Even though it comprises no more than two letters and one syllable, ‘no’ ranks among the most punishing words in the English language. Contained in this very tiny word is a universe of potential meanings.
When we run away from the possibility of being told “no”, we are often running away from something entirely different. When we don’t ask out that hot stranger, we aren’t terrified of being told “no”, we are terrified of being told we are disgusting and unworthy. When we hold our tongue and don’t ask for a pay rise, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about being told we aren’t actually good at what we do and thus, don’t deserve a pay rise. When we don’t ask our partners for more attention or to be kinder to us, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about realising something we may have known all along, they don’t love us the way we need them to.
No’s come in many forms. When we tell a joke and others don’t laugh, the absence of laughter says to us ‘no, you aren’t funny’. When our dog doesn’t roll over or shake our hand on command, the rejection of our order says to us ‘you’re weak, you lack the power to even control an animal’. When we ask a friend to come out with us and they say “maybe”, they might not be saying ‘no’, but it still feels like they are. A ‘no’ feels the same as negation or as absence of affirmation.
While it is reductive to a significant extent, we are largely shaped by the forces of our childhood. Early conditions of a sapling will determine the shape and strength of the tree it becomes; similarly, our childhood affects the shape of our lives and the strength of our character.
If our childhood was characterised by emotionally unavailable parents, we suffer. We may have never been instilled with a faith in our inherent goodness so that today even the slightest rejection, like a “no”, becomes perceived as an existential threat. Or, we may have learned that acceptance means pleasing others and “no” signifies a failure to satisfy and get that thirst-quenching “yes”. Or, one day we asked for an expensive toy and our parents shouted “NO” at us and began to cry; we thought we were being a horrible child to our protector, little did we know about the money troubles at the time. They weren’t crying because they hated us, but because they couldn’t give us everything we ever wanted. We weren’t the failure, they felt like the failure. Looking back, we know that intellectually we weren’t failures, but it still feels that way, deep in our bones. The answer (or at least, the beginning of the answer) lies in interrogating our childhood and seeing how the feelings a ‘no’ today conjures are often remnants of undealt with circumstances in our pasts.
To survive, we are likely of falling into a pattern of avoiding any situation in which ‘no’ might arise. We narrow the possibilities of life by sticking the well-worn tracks of ‘yes’. While it may be more secure and satisfying (or rather, simply not unsatisfying), in the process, we retard our own creative development and chances for self-transcendence. By avoiding situations where we are told ‘no’, we avoid rejection, but we also miss out on opportunity.
We would do well to utilise this intellectual tool: when people say no, they do so because it doesn’t fit in with their plans. The hot stranger said ‘no’ not because they think you’re a disgusting freak; they have a partner. The animal didn’t refuse your command because you’re weak; they were distractedly focused on food. When your boss rejected your request for a raise, they didn’t say so because they think you’re a worthless employee; the business is struggling.
Think of all the times you’ve said ‘no’ to people without meaning they were sick, defected, or intolerable. You said “no” to the telemarketer because paying $50 a week for insurance on a boat you don’t own simply doesn’t fit in with your plan of saving money; and you said “no” to a friend who asked you to hang out, not because you think they’re boring, but because you already had plans to have dinner with your parents. You didn’t say “no” because you hated them, their requests simply didn’t fit in with your plans.
‘No’ is an incredibly powerful word, but we would do well to be slightly less narcissistic here. It really isn’t about you. People say ‘no’ for so many reasons, often having very little to do (if at all) with you. We would be well-served in keeping this thought at the back of our minds so that next time someone says ‘no’ to us, we can remind ourselves it isn’t because we are disgusting or defective or a failure; our request simply doesn’t fit in with their plans.
In the West, our philosophy leans heavily towards theory. It is mental and often confined to the clever organisation and categorisation of abstract concepts. But this is merely one method of philosophising. One can also philosophise not through thinking, but through experiencing. To use an analogy, there are people who stand still and listen to music, and there are those who dance. They both experience music, but in radically different ways.
