ANOTHER NEWLY WRITTEN SECTION THAT I JUST HAD TO SLIP INTO THE BOOK BEFORE CALLING IT DONE.
Tom Sawyer knew the secret of life. He was able to take a tedious task like painting a fence and turn it into a joyous event. He did it by simply changing the way people were thinking about the task, tricking them into thinking of it as something special rather than just an ordinary task. He was successful with others, but was unable to apply the same trick to himself, using it only as a way of getting out of work. By simply shifting their attitudes through trickery he managed get a whole group of people to happily paint his fence for him.
There is something crucial to be learned from that. The lesson is, if you’re bored or depressed, just change the way you think about it. Just choose not to be bored. Sound too simple to be true? OK, so let me complicate it a bit for you.
Colin Wilson uses the analogy of an archer to explain how we live our lives. “Perception is intentional. You fire your perception like an arrow at a target. … But if you don’t pull back the bowstring far enough, if you’re feeling tired or lazy, then the arrow merely falls at your feet and everything looks dull or boring.”
What does “perception is intentional” mean? Intentionality is like a combination of awareness and effort. The more you direct your attention and the more effort you put into it, the more intentionality you have and the more interesting things are. An interesting life doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it. Life has the meaning that you give it through the things that you do, so it should be no mystery that if you don’t do anything it will seem meaningless. If you don’t engage in life, the archer begins to feel invisible and we “lose ourselves”.
So to return to the archery analogy, you have to have an archer who chooses a target, pulls back the bowstring, aims and releases the arrow to find the target. Each part is important. The whole process awakens the archer, which is the part of your mind that has will power. Some philosophers call it the “Transcendent Ego” or the “Essence”, but it is just the part of you which has will power as opposed to just acting or responding automatically.
We can and do act automatically a lot of the time. It’s a good thing, as then we don’t have to make choices about every single thing in our lives. But some people are on automatic pilot all of the time. They’re like a silver ball in a pinball game, …and the flippers don’t work. There is no archer or arrow. Life just happens, and then they wonder why nothing is interesting or why things go wrong. In spite of the fact that much of our lives happens automatically, we do have choice and will power when we need and want it. It takes effort and awareness to use it.
The pulling of the string is the effort, and if we don’t put enough effort into life, the arrow falls at our feet. The aiming is our awareness, and if we don’t exercise that, our arrows fly wildly in all directions and we don’t really accomplish anything. Awareness produces a bigger, more interesting world with attainable goals.
Those people that either don’t engage their energy or leak it all over the place, sink to a low level of interest because their will power, their awareness and their effort all go to sleep. Their energy and their lives stagnate and they become bored and more lazy. It’s a difficult state of mind to get out of. Many get out of it through alcohol, drugs or even sex, although these things often just contribute to the leakiness (along with self pity, anger, overeating and lots of other things) while clouding both effort and awareness. (Sex can be a great way to mobilize personal energy and engagement, though it tends not to work well all by itself.)
How do you escape from this low level of interest, this attitude that feels that the world is a dark, boring place? Getting sluggish energy flowing is difficult, but there are several ways to do it.
Most cars nowadays have an automatic transmission, but I learned to drive a standard and my first few cars all had a standard transmission. There’s a trick that you can pull off with a standard transmission that doesn’t work with an automatic, so I don’t know how many will relate to this analogy. When the battery is low or dead in a standard car, so that it doesn’t start, you can start it by pushing it. This was usually done by having three or four friends push the car while it’s in neutral or with the clutch down. Once the car achieves sufficient speed you put it in first gear and pop the clutch. This forces the whole drive mechanism to move which will often start the car. It forces enough power out of the generator to fire the spark plugs and start the engine. Once it is started, it will begin to produce its own power and will probably even recharge the battery if nothing serious is wrong. This was called “push starting” a car.
You can push start people too. If someone is in a negative frame of mind, bored and with a pessimistic view of things, their intentionality is low and their archer is invisible. So you push start them, or yourself if you can. You force them or force yourself to get engaged in something. A common way to do this is to go on a trip or an adventure. That’s why people often feel so alive when they’re on vacation. A new responsibility or even a hobby may also work to push start things. Parents like to use sports activities, and they are often effective but can lose their appeal. Also, adventures can be positive or negative. It can be a hike or a camping trip, or sky diving, but it can also be a drug or involvement in something illegal like breaking and entering. I’d recommend the kinds of adventure that don’t lead to additional troubles as that will just land you back in depression and boredom along with draining your energy more. It’s not hard to see, though, how and why people get sucked into exciting situation which are negative in nature. It’s also easy to see that, most definitely, withdrawing from activities and hiding in one’s room is the opposite of a solution to the problem.
On the other hand, if you have a healthy level of interest in the world, it is much easier to raise it to a much higher level, achieving those peak experiences that Maslow talked about. This is a soaring level of interest, clarity and engagement that leads to a great sense of living life positively, and an intense feeling of loving life. You feel woken up. You don’t feel like life is batting you around without you having any control. You feel “in control” and like what you’re doing makes a difference.
I’m hoping that many of the things that follow in this chapter will help to both “push start” teens when they’re down, or also achieve or maintain higher states. How you look at life is definitely a choice. How you choose is important. Not all choices are equal.
Of all the suggestions that follow, pay special attention to Meditation. Colin Wilson states over and over again that the best way to make the archer’s arrow fly strong and true is to learn how to control you energy level so that it is optimistic rather than pessimistic. This can be achieved by forcing yourself to concentrate or meditate, thereby bolstering your awareness and effort. Life is lived intentionally. If you just let it happen, don’t be surprised if nothing happens, or you don’t like what happens to you.
[I am indebted to Colin Wilson for many of the points in this section, along with the archer analogy. The car analogy is mine. I found an interview with Wilson, published by Brad Spurgeon, called “Philosopher of Optimism” to be particularly helpful in focusing these ideas.]