The Fatal Weakness of the God of Cynicism

We live in a culture of overpowering cynicism.

We assume the media is bending truth. We assume people won’t speak their full minds to our faces. We assume companies, organizations, and governments will try to pull one over on us. We assume love, friendship, and honor are hollow ideals.

As products of this overpowering cynicism, we tend to view sincerity as impractical. And so we hardly ever encounter it.

It would be reasonable to view the rarity of sincerity as evidence of its weakness. That would be a mistake. To a culture of overpowering cynicism, sincerity is now rare enough to have the strategic advantage of being a surprise.

To tell the truth at risk to your own reputation? To celebrate virtue? To say what you think to someone’s face? No one expects this behavior anymore, and so it is unsettling and difficult to counter.

If you set yourself against a cynical society, your sincerity can be a great advantage.

This relentlessly sincerity can’t be born of naivete. It has to look cynicism straight in the eye and know it. It has to be a sincerity “in spite of” – in spite of the cost of doubt, in spite of excuses, in spite of accusation, in spite of mockery, and in spite of the fact that cynicism is a “safer” and more “realistic” option.

No one will know what to do with a sincerity like that. A sincerity that can persist despite a culture of cynicism unsettles that culture of cynicism. It’s what might start to change things.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Honor Is a Game of Chess, Not Checkers

“It’s chess not checkers.”

That’s what my jiu jitsu coach told me once when I asked about when to or how to use a takedown. In as complex a fighting style as jiu jitsu (just like in chess, as opposed to the simpler game of checkers), there isn’t really a clear answer about when to use a “move.”

I’m learning that honor is that way, too. Honor is complex because life is complex. Rarely does it fit into a one-dimensional ruleset.

There is honor in going to bat for an ideal. But there will be times when honor requires that you prioritize a person over an ideal.

There is honor in being truthful about your own faults. But there will be times when standing proud is the most honorable thing you can do.

There is honor in standing up for someone else’s reputation. And there may be times when sacrificing your own reputation for honor may be the honorable thing.

There will be times when it is honorable to call things out. There will be times when it is honorable to stay silent.

There is honor in fighting an enemy, but there may be times when honor may require you to forgive or even work with an enemy for the sake of a greater good.

There is honor in disrespecting the disrespectable. And yet there may also be times when honor requires you to admit your foolishness to fools or your guilt to the guilty.

Honor is complex. It’s a strange, evolved code of lived-out truth, courage, loyalty, fairness, and personal risk. All of these dimensions of honor have to be combined in an honorable decision.

But all of this is not to say that the honorable way is hard to recognize. Honor is complex because life is complex, but we are ourselves complex beings. We have evolved with honor, and (somehow) we always know how to head in the direction of honor. We won’t know the exact steps to get there, or exactly where we will end up, but after all, that is what makes the game interesting.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Broaden Your Idea of What’s Possible for Your Life

In the last five years I discovered that it was possible for an awkward, non-technical, non-athletic farm kid to skip college and become an important part of a cryptocurrency tech startup, become a fairly avid trail runner, and become comfortable living in a big(ish) city.

I wouldn’t have known if or how I could have done these things, because I didn’t really know how much was possible.

I’m willing to bet that most people don’t have a clear understanding of just how many options they have, and just how many different paths they could take with some effort.

Even tonight I’ve been browsing through apprenticeships and work in a state way out West, and I’ve been going down rabbit holes of new ways
I could spend the next year of my life. Now I am starting to realize how customizable and diverse life can be if designed with the right effort, intention, and skill.

Location? It may take some time and money, but there are cheap ways to get to some all kinds of cool places in this country, whether in New Hampshire or Colorado.

Job? As a young person with a tolerance for risk and lower-budget living, I don’t need a big salaried position. I can afford to start at the ground level of just about anything.

Hobbies? Find a friend who loves climbing, or skiing, or swordfighting. Or join a meetup.

5 years of doing the same thing (even an awesome desk job) or living in the same place (even a great city) can limit you to thinking that you can only make lateral moves. It’s just not true. As I make decisions about my next move, it’s been helpful to have moments that have made me realize just how wide my options are.

I don’t have to take a lateral move into a desk job. I don’t have to go work a retail or chain job somewhere either. I don’t have to stay put. I don’t have to be the same person with the same habits. And realizing that – as well as seeing my options – is helping me to get closer to finding a thing that really lights my fire.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Be Someone’s Moral Measuring Stick

My father and my grandfather told me to “be the man [I] was supposed to be” since I was young. In their code, this means telling the truth, acting honorably, playing fairly, working hard.

It’s the code of farmers, and it’s rare to find in the city, where the simple code sometimes invites scorn or condescension.

When I make the right (even if hard) decision, it is comforting to know that at least my father and grandfather would be proud. With them as fixed points in my mind I can afford to let the outside world get to me a little less.

My grandfather was a man who lived as he ought. My father is a man who lives by the code. And because of that they are moral measuring sticks for me, constants and landmarks for moral navigation and self-evaluation. This is what I’d like to be for my children and grandchildren.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Courage: Use It While You Have It

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

“Gone beyond recall or desire.” What Tolkien’s female Lord of the Rings heroine Eowyn fears most is not death or even the dark lord Sauron – it’s the loss of her desire for adventure.

Tolkien gets at a real, healthy fear here: courage does have an expiration date.

Youth gives us some natural boldness and courage. Testosterone helps. Anger or indignation might give us another temporary boost. Desperation drives us to boldness, as does loyalty and protection of those we love. But all of these motivators to courageous action are finite, though. And ignored often enough, they will start to burn less and less brightly.

I think it’s safe to bet that we all spend a good deal of my time analyzing and wondering about what will happen if we make bold moves (rather than actually making bold moves). Only a couple of times a year – or a decade – do we have the fire in our bellies to actually make the bold moves and damn the consequences.

This is a new decade, and it’s a perfect time to start making the most of the courage we do have, when we have it. Let’s not sit on our boldness. And who knows? We might even get some more out of the deal.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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You Are Responsible for Your Own Disillusionment

We aren’t so much disillusioned by the failures of others as by our own failures.

We aren’t just disillusioned with our ideals because of the corrupt systems at our companies or in our countries. Plenty of people keep their idealism while fighting corrupt systems. We are disillusioned because we go along with the systems.

We aren’t just disillusioned with courage and adventure because the lifestyles around us are comfortable and craven. We are disillusioned because we recognize the mediocrity of our lifestyles but do nothing to change them.

And we aren’t just disillusioned with faithfulness in friendships and relationships because our friends are unreliable. We are disillusioned because we know we aren’t willing to give the work, time, and resources of true comrades.

If you want to believe that people are better, become a better person.

If you want to believe that the world is good, do something to make it so.

If you wait on the world to confirm or deny your highest hopes for the world, you’ll be shocked by how disillusioned you become – but it won’t be the world’s fault.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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