Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Ivan_Ilych_paintingR400The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy is a profoundly moving novella that takes the reader through the existential struggles of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia. Living a well regarded life in the public eye, he takes pleasure in his work and finds great success. When he is struck with a terminal illness, he begins to grow intensly bitter toward everyone he encounters, except his care-taker, a peasant named Gerasim – the only person who showed Ivan Ilych any sort of tenderness.

His wife, the doctors, and his co-workers, were too preoccupied with their own success to deeply care for him during his final days. His wife saw him as a means to an income (particularly the government money she hopes to receive after his death), The doctors related to him as a mere broken object, and his co-workers were preoccupied with who would get promoted when he vacates his position.

Ultimately, surrounded by these superficial relations on his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his own life. Had he not been merely one of them all along? Now, facing his death, he came to realize that all the while he thought he was moving forward (toward greater success), but he was actually moving backward (toward lesser fulfillment).

This is a story about selling one’s soul to buy success. In the society depicted, success comes at a human-cost – the cost of meaningful human relations. This ultimately comes down to the sacrifice of a meaningful life worth living. As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:

Tolstoy's book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one's life.[1]

This psychological “connection to one’s life,” I argue, is necessarily a social connection to others. In a society devoid of loving human relations, all that is left is a disconnected individualism characterized by instrumental relations oriented toward personal success. See my post on personal-development for more on the problems with the personal-development genre.

Though ironically, it was the personal-development genre that brought me to read The Death of Ivan Ilych in the first place. After hearing a piece by Wayne Dyer (below), I was driven to promptly read Tolstoy’s book. Unexpectedly, after reading this book, I came to realize that Wayne Dyer severely cuts the book short by leaving out the most profoundly moving lessons. Rather than looking at the loveless social context or the hollow social definition of ‘success’, he blames Ivan Illych for his dying misery. Here is the clip (enjoy the shot of the intense cameraman lol):


Do Not Die With Your Music Still Inside You from Adrian Gilpin on Vimeo.

Was he merely obeying his wife, or was his definition of ‘success’ instilled in him by larger social forces? Can we blame any single actor in this web of superficial class ideals? Perhaps we cannot. Ivan Illych appeared to be living with his “music” all along, only to realize it was a sour tune when directly confronted with his mortality.

So how do we know that our sweet melody is not a sour discord? Perhaps we can only go forward with the awareness of Ivan Illych in his final hours. Contrary to what Wayne Dyer claims, Ivan Ilych’s last words are actually “What joy!”. He exclaims this statement when he overcomes his fear of death, his pain ceases, and he recognizes that instead of death, there is light.

After two more hours of apparent agony witnessed by those surrounding him, Ivan Ilych says to himself, “death is finished… it is no more!” He then draws his last breath, stretches out, and dies.

Living in a society devoid of loving relations – like Ivan Ilych’s – is itself death. This loveless society is ultimately a society devoid of deeply meaningful communal ties. A society devoid of communion is a society devoid of life.

In the last supper, Jesus ordained the bread and wine as symbols of his everlasting life. This became known as the Christian ritual of ‘communion’. To commune means to come together, giving ones life to a greater whole. The crucifixion is not the moment Jesus gave his life for us, as the story goes; he gave his life every single day, advocating for a cause outside himself: the cause of love in communion. I understand ‘love’, in the Christian sense (agape), as selfless offering of oneself, and ‘communion’ as common exchange. This “love in communion” may also be in line with Karl Marx’s vision of ideal human relations…. but this idea will be revisited in another post.

Ivan Ilych’s last encounter with his wife on his deathbed depicts failed communion. When she insists that he take the sacrament of communion from a priest – “since healthy people often do it” – he complies without seeing the purpose. Interacting with the priest, he begins to feel a slight warmth, and this restores a slight sense of hope in Ivan Ilych. But this hope is quickly extinguished when his wife returns to congratulate him after his communion. He recognizes that her concern is a veneer of falsehood, covering up the realities of both life and death.

Communion had lost its core reality: coming together. When love is absent, care becomes mere instrumentality – the rational manipulation of objects.

Perhaps living through a sweet melody means coming together with others and giving yourself to the music. This is not giving your life like the mere sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, but rather, in the life-affirming sense of the last supper. And since I’m particularly Catholic, let me take my version of a “literal interpretation” here. When we come together in communion, we are not individuals sharing mere food-substances for the sake of utility; we are offering our flesh and blood – the substances of life – and in this spirit, we build a life of meaning, together.


1.  MARK FREEMAN (1997). Death, Narrative Integrity, and the Radical Challenge of Self-Understanding: a Reading of Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych. Ageing and Society, 17, pp 373-398

Personal Development Beyond the ‘Personal’

CommunityThe personal development industry has enjoyed astounding growth throughout the 20th century.Fitness-trainers, motivational-speakers, spiritual gurus, and life-coaches have been popping up everywhere.

In the midst of this growing personal-development industry, I think we would do a profound disservice to ourselves if we neglect problems beyond the ‘personal’. In order to facilitate optimal ‘personal’ growth, we need to consider the ‘interpersonal’ realm. This means calling into question the values at the heart of the industry.

As a fitness trainer and academic social theorist, I stand with a foot on either side of the debate on whether one should invest in the American dream (attaining personal success through hard work), or whether one should remain critical of this capitalist industry that profits off of oppressive class, race, and gender ideals.

Preaching the ideals of both the fitness industry and critical sociology, I have struggled to make sense of how I am able to remain passionate about both, without betraying either one. I have only recently discovered what it is about personal development I have a problem with. Class, race, and gender ideals aside, I am deeply concerned with the high value the personal development genre places on individualism. I see this as a problem that can actually reverse ones ‘development’, creating a sense of disconnect and alienation from others. 

Meaningful relationships with others and a sense of community are a large part of personal development that should not be neglected. If taking your own success as a goal in itself is preventing you from having quality relationships with others, you should reconsider your focus.

This is largely why I found so much fulfillment teaching group-fitness classes – particularly aqua-fitness. This sense of contributing to a community of regular attendees motivated me to constantly strive to improve my ability to provide the best experience possible in my classes. My focus on improving the lives of others acted as a fuel for rapidly improvement of my own abilities. I can now say the same is drive fuels my teaching in social theory.

If your personal success is your goal, you are mistaking the means for end in itself. What this means is that your personal development should be a means to an end outside of yourself; for example, working every day to sharpen your individual skills so that you can contribute to a larger cause.

Although I see a narcissistic tendency in a great deal of personal development literature, I think the literature has a great deal to offer if it is approached with the awareness that deep fulfillment is only found when you seek your own improvement for the sake of the improvement of others. To forget this, you may find yourself at the top, but what is that position worth if you find yourself there alone? That is why I advocate for a view of ‘personal’ success that does not stop at the ‘personal’.

This is an introduction to future posts where I will explore this concept of ‘development’ further.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The “Secret” behind The Secret

clip_image001Recent motivational books like The Secret use obscure mystical concepts to explain common-sense advice. Here, I break down the main message of The Secret to reveal its practical message and explain why it shouldn’t be considered a spiritual text.

First off, the secret is that there is no secret. The main focus of the book, “law of attraction”, is simply the idea that giving attention to a goal will help you attain that goal. I don’t have a problem with its advice for personal success; what I have a problem with is calling it “spiritual”.

Personal success manuals should not be confused with spiritual texts. The former teaches you how to effectively get what you want (whatever it may be), while the latter teaches you how to live a life of deep fulfillment in relation to others, based on a concept of the common good.  

If you think this book is the absolute most profound book you’ve ever read, you should consider getting your dose of spiritual insight from a less narcissistic source. If you have a solid understanding of your ethical relations to others, or are already following a spiritual path of some sort, these ideas on personal development can help you maintain an effective outlook in your pursuits.

Here is the practical advice this book offers:

1) Intent – The ‘believe in order to achieve’ element in The Secret points to the importance of having a clear goal. Having a clear goal consists of visualizing exactly what you want to achieve.

This visualization is more than mere wishful thinking, since you must also be taking small daily actions toward achieving your goal. Developing a clear intent on what it is you want to achieve is absolutely necessary so that you do not get in the scattered habit of floundering between abstract goals.

Getting clear intent through imagining specific goals will put you ahead of the majority of people who are striving toward an abstract notion of ‘success’, without considering what the attainment of their success will look like.

“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything”
Napoleon Hill

2) Optimism – This element points to the importance of focusing on the positive. Being optimistic invokes the power of two mechanisms: the ‘reticular activation system’ (defined below), and the power of ‘hope’ (elaborated on below).

First off, lets consider this definition of “Optimism”:

Being optimistic is not ‘blind optimism’ which refuses to recognize anything negative. Optimism recognizes the negative/ risks, but primarily focuses on the positive elements/ expects success. Being optimistic can be defined as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome (

Notice the two mechanisms in the above definition:

1) “…tendency to look on the more favorable side…”

This is the ‘reticular activation system’:

The ‘reticular activation system’ can be defined as a brain-mechanism responsible for selective attention. Have you ever bought a new car, just to realize you’re now seeing that same car everywhere? In the case of optimism, if your attention is on the positive, you will see more positive. This will increase your awareness of opportunities, allowing you to take positive steps forward, rather than getting stuck dwelling on the negatives.

2) “…expect the most favorable outcome…”

This is the power of hope:

A strong belief that you will achieve your goal, while remaining well-aware of the risks and difficulties, will provide the fuel to your endeavor.

Psychological studies on ‘learned helplessness’ state that without ‘hope’, both humans and animals are likely to give up and accept the afflictions of an adverse stimulus (see the work of Martin Seligman)

As Zig Ziglar says, “If there is hope in the future, there is power in the present.”

Intent and hope create an increased state of ‘resilience’ in an individual.
This ‘psychological resilience’ is the (not so) secret mystical power of The Secret.

In Conclusion, The Secret may offer important practical advice in terms of personal development, but should not be understood as a spiritual text.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Stop Being Offended by Holidays!

10006073To start off, I want to make my position – and the position of many other atheists – very clear. Last year, in my post titled “Merry Christmas Atheists,” I argued that “the problem of saying ‘Christmas’ vs. saying ‘holiday’ is not an atheist battle, but rather, an inter-faith battle. Just the other day, this was confirmed by a post to  r/atheism, (“the web's largest atheist forum”) asking, “As an Atheist, are you offended when wished "Merry Christmas"?” The response was a resounding “No,” and several expressions of openness to the holiday. “Slacktoo,” a fellow ‘redditor’, responds:

No, in fact I wish others Merry Christmas and celebrate the holiday joyfully. While having origins in pagan and Christian mythology, it has evolved into an exciting festive holiday that can be celebrated by people who have no adherence to such superstitions.

But this openness is not just unique to atheists. It is a quality I have encountered in many religious people and minorities as well. Here is the key to this attitude: not believing the “holidays” are about ONE privileged group. Rachel Olivero, in a news article, says it best when she states:

In 2011, can we celebrate Christmas in our schools? Absolutely — say Merry Christmas!" she said. "At the same time, don't be offended if someone comes up to you at another time of year and says, 'Eid Mubarak' or 'Happy Diwali’.

Whether one celebrates the Pagan ‘solstice’, the Christian ‘Christmas’, the Capitalist ‘Christmas’ (often referred to as ‘holiday’), or any other tradition, is irrelevant! Drop your self-important holiday identity long enough to feel a sense of ‘joy’. But who are these religious Scrooges?

There are two supposed ‘types’: the group labeled “politically correct” who are “easily offended by Christmas”, and the Christians who are reacting to popular use of “holiday”. The first group is said to be composed of minorities who have “taken over” and atheists who are trying to “hijack Christmas,” whereas the latter can be seen complaining on fox news. I claim that the first group virtually does not exist – it is a strawman put into popular discourse by the latter group.

It is ironic that “happy holidays” is considered the politically correct phrase, when it is actually more likely to offend someone. So what is the main reason given by those feeling threatened by “happy holidays”? It all comes down to the argument that Christmas is no longer accepted as politically correct. But this is to deeply miss the point of the word “holidays”.

The use of “happy holidays” is not meant to replace Christmas, but rather, it is meant to include Christmas, along with any other tradition observed around late December. The “offended minorities” and “angry atheists” are but mere fictions. On a private individual level, no one is banning the use of “Christmas” –  or any other tradition title for that matter. The word “holiday” is merely a viable option when talking about the holidays in general, or when governments/ public entities want to send out a festive greeting from all of its groups, rather than just one of them. Notice I use “from” rather than “to”.

Wish me the title of your tradition, and I will wish you the title of mine. Being offended by holidays –  particularity, the word “holiday” itself – is to miss the point. With that being said, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a fantastic holiday season.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A New Personal-Development

fight clubMaybe self-improvement isn't the answer.... Maybe self-destruction is the answer.  ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

How do you partake in personal development, if self-destruction is the answer? Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual insight and Owen Cook’s ‘Real Social Dynamics’ seem to be part of a new genre of personal development where the goal is actually to destroy the ‘self’.

The old models of self-improvement seem to emphasize self-esteem through building up the ego. Eckhart Tolle, in his books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth”, is quick to determine the ego as the target of destruction. In his books, the ego represents a ‘false self’ constructed by social conditioning upon which the identity of the individual rests. This identification is said to be the root of all human struggles; we are constantly trying to reinforce our positive sense of self by reacting against all those who threaten the boundaries of our ‘self' concept’.

What does it mean to enact self-destruction? Rather than trying to build up a sense of self by collecting more and more STUFF (material possessions, physical characteristics, belief-systems, and ideologies), the act of self-destruction says “screw it all".

The things you own end up owning you.  It's only after you lose everything that you're free to do anything.  ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

How does this relate to spiritual belief-systems? Having a belief-system is like owning a material possession. They say you are not complete without one; therefore, ‘dissatisfied lack’ is the default state of ones constructed reality. In the same way consumer culture constructs our desire to be ‘complete’ through commodities, spiritual belief-systems construct a reality where ‘lack’ characterizes the individual who is not able to identify themselves under a specific tradition.

The good news is that this reality does not apply to you if you are simply aware that it exists. This will also allow you to understand why so many religious people are quick to defend their faith; their sense of self depends on it.

Attacking someone's belief system is like attacking their sense of self in the same way that insulting their clothing may offend them. This is not to say we should avoid dialogue with religious people in fear of offending them; the opposite is the case. We should engage in conversations about spiritually more often. But remember, don’t be a dick.

The socially conditioned ‘self’ does not dissolve without a fight; attacking it will only make it stronger. The ‘self’ will sense threat, pump itself up, and come back bigger and stronger than before. Rather than setting up this reality of ‘battle’, the method of seduction is far more effective.

Be the change you want to see. Only when your own ego is dealt with will you be able to offer complete value to all you encounter. This state of being is the art of seduction (weather it be in the context of work, family-life, or dating). Arguing with religious persons for the sake of being right only builds your own sense of identity as superior. Rather than taking value in the form of argument, one must provide value in the form of careful dialogue. 

If value is light, taking value leads to darkness. We can not get rid of darkness with more darkness. When your sense of ‘self’ is not the measure of your value, the value you offer provides the basis for your happiness.

Beyond Atheism

fight-clubYou're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. – Tyler Durden

You are not your belief system. You are not even your lack of a belief system. In the same way theists gain a sense of identity through their display of a belief system, atheists gain a sense of identity through their opposition to belief systems. Doesn’t this sound absurd?

I understand the word ‘atheist’ has served well in mobilizing an opposition to the harmful side of religion, but I say lets evolve.

Fuck off with your sofa units and string green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let... lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may. – Tyler Durden

Only when we can stop messing with the tasteless decor of outdated belief-systems, can we design a masterpiece. Lets focus on what we stand for, rather than what we don’t find fashionable. By fixating on the belief systems of others, we’re being drawn into their reality of identification. With identification comes boundaries, opposition, and a world full of resentment.

It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything. – Tyler Durden

It is not enough to lose rigid belief systems. Oppositional identities maintain the same belief as the failing “war on drugs”, “war on terror”, “war on crime” mentality; the belief that “we” have the truth, “they” are wrong and now we must stomp them out.

The days of “militant atheism” must come to an end before atheists spark the next ‘religious war’.

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace... – John Lennon

When John Lennon talks about no countries and no religion, he is talking about no boundaries. Having “no religion” can not mean a world of atheists since atheists can only maintain their identity so long as theists still exist; an ‘us vs. them’ mentality is vital to defining yourself in opposition to an ‘other’.

Evolve. When boundaries are dissolved, the identity you hold will stop holding onto you.