On Writer’s Block.

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Image by Lukas Bieri from Pixabay

Not for the first time in the two decades that I’ve been writing, I whistle but the words would not come. Writer’s block—it has happened before, sure. But never this bad and never this long. It’s as if an expansive blankness has covered everything around me. The senses have dulled and the self has been rendered vacant. The dullness is near-impenetrable. The silence is deafening.

The truth is I have grown accustomed to the mind’s voice and its unstoppable chatter. Its constant narration of the everything of the every day, its rehashing of old conversations after finally finding a good comeback, its self-righteous monologue about something I saw on TV, its existential whinging. My mind is far more verbose than my convoluted prose, but it did let me pull strands of thought ready and ripe for weaving.

Many a night it has woken me from deep sleep, saying, Get up! I have an idea and you need to write it down. Naturally, I would shush it with a pill or smush it with a pillow. Die, die, I would grumble. Those days I felt I needed the shut-eye more than the sound-off. But even as I slipped into the stream of sleep, the mind’s low susurrations became the soundtrack of my slumber. Now, there is nothing. Well, next to nothing.

The ideas still arrive promptly and regularly enough. Insistently enough. Barging into the consciousness, teeming with self-importance. Half-formed but still dazzling with tremendous possibility. Their uncontrollable wildness is a lure, and I do so desire to wrangle them and tame them, to fashion them into something shiny to dress the ego’s mantel. But no sooner have my eyes adjusted to their light, their forms crumble into fine, fine dust. Dust, dust, and nothing but dust.  No amount of coaxing and maneuvering could form anything of substance from this wretched dust.

Oh, if it were only up to me, I would give up chasing my dreams of writing. This compulsion for literary creation. If it were up to me, I would take this barren landscape and grow more productive fruit. Turn to business, make money, be content with a hobby. Read without feeling the familiar itch to also make something of value. But I am far too miserable when I’m not writing. I can’t sit still. I can’t sleep. I’m compelled to keep trying—even if it means penning a long and winding (whining) piece On Writer’s Block.

Philosophy 101: The Six Branches of Philosophy

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A/N: Taking a chronological approach to self-studying philosophy

This year, I have decided to take self-studying Philosophy seriously. Up to this point, I’ve been casually listening to an assortment of podcasts and reading and abandoning texts from Sartre, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Simone de Beauvoir, Descartes, Kant, and Hobbes. Now, if that reads like a mess, that’s because it is.

I have been blessed with a very short attention span, which means that I am almost-hopeless at single-tasking. That spills over to reading. At the moment, I have five unfinished books on my bedside table. Every day, I read a few pages from each book—but it’s a real struggle not to add another one to that pile.

So, as you can see, I am a person that needs structure otherwise I’m all over the place. Hence, the decision to study Western Philosophy chronologically. I figured it would be easier for me to follow the birth and development of various philosophical movements this way, as opposed to randomly moving through philosophers or philosophical teachings.

That being said, on to today’s learnings.

THE SIX MAIN BRANCHES OF PHILOSOPHY

In a previous post called What is Philosophy?, we defined Philosophy as a study that “seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology).” As is evident in that definition, Philosophy is a study that covers a lot of ground. And like other complex fields of study, it is one that contains a multitude of classifications. Today, we’re going to be focusing on its six main branches or themes.

(Note: some sources leave out logic and politics in their lists, but I’m keeping those in.)

METAPHYSICS

Metaphysics is the philosophical branch that studies reality, existence, the nature of being, the physical world, and the universe.

It seeks to answer difficult questions like, what is the nature of reality? How can we say that the world exists outside of our thoughts? How did mankind come to be? How was the universe made? Was the universe made?  How can our disembodied minds control or affect our physical bodies? How can we prove the existence of something? Can “nothingness” exist? Etc.

EPISTEMOLOGY

Then there’s my favorite branch, Epistemology. So, Epistemology is often referred to as the theory of knowledge. It delves into the definition, scope, and parameters of knowledge and knowledge formation. It seeks to explain how we acquire knowledge, how knowledge relates to notions like justification, truth, and belief, and how and where it falls in the spectrum of certainty and error.

It is a study that asks big questions like what is knowledge? What can we know for certain? How do we know what we know? How can we acquire knowledge? What is a justified belief, and what makes it justified? Etc.

LOGIC

Logic is the branch of philosophy that studies reasoning. It teaches us how to differentiate between good and bad reasoning and how to construct valid arguments. It seeks answers to questions like, what is valid reasoning? How can you distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument? How can you spot fallacies or errors in an argument?

Now, we’ve all studied logic in one form or another. In Math class, logic came in the form of puzzles or word problems that required the use of inductive or deductive reasoning to arrive at the right equations or solutions. In English/Speech class, we studied fallacies and paradoxes and solved riddles with inferences, which taught us how to create convincing and logical arguments and how to debate properly. And the list goes on.

ETHICS

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is often referred to as the study of morality. It seeks to address questions about how we should live our lives, how we define proper conduct, and what we mean by the good life. It’s a study that teaches us what the virtuous life is like and how we can put these virtues into practice.

Ethics concerns itself with questions like, what is the good life? How should we act? What do we mean by virtue? What does “right” even mean?

AESTHETICS

In the world of philosophy, Aesthetics refers to the study of everything related to beauty, art, and good taste. This includes how we define art, how we feel when viewing art or witnessing beauty, how we judge works of art, and how we form our taste.

This branch of philosophy concerns itself with questions that include: What is art? What makes an artwork successful? Is art an expression of feelings? Can it be a “vehicle of truth?” Is “good taste” innate or learned? And, is art and morality connected?

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Last on our list is Politics or Political Philosophy. As you can already tell from its name Political Philosophy examines various concepts related to politics, government, laws, liberty, justice, rights, authority, state, and even ethics (ethical ruling). It discusses how states should be built and run, and how its constituents should act.

It posits and attempts to answer questions like What is government? What makes a government work? Why do we need governments? What rights and freedoms should be granted to a state’s constituents? Why should the constituents follow any of the laws set by the government? What is the extent of the power of the government? And so on, and so forth.

Now, these six themes are very broad representations of the many categories in Philosophy. Of course, within these themes/branches are even more philosophical movements that give birth to more studies—seemingly ad infinitum. But that is the nature of philosophy. It’s a thinking subject. It’s a progression. It’s meant to move us forward, oftentimes by looking backwards.

Not-so-random thought:

When one thinks oneself out of a box, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve thought ourselves into another box to think out of.

Sources:
http://www.evphil.com/philosophy-101.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_philosophy
https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_logic.html
Kleinman, Paul (2013). Philosophy 101
Blackburn, Simon (Third Edition, 2016). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Featured Poem: “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson

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Image by gnav from Pixabay

The great South African cleric, theologian, and activist, Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” To say that the last two months have spelled dark times for mankind is an understatement. With most countries under strict lockdown and the global economy sliding towards a worldwide recession, with so many people sick or starving or both, times like these make it difficult to even muster a sliver of hope. And yet these are the moments when we need hope the most.  Hope is what will make it possible for us to put one foot in front of the other, to persevere and stand resilient in the face of utter chaos and uncertainty.

So today, I would like to write about Hope. Or, more accurately, I would like to write about the poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers by the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. This is one of my favorite pieces from Dickinson, and it’s one that I hope would bring a spot of brightness to your day.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
By: EMILY DICKINSON

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The Bird’s-Eye View: A Brief Background on “Hope” is the thing with feathers

That Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) is one of America’s most noted and influential poets of all time is indisputable. The poet was a maverick. She wasn’t afraid to go against the flow of literary trends. At a time when her contemporaries were throwing themselves into creating lengthy, grand, and dramatic pieces—Dickinson pared down her details without sacrificing her message and metaphors. She also had no qualms playing around with punctuations and capitalizations—as you no doubt saw in her poem above.

Another noticeable facet of Dickinson’s writings is the lack of titles. Now, before we go any further with this, it’s important to note that most of the poet’s writings were discovered and published after her death. A lot of the poems didn’t have titles, so editors and publishers went with the poem’s first line.

In the case of our featured poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, the lack of title may have been deliberate. The piece was written and compiled in 1861/1862 in Dickinson’s hand-sewn Fascicle 13, and published posthumously in the 1891 collection called Poems by Emily Dickinson.

Style, Structure, and Punctuation

Like most of Emily Dickinson’s other works, “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a three-stanza lyric poem that’s written in first person. Though with the way the poem is structured, only using “I” and “me” once throughout the piece, the persona takes a backseat to her subject. She is simply narrating, stating facts.

Each line is said with certainty and conviction—“Hope” is the thing with feathers – that perches on the soul.” And the first-person perspective is used only in testament to these “facts.” As if the narrator is saying, “I know this to be true! I know this from experience,” because I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She is telling us a story but in a rather distant fashion, opting to shine the spotlight fully on Hope and not herself.

Another notable feature of the poem is its incredible readability, or rather read-out-loudability. Like the often-recited “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley,  “Hope” is a poem that shines brightest when read out loud. Now, the secret to this lies in the poem’s clever structure. See, “Hope” is the thing with feathers uses alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter to lend the poem its appealing cadence or rhythm (the da-dum quality of its words). It also has a basic ABCB rhyme scheme that translates well to pleasant reading.

As for the poem’s punctuation, I think unconventional is an apt descriptor for Dickinson’s unusual capitalization of common nouns and liberal use of dashes. Let’s start with the capitalization. The common nouns capitalized in the poem are as follows: Gale, Bird, Sea, and Extremity. Now, it’s apparent that the words were chosen to emphasize certain points in the poem.

When Dickinson says And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –, she is referring to how hope often appears during the hardest times. When she drops the word Bird in the second stanza, it’s actually the first time she’s putting a name to her metaphor for hope. And when she says I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea, aside from giving us lovely and contrasting imagery, it’s as if she’s also telling us that hope springs wherever and whenever it’s most needed. Lastly, the capitalization of Extremity serves to emphasize the final line of the poem, (never)… It asked a crumb – of me.

And finally, it’s time to tackle the dashes. For a very short poem, “Hope” has a ridiculous number of dashes—fifteen in total! Now, Dickinson uses the dash liberally and deliberately for two reasons. The first is to emphasize a point or a word. Case in point, in the penultimate line, the word never is highlighted by the dashes that enclose it.  The second reason is for caesura—or to create breaks for the poem’s reader. Much like the way Derek Walcott uses line breaks in Love After Love to create pause points, Dickinson uses dashes to give the reader time to breathe and take in the words.

Poetry Analysis: “Hope” in the Tempest

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

The first line says it all— “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a poem that uses the image of a Bird to describe the qualities of Hope. While it takes an entire stanza for Emily Dickinson to explicitly say bird, the descriptions she uses all but spells it out for the reader. As you can see in the first stanza, the thing the poet describes has feathers, perches, and can wring out a pretty tune. So, the metaphor is easy enough to grasp. However, what the poet does leave out is the type of avian friend we’re facing. Not that it really matters—a change in bird won’t alter the poem’s tune—but some people do think that the bird could be a white dove. This makes sense as the dove is often used in Christian imagery to signify hope.

Now, when Dickinson describes Hope as something that perches in the soul, she tells us where the emotion blooms and resides—in the heart and not as a product of pure rationalization. While the lines about singing the tune without the words and never stopping tells us about the insuppressible and maybe even unreasonable nature of hope. One can have hope even when the odds are stacked far too high for a positive outcome. The feeling is hardly ever ‘logical’ or controllable.

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

Apart from the metaphor of the bird, Dickinson also utilizes seafaring imagery to illustrate the harsh conditions that Hope is able to weather. The words gale and storm appear in the second stanza as situations that try to abash (deflate, humble, or humiliate) Hope. But the little Bird is far stronger than it appears. It will continue its song amidst trouble and thunderstorms. Hope remains constant even when the prospects are dim. It is capable of providing each of us with warmth, comfort, and much-needed reassurance.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

It is here, in the final stanza, that Dickinson uses the words “I” and “me.” As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, the use of these words read like a testimony. It tells us that the narrator knows about the nature of Hope firsthand, because she has heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She tells us that in spite of everything Hope has given her, it has – never – in Extremity… asked a crumb – of me. These last two lines tell us that the persona may need and receive Hope, but that the feeling has never wanted or needed anything from her—not a morsel of acknowledgment or even a crumb of encouragement.  It persists almost independent from one’s reasonings.

A possible nod to Noah’s Ark

At the risk of over-reaching, I was thinking of how the use of seafaring words in the text – things like “Gale,” “Sea,” “Storm,” and “Land” – seem to conjure images of surviving a tempest at sea. If you close your eyes and let Dickinson’s words wash over you, you can imagine being stuck in a ship or a boat while a storm rages on and threatens to upend your vehicle.  With the elements so outside of your control, the only thing keeping you sane is the irrational but unsinkable hope you have for safe passage and survival.

