Reason must resist religion. It’s the pathway to liberation. This is a basic premise of modern rationality. Except, all too often, this principle is used to replace traditional with secular religion. Instead of questioning form – the blind acceptance of just-so stories driving norms and behaviour – we question content, e.g. whatever myths, norms or rituals have been put forward as truthful or important by religious leaders. As if the problem lay not in our relationship to stories and inherited frameworks, but only their origin.
With this comes danger that we fall prey to different myths. At worst, that we join cults and conspiracy theories. More insidiously, that we believe the truth of modern mythologies, engineered in states and corporations. That value derives from the bold initiative of genius entrepreneurs. That Europeans brought civilisation to barbarian shores. And a range of other just-so stories.
Resisting those myths is a needed effort. We need to clear fabricated truths from our brains, through constant attention to facts, and the structure of narratives. Some books provide precious help in doing this. Howard French, David Graeber, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amitav Ghosh. One step further, we might even apply the form of rational freedom to the content of religion – as enlightened spiritual masters from across traditions encourage us to do.
In a world that pushes unquestioned lies down our ears, maintaining rational thinking demands active resistance. We must make the time and effort. Failing this, we will tumble into folly.
Who we are, what we do: both are inseparable. We guide our actions based a certain model of who we are, and how that person behaves. In turn, the sum of our past actions, reflected back to us from others – or contemplated in isolation – defines our sense of identity. And so we live, conscious pebbles hurtling along by force of inertia.
But wait! One thing can shift us out the rut. Love can. Not in a woo woo kind of way, no. There is a logic to spiritual madness.
Love is desire to bond with a person or a group. It’s an aspiration to be part of a new collective. And if we welcome love – as long as that love is not unrequited – we gain a new layer of identity. I’m no longer that person I’ve been up until then, defined by the series of my past actions. I’m someone else too, part of that couple, that team, that neighbourhood, or that family. The moment I receive and accept the possibility to be that new person, my actions follow. Inertia no longer equals fate. The course of my entire life changes.
I’m sitting on the terrace of WeWork, on Elizabeth Street. It’s a hollow space in the middle of the buildings. On the terrace, chairs and tables create further hollows. Members come and go, alone or in small groups, using those chairs and tables for focus and connection.
Facilitators talk about ‘containers’. We create and hold a hollow space, so that new thoughts can manifest, or new groups of people bond. This requires a certain lay out of the room – chairs, tables, whiteboards. It also requires a structuring of the time spent together. Instructions, like a game, and time boundaries. It requires physical presence, keeping the boundaries to contain the flow.
Tool making comes in two forms. We sharpen the knife and the spear, true – but we also shape hollows, by molding the clay, bending the wood, or weaving the thread. Shields and walls define a safe internal space, where we can evolve. Birds know that, who weave nests. The home is a primordial tool, before the sword and arrow. This is where new life emerges.
During a short trip to Sydney, I met up with an old friend for lunch. Inspired by the sensual delights of Double Bay, maybe, our conversation drifted to modes of eroticism. My friend expressed frustration with a partner. She was missing the pleasures of role-play: ‘the brain is the biggest sexual organ,’ she said. I paused and reflected. ‘This is so interesting. I realise, I have a very different erotic experience. For me, the biggest sexual organ is the body. Roleplay distracts me. I like to get out of my head, into pure physicality.’
Both modalities involve a dissolution of identity. The rigid form of ‘who I am’ must disappear for erotic pleasure to be possible, whether it’s in a flight of fantasy, or in a tide of sensations.
Later in the same trip, the thought came up again as I discussed creativity with another friend. ‘The biggest obstacle to divergent thinking,’ she proposed, ‘is attachment to identity, limiting the range of what is possible.’ She looked to the theatre for ways of loosening this attachment.
As we discussed further, I realised the same two poles emerged. It’s the door open to another world through roleplay, acting a character and becoming someone else. It’s physical presence on the stage, leaving the self to become resonant flesh. Good creative workshops involve both.
Is it the case, I wonder now, that in order to solve complex problems, we can tap into the resources of our preferred erotic mode. Two pathways to radical change: kinky role-play, or the vanilla pleasures of touch.
This week-end, I went on a walk with a friend around Clifton Hill. There, we stumbled upon the Merri Creek labyrinth.
As I start a new role with a new organisation – both atypical – I find myself looking for clarity, both on my function and our collective goals. It’s easy to fret when things are emerging. The labyrinth offered a grounding experience. It’s an old spiritual tool, inviting us on a long meandering path to find centre. It reminded me physically that it takes time to reach the beating heart of anything – and the profound joy of arriving there.
In a world obsessed by movement, goals, and paths of least resistance, the labyrinth is a tremendous reminder that other models are possible. That the slower we move, the more we perceive. That shortcuts will get us faster to the end, but yield little self-awareness, or understanding of the surrounding system. And that the path to wisdom is never linear.
I used to run design thinking events with international students. I would take them through a guided process, to find new ways of building intercultural connections in their environment. In the divergent phase, I saw radical ideas emerge – real original stuff. Then time came to select one idea and pitch. It was just a pitch, low stakes, not a lifetime commitment. Yet students would always pick the safest cliché – ‘Food brings people together.’
We commonly confuse two types of strategy. The first identifies the best way to reach a goal, given a set of constraints. I call this shallow strategy. The second – which I call deep strategy – questions and refines the goal itself, and the constraints.
For-profit organisations, in their immense majority, never reach the level of deep strategy. The goal is a given – make money. Corporate Social Responsibility, B-Corp charters and other ESG frameworks are only stricter sets of constraints. We’re still in shallow strategy. Make money while meeting a few sustainability criteria.
In my experience, not-for-profits and charities are the only structures that engage in deep strategy. Yet even there, even on the board, discussions often get stuck in the shallows. You know, those tedious discussions, where the goal is far from clear, and someone raves at length about the best software to use.
Apollo, God of oracles, was known as loxios, ‘oblique’. He revealed truth indirectly. The same applies to the Christian God. We have not a revealed book of truth, but the Gospels – four elliptic narratives about the life of Christ.
If we seriously believe in a God creator of Heaven and Earth, maker of all things seen and unseen, could that God not have chosen to engrave his commands in letters of fire, and held them floating in the sky above Jerusalem, for all to see? No, God decided that he would reveal himself indirectly – and let us free to believe – as a matter of deliberate design.
This may be the most valuable insight I got from my two years in preparatory class. My French teacher was having a rant. ‘People speak of literature, and schools, and the Humanities, as if all this was ‘not the real world’. You hear that all the time. It’s not the real world. And yet here we are,’ he said, pointing his finger to the ceiling, then out the window, ‘I’m paid good money to teach you, we’ve got a huge library full of books on top of us, and this is prime real estate in the heart of Paris. I call this the real world.’
There are two main forms of charity work.
One is remedial. It aims to reduce suffering, right here right now. It’s homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and blood donations. It’s firefighters and emergency room doctors.
The other is preventative. It aims to prevent suffering, at some point in the future. It’s public health, social work, and education design. It’s risk management, culture, and governance.
The second is impossible, unless faith and hope complement pure charity.
From the age of 18, I’ve had a Greek quote from Heraclitus on my desk: ‘ἐὰν µὴ ἔλπηται, ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει, ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον.’ In my translation: ‘As for what is beyond hope, it will not manifest unless you hope for it. It’s not something you just stumble upon already made. It has no shape of its own.’
When I was in Year 10, I was part of an exchange program with a school in Connecticut. Our pen pals came for two weeks in late Spring. One of my school-friends took his on a visit to Prague. I was surprised. It was the mid-90s, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still fresh, and Prague felt like a distant exotic place. ‘It’s not’, said my friend. I checked on the map, and indeed, from Strasbourg where we lived, it was only slightly further than Paris.
Growing up on a border, I had a distorted sense of geography. Everywhere, I was exposed to the French map – in history books, on TV, or on the jigsaw puzzles I enjoyed making. I lived somewhere on the top right corner of the Hexagon, with Paris as my off-centre capital. Beyond the borders, ‘there be dragons’.
That perception was based on linguistic, political and infrastructure reality. TV was made in Paris, transport systems converged on Paris, decisions were made in Paris, affecting the entire country. Also, there were other realities. Strasbourg was a European capital. It was midway through the Blue banana. Street names, food and architecture made Vienna familiar, Paris foreign. Sometimes, on my way to school, I would cross a few visiting dragons.
My professional life has always been chaotic. I’ve always worn multiple hat. More: there is no clear vocabulary to describe the work I do. What has the most value may not bring the most money. Neither may be connected to my primary job title or affiliation.
This is hugely frustrating in standard networking events. ‘So what do you do?’ They ask, and I mumble a long-winded answer. Quickly, my reply triggers confusion, impatience, dismissiveness. Which in turn brings up dark emotions: agitation, frustration, embarrassment. And the conversation dies.
Earlier this year, I did a little exercise. I tried reflecting on what happened in those situations, using non-violent communication as a heuristic framework. Surely, those negative feelings on both parts were just about unmet needs.
Starting with my own experience, this is what I uncovered. I’m agitated when I see that, in spite of my efforts, I’m not coming across clearly. I’m frustrated that I can’t connect with the other person. Then comes embarrassment: as a professional communicator, I’m ineffective.
I didn’t have reliable input about my interlocutors, but in a flash I wondered – is it possible that our needs match? They’re confused, because I’m not giving them clarity. There’s too many threads, or unconventional words. They’re impatient because we don’t connect. I don’t have a one-word label they can recognise, why should they bother with a weirdo? Finally, they’re dismissive because they’ve got a certain number of people to talk to, I’m taking too much time for basics, and it’s not efficient.
Here was common ground then, and from this, I was able to go one step further in self-awareness. We all want effectiveness – but for me, busy work towards undesirable or vague goals is the opposite of effective. We all want clarity – which is why I question vague terms, cliches and arbitrary categories. We all want connection – but shared belief in neoliberal propaganda just doesn’t cut it for me. My sense of alienation was gone, I finally saw my interlocutors as human – and my desire to attend networking events faded.
In 2007, when I started learning Chinese, a friend introduced me to PPstream. It was one of those sites where you could watch all sorts of movies and TV series for free. This was my first introduction to mainstream East Asian drama.
I remember watching this film. The protagonist was a Chinese man, who went on a trip to Japan. It rocked my world. I had never considered inter-Asian relations. Surely, Japanese people, and Chinese people, and Korean people, would have complex relationships with Europe. They would think about it, talk about it, and travel there. I never thought they would travel around Asia.
A few weeks ago, I was at an event in the Collingwood yards. It was a bunch of environmentalists coming together to celebrate spring. There was craft beer, canapes, and music making. Yet I was frustrated. I invested hope in the event, and it felt a bit flat.
Looking back, I noted an ambiguity. The vibe indicated an event for individual change-maker to meet and bond. Yet when the organiser spoke, the goal was framed as facilitating new collaborations between organisations. So were we there as people, or as representatives?
I reflected further. Maybe the missing element was not clear focus, orgs or people, but rather, tension between the two. My sense of wasted opportunity came from that event not meeting my needs. I’m well aligned with myself, but I work in a shapeless in-between space. It’s lonely, and I was looking for connection. My first two conversations were with people in large organisations – government and university. Their emotional experience was very different, not lonely, but frustrated at inefficiencies and misalignments. Then I had a chat with a woman from a smaller org – well aligned, but overwhelmed. Her challenge was letting go.
What if this was a recurring pattern? What if people attempting system change had different emotions depending on the context of their work. Could this, then, be the right conversation starter: are you lonely, frustrated, or overwhelmed?
The Internet is a global infrastructure, with no centre. This applies on multiple levels: connected cables and machines, common standards and protocols, then a shared set of global platforms.
Except, a few locations have disproportionate influence. New York, London and Los Angeles, media capitals of the global English language. Sillicon Valley, where global platforms are designed and headquartered.
In a talk I gave once about the Chinese Internet – back in 2014 – I ventured the word diversity. There’s censorship and control, for sure – but also, here’s a different system, with different platforms, different norms, and a different language. Based on the same shared infrastructure, it’s a whole parallel universe.
We listen religiously to those people who discovered late in life how much happiness and meaning are more important than success and numbers. Meanwhile, we neglect those who spent their life in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.
Most of our lives unfold in controlled environments. We make plans. Our pride attaches to them. We fail to see the background work to make all this possible.
