There’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. It seems that, beyond all other things, there is one specific trait that matters more than any other when it comes to the self. We’ll call it the Most Important Quality. This thing seems to transcend all others, or, perhaps, underlies all others. A person who has this will succeed, inevitably, and a person who does not will not be able to appreciate any success they may have. This is going to be pretty abstract from the jump, but we should be able to bring it in before the end.
There’s an idea that Ayn Rand came up with (as far as I’m aware) that she called a “sense of life,” which is, in essence, an internalized construct of how the world works. It’s the subconscious metaphysics that we construct as we grow and interact with the world. Because it’s precognitive, it’s not going to be expressed as a logical set of beliefs that one can easily explain (hence the vagaries of this article.) Instead, it’s more like a feeling.
Imagine that everyone is born with a tuning fork. At birth, for the sake of our argument, the fork isn’t shaped to resonate at any specific frequency. As we develop and interact with our parents, friends, and the world, the different events that we encounter begin to impact the fork. If we’re exceptionally social kids, the fork will be better tuned for whatever frequency other people operate on. If we’re more introverted, it will be tuned more to the frequencies of solo pursuits.
Now, this fork also takes the shape of our reactions to other events. If we’re often successful, we’re going to develop a fork that resonates with feelings of confidence and capability. If we’re constantly losing at games, it will begin to resonate with feelings of failure and discouragement. Over time, the fork starts to take less impact from external forces, and it eventually settles in a groove and vibrates on its own.
Imagine if you were raised in a room where the sound of TV static played constantly- it may have annoyed you at some point, but eventually it becomes normal, you forget about it, and you’ll even become uncomfortable if the sound stopped, for whatever reason.
This is sort of how the tuning fork works- if you’re constantly failing and getting discouraged, you’ll eventually stop believing that success is possible. Even if you do succeed, you’ll inevitably believe it’s a fluke, because of the continual resonance that you’ve become accustomed to. Psychology calls this state “learned helplessness.”
There’s another (fairly popular) metaphor that may shed some light here-
In the circus, when a baby elephant is born, the animal tamers will tie it up with a rope strong enough to prevent it from escaping. The baby elephant will struggle, but the rope is thick, and eventually, the baby gives up. Because the baby has accepted that there’s no escape, the animal tamers can use the same size rope for the rest of the elephant’s life- even though an adult elephant could easily snap the rope.
This phenomena of learned helplessness seems to be utterly pervasive, and it may be difficult to believe the degree to which it’s common at first. Consider how many religions operate with the philosophy that “life is suffering.” Buddhism (and Hinduism, though in a different way) is almost wholly based around suffering, the Judeo-Christian systems believe that the world is fallen and man is born sinful, and there’s a number of other religions that are centered around the same issue. It may be a stretch, but I think the problem of suffering is one of the central roots of all religion.
“The world is painful!” you say, “and most people won’t succeed, not everyone can be a winner!”
You’re probably right. A cursory glance around the world today is enough to show you that most people are not likely to change their ways overnight, start working out, get their lives in order, and really achieve their dreams. However, just because most people won’t do it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
This brings us to that core, fundamental, Most Important Quality that I started this article with- the central, primary thing that you must possess is the undying, unshakable belief that life can be good, that you can succeed, that the world isn’t a miserable, fallen place, and that the world you want to see, the life you’ve only dreamed of, can be achieved and is possible.
Rand has a quote (my personal favorite, for the record) that describes this far better than I am capable, which I touched on this in my thread-
This thread is a good supplement to this article.
If we understand that learned helplessness is (as the name suggests) an acquired state, then what we see is a horribly widespread trend of this inner fire being extinguished on a global scale. Our parents, teachers, friends, and family all contribute to the tuning of our forks, and so many people have their forks warped to resonate to misery and powerlessness so early on that they never stand a chance. We’ve lost our collective sense of hope, and our culture no longer believes in the capacity of the individual to overcome their circumstances. The American Dream no longer appeals to Americans, because they’ve all convinced themselves (or have been convinced) that they’re not good enough, or insufficient, or sinful, or fallen, or some other variation of having internalized the misery of the failures spawned in generations past.
This is a much larger issue than just the belief that a single individual has. As I’ve touched on before, the individual is a product of the environment that he arises in. If you could imagine that all of humanity was represented by a single person, then the conflict of the individual is the same as the conflict that society and the group faces. Singular people become thoughts and whispers in a great mind, individual neurons meeting and socializing in interpersonal synapses, all contributing to a horribly divided, dissonant whole.
Learned helplessness has a different name when it’s applied to the whole-
Nihilism is fundamentally the belief that life is meaningless, that there is no purpose to life, and suffering is the norm. If you’ve been tracking so far, this miserable, pathetic philosophy is the academic, rationalized form of this internalized feeling of worthlessness.
This worthlessness is born of the one (nearly) unforgivable sin. This fatal tragedy arises when the individual gives up their own locus of control and externalizes it. This person places the blame for their sorry state on any and every person whose existence serves to invalidate their theory. The successful become oppressors, the wealthy become crooks, the free become cold reminders of the horrible curse that freedom presents to those who fear life-
There are a number of phrases you’ll see tossed around that are good indicators of nihilism. One of the most prevalent is “don’t judge,” “only God can judge me,” or some other attack on people who make judgements. You may think this is a normal saying and that we should all be less judgmental, but the harsh reality is that judgement is one of the most powerful tools we have to succeed in the world. If you’re buying a used car, you’re going to examine it and make a judgement as to its quality before you make the investment, right?
