Book 2: Self-Obligation
Book II. Self-Obligation and Self-Authorship
1. Kirists believe in self-obligation and self-authorship. We decide what we deem is important, rooting each decision in an absurd obligation to do the right thing. We accept that we are burdened with freedom and the moral imperative to stand up.
2. This absurd obligation to do right and to live our life purposes presses us into action. If it is storming outside and we have no desire to go out but we are obliged to venture out, then we go, complaining a bit, under the weather a bit, but adamantly.
3. We do not say “What’s the point?” or “Who cares?” or “This is too hard!” or “I quit.” Or rather, we may say all that, but then we laugh, or at least chuckle a little, and get on with the business of raising our personal bar very high, to self- respect.
4. Our life is our project. We are tasked by no one but ourselves to live a life that makes us proud. Nature has built us to know that this is true and has also built us to be not quite equal to the task. This project management is hard, but there is no help for that.
5. Self-obligation is the motivation. Self-authorship is the way. This is different from duty. We may see it as our duty to show up for work. But it is our obligation to decide whether our work is righteous or not. If it isn’t, that matters.
6. Maybe our work is pastoral. Maybe we’ve been mouthing platitudes about God for decades. Now we’ve come to the place of knowing that we do not believe. It may be our duty to preach on Sunday but it is now our obligation to stop that lying.
7. Maybe we grew up in a culture that demands that we honor our ancestors and everyone who is older than us. But our parents happen to be toxic, dangerous tyrants. Our culture may say that it is our duty to submit to them but it is our obligation to rebel.
8. Maybe we see it as our duty to maintain a perfectly tidy house. But we have little children who can’t be tidy unless we drown them in rules and discipline them harshly. It is our obligation to change our mind about the supreme importance of neatness.
9. We may have acquired all sorts of ideas about what is correct behavior and right living. But we know better than to believe that those rules are written in stone. For we may have been mistaken, deluded, coerced, misguided or wrong- headed.
10. We are obliged to rethink ourselves and reinvent ourselves as we go. It is not some badge of honor to stick to our guns and refuse to change. How many costly mistakes will we repeat if we have no permission to examine our unconscious premises?
11. We say, “I intend to do the next right thing and the right thing after that. I am obliged to live that way because I know that matches my vision of how my life ought to be lived. To live that way, I am obliged to bring real attention to every situation.”
12. We see life as a series of situations that need our attention. For instance, we may prefer peacefulness to violence. But if we are threatened, we are obliged to decide, in that moment and in that context, whether or not we ought to do violence.
13. In that moment, and in every moment of life, there is no principle or set of principles to rely on except the bedrock principle that we are obliged to do the next right thing. If we do less, we will disappoint ourselves. That is our first principle.
14. But what is the next right thing? Sometimes we know. At other times, we face a muddy picture. We surrender to that reality, that sometimes we feel certain that we know and that at other times we stand agitated, perplexed, and uncertain.
15. This means that we will not always feel certain. A kirist accepts this truth. Others may act as if they are always perfectly certain and that there is no need or place for doubt in their universe. We know that they are only being grandiose and defensive.
16. But, while we may feel uncertain, we still act, and with energy. We make provisional whole-hearted commitments to our choices. We stand up and act bravely, while at the same time assessing if we’ve chosen wisely. That is our rhythm and our method.
17. This assessing is essential because our wisdom is regularly threatened by our cravings, our instincts, and our shadowy self-interests. Are we doing the next right thing or just something we want to do? We need to be mindful and watchful.
18. We are genuinely self-interested creatures. Our genes are more than a little selfish. We want what we want. Maybe we want to design ball gowns. Designing ball gowns is bound to make us a puppet of the rich. But how badly we want to design them!
19. Maybe we want to write poetry, even though there are barricades we ought to be storming. Maybe we are committed to one person and find ourselves coveting another. Maybe we are obsessed with trivial amusements. We want what we want!
20. The terrible power of craving, a power so enormous as to make sloths, liars, and traitors out of anyone, must be reckoned with. Nature plunked craving right down beside our consciousness of good and evil and chuckled, “Okay, humans, deal with this.”
21. It is an unequal battle. Our instincts, cravings, desires and shadows are no joke. We attempt to meet this challenge by taking an amazing step to the side of our own desires. This one-step dance to the side is the kirist dance of self- awareness.
22. Maybe we desire a mansion. We know that we do not need five thousand square feet of emptiness but still we want it, maybe to heal some wound, maybe to allow us to exclaim, “I win!” We take a mindful step to the side and unpack that desire.
23. Maybe we want to feel victorious. Nature has built competition right into us. We know it’s wrong-headed to miss our child’s recital because our home team is playing, but something in our head screams, “Go, Warriors!” We take a step to the side.
24. Maybe we want acclaim. We seriously doubt that acclaim is of value but our heart hungers for it. We want applause and red-carpet moments, even though we know better. We take a mindful step to the side and have a quiet conversation.
25. That kirist step to the side, which creates space and a vantage point, allows for quiet conversations without which ethical action is impossible. If we are always noisy, unruly, and covetous, if we never create quiet, we’ll act from the shadows.
26. How much better to step to the side and reflect. It is such an effortless dance, so much easier, really, than memorizing rules provided by strangers or acting impulsively and making a mess that then needs cleaning up. It’s just a single step to the side.
27. Maybe you don’t want to notice how meaningless life feels. You’re terrified that if you notice you’ll invite despair. But aren’t you despairing already? Take that quiet step to the side, breathe, and say, “How can I coax some more meaning?”
28. There, off to the side of all that noise, off to the side of all that anxiety and self-pestering, you honor your obligation to listen to your own wisdom and you make quiet decisions about your life purposes and the next steps of your journey.
29. This is an aspect of self-obligation, to step to one side and thoughtfully consider. You know that you are obliged to do this. It is likewise an aspect of self-authorship. From this vantage point, off to one side, you make considered decisions.
30. Maybe you don’t want to do battle with your own personality. You rather like your dramas, your messes, and your rages. But you know better. You step to one side, smile wryly at your petulant immaturities, and author a better you.
31. Maybe you’ve invested two decades in a career that now holds no meaning for you. You could swallow hard and try not to notice that you are miserable. Instead, you step to one side, take several deep breaths, and begin to write a new story.
32. Maybe one of your children is bullying the other. You could shake your head and call it a phase. You could argue that the bullied child will be toughened up by the experience. You could do nothing. Instead, you step to one side and say, “I’m obliged here.”
33. The kirist vantage point is off to one side, reflecting on the situation. This helps us not join mobs, not sit entranced by mass culture, and not dive into shallow enthusiasms. Off to one side, we calmly and quietly assess the situation.
34. From that vantage point, we do battle with those powerful impulses that cause us to race around town chasing a high, an orgasm, a sale, or some other excitement. In that quiet place, we make thoughtful choices that amount to self-authorship.
35. From that vantage point, we make our wisest choices. We may not be certain and doubts may remain, but at least we’ve done our due diligence, thoughtfully considering the matter. We may still want what we want but we act from a higher obligation.
36. Yes, we really do want what we want. Still, we manage to announce, “Self-obligation comes first.” Our selfish genes may want mansions but we say, loud enough so that we can hear ourselves, “More righteousness and less square footage.”
37. Self-obligation is not the same as self-control. They sound similar but self-control is a whole-body tightness and self-obligation is the breathtaking freedom to do the next right thing. They are as different as handcuffs and goodness.
38. Self-obligation is not the same as self-interest. Self-interest is our greedy self. Self-obligation is our ethical self. Sometimes there is not an inch of difference between them. But often there is a mile of difference between them.
39. Self-obligation is not the same as self-absorption. We do not step to one side to star gaze, to navel gaze, to fantasize, or to lose ourselves in reveries. We step to one side so as to make decisions about what is right and how we shall live.
40. Self-obligation sounds stern. But it is actually happiness for a creature like us, one burdened with a consciousness of good and evil. You are made happy by righteousness. It is not the same happiness as eating ice cream; it is subtler and higher.
41. And self-authorship? Self-authorship requires that you accept how authorship really works. Authorship means a radical acceptance of messy process. You go into the unknown and you learn as you go. Your first draft may need the ashcan. So be it!
42. Your story is bound to shift. Yesterday it may have been your truth that you did not want children. Today it may be your truth that you do want children. Your story has a new plot line. Kirists grow easy with the shifting storylines of life.
43. Your story may shift this way. Twenty years ago, the idea of being a psychiatrist seemed exactly right. You went to medical school and built your practice. Today, you despise pushing pills as a cure for life’s challenges. Your story has a new plot line!
44. Your story may shift this way. You were a brooding teenager and a reckless twenty-something. At thirty, despair took over. You look back, shake your head, and smile. Now you’re a kirist. Your story has shifted from author-less to authored.
45. The creative process comes with mistakes, messes, changes of heart, changes of direction, occasional inspiration, and a lot of not knowing. The same for the process of life. You author your life like a creator wrestling an alligator.
46. What might stand in the way of self-authorship? Maybe never having the idea pop into your head. Maybe you were already indoctrinated by age nine or felt defeated by age twelve and never heard yourself say, “My life is entirely mine to direct.”
47.What might stand in the way? Your clan. Your clan will certainly reject your efforts at self-authorship. They have been subtly or overtly telling you who you’re supposed to be and how you’re supposed to act since birth and they are no doubt telling you still.
48.Your peers will certainly reject your efforts at self-authorship. Each of them enters a system that makes demands, including the demand of strict loyalty, and if you say, as a matter of self-authorship, “Your system is flawed,” they will despise you.
49. The world’s thieves and bullies will certainly reject your efforts at self-authorship. They love freedom for themselves and hate freedom for you. Their goals are to control you, diminish you, and ridicule you, not applaud your thoughtful, singular journey.
50. Your religion or philosