me. And for whom it then is just natural that I as the one with enormously more cash pay up the beers. But things are not even as easy as this: I’ve met with many people who lye somewhere in between these extremes. They are interested in the funny looking foreigner but they also are seduced by the possibility to get something from them. In real-life moral dilemmas in which one encounters real people things are only black and white if one refuses to see the colors.
I’ve now spent some time on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Mostly it has been a great time – I’ve enjoyed the calm sea, the beautiful small villages, the friendly people – but what has constantly irritated me is the fact that almost everyone I talk with wants my money. I walk around the village and somebody says hi. We engage into a conversation and when I attempt to leave, if not before, the other asks if I could spare a dollar or two because he really needs to buy water, beer, medicine, whatever. I walk towards a hotel and some friendly person starts to walk with me to guide me there. Whilst there he tells that his service costed me 3 dollars. I chat with a bar-owner and amongst the merry conversation he starts to push me to move into the hotel he also owns.

These kinds of experiences, when repeated all over the day, start to have a toll on one’s morale. Is it simply impossible to meet with anyone who doesn’t see me as a walking wallet? When encountering the locals in such atmosphere one can never put one’s guards down and relax because one never knows from what direction and through what shape the request for money comes from. One starts to seek the company of fellow travelers who one can trust. Unfortunately, I hadn’t met any for six days. These remote villages are clearly still waiting for the tourists to come. Amongst all this, I started to wonder is my anxiety simply the result of my cultural upbringing?

For us westerners, ownership is everything. It is a basic right, the one principle around which our society is built. Ownership is our culture’s holy cow, worshipped and never put into question. But this individualistic take on ownership is not shared by all cultures. Many indigenous cultures put much more emphasis on sharing and joint ownership. My house is your house, if you are hungry and I have food, the food is also yours. In conditions where one’ security network are the people one knows, people have learned to share.

My friend's mother in her kitchen
My friend's mother in her kitchen

Nicaraguans, especially in these poor villages, were clearly closer to ideas about the shared nature of ownership. I learned this even before arriving when reading some books about the cultural customs of people in Nicaragua in which I encountered several times the warning that if one marries a local man or woman one marries his or her whole family. Suddenly the family sees it as your responsibility to pay for the aunt’s dentist bill or the nephew’s education. For them it is perfectly ordinary that in the extended family those who have help those who haven’t. So when they ask for money they are not exploiting you but only doing what is natural in their culture. It might be added that this attitude of sharing lives well in some marginal groups in our home countries as well. I’ve learned to know some hippie people for whom it is common that the one who has cash at the moment pays the beers of the friends also.

I don’t feel like a rich person. My salary is quite much around the average Finnish salary level. A few years back, while living in Thailand for half a year I met with a young Danish guy who had made a fortune through some IT business From time to time, when we went to a bar in a big group, he bought the table full of drinks and shared them with everybody. I appreciated this and thought that if ever I have my hands on equal fortune, I will behave the same.

Yet, compared to these people in the villages of Nicaragua I am the one who possesses a fortune. Many of them live practically outside of the financial economy, getting their needs met through doing things themselves and through exchanging and sharing. During an average month, most people in these villages live with less than a hundred dollars. This means that my average income is actually around thirty times bigger than theirs. That is a huge difference in income if something. It makes oneself wonder what really is morally right and wrong in these situations.

So this one day I walked towards another village around half an hour walk away. En route I met a girl who had the same destination. We engaged in a conversation and whilst in the village she showed me around and introduced me to people. I wanted to repay this generosity and offered to buy a beer to her and her cousin who had joined our tour around the village. They gladly agreed. After the first beer, why not have a second one? Without anyone saying it aloud it was clear that I am going to pay this round also. And the third round into which another cousin joined in. There would have been a fourth round unless I had run out of cash.

Drinking in Marshall Point
Drinking a few beers in Marshall Point

Was I exploited? I think not. The interest these people showed in me was genuine, we had real conversations about the differences of life in our respective countries and we laughed. In my travels I’ve met all sorts of scam artists whose evil intentions are easily spotted behind their supposedly friendly smile and ”my friend, my friend” shouts. These were not that kind of people. They wanted to have a good time with me, drink some beer, and most probably lacked the cash to buy it themselves. So the only genuine other option was for me to drink alone. It might be added that even when I paid for the four of us, I paid less than I would pay for one beer in the bars I frequent back home.