Mammals use most of our energy to maintain homeostasy. Same with human civilisation. It’s an effort to keep things in balance. We control temperature. We store food. We set norms.
Then war, nature, or the system’s internal chaos, tip things over. Plans fail. Our sense of self is damaged. We feel shame. We feel grief. We feel anger.
Is a virus alive? It’s just a short strand of DNA, with extra protein and fat. Yet, it’s able to hack the cells of a living organism, and reproduce itself.
Each virus normally matches one species. If it crosses by accident – say when a pig eats a banana covered in bat saliva – the virus can’t reproduce. It eventually decomposes.
Except, sometimes, by chance, it works. Because living things have a lot in common. Poodles are very big amoebas, with a twist. More: viruses mutate randomly when they reproduce. Versions most compatible with a new host multiply. They spread. It repeats.
Illness is loss of balance. The resources of the body go towards containing a foreign organism, or helping it multiply. Immune system goes haywire. Vital organs stifle and fail. Too much at the same time, and the body collapses into death. Or it rebalances itself, but on a lower plane, some functions lost. Or it heals.
Past experience will tell us how each illness runs its course. We know when to let the body fight alone, or when to intervene. In the case of a new virus, it’s all educated guesswork.
We look for symptoms. Fever. Cough. Short breath. Fatigue. Rashes. Brain fog. Nausea. Pains. We test how early they start, how strong they manifest, how long they last. We list affected organs and tissues. Lungs. Brain. Blood. Skin. Muscles. Intestines. We count how many people die. We track long-term effects on survivors. We seek patterns.
When the body goes out of balance, medical intervention can restore function. Painkillers and syrups relieve symptoms. Threats to vital organs can be warded off by various interventions. But no treatment has guaranteed success for all. Many come with danger.
The goal is to keep minimal homeostasy. As long as a person is alive, there is hope for recovery. When the system collapses into death, it’s too late for a cure. When one organ fails, others tend to follow. Time is of the essence. Better play safe, rest up and isolate.
Except, we’re not bodies only. We strive to keep physical homeostasy, yes, but also mental and social. We take pills to reduce pains and fevers, so we can play, care, work, and keep the systems around us functioning.
Except, we’re not in this alone. Medicine is not just about this person, and this person, and this person. It’s working with a certain amount of supplies, and hospital beds, and doctors, and nurses, and entire supply chains. Too much pressure, and the whole system collapses.
How do you compare the preventable death of a son, sister, mother, friend, or grand-parent, to the collapse of a business, the loss of free spirit, or dreams never manifested, at population scale? How do you weigh the grief of crushed aspirations, versus the grief of early death? How do you balance inflation with trauma?
It’s hard enough to find answers. Factor uncertainty, preferences will shift. Some willingly gamble for a career, others for a loved one. Some want safety, some want agency, some want accountability, for themselves, or for all. It’s a maelstrom of passionate confusion.
To stop the chaos, we throw figures around. It’s unclear exactly where those figures come from, how accurate, or what’s left uncounted. Numbers have an air of self-evidence.
Lucky we trained in critical thought. We question the source. Mainstream media. Random dude on YouTube. Big pharma. Fame-seeking scientist. Lying official. Deranged nurse. Sprinkle a spoonful of deep fakes, leave it in the dark, and see the bubbles appear.
When I was in grade 12 philosophy, I was warned off mathematics. Power likes to deploy them as a form of sophisticated puppetry, to distract or impress. Later, I studied formal logic. It confirmed this early suspicion. Most formulas are nothing but symbolic chiaroscuro, dramatizing platitudes.
In my experience, however, storytelling trumps data. When it’s all too chaotic, and we need a course of action, we follow plot, and we trust character.
Sometimes, a text will cast unexpected light on your experience. Thomas Lecaque wrote an angry piece about Hurricane Katrina and LGBTIQA+ people. In the recovery phase, he says, a number of religious figures pointed the finger at the queer community. Forget about climate change. Katrina was just another case of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I’ve been struggling with guilt for most of my life. Part of it is the sin of pride, grandiosity, self-importance. Part of it is parental pressure to excel everywhere. But I started to wonder, to what extent is it also the product of homophobia. If queer people cause the wrath of God, should I take the blame for ecological collapse?