Now, I’m not sure if the imagery was meant to be biblical, but if we go with the theme of the dark and rough seas, you have to admit that there’s something about the poem that harks back to the story of Noah’s Ark. The dire situation, the unending storm, and the bird that carried in its wings the hope of an entire people—these are all elements of the biblical account. Again, I don’t think this was necessarily something that Dickinson had planned out but I still think it is good food for thought.

Book Review: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin

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Developing mental strength isn’t about having to be the best of everything. It also isn’t about earning the most money or achieving the biggest accomplishments. Instead, developing mental strength means knowing that you’ll be okay no matter what happens. – Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

In 2015, psychotherapist and Northeastern University lecturer Amy Morin did a TedxOcala talk called The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong. The talk was a success, garnering over 11.7 million views on YouTube in the last four years. On a personal note, it also happens to be one of the most impactful Ted Talks I’ve ever listened to. To think I almost skipped her speech the first time I heard it! But there was something about Amy Morin’s voice that compelled me to stop and pay attention.

Perhaps it was the curious, tremulous quality of her voice that piqued my interest. After all, the vulnerability her voice betrayed seemed to contrast starkly with the talk’s subject matter. (Of course, this was before I learned that showing vulnerability is a sign of mental strength.) But as her speech went on, and she began talking about her own experiences of grief—having tragically and unexpectedly lost three of her loved ones in a span of a few years—I realized that this was a person who had lived through what she was teaching.

Her work as a psychotherapist may have given her theoretical knowledge on how to deal with grief, but she had more than just her expertise to back her recommendations, she had experience. During the talk, Morin shared a condensed list of the hard lessons she learned during those difficult years. In her book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, she expands the list and expounds on each lesson.

Now, for copyright reasons, I’m not going to go through the entire list of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. If you want the full list, you can view it here on the author’s website. But as a backgrounder for the review, Amy Morin’s list does include the following items:

  1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves;
  2. They Don’t Shy Away from Change;
  3. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone;
  4. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success; and
  5. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything.

Now, if you read a lot of self-help books, you may have already encountered some of the ideas discussed in 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. You may even think, “Well, that’s all just common sense.” But as the old saying goes, “Common sense isn’t always common practice,” and what’s great about Morin’s book is that it gives its readers a chance to bridge that gap between knowledge (common or otherwise) and practice.

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Written in simple and accessible prose, 13 Things is a very easy and helpful read. It’s packed to the brim with relatable anecdotes from both the everyman, (usually the author’s patients), and key figures in history. Morin uses their stories to underscore the importance of each lesson and to illustrate how we can apply these learnings in our own lives.

Another thing I really like about 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is how each chapter is structured to maximize the reader’s takeaway and to improve recall of the book’s key points. This is particularly important because as Morin stresses at the start of the book, developing mental strength requires practice. You don’t just read a book and become instantly better. The process of betterment is an ongoing one that requires consistent recalibration and reflection. And the fact that each chapter includes a checklist of “symptoms,” a list of benefits, and separate sections on What’s Helpful and What’s Not Helpful, makes it easier and quicker to review the most important ideas in the text.

Yes, but does it work?

I suppose that’s the big question isn’t it? Is the book effective? Does it work? Well, in my experience, I started reading the book at a time when I really needed some guidance. I had been feeling the blues for a while and was experiencing serious self-doubt over whether or not I could make something out of my life. I was teeming with insecurities, resentments, and self-loathing. So, you can say that the timing was right. Like any other self-help book out there, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is only as effective as you want it to be. As Lao Tzu puts it, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

And I sincerely believe that Amy Morin’s book has a lot to teach us. That is, if we’re willing and ready to listen. So, though not terribly “original” in terms of ideas, 13 Things does deliver as an efficient and potentially practicable self-help book. At the very least, it provides readers with the tools they need to apply change in their lives. All in all, this is a pretty solid self-help book. I’d say right in the region of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”

Rating: A-

Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality

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Image by: Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

Frank Herbert once said, “To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.”

Now, being inspired by aphorisms like YOLO (you only live once) is one thing. I mean, true, there is emphasis on having one life, but it’s easy to stay positive when the conversation is about life or living. However, when you throw in words like mortality and impermanence, when the focus shifts to death, well, that’s when things can take a turn for the bleak. For most people, myself included, the idea of facing one’s impending death is a terrifying thought.

Sure, one can talk about death and the permanent peace that comes with it. But oftentimes when such talk arises, it’s one that’s cloaked in abstractness. For the healthy person, at least, death may seem like a concept—a faraway thing separate from the reality he/she inhabits.

The truth is that few people want constant reminders of the impermanence of everything—especially life. It’s certainly not small-talk material. And yet, many mental health experts believe that facing and accepting one’s mortality can be an important ingredient to a better life. In Stoicism, for example, the path to eudaimonia, a.k.a. the life worth living, requires reminding yourself of the transient nature of your life and everything and everyone you hold dear.

In Massimo Pigliucci’s enlightening book, How to Be a Stoic, he asks the readers to come to terms with the impermanence of everything. He introduces the short Latin phrase used by Roman generals to remind themselves of their mortality—memento homo, Remember, you are only a man.

Now, I don’t quite know where the phrase originated from, but according to this source, Julius Caesar had asked an Auriga (slave) to whisper it to him during his victorious march.  Memento homo was a way for the great Roman General to keep his mortality and humanity in mind in the face of his great achievements. I guess in a way it was there to keep the general’s head in the game by keeping his ego in check. And that makes perfect sense. Ancient Rome was a place rife with plotting, conniving, and murder. Letting your guard down at any moment could prove fatal. Just ask any of the 80+ Roman emperors who were assassinated.

That’s all well and good for the ancient Romans, but how exactly does facing our mortality benefit us, the modern common folk? Well, for this lifelong student, the following advantages come to mind:

Contemplating and accepting our mortality gives us time to make preparations for the inevitable.

A former colleague once joked about the best graduation gift he’s ever received. It was a funeral plan, complete with his own plot of land where he could set up camp permanently in the very distant future. I remember we all got a big laugh out of it. We were all in our early 20s and the gift had seemed ridiculous then. Fast-forward to a decade later and the gift no longer seems ridiculous—if anything, it’s practical. The last few years have taught me that death is almost always unexpected. And while I’m not telling anyone to start purchasing funeral plans, or start giving them out to friends and family at Christmas, at a certain point, we’ll all have to start making some preparations.

Whether it’s setting up a trust fund for the kids, investing in life insurance, drafting a will, or creating a map that details the location of buried treasure, I think it might somewhat help our loved ones when it’s our time to go. Of course, having a ready last will and testament will not lessen the pain experienced by one’s family, but it might prevent further friction between them. I have heard about too many families fight over property, money, and other assets. If we can help save them from that kind of pain, why wouldn’t we?

Pondering death can motivate us to live our lives intentionally.

When somebody asks you, “What is your life’s purpose?”, sometimes it may sound like a loaded question, an opening for judgment. There is pressure to give an answer that would be considered noble, grand, or laudable. Now, I know a lot of people who struggle with this question. However, the upside of choosing your life’s purpose is that you get to decide on which things give your life meaning. The truth is that you define your own goals and objectives. No one else has the right to fault you for whatever answer you may have, or if you choose not give an answer at all. As the Wiccans put it, “Do what you will if it harms none.”

And the beauty of pondering and accepting the inevitability of death is that, in a way, it can help motivate you to pursue your dreams and to focus on the things that give your life value. Life is short—oftentimes, it feels too short. So, there’s no better time to start building the life you want than the present. Whether or not you achieve all your dreams isn’t as important as going after them. That is what it means to live your life with purpose.

Remembering that we must return to dust teaches us to appreciate what we have.

Take a deep breath and picture everything and everyone you love. Let your mind’s eye dwell on every detail of every person, pet, item, or place that brings your life tremendous joy or meaning. Do you have a clear picture yet? Now, imagine each one fading into nothingness. One day, everything and everyone we love will be taken away. Either we’ll go first or they will. This is the impermanence of everything.

It’s hardly a comforting thought, I know. But you know what is comforting? It’s the fact that we’re still here—and if we’re lucky, most of the things and people we love are still here as well. Our time on Earth is very limited. So, why don’t we spend the time we have left to show our love and appreciation for our loved ones? Now, before the clock runs out.

Thinking about death offers liberation from stigma and definition.

This is where memento homo really kicks in. Imagine being one of those triumphant Roman generals. You have vanquished your enemies and you might just be the most powerful man or woman in one of the most powerful empires of all time. You are the top dog. It’s so easy to get swept up in the hype (whether yours or other people’s), and you may even fancy yourself god-like with all your amazing achievements. Then, an Auriga comes up to you and whispers, “Remember, you are only a man.”

Now, let’s flip the coin. Imagine being the general who is forced into retreat. The advancing powers have left your army decimated and you have escaped by the skin of your teeth. You are cloaked in shame and are consumed with the guilt of having disgraced your family, your ruler, and your people. You weep at the thought that your name is forever sullied by your defeat. Then, the Auriga’s words ring clear in your memory, “Remember, you are only a man.”

While, as mentioned earlier, the reminder brings a unique set of advantages to an actual general/dictator/emperor, remembering that you will one day be gone and even forgotten is still pretty good advice today. It teaches you to see yourself beyond your reputation (how other people see you), your greatest strengths, and your most staggering failings. You are going to be just one of the many people who have graced the Earth. You are neither your greatest achievement nor your greatest failure. There’s a certain poignancy and freedom that comes with truly understanding that statement.

Knowing and understanding this can help free you from whatever definition or stigma you may carry inside of you. Here is a simple fact of life. We all win some and lose some and that’s all part of the journey.

Accepting our mortality reminds us to be mindful and to live hic et nunc (here and now).

The minute we’re born, our body’s countdown to the end begins. It’s a peculiar clock. There’s no way to see how much time we have left. We have no way to halt or significantly slow its pace, though a myriad of things can quicken its ticking. This should be a reminder to us that each moment we have is precious and should not be wasted.

I believe that instinctively, we all know this to be true. And yet, so many of us still spend our days just half-present. Somehow the days meld together into an unrecognizable heap that by the end of the week, we can’t even remember what we had for breakfast last Wednesday. While man has yet to discover how to physically time travel, our minds have become proficient at living in the past and worrying about the future. Going through life in this manner, speeding through life just half-there to experience the ride is a surefire way to gather deathbed regrets. And what use is regret when you can no longer rectify your errors?

This is where the importance of mindfulness and living in the hic et nunc (here and now) comes in. When faced with certain death, you wouldn’t want to be the person who spends your final hours taking stock of the countless should’ves, would’ves, and could’ves. So, slow down. Be here now. Live every moment with intention and appreciation. Make use of the time you have left wisely and deliberately.

Book Review: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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It was a shooting that inspired outrage throughout the globe. On October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was on her way home from school when her school bus was stopped just a few hundred meters from a checkpoint in Swat Valley. A young man boarded the van and asked a single question, “Who is Malala?”

Though none of her schoolmates had answered, some of the girls had looked over at her. The man aimed at her and fired three shots, one of which hit Malala square in the left eye socket. The Taliban bullet was intended to silence the young woman forever, but instead, it only served to make Malala’s voice louder—and this time the whole world was listening. Almost overnight, Malala Yousafzai became the face and the voice of all Pakistani girls who were struggling to get an education at a time when the Taliban was blowing up their schools and demanding purdah or risk violence or even death.

In I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (with the help of Christine Lamb) bravely tells her story. She talks about how it was like growing up in the beautiful Swat Valley, the Switzerland of Pakistan, and how the Taliban had tried to eradicate all that was wonderful in her homeland—their culture, their history, their art, architecture and music, and the Pashtun way of life.

A Name Fit for a Hero

“I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.” – p.13

When Malala was born on July 12, 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan, her father, Ziauddin, and her mother, Toor Pekai, were over the moon. While most Pashtuns considered the birth of a daughter as a “gloomy” event, her parents saw to it that her birth was properly celebrated. Her father asked the community to throw coins, candies, and dried fruits into her cradle—a custom typically reserved for newborn sons. Ziauddin even insisted on adding Malala to the Yousafzai family tree, which prior to that moment only included the names of male relatives.

He also named her after a revered Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand. Legend has it that when the war against the British broke out, Malalai’s fiancée was among the thousands of Afghans who fought against the invading forces. Like the rest of her village’s women, Malalai took to the battleground to bring aid and water to their troops. When the flagbearer fell, Malalai bravely took his place. She could see that her countrymen were losing hope. So, the young woman took off her white veil, raised it overhead, and began marching with the troops. She cried out, “Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.” She died fighting for what she believed in.

That Malala had been named after one of the most courageous women in history is incredibly fitting. She is, after all, a hero in her own right. But the choice of her name also reflects her parents’ incredibly progressive views, especially that of Ziauddin’s. Even as a young man, Malala’s father had believed in the importance of education—not just for the boys of the village, but for the girls as well. His dream—a dream that was realized in the early 2000s—was to open a school that all the village’s children could attend. In I am Malala, we actually see Ziauddin’s struggle to keep his school open and afloat.

Ziauddin’s eloquence, high morals, and commitment to education for all made him a popular member of their community. It also made him a target for the ultra-conservative members of the town. One mullah* (Muslim scholar) in particular, Mufti Ghulamullah, tried multiple times to close down Ziauddin’s school. He claimed, “Ziauddin is running a haram* (forbidden by Islamic law) school in your building and bringing shame to the mahalla* (neighborhood).”

Despite the mullah’s many protests, Malala’s father kept his school open. Time and again, Ziauddin argued and won his case in front of the village elders. But what the family didn’t expect was that bigger trouble was just beyond the horizon. Within a few short years after issues began for the Khushal school, the Taliban hit their valley.

The Rise of the Taliban: Children Caught in the Crossfire

“Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading, doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time it was our future.” – p.136

When Malala was just ten years old, news broke out about trouble in other parts of Pakistan. Religious extremists had begun banning and destroying DVD and CD shops, attacking cinemas, and harassing men dressed in Western-style clothing. The women were also being forced into purdah—the practice of keeping Muslim and Hindu women covered up and in seclusion. But for the people of Swat Valley, life went on as usual. That is, until the rise of Radio Mullah.

The rise of the Taliban in Swat Valley started out innocuous enough. Maulana Fazlullah, a 28-year-old former pulley operator, began a radio program called Mullah FM. He used his program to voice his very traditional views about everything; from haircuts to vaccination, beard length to the ‘proper way of dressing.’ But as Fazlullah gained a large following, his prescriptions to his listeners became more and more extreme. He began speaking out against the education of women and the need for purdah. He turned tyrannical, urging violence against anyone who disobeyed Taliban laws or dared to speak out against him.

Music, movies, board games, television, and all radio stations apart from Radio Mullah were banned. Dancing was banned. And then the Taliban began blowing up schools and cultural sights. They strong-armed their way into Swat Valley, destroying homes, killing offenders and detractors and dumping their bodies in the town square. They tried to scare everyone into compliance, but Ziauddin and his family would not be silenced.

How One Girls’ Voice Landed Her in Trouble with the Taliban

“If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” – p.131

At every turn, Ziauddin spoke out against Fazlullah. He organized peace marches, met up with various village leaders, and created a group that was designed to protect the rights of the community, including the right of all children to an education. He also convinced some of his female students to speak out about how the growing militancy in the area was forcing many of them to drop out of school. Malala, of course, was the most outspoken of the girls.

She was determined to let the rest of the world know how the Taliban was destroying her hometown. Like Ziauddin, Malala placed tremendous importance on the education of girls. Her dream was for every girl in Swat to be free to go to school regardless of their financial situation. So, she spoke out. At first, she did so ‘anonymously’ by writing an online journal for BBC Urdu where she talked about life under Taliban rule. To protect her identity, she opted to write under the pseudonym Gul Makai. But her anonymity was short-lived.

Pretty soon, Malala was speaking out against the extremist group freely and openly. She gave interviews to various local and international news agencies. The awards and the prizes began rolling in. And yet, despite the recognition she received, Malala knew that none of it would amount to anything if her dream wasn’t realized.

“I began to see the awards and recognition just like that. They were little jewels without much meaning. I needed to concentrate on winning the war… We decided to spend the rest of the money on people who needed help. I wanted to start an education fund.” – p.201

And just as quickly as the awards came, so did the threats against her family. Now, what makes Malala’s case especially commendable is how she didn’t go into it blindly. In the book, she talks about how she prayed for strength every day and how she’d check the gates and doors at night to make sure they were locked. Malala’s actions exhibited true courage. As the Nelson Mandela quote goes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

From Peshawar to Birmingham: The Fight Continues

The day Malala Yousafzai was shot was a day of chaos for the people in Swat Valley. To protect her against further attacks, the gravity of her injuries was kept secret even from her family. She spent the first two days in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Peshawar before being airlifted to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi, where doctors and nurses worked round-the-clock to save her.

The hospital was put into lockdown. Snipers were positioned on the hospital roof and soldiers were posted all over the area. The Pakistani government was determined to find her shooter, even offering 10 million rupees for any information regarding the gunman.

Although Malala was expected to survive, a sudden swelling in her brain forced doctors to perform a risky emergency procedure that included the removal of a part of her skull. The surgery was successful and the swelling went down, but there was still the question of rehabilitation which was bound to take months. The security risk was too great to keep her where she was.

After much weighing of political ramifications and logistics, the government decided to send Malala to the Queen Elizabeth Medical Center in Birmingham—a hospital that specialized in emergency care and rehabilitation. After a few weeks, her family was allowed to follow her in England, where they have since remained.

It took almost three months before Malala could join her family in their temporary lodgings in the West Midlands. A month later, she underwent another surgery to restore her hearing and help reconstruct her skull. Since her successful recovery, Malala has become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2014) and has continued her activist work for girls’ education in Pakistan. And though the book may have concluded with her recovery, her fight continues today.

Not a Quick or Easy Read but an Incredibly Important One

At just 310 pages, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is a pretty slim volume. It’s certainly one of the shortest autobiographies I’ve read thus far. And yet, despite just being over 300 pages long, with a good few pages dedicated to pictures of Malala and her family, it still took me several days spread out in the course of three months to finish the book.

To be clear, it’s a very well-written book, and a definite page-turner from a quarter in onwards. But it did take a while for me to get used to the writing style. Part-history lesson and part-narrative, I am Malala is a highly informative book that intersperses the history of Pakistan’s politics with Malala’s own experiences. The book provides multiple heavy but eminently necessary backgrounders on the changing sociopolitical climate of the country. The shift in tone can be a little hard to read or jarring the first few times you encounter it, but the deeper you go (and the more you understand about her homeland and their culture) the more gripping the book becomes.

It’s a heavy book to be sure, but it’s one that should be read by as many readers as possible.  Malala’s story is one that must be told again and again until it generates the force needed to create positive change.

Rating: A

What is Philosophy?

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Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

The word Philosophy is rooted in the Latin word Philosophia—a portmanteau of the two Ancient Greek words: philos which means loving and sophia, which means wisdom. So, you can say that the literal and original translation of Philosophy is the “love and pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.”

Nowadays, however, the word has taken on a broader meaning. In everyday conversation, the word is often used to refer to a person’s values and ideologies. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to their belief systems as their philosophy/ies in life. And the usage would still be correct. However, for the purpose of this post, and most succeeding posts pertaining to this subject, we’ll be examining and using the definition of the academic discipline called Philosophy.

Merriam Webster offers a broad definition of Philosophy as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life.” While Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive definition with, “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Now, whether you choose to go with the Merriam Webster definition or that of Wikipedia’s, you come away with a fundamental understanding that Philosophy is a thinking subject. One that requires effort, action, and deliberateness. It is a subject that seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology). It’s also an incredible history lesson because it gives you a glimpse of the prevalent ideologies and belief systems of various civilizations throughout the ages.

If the definition seems expansive, that’s because it is. After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Philosophy is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Through the constant thinking, imagining, and overthinking of various philosophers throughout history, humankind has come away with a thirst for discovery and knowledge. If curiosity killed the cat, the philosophers’ curiosity birthed modern science, critical reasoning, logic, and many of the plotlines of today’s best works of art, film, and literature.

Trivia Time: Plato’s belief that everything in the universe is patterned after “invisible geometrical shapes” (Platonic solids) helped start the study of Modern Chemistry. His telling of the story of “The Ring of Gyges” in The Republic is also the inspiration behind Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” As for Aristotle, he happens to be the father of the species-genus classification that we use in Science today! He also believed the world was round long before Copernicus was even born. He came away with this conclusion after studying the lunar eclipse and the shadows created by the Earth against the Moon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, you see, Philosophy has taught us a great many things throughout history—and it continues to offer us a plethora of learnings today. By offering us multiple perspectives on life, meaning, reality, et al., it helps expand our mindset. It teaches us to become more logical, introspective, openminded, and consequently, empathic. And since creativity means venturing past reality into the realm of possibility, there’s a great chance philosophy can also help widen and deepen our thinking process, i.e. make us more creative. All good things in my book.

 

Recommended Read: The website Philosophy Basics offers an excellent collection of the many definitions of Philosophy that you’ll find online and in various dictionaries.

Related Articles:

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

Featured Poem: Invictus by William Ernest Henley

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Image by: Johnny Lindner from Pixabay

Invictus
By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
my head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged the punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

 

Never underestimate the transformative power of a well-crafted poem. Some poems are cathartic. They have the power to move their readers to tears or to laughter, melancholia or euphoria.  Others offer sensible life advice under the guise of metaphors and sweeping or epic imageries. They offer life lessons without getting too direct or didactic. But rarest and most precious of all, are the poems that inspire dramatic and lasting perspective and change. These are the poems that change lives and bolster the human spirit.

William Ernest Henley’s eminently popular work Invictus is the embodiment of life-changing poetry. It is a poem that has inspired some of the greatest minds in history. In his September 1941 speech at the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of the imminent threat of World War II. During the speech, he affirmed the strength and resilience of his constituents, paraphrasing the final two lines of Invictus with the famous statement, “We are still masters of our fate. We are still captains of our souls.”

And, of course, there’s also the unforgettable anecdote about the late, great South African leader Nelson Mandela. During his long imprisonment in Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners to help raise their flagging spirits. Mandela, himself, had pulled great strength from the rousing words of W.E. Henley.

Invictus, with its timeless and universal theme of resilience and indomitability in the face of hardship and near-certain defeat, has deeply resonated with many of the world’s most memorable leaders. And it continues to inspire its readers today. Its acknowledgment of human suffering and assertion of humanity’s inner strength makes Invictus one of the most powerful and inspirational poems to have ever been written.

The birth of Invictus 

Before we get to the meat of the analysis, here’s a background on the poem’s title and its writer, William Ernest Henley.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Invictus is a Latin adjective used to describe something or someone that is “unconquerable, unsubdued, or invincible.” The word combines the prefix in, meaning not, and victus, from the word vincere, meaning “to conquer or overcome.” Looking at W.E. Henley’s life, it becomes apparent that the poem Invictus arose from the poet’s own experiences.

See, William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) knew a thing or two about suffering and fighting for survival. When he was just twelve years old, the poet was diagnosed with Bone Tuberculosis, a rare form of the disease that affected the skeletal system. Abscesses would form around lesions on bones, and draining these growths meant undergoing an excruciatingly painful process that Henley had to endure for many years.

By the late 1860s, the TB had progressed to the point where his left leg had to be amputated. And the disease would’ve taken his right one too, had Henley not contested the procedure. In a bid to save his right leg, he enlisted the help of the esteemed 19th-century surgeon, Joseph Lister. The treatment plan was successful, but the road to Henley’s recovery remained long and painful. W.E. Henley was confined in a hospital from 1873-1875. During this period, he wrote numerous poems about his ordeal—many of which were published in a book aptly called In Hospital.

Invictus, written in 1875, was supposed to be a part of the poetry collection, but for some reason, the 16-line masterpiece didn’t quite make the cut. The poem was eventually published in 1888 as a part of Henley’s Book of Verses.

Structure and Tone

Note: Now, there’s no mention of the sex of the speaker, but for the purpose of this analysis, I’m going to base it on Henley and just go with he/him.

Have you ever noticed how some poems just read beautifully? There’s a simplicity and balance to their structure, a smooth, almost predictable flow of rhymes and internal rhythms that translate well in readings. For me, Invictus isn’t just one of the most motivational poems in history, it’s also one of the best-sounding ones. Case in point, here’s a link to an audio recording of Morgan Freeman reading Invictus.

Aside from its wonderful message of human integrity and resolve, a part of what makes Invictus such a gorgeous piece is how tight and well-crafted the poem is. Its structure seems simple enough. Invictus is basically a four-stanza poem composed of quatrains (four lines per stanza). Each stanza follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, or an ABAB (me, pole, be, soul), CDCD (circumstance, aloud, chance, bowed), EFEF (tears, shade, years, afraid), GHGH (gate, scroll, fate, soul) scheme if we were to be more specific. This rhyme scheme creates natural pause points for the reader.

But, for me, what really makes the poem such an aural treat is its use of iambic tetrameter, almost like a metronome, to give the words a rhythmic da-dum-da-dum-da-dum sound. Try reading the poem out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the tone of the work, we see a curious mix of both gravitas and optimism in each stanza. The first line of each stanza is a telling of despair, an acknowledgment of pain and suffering. While the latter lines are usually affirmations of the persona’s inner strength, determination, and courage. This is a pattern that continues throughout the work. It’s as if the persona is telling us that despite everything that’s happening, he is ready to face each challenge with courage and resilience.

Notice also how the work is written in first person and present tense. Aside from breathing life into each line, this technique also makes it easier for the readers to put themselves into the persona’s shoes. And with themes as universal as bravery, dignity, invincibility, and rising above adversity, it’s a poem that most of mankind can identify with.

Further analysis of Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole…

The first two lines of the poem establish the bleak situation or mood that the persona finds himself in. He speaks of night, a darkness that is so hellish (the pit) that it blankets everything in sight. Now, based on this description, we can infer that the speaker is using this darkness/night as a metaphor for feelings of helplessness, desolation, hopelessness, or even depression. But instead of dwelling or surrendering to these feelings, he opts to look at things in a different light. He goes:

I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

The word thank brings to mind both choice and action. The persona is actively choosing to feel gratitude and hope despite being mired in a dire situation. But notice the curious way he expresses his gratitude. He expresses thanks to whatever gods may be—a statement that seems to indicate the possibility of a higher power or a number of higher powers, but not the certainty. In short, it’s a line that hints at the speaker’s possible agnosticism. And if we look at the quality that he’s thankful for, his unconquerable soul, the last two lines can also be interpreted as more of a declaration of the persona’s indomitability rather than a mere articulation of thanks.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

This pattern of recounting the negative aspects of life followed by an assertion of the persona’s unbroken spirit continues in the second stanza. Here we see the persona speak of the cruel nature of existence—the fell clutch of circumstance and the bludgeonings of chance—as terrible events that occur outside of his control. The use of the word bludgeoning, brings to mind the idea of feeling beaten down by life. And yet, while such events may be unavoidable, what he can and does control is how he reacts to them.

He tells us, I have not winced nor cried aloud… My head is bloody, but unbowed. He may not have escaped such tragedies unscathed, but he refuses to be bogged down by these experiences. This stanza actually reminds me of something I read on W.E. Henley’s Wikipedia page. According to his brother, every time Henley had to undergo the draining of the abscesses in his joints—a very painful procedure, to be sure—Henley would try to mask the pain he was feeling. After each session, he would “Hop about the room, laughing loudly and playing with zest to pretend he was beyond the reach of pain.”

If anything, this anecdote shows us how personal the poem is to Henley. And when he speaks about a place of wrath and tears in the third stanza, one can imagine that the poet/persona is referring to both life and the hospital—a place that is often steeped with anguish, pain, and suffering.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

The second line in this stanza, Looms but the Horror of the shade, is also possibly a reference to facing one’s mortality. But again, these years of suffering or menace have not been enough to break the persona/poet. And just as sure as he has faced these trials with courage and defiance, he assures the reader that any challenges he will face in the future will be met with the same resoluteness. These challenges shall find him unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The poem then reaches its climax in the final stanza. Here, Henley borrows a concept from the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible. The line It matters not how strait the gate appears to be a response to Matthew 7:13-14, which says:

Enter ye at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and there be few that find it.

This biblical passage tells us that to get to heaven, we need to walk the narrow path (the good path).  The next line, How charged with punishments the scroll, also appears to allude to the religious idea of our sins being weighed when we enter the afterlife. The tally on the scroll will determine where we go—heaven or hell.

And yet, what the persona in Invictus tells us is that these things don’t matter to him. He will not let such standards determine the course of his life. He will not bow to life’s hardships, nor would he be swayed by other people’s criteria. He says finally and definitively these iconic lines, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

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Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)

In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.

Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.

And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).

I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students.  Just my two cents, really.

  1. Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.

 

  1. Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.

 

  1. Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.

 

  1. Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.

 

  1. We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.

 

  1. Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.

Ten Common Grammatical Mistakes Writers Make

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When it comes to writing, whether you’re penning a blog post, an essay, a poem, or a novel, having sound grammar is a must. No matter how golden your plot or message may be, if your work is littered with grammatical errors, then you run the very real risk of losing your readers before they even get to the good parts.

Now, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about writing is that there’s no skipping the fundamentals. You’ll need a fairly good grasp of grammar to secure a writing gig. And if you’re thinking of getting your novel published, then it’s safe to say that you’ll need more than just a good grasp. Think rock-solid, strongman-level clench.

Another (hard) lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how good of a writer you think you are, there’s always going to be room for improvement. Grammar, for all its rigidity, is actually quite the slippery sucker. It definitely helps to brush up on your grammar once in a while. That’s exactly what I was up to when I came across the following words/phrases. Think of this little list as a cheat sheet of sorts—that’s certainly how I’m treating it.

So, without further ado, here are ten of the most common grammatical mistakes even seasoned writers make.

1. Using i.e. and e.g. interchangeably.

 When I was in school, i.e. and e.g. were exclusively used for formal papers. Nowadays, however, more and more people are using i.e. and e.g. casually and interchangeably, usually when introducing further examples of what they were referring to. Now, like their ever-trusty cousin etc. (et cetera), i.e. and e.g. are Latin abbreviations. They actually mean very different things. The key to using them properly lies in knowing their respective definitions.

Let’s start with e.g., which is short for exempli gratia. Bit of a mouthful, but the first word gives you an idea of what it stands for. Exempli is pretty close to example, isn’t it? That’s because the phrase exempli gratia means “for example.” So, if you’ve been using e.g. when citing examples, then good job! You’ve hit the nail on its head.

As for i.e., it means id est, which translates to “that is.” So, if you’re referring to something specific to clarify or solidify your statement, i.e. is the way to go. Now, some people use the formula “i.e. = in essence,” which is a pretty neat trick too. Just don’t forget the Latin phrase in case the internet police come after you.

Some examples:

I’m thinking of binge-watching some shows this week, (e.g. Mad Men, Mindhunter, The Good Place, Brooklyn 99, Grace and Frankie), and then tweeting nonstop about how much work I still have to do. That’s the plan.

I’m busy doing creative research (i.e. binge-watching Mad Men).

2. Free reign vs. free rein

 Homophones are very tricky, especially when we’re talking idioms and common phrases. This one is particularly thorny, I think, because in a way both statements seem to make sense. Free reign vs. free rein. The first one conjures images of being a ruling monarch given absolute power to do as one chooses. The latter brings to mind how one can gently loosen the reins when horseback riding to allow the horse more freedom of movement.

These days, both phrases are used in magazine articles and news websites. But according to Merriam-Webster, the correct phrase is free rein. It means to be given “unrestricted liberty of action or decision.” The phrase was originally a term used in horseback-riding to refer to a way of holding the horse’s reins/straps. Sometime in the 17th century, however, free rein founds its figurative footing and has since been used to refer to “freedom of expression or action.”

As for free reign, it is but an eggcorn—it sounds right and feels right but is ultimately wrong.

Example:

Some days it feels as if the people have given a monster free rein to run the country into ruin. –dystopian novels and dissatisfied constituents

3. With baited breath vs. with bated breath

Another homophone, but an easier fix this time. If you read the first phrase again, you’ll see that it doesn’t make much sense. To bait someone is to deliberately try to annoy someone or make him/her angry. You use bait to catch fish or whatever else you want to trap or hunt—I’m hoping not humans. A clickbait is when you get lured to a website or webpage—oftentimes through misrepresentation of content. So, essentially, it doesn’t make sense to use the phrase, with baited breath.

As for bated, it refers to a diminishment or a restraint of “force or intensity.” So, saying with bated breath is perfectly acceptable. The phrase means the act of holding your breath in anticipation, anxiety, fear, nervousness, or suspense.

Example:

He waited for her answer with bated breath, but she said nothing. Her face remained impassive as ever, even as she made a move to take the ring from his hand.

4. Of vs. Have (as in should of/have, would of/have, could of/have)

Now, you may think this one’s pretty basic, but it’s a mistake that a lot of people make. Though not exactly homophones, of and have, (specifically the contraction of the latter), are close enough in sound to confuse a number of people.

Of, of course, is a preposition used to refer to the relationship or connection of two items, things, or groups. That is to say that you use of when referring to something or someone that belongs to or hails from something, someone, or somewhere else. For example, you say that “This painting is truly the work of a genius.” Or you can say, “Hermione Granger is the brightest witch of her generation.”

Based on that definition, you can see that it doesn’t really make sense to pair of with should, would, or could, especially if your intent is to convey regret or the possibility of something. As you’ll see in the following examples, the right expressions are: should have, would have, and could have.

Incorrect: She should of known better.

Correct: She should have known better.

Incorrect: Had I known about this sooner, I would of acted differently.

Correct: Had I known about this sooner, I would have acted differently.

Incorrect: I could of sworn that was you!

Correct: I could have sworn that was you!

5. Emigrated vs. Immigrated/Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Ah, emigrated and immigrated—another set of words similar enough in pronunciation to cause serious confusion. Again, the key to using the right word here is through learning each word’s definition. See, emigrate means leaving your country to live somewhere else. While immigrate means come to another country to live there. Essentially, you’re emigrating from your homeland, and immigrating to or into another country.

For example:

Due to the rampant property- and business-grabbing of President X’s government, people were forced to emigrate from X-land in search of better opportunities.

They immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.

6. Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek

Sneak peek or sneak peak? Piqued my interest or peaked my interest? These are some of the questions I’ve seen online regarding these three words. Here’s what each word means:

Peak means the highest point of something. As in, to summit the peak of Mount Everest.

Pique, when used as a verb, can mean two things: to excite or to stimulate, (ex. piqued my curiosity), and to feel annoyance or irritation (His glib remark left me feeling piqued).

As for Peek, well, that’s when you use your peepers to look at something, (ex. She took a furtive peek at the exam’s answer sheet.)

Now, as you can see from those definitions, if you’re talking about the opportunity to see something before its official release, (ex. movie trailers, book snippets), then you’re getting a sneak peek. If you’re after the word that describes either the metaphorical or physical pinnacle of something, then the word is peak. For example, Based on last night’s game, Dejounte Murray is back in peak condition. And lastly, if you’re referring to excitement, resentment, or curiosity being stirred, then piqued is the way to go. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent round of interviews has piqued my interest in his new book, “Talking to Strangers.”

7. Compliment vs. Complement

Some time ago, I stayed in a hotel that offered an array of very nice freebies. While the items were very much appreciated, the misprint on the card that read “complementary,” threw me for a moment. I was pretty sure the proper word was complimentary, but I’m not ashamed to say that I did double-check with a dictionary app just to be sure.

Turns out, the right word is complimentary. See, while both of these words may be rooted in the Latin word, complere, which means “to complete,” time has allowed both words to develop their own meanings and usages. Let’s start with the one that comes closest to its Latin ancestor.

According to Merriam Webster, complement is “something that completes something else or makes it better.” While the adjective complementary means “goes together well.”

A compliment, on the other hand, refers to the expression of praise, admiration, or approval. As for complimentary, the adjective can mean either “expressing admiration” or “something that’s given for free.”

Here are some examples of how these words are used:

The gravelly quality of Johnny Cash’s voice, coupled with his emotional delivery of the lyrics, complemented the dark and painful message of the song Hurt.

The fact that Johnny Cash chose to cover the Nine Inch Nails song is a massive compliment to Trent Reznor’s writing and composing abilities.

While planning my wedding, I spent a lot of time looking for complementary colors that would fit our spring-literary theme.

The hotel offered the newlyweds a complimentary basket of fruits and a bottle of wine.

8. Between vs. Among

Though often used interchangeably, the difference between the two words is pretty straightforward. You use between when referring to specific or distinct items. And contrary to popular belief, these items need not be limited to two choices. While the word among is used when you’re pertaining to things or people in a collective and not distinct manner. (Or is it non-distinct?)

Examples:

When given a choice between coffee, orange juice, and tea, I always choose the first as my preferred breakfast drink.

Contrary to popular belief, there can be honor among thieves. (Though that honor is tenuous at best, if you ask me.)

9. Shoe-in vs. Shoo-in

Perhaps it’s the foot-in-the-door association that’s done it, but there seems to be a large number of people who use shoe-in when referring to a sure winner. The right expression when you’re talking about someone or something that’s certain to succeed is shoo-in. You know, as in when you urge something or someone forward, as in you shoo them forward.

Example:

With her aunt as one of the judges, she’s a shoo-in to win the pageant.

10. I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less

Now, unlike the previous entries where there’s a clear-cut right and wrong answer, this one has to do with what you want to say. Of course, the common expression is I couldn’t care less, as in I don’t care at all. Hence the contraction in couldn’t. But technically you can say I could care less, if that’s exactly what you mean. It all boils down to context.

Examples:

I couldn’t care less about who wins the next race. My team’s already out of the running, so it doesn’t matter who wins first place. (I don’t care.)

I could care less about the results of the upcoming elections, that’s true. But it’s not in my nature to be apathetic about something that affects my family’s day-to-day existence. (I care.)

These are just some of the trickier grammar problems I’ve personally encountered while writing, or seen online while doing research. I’m sure there are many more words and phrases that we can learn together. What about you? Any other words or idioms you’ve struggled with?