The next night, I was drinking a few beers with a guy who was barefoot because he couldn’t afford new shoes. Having at least ten pairs of shoes back home, it would have felt rude and unjustifiable to ask for him to pay his own beer whilst we were drinking together. The next day the favor was returned when he showed me around the village, introduced me to people and offered a meal his mother had cooked. A day after that his cousin (in these small villages everyone seemed to be cousin with everyone) took me to a jungle trek to see his family’s farm.

So given the huge income difference it might just be right that I pay the bill. Of course, it becomes crucially important to be able to separate two sorts of people from each other: one the one hand those who befriend me only for the purpose of ripping as much cash out of me as possible – and who often are willing to use every trick and scam to get it. And on the other those who are really interested in me as a person and want to be friends with me. And for whom it then is just natural that I as the one with enormously more cash pay up the beers. But things are not even as easy as this: I’ve met with many people who lye somewhere in between these extremes. They are interested in the funny looking foreigner but they also are seduced by the possibility to get something from them. In real-life moral dilemmas in which one encounters real people things are only black and white if one refuses to see the colors.

Why I love the sea – and what does it have to do with meaningful life?

Sea is my element. If I haven’t fully understood it before, now I know it. Having stayed inland for more than three weeks I remember the sudden burst of excitement I got when I first filled my lungs with the salty smell of the sea on the way towards Bluefields on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. And when I closed my eyes on the boat-ride that finally took me to Bluefields the sound of the engine and waving motion of the boat immediately sent me to my childhood boat-rides to our summer cottage. Next evening eating in a restaurant built literally above the sea on poles I was looking out in the darkness when I noticed two lights – the left one green and the right one red – somewhere in the darkness. A warm sense of familiarity, emphasis on the famili-part, filled me as I knew that it was a boat approaching the harbor.

Boats in Harbor

Childhood is when the basic elements of our identity are put into the place; who are we and where we belong to. And the sea was strongly present in my childhood. If someone would ask me what is my favorite place on earth I would immediately know the answer: a certain tiny island in the Finnish Gulf of the Baltic Sea. That’s where my family’s summer cottage is and where all my childhood summers were spent. Except of course for my dad’s month long summer vacation which was spent on a sailing boat. Calculating these summer months on a sailing boat together with the nine months I spent in the Finnish navy ships whilst serving the obligatory military service I could say that before the age of twenty I had spent around two years of my life sleeping on boats surrounded by the salty water.

Now I am 9.844 kilometers and one ocean away from there, in a different culture and without having met a single person from my home country in over a month. Traveling alone for such a long time one can’t avoid the moments of homesickness. Although one meets a lot of people, sometimes the loneliness grows on you and you look sadly into the distance thinking about and longing to the people and places dear to you. But when I got to the sea, half of all this was suddenly gone. That’s because I grew up with the sea. It is as much a part of my story as are many people who are close to me. Sea is part of my identity, it is part of my answer to the question ’where I belong to’. It is like a good friend – almost a member of the family. So when I am with the sea, I am no longer alone.

That’s also why sea is able to inject meaningfulness to whatever place or activity that is connected to it. Watching a sunset with a dear friend is a different experience than watching it with some random acquaintance. Although one does not speak too much, just knowing that the other is there makes the experience more meaningful. It is people we love who make our lives meaningful. That’s why experiences and activities connected to people one care about feel meaningful. And that’s why the meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful for other people. For me, the same applies to the sea. As it is like a dear friend to me, anything connected with the sea is more meaningful for me. Sense of belonging is a basic human need and I belong with the sea.

Kiteflying at the Pearl Lagoon

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.

Dirty backyards and a refined taste in wines: Aesthetics of good life

Examining the backyards of some Nicaraguan countryside homes led me to think about the role that aesthetics plays in good life. These backyards – quite frankly – were far from aesthetic. I do not know how representative they are of the country as a whole but at least in these ones various forms of garbage – buckets, pieces of metal and plastic – had been left to decay all over the place. A few hours of cleaning would do miracles to these gardens because the tropical plants would make a good base for a very aesthetic experience. Yet nobody had done this cleaning for years. Clearly aesthetic backyards was not a priority for the people inhabiting these houses.

Contrary to this, back home I have many friends and acquaintances for whom the aesthetic dimension forms a vitally important part of their way of living. Be it food, wines, music, architecture, clothing or whatever, they have acquired a very refined taste. In their fine-dining evenings they spend hours discussing and selecting the correct wine to their innovative new recipes.

This is fine as it is but for many it is clearly a game where the most important objective is not the aesthetic experience itself but to be ahead of the others: to develop a liking for a new band before others have heard it, to be able to have an opinion about the distinguishing features of every type of wine-grape and to be able to form innovative combinations of haute couture and second-hand clothes. I would go as far as to say that there are many people among us today for whom pursuing this aesthetic dimension forms the main motivational field of most of their daily activities.

Small cat and a big dog

As I have a certain repulsion against such games I consciously try to downplay my abilities in these fields. Many times I have arrived to a party with a bottle of the cheapest wine that money can buy which I have drank straight from the bottle whilst others are parading their wine-choices for today and tasting and discussing enthusiastically their latest findings. Strangely, nobody ever wants to taste my choice. I usually enjoy the bohemian atmosphere of places where things are a bit so-so and aesthetics is not so glaring. This all leads me to wonder why is aesthetics so important element in the life of some people?

According to the influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu, taste is about distinction. By having a certain taste I am signaling that I belong to a certain group of people – and almost more importantly: that I am not part of another group. When we, for example, distinguish between working class and bourgeois classes we do not look only at income but rather at their taste as regards clothing, food and different leisure time pursuits. This is why a person from a noble family can radiate an aura of sophistication even when his or her income is almost nonexistent. As Count Alexander Graf von Schönburg-Glachau testifies: ”Whilst we never had much money, we learned to compensate for what we didn’t have with taste.” Our taste is thus in the end nothing more but an acquired way of signaling what group we do belong to.

With Bourdieu’s theory at hand we start to see how various phenomena of modern times are nothing but ways of playing the distinction game; ways of attempting to put oneself above the others through one’s sophisticated taste. For what else is the recent trend of healthy eating and jogging than a way to distinguish oneself from those who don’t eat as healthy and don’t do running? And what else are the various lifestyle magazines than instruments that help the reader to stay one step ahead in this game of distinctions?

In the France of Bourdieu’s times things might have been relatively simple as regards class: There were the working class, the bourgeois and the nobility with their distinctive manners, hobbies and ways of dressing, speaking and thinking. In modern west the field is more fragmented; instead of clear class distinctions it is more about different aesthetic conclaves with distinguish themselves from others as regards their taste in music, clothing and often also more general life-values. There are the hipsters, there are the hippies, goths, yuppies, hiphoppers and what-not. They all might have started to listen to their kind of music and dress in their kind of way because they simply felt that that’s what they liked. But unbeknownst to them they simultaneously made a selection about what game of distinctions and sophistications they started to play. Their choices made them part of a certain group.

Chicken

So, if one scratches the surface of any aesthetic sophistication, one finds a person who is eagerly attempting to show belongingness to a certain group and who is attempting to put oneself ahead of the others in terms of the greater amount of refinement that one has been able to acquire in one’s special field.

This brings us back to the backyards of the Nicaraguan village where I made the observations about the non-refinement of their backyards. Even they might be seen as signals in the game of distinctions. The village was formed in the 80s when the lands of a former land-lord were given to the people in a great land-reform. It can be assumed that these people have a strong willingness to distinguish themselves against the higher classes and display their reciprocal solidarity. So by not having too fancy houses and backyards the people are signaling that they belong together, that they are equal. A too refined backyard would signal to the other members of the village that this person is attempting to stand above the others, that the person thinks he or she is something better than the others. The game of distinctions can be played in many ways…
Examining the backyards of some Nicaraguan countryside homes led me to think about the role that aesthetics plays in good life. These backyards – quite frankly – were far from aesthetic. I do not know how representative they are of the country as a whole but at least in these ones various forms of garbage – buckets, pieces of metal and plastic – had been left to decay all over the place. A few hours of cleaning would do miracles to these gardens because the tropical plants would make a good base for a very aesthetic experience. Yet nobody had done this cleaning for years. Clearly aesthetic backyards was not a priority for the people inhabiting these houses.

Contrary to this, back home I have many friends and acquaintances for whom the aesthetic dimension forms a vitally important part of their way of living. Be it food, wines, music, architecture, clothing or whatever, they have acquired a very refined taste. In their fine-dining evenings they spend hours discussing and selecting the correct wine to their innovative new recipes.

This is fine as it is but for many it is clearly a game where the most important objective is not the aesthetic experience itself but to be ahead of the others: to develop a liking for a new band before others have heard it, to be able to have an opinion about the distinguishing features of every type of wine-grape and to be able to form innovative combinations of haute couture and second-hand clothes. I would go as far as to say that there are many people among us today for whom pursuing this aesthetic dimension forms the main motivational field of most of their daily activities.

Small cat and a big dog

As I have a certain repulsion against such games I consciously try to downplay my abilities in these fields. Many times I have arrived to a party with a bottle of the cheapest wine that money can buy which I have drank straight from the bottle whilst others are parading their wine-choices for today and tasting and discussing enthusiastically their latest findings. Strangely, nobody ever wants to taste my choice. I usually enjoy the bohemian atmosphere of places where things are a bit so-so and aesthetics is not so glaring. This all leads me to wonder why is aesthetics so important element in the life of some people?

According to the influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu, taste is about distinction. By having a certain taste I am signaling that I belong to a certain group of people – and almost more importantly: that I am not part of another group. When we, for example, distinguish between working class and bourgeois classes we do not look only at income but rather at their taste as regards clothing, food and different leisure time pursuits. This is why a person from a noble family can radiate an aura of sophistication even when his or her income is almost nonexistent. As Count Alexander Graf von Schönburg-Glachau testifies: ”Whilst we never had much money, we learned to compensate for what we didn’t have with taste.” Our taste is thus in the end nothing more but an acquired way of signaling what group we do belong to.

With Bourdieu’s theory at hand we start to see how various phenomena of modern times are nothing but ways of playing the distinction game; ways of attempting to put oneself above the others through one’s sophisticated taste. For what else is the recent trend of healthy eating and jogging than a way to distinguish oneself from those who don’t eat as healthy and don’t do running? And what else are the various lifestyle magazines than instruments that help the reader to stay one step ahead in this game of distinctions?

In the France of Bourdieu’s times things might have been relatively simple as regards class: There were the working class, the bourgeois and the nobility with their distinctive manners, hobbies and ways of dressing, speaking and thinking. In modern west the field is more fragmented; instead of clear class distinctions it is more about different aesthetic conclaves with distinguish themselves from others as regards their taste in music, clothing and often also more general life-values. There are the hipsters, there are the hippies, goths, yuppies, hiphoppers and what-not. They all might have started to listen to their kind of music and dress in their kind of way because they simply felt that that’s what they liked. But unbeknownst to them they simultaneously made a selection about what game of distinctions and sophistications they started to play. Their choices made them part of a certain group.

Chicken

So, if one scratches the surface of any aesthetic sophistication, one finds a person who is eagerly attempting to show belongingness to a certain group and who is attempting to put oneself ahead of the others in terms of the greater amount of refinement that one has been able to acquire in one’s special field.

This brings us back to the backyards of the Nicaraguan village where I made the observations about the non-refinement of their backyards. Even they might be seen as signals in the game of distinctions. The village was formed in the 80s when the lands of a former land-lord were given to the people in a great land-reform. It can be assumed that these people have a strong willingness to distinguish themselves against the higher classes and display their reciprocal solidarity. So by not having too fancy houses and backyards the people are signaling that they belong together, that they are equal. A too refined backyard would signal to the other members of the village that this person is attempting to stand above the others, that the person thinks he or she is something better than the others. The game of distinctions can be played in many ways…