You know the type. ‘The system is broken,’ they say. Then comes an earnest explanation. ‘It’s the government’, ‘it’s human nature’, ‘there’s just too many people.’ Strangely, they seem exempt, as if their nature was more than human. Ask them which people are in excess exactly – they’re unlikely to point the finger at their own chest.
Philosophers around the world have tried understanding why the world is shit. Different traditions converge on different explanations. It’s original sin. It’s a test from God. It’s attachment.
During lockdown, with lots of time on my hands, I decided to read Atlas Shrugged. There, I found an original answer to the question above. Ayn Rand’s characters, staunch advocates of personal responsibility, know precisely why the world is shit. Because other people.
There is no such thing as a purely human achievement. We depend on the Earth to keep us vertical, provide mineral resources, and a sense of beauty. We depend on myriads of other life forms to breathe, eat, and find delight. We depend on material objects, the work of previous generations, tools, buildings, roads, nets, libraries, hammers, and computers. We depend on a shared framework to coordinate our action and find meaning, language as a shared commons, culture polishing behaviour, a sense of the divine. And yet, we continue to speak as if humans could make themselves, and hardly make room for the non-human in our institutions.
I remember two consecutive chats on LunchClub, during 2020. One was with the father of a three-month old. Lockdown was a perfect opportunity to bond with the baby. Another was with the father of a four-year-old. Life at home was hellish, work suffered, the family was under stress.
That a child should be three months or four years old when the pandemic struck – pure matter of luck – this had clear impact on those two men, their mental health, their relationships, their business. What of individual accountability then? Is not success the sole result of wise decisions, discipline and hard work?
For money to work as a unit of account, the price we command must adequately reflect our value. If there is tension between doing well and doing good, the system cannot be trusted.
This friend of mine was hoping to get investment for an app he developed. Something about sustainability. Create something good for the world. ‘We used open source software to do the prototype. Now I’m paying someone to rewrite the code, so that I can own the IP.’
Detective fiction typically centres on a character seeking the truth. Not so with Michael Nava’s queer detective series. ‘My goal is not to bring the culprit to justice’, says Henry Rios, protagonist and defence lawyer, ‘but exonerate my client and show reasonable doubt’.
In a state of half sleep, I once imagined this rite of passage for social workers. At a railway station, the facilitator ties three homeless people on a track. A freight train is headed towards them. The candidate has the option to pull a switch, which will redirect the train to another track, where a program participant is attached. They have only seconds to make up their mind.
The feedback was glorious: ‘It’s amazing! I got to test my moral intuition in real time’.
It’s a warm autumn day of 1998. I’m walking along Rue Soufflot, in the 5th district of Paris. Hausman buildings on both sides, with cream facades and grey slate roofs. I turn and look at the Pantheon, its dome rising at the end of the street.
We’re reading L’Education Sentimentale in literature class. There’s a scene where the main character walks along that same street. I’ve been Parisian for a few months, and I’ve only realised that I’m now living in the world of fiction.
Ball sports, pageants, reality TV: rules are set. There’s a judging process, and a winner for us to worship. But we can’t rely on those winners to challenge the system. Because their entire status depends on it.
‘The pressure to be rated means I am tempted to be falsely polite and not authentic,’ writes Rachel Botsman in Who can you trust. A certain Protestant theology may derive salvation from authenticity. I would rather cultivate virtue, learn from tradition, and try to be polite.
World peace depends on diplomacy, which is intelligent ritual. It’s Princess Grace, seducing De Gaulle in defence of Monaco, with elegant frivolity.
Blockchain is designed for mistrust. The system enables exchange without a need to trust participants. And we celebrate! What world are we creating? Would you not rather nurture trustworthy people than trade stocks?
I’m as addicted as any gay man to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Every season reminds me that we’re all born naked. The rest is effort. There is no such thing as natural grace. It’s all cultivated illusion. And it’s, oh yes, so much worth it!
Some like to rank things. ‘C’est mieux’, they say, comparing cities, wine, or restaurants, ‘it’s better’. My tastes are more fickle, and more personal. I try to guide my decisions not on the basis of ‘c’est mieux’, but ‘this would make me joyful today’.
Painkillers only treat symptoms, that’s correct. But then, inflammation feeds on itself. Vain pursuits can distract us from worthy goals. So can pain.