We can confine ourselves to the philosophy of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nussbaum as it is written and will surely learn a lot. But there is another philosophy teacher, one whose teachings are not found in books but in life itself. This renowned and undeniably wise teacher is nature itself and by living in it as well as with it, we might learn something entirely new, fresh, and altogether radically different.
Clouds have many things to teach us. Whispery membranes floating through the sky, forming poetic patterns of mist gleaming luminously against the sunlight. Yet, clouds never hold form. They manifests the lesson of ‘letting go’, of becoming but not being. A cloud is always on its way to something else; another shape, another form, another pattern. The cloud says to us that we need not worry, our boundaries are porous, there is no real distinction between you and me anymore than there is between one cloud and another. We should not fight this but simply let the wind carry us.
Rocks have their own philosophical teachings to impart.
The forces of nature and the flow of time are irrevocable. It is not something we can fight. Even the sturdiest among us will fall before the sword of the ineluctable flow of life. But, in the process, we become unique and in an utterly singular way, beautiful. Our spots cannot be replicated; our curves and crevices cannot be mass-produced.
- Rocks are elegant and upright in the face of forces far beyond their power; they can teach us to be brave in the face of adversity.
- Rocks furrow and brow, this does not dampen their beauty but enhances it; the furrows of our brow, the lines from our eyes, the wrinkles around our lips, these are signs of character and a life well lived.
- The channels on rocks show where time has left its mark and given them distinctive beauty; time shapes us in unique ways and these are marks of distinctions, not signs of deformity.
- The holes that allow light to pass through don’t betray weakness but allow light to illuminate their interior beauty; through our struggle, we grow and become stronger in different ways. The marks of past struggles cast us in a new light and show that we have changed.
A flower stem fluttering in the wind has an important lesson to share. As it flutters, suggesting it is moments from breaking, we begin to think that the stem is weak and fragile. But we are looking at the stem out of context. It is the wind and open space in combination with the stem that make it flutter. If we were to bring the flower inside, it would remain still and sturdy. Humans are similar. We may say a person is anxious, just as the stem was weak. But it is not the person that is anxious, it is the person in that environment that makes them anxious, that makes there heart and mind flutter. By changing the environment of the flower we resolve the issue of fluttering. So too, if we change our environment, what ails us might also be resolved.
One of the most important philosophical lessons we can learn comes from the garden. It’s most important lesson can be summed up as it is not about you. You cannot act selfishly or single-mindedly in the garden without destroying it. Chickens will not lay eggs merely by commanding them to do so. You cannot demand a flower bloom without sun. You cannot force a tomato grow without enough potassium. It is not for nothing that a crop of vegetables is called a ‘yield’; a word captured in essence by ‘giving in’. The garden reveals to us an indisputable truth of nature: things work together; and it teaches us that to be successful, we must give up the myopic focus on what we want, and begin to appreciate and deliver on what other things want. Life is relationship; this is what the garden has to share.
Thoreau once wrote,
Students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than but at once trying the experiment of living?
Western philosophy has a lot to learn from Thoreau. Indeed, philosophy can be learnt from reading pyramids of books and entertaining abstract thought from the comfort of a study. But, there is another, different, and sometimes (especially for a gardener) more fruitful type, and that is the philosophy gained by lived experiences, and there is no better teacher than nature herself.
If we can’t decide who we are, others will make that decision for us.
It is sad enough when two people dislike each other. It is even sadder to dislike yourself because someone else does.
One of the most common questions we ask ourselves when we meet new people, especially on dates, is ‘do they like me?’ It is an important question, the answer to which indicates whether we deepen connections or cut them off before it becomes too difficult. However, there is a particular type of person for whom this question takes on a destabilising importance. This person is that peculiar being who is, to their dismay, unsure of themselves.
Especially for the deeply unsure, but for the rest of us too, the reason we care so much about what others think of us is because, to a greater or lesser extent, we simply do not know who we are. Adulation or insult, compliments or denigration; they take on gargantuan proportions because rather than second-hand comments, they are seen as prescient statements about who we are as a person. Lacking proper insight into our identity and missing the courage to defend ourselves, we take what other people say to heart. After all, because we don’t know ourselves, what that person said could very well be true.
There is significant overlap between the ‘people pleaser’ and the person who does not know themselves. Lacking a proper understanding of who we are, we are liable to seek the answer in the words of others. Never wanting to be told bad things, we will go out of our way to appease and satisfy others so they will tell us something we likely have always wanted to, but have been unable to tell ourselves: we are worthy.
‘Do they like me’ might be an important question, but it is also an extremely passive one. It places power and responsibility entirely in the hands of another, as if you are a mere pawn to their whims. To believe ourselves as worthy and to have a mature understanding of who we are, we may still ask ‘do they like me’ but we will be able to ask an equally important question: do I like them?
Caring about what others think often occurs in inverse proportion to caring about what we think. Lacking the courage and self-assurance to say who we are, this space becomes filled with the vapid and sometimes harmful words of others. Our sense of self becomes entirely hinged to what others have to say.
To care less about what others think of us (which does not imply being obnoxious, only self-assured), we must start a new journey: we need to learn who we are and in doing so, develop the confidence to hold our heads high knowing that even if people might not like us, that is absolutely okay, because we know and like ourselves.
As weird as it sounds, complaining is an art form. Just as we can appreciate the difference between a landscape painting of William Blake and a painting of a landscape featuring a sun (always confusingly wearing sunglasses) by our 6 year old niece; we can likewise appreciate the difference between a person who complains and one who whines; between the artist of airing grievances and the cruder verbal ramblings of the untrained conversationalist.
The whiner, like the complainer, has a problem; they both share the facts of the problem with those around them. But, the whiner remains at a particularly surface level of engagement with the problem. They will exclaim how it is so horrible that this thing has happened, how it is so unfair and cruel, and probably God is just punishing them for their very arrogance to exist. The whiner sticks with a problem but never goes beyond it. They do not connect dots, dive deeper, or see how an issue inextricably connects to actions they may have previously taken.
The complainer, on the other hand, engages with their dismay differently. Properly complaining is to connect a problem with the deeper issues feeding it, alongside the preceding actions that may have caused it. They say something is bad, but they also explain, in their own way, why.
To highlight the difference, consider the case of a back injury. The whiner will go on about how much pain they’re in, why it is so rotten that bad things happen to good people, and express frustration about how they can’t do what they want to anymore because of the pain. One who understands the art of complaining, however, will approach it differently. They will observe that while it is terrible they have a back injury, what is most sad is how they never took the importance of a strong lower back seriously. They were lax and complacent, and this is the result. They feel less than human now, different, even disabled, and being different and lesser than those around them has always been something they were worried about; childhood trauma is manifesting in the most brutal of ways.
The complainer inspects their complaint, unpacks it, connects it, and in the process gives a detailed and personal picture. They are like Blake’s landscape painting; broad brushstrokes here, softs touches there, and layers upon layers drawing you in to a unified and sentimental offering of the soul. The whiner does not do this. They say things are bad and that’s that. They are like the crude single line landscape paintings of a child. You can infer there is a landscape, but the painting lacks the detail to convey any sense of what is important to the painter.
The art of complaining lies in going beyond the problem itself, drawing out the personal, and giving insight into the rocky topography of one’s emotional landscape. What makes whining so alienating and proper complaining so fruitful is because when people ask what is wrong, they are really asking what is wrong with you; the insight and clarity the artist of complaining possess allows us to empathise in their pain, and connect with them on a significantly more personal, intimate, and gratifying level.
The drainer is a terrorist, holding someone hostage in conversation.
It is an unfortunate reality that when you meet new people, there are few perceptible signs before speaking to them that they are a drainer. Maybe you saw people they were talking to eye off the exit, or observed exasperated shrugs of the shoulders, perhaps you overheard others make numerous ‘anyways’ and ‘that’s good’ comments as they tried to close up the conversation. The drainer, for lack of better phrasing, just doesn’t know when to shut up.
They will just go on and on about a particular topic with apparent disregard for how interested you appear (or internally are). They certainly believe in what they are saying and unfortunately believe enthusiasm can be a substitute for skill. They really do think that vaccines kill, or truly believe that the climate emergency is just an overreaction. Whether they are pulling at whatever thoughts first float to the surface, or (as they see it) citing coherent arguments, stating facts, and presenting data, what makes them a drainer – that is, a drain on your very energy to continue speaking to them – is that they pay no attention to you.
Drainers, unfortunately, tend to be better at talking at people rather than with them. In the process, they undermine the most basic tenet of communication: to commune; to join and create something together. The drainer is so concerned with being heard they forget to listen.
One comes upon a sneaking suspicion that drainers aren’t really being honest with us or themselves. They are filled with such self-righteous anger at vaccine mandates or protestors fighting climate change. But the venom running through their incessant monologing about why this is ridiculous, or these people are fools, suggests that the problem might be more personal. Perhaps a vaccine mandate seems authoritarian, the same kind of invasive authority they were subjected to in childhood; they were always victimised, and rarely had a say in how they wanted to live, and maybe (and perhaps this is the real issue) they still don’t. Maybe they hate people fussing about the climate catastrophe because they have been poor, unemployed, broken and belittled, but nobody ever gave a damn about them; their problems are real while the climate problem is so abstract. Once again, they have been forgotten, and it makes them furious. The drainer (as they so often are), is angry, but because they don’t properly locate or expand on the sources of their own anger, they come across terribly boring, and even a bit neurotic. The problem isn’t that we want to hear less, rather, we want to hear more; less about the world, and more about them.
A good partner in conversation, therefore, will try their best to draw the conversation from the broader, more abstract and impersonal; into the more concise, specific and personal; understanding that beneath the rage about vaccines and environmental protestors, there was a personal story waiting to be told. A story, perhaps, that would be far more interesting and significantly less draining.
In seeing the personal beneath the impersonal, what people have to say becomes significantly less draining. When someone says vaccine mandates are a sign of fascism or that the environmental movement threatens the economic system, we won’t be as infuriated or even triggered, because we will understand where that person is coming from and just how much their personal experiences inform their present understanding, even if they might not realise it themselves.
Drainers are exclusively concerned with themselves. This comes back to the point about communing. Seeing very little interest in what you have to say unless it supports their point, the drainer is entropic, sucking the energy from conversation. At the heart of it, the drainer has an ardent desire to be heard. What we could do is hear them, or, at least, the parts of themselves that they may not be able to hear themselves. We could, as good participants in conversation, try to draw out the personal beneath the impersonal, and in the process, commune in a way that is gratifyingly more real, more intimate, and less draining in the process.
The world, as many of us are well aware, is in a state of utter chaos. We can easily imagine the Byzantines having a similar conversation as the Visigoths sacked Rome, or Aztec citizens observing to each other as the Conquistadors pillaged Tenochtitlan. This has likely been the conversation held by all people throughout all of recorded history. Yet, what makes this particular observation so salient, is the extensive and intensive creep of this chaos throughout almost all of our lives. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental degradation, corporate control; we are mired in problems with seemingly no way out.
The common complaint when anybody says that there is something wrong with this or that is ‘what shall we do about it’? We demand answers. Or, more to the point, we demand someone to tell us what to do.
Maybe not an answer, but here is a suggestion.
When almost every single realm of life has become an appendage of the very chaos we seek to dispel, the single radical act left to any of us is simply…to do nothing.
But this is a very peculiar type of nothingness. This is not nothing as inertia or mechanical repetition, but ‘nothing’ as a severe and (as much as we can) complete break from the system of chaos as it stands that we support with the small choices we make every day.
There are so many types of nothing we could engage in. A good one for starters is, turn off the TV (and stop letting corporate advisors tell you how to think). After that, you can stop purchasing new phones and new clothes and new toys every week (and contributing to the pollution of the planet). You can even stop buying plastic (and adding to the poisoning of animals and ecosystems).
Doing nothing is not so much doing nothing as it is stopping what you are currently doing; in doing so, you open up a negative space of freedom where finally something new can actually appear. Geoffrey Bezos would go broke if we stopped purchasing things off Amazon, and the Earth would stand a better chance of surviving if we stopped using plastic. The negative field is ripe with possibilities. Instead of purchasing all your food from stores you could try your hand at growing something on your own; no longer using plastic will encourage you to consume differently and arguably, more ethically.
The single radical act left to us in a world that has been almost complete enlisted into the service of chaos is to do nothing. The withdrawal of support for a system that is utterly chaotic is perhaps the most radical thing we can do. The power in this is not that it is a guide or blueprint for what comes after. Nobody can predict that. But, it opens up a space where imagining and perhaps implementing a different, less chaotic world becomes possible.
There are people in our lives whom we remain friends with for no other apparent reason than we have been friends with them for such a long time. They have woven the inextricable threads of friendship throughout time; pulling at those threads could result in the entire tapestry falling apart.
The tone might suggest that we remain intimate with old friends for the pragmatic (and very unfriendly) reason that it would simply be too difficult or uncomfortable to end the relationship now after considering how far you have grown apart.
But there is another reason for keeping contact with old friends. They grant us a vantage point into a version of ourselves that we no longer are. Within the friendship is a time capsule of memories that reveal a life lived and a vista of the previous person we were.
Again, this sounds like keeping someone around because of the memories we shared and not because of genuine friendly love. And, to an extent, this retort is correct, yet there is value in being able to reminisce, not only because it reveals who you used to be, but because it also reveals the reason you became (and remain) friends in the first place.
It can be a scary prospect to tell someone that despite all the good times (and bad) you shared, you are no longer compatible. But you live, not for others, but for yourself. If you cannot be true to your feelings, the friendship disintegrates into a farce of false feelings and manufactured kindness. It will have all the embellishments of friendship without any of the substance. It is far kinder and ironically, more friendly, to tell someone it is over than to pretend that it isn’t.
There comes a time where we must take stock of our own lives; ponder, consider and reflect on who we were and who we now are. People are not tools; one should not simply have a friend because they are useful or gratifying. We grow and we change; as do others. Much like our wardrobe or study, our friendships should be free of clutter and unnecessary items. Old friendships can be beautiful recordings of who we were and instructions on how we can be better in the future; but they can also be sources of conflict, dismay and disappointment. It is up to us to decide and act accordingly.
From a very young age, we adopt what can be called a comparative mindset. As children, we compare our grades with our classmates, or compare our parents’ treatment with our siblings. In adulthood, we define our sense of wealth with those around us, from the cars we drive to the clothes we wear; or, we understand how well we are doing in life with our peers. The implicit problem in all this, which is by no means a revelation, is that we fail to look at ourselves as we are. We become, in the words of Krishnamurti, ‘second hand people’.
David Bohm grasps the essential problem in his insightful collection of essays titled On Dialogue. Comparison does not just change what we think, but also how we think. If the content of thought is explicit,then its structure is implicit. A metaphorical equivalent would be the difference between the water and the current of a stream. Water is the content, but the current is the structure, always guiding and shaping the content, yet operating unseen. In seeing how difficult it is to even think about life except through comparison, we see the extent of how the implicit structure of thought operates. For instance, if we cannot think about what it means to be successful, to be rich, to be smart, or to be strong without comparing it to other people, it gives us an indication of just how conditioned our thinking is.
The danger of thought structured by comparative thinking is that your personality becomes second-hand (I am smart because he is dumb, I am happy because my car is more expensive than his); experiences become echoes (the sunrise yesterday was more vibrant, the rain last night was more soothing); and people lose their dignity (you are dumb because I am smarter, you are unworthy because we were both born poor but I became rich). In short, life becomes derivative, experiences become shadows, and people become insubstantial.
This comparative mindset empties the world of so much joy. ‘You say this is better than that; you compare yourself with somebody who is more beautiful, who is more clever’, writes Krishnamurti in his altogether heartfelt and moving collection of talks On Love & Loneliness.
Comparative judgment makes the mind dull; it does not sharpen the mind, it does not make the mind comprehensive, inclusive, because, when you are all the time comparing, what has happened? You see the sunset, and you immediately compare that sunset with the previous sunset.
When we compare, we do not see the utter uniqueness and singularity of life. By comparing, we dull the vitality of experiences by reducing it as another number in a sequence.
When you are comparing, you are really not looking at the sunset which is there, but you are looking at it in order to compare it with something else. So comparison prevents you from looking fully.
By comparing, we are not looking fully because we only see something in relation to something else. Everything becomes an echo, a reflection, or a repetition.
To really look at the sunset, there must be no comparison; to really look at you, I must not compare you with someone else.
This is the unparalleled majesty of love. When we truly love someone, we do not see them in comparison with other people. This is why the disgruntled lovers’ remark that they are not as beautiful as previous partners, or they are not smart or rich enough entirely misses the point. In love, there is no comparison. The beloved is uniquely, irreducibly themselves. To see with lovers’ eyes is to see freshly, to see without comparison. As Krishnamurti says, ‘when I look at you without comparing, I am only concerned with you, not with someone else’. In this radical act, dignity is restored.
The inherent danger in comparison is that it stops us from seeing things for what they are, whether it be a sunset, a partner, or even ourselves. After a lifetime of conditioning it is hard to think differently, but if we are to see things justly and accord the respect each moment deserves, we must look anew, with fresh eyes, and see things for what they are on their own terms, and not in comparison with something else.
The paradox of melancholy lies in how the seeds of sadness sit latent (and ever ready to germinate) within happiness. Just as life implies death and pleasure implies pain, happiness implies sadness. It is the foresight that this momentary (and precarious) lofty feeling will soon (all too soon) descend back to the pits of despair which constitutes a feeling of melancholy.
While basically anything can prompt melancholy, one particular situation will always provide fertile soil for this most paradoxical of feeling: parties.
You might have been a bit hesitant to go, but after some careful and considered cajoling by friends, they convinced you to come along to the party. As the music pumps and the drinks are poured, you find yourself (surprisingly) having quite a good time. But then, you are suddenly struck by a feeling, perhaps the same feeling that caused your anxiety about going to the party in the first place. You begin feeling melancholic.
Although you are now surrounded by friends and immersed in the bonhomie of the party, you realise just how joyless and lonely your day to day existence is. You begin to see that while you’re having fun tonight; the other 99% of your week is devoted to mind-numbing drudgery and minutia. This moment is effervescent, bubbly, but soon to pop (any moment now) and all that will remain are the still waters of everyday life.
You want to feel good like this all the time, but you know you can’t. The very knowledge of your somewhat miserable life outside of the party is the very thing stopping you from enjoying the party. So, not only do you feel melancholic, but (adding insult to injury) you begin feeling disappointed in yourself, because you now have a slither of happiness within your grasp that only you are stopping yourself from enjoying.
There is another type of melancholy that typically arises at parties. If the first is melancholy because life beyond the party is seen as lacking, the second type arises when life within the party is seen as lacking.
At the party (but one can easily substitute a bar, club, pub or festival), one will be surrounded by all types of people having a stupendous time. The lights are low, alcohol is being passed freely; and banter and laughter fill the room.
The idea of sociability at work here is that people relate to each other best when they are close together, in a good mood, and maybe, just a little bit drunk. But the melancholic sees through this pretence. Or rather, they see artifice and the beauty of constructed situations as pretence, as fakery and mimicry. The cheeriness and superficial banter are not seen as invitations to pretend – in the tradition of the Italian carnivale – but rather, are seen as indications of the emptiness that lies within most social occasions. The melancholic – perhaps more than other people – sees that real connection requires more than false smile and the conscious effort to be funny and friendly.
The melancholic grasps in the joyful atmosphere of parties what is truly lacking: intimacy. Melancholy, if anything, is moral witnessing to the disparity between how things are, and how we would like them to be.
While the world around us emphasises buoyancy and joyfulness, melancholy alerts us to the inescapable fact that life is inextricably entwined with pain, suffering, and loneliness.
Melancholy, viewed in a more philosophical light, is not a problem at all; for melancholy is at its heart a realisation, a revelation, and a prompt from the deep recesses of our soul to deal with the way we are living. It is a call from the beyond to take stock of our life, and a suggestion to begin living it differently.