Imagine if the salesman said, “don’t judge the car, man.” It’s a preposterous statement, right? The core idea comes from the biblical “judge not, lest ye be judged yourselves,” which I have always seen not as a prohibition, but a charge against hypocrisy: if you’re going to be judged, you better be prepared to hold yourself to the same standards. That, in my opinion, is a great rule for life, and I even suggest that one go as far as to hold oneself to higher standards than others. If you can do that, you’ll always be covered.
People prefer the alternative, however- judgement is evil and wrong. The problem with this is that to deny judgement is to deny the reasoning mind in and of itself, and anyone promoting this sort of philosophy is going to be inherently hypocritical, guaranteed. Otherwise, try and sell them a lemon car and see if they’re consistent in their beliefs.
Why do they deny the fact that people are inherently judgmental (and that that’s not automatically a bad thing)? Two reasons. First, these are people who know that they’re not living up to the standards that a part of them still possesses. Cognitive dissonance cannot be escaped, merely evaded. Any interaction with judgement is going to be a reminder that they’re insufficient. I’d argue that this is one of, if not the primary, roots by which depression emerges- the understanding that there’s a life that one could and should be living, and the denial necessary to push that understanding into the back of the mind.
The second, more sinister denial of judgement is much more subtle. Because Man is, by nature, a reasoning animal who exercises judgement constantly to survive, the denial of the capacity to judge is a denial of Life and the reality that supports it, in and of itself. The only person that does not judge is dead- while we live, we reason. You won’t eat rotten fruit or a moldy sandwich, because you know (by process of judgement) that it’s bad. You won’t pick up a hot coal because your capacity to judge rules that as a bad move. Judgement is, at its core, the mechanism by which reason is applied to volition to keep you alive.
The denial of judgement is then an expression of the Will to death.
This brings us back to the most important quality- the belief that Life can be good, that success is possible, and the world isn’t a worthless hell that we’re condemned to suffer in because we’re born as bad people. Where Rand thinks the Spark of the inner fire can be extinguished, I am much more an optimist.
I believe that, as long as we are living, we have the ability to rekindle the spark within us. I believe this because I had to do it myself, and I know how hard the fight to do so is. It’s taken the better part of a decade, but there remained at all times within my heart the small, quiet voice that would not give up. I believe that every person has this, regardless of whether they still believe in it, because for a long time I did not. I believe that this voice, this impulse, can only be extinguished when the life of the individual ends.
I believe that this means that as long as you yet draw breath, your fight is not over.
At the core of all of this is the Burden of Existence. Most people are alive, but very few people ever truly choose to live. What does it mean to choose to live?
To consciously make the choice that you are going to live requires a few things. You first must accept that you have to do the things which will keep you alive (as discussed in BoE, I). The next requirements are more complicated. It’s not just enough to live, one must live in such a way that life becomes rewarding- one has to live well. This means taking care of one’s health (diet and exercise are necessary for a quality life) and one’s finances (unless homelessness is what you desire).
To choose Life is to choose to not simply bear the Burden, but to willingly embrace the struggle, and to welcome the suffering. This is not a concept that you can simply read and agree with, this, as with all Truths, must be integrated, as “the Truth is that which changes you in the knowing.” This is a concept that must be understood in all its awful and terrible gravity. This is a decision that must be made with the full awareness of the consequences attached.
In all honesty, this is a decision I have had to make and remake, time and time again. Each time you genuinely choose to live, the burden actually becomes lighter, as obstacles cease to be impassible and begin to appear as preparatory challenges. That rock in your way? It’s a reason to train. That endless road before you? It’s the road to success.
While I may decry the horrible philosophy of Nihilism as it is in the world today, in truth, I see it as a stage that separates the old world from the new. In the old world, we could blame our problems on some cruel deity who made people sinful and the world as punishment. Evil existed because of some devil, or demons, or demiurge, or because of karma. The desert of Nihilism (which I will cover in greater detail in a future article) is the barrier that stands at the end of the old world. The desert is the test that keeps the weak from truly seeing Life as it is, because those who will not accept the Burden cannot be given the rewards.
To accept responsibility is the same as to deny the supernatural element, because so long as you believe that external forces of any kind are impacting your behavior, you can justify your own failings as not your fault.
What is required is to return to the place in you that still remembers what it was like to believe. Somewhere within you is that small, quiet voice, and it’s been patiently waiting for you to rediscover it. This is the voice of Hope, or perhaps the Will to Order itself, the part of you that believes that you truly are capable of changing the world.
For what it’s worth, I believe you can change the world, too.
(Photo Credit to the incredible Bryan Larsen, "Terra Incognita")
“Believe, believe in me, believe, believe
That life can change,
That you’re not stuck in vain.
We’re not the same,
We’re different tonight, tonight,
Tonight, so bright,
And you know you’re never sure,
but you’re sure you could be right,
if you held yourself up to the light.
And the embers never fade,
In your city by the lake-
the place where you were born.
Believe, believe in me, believe, believe
in the resolute urgency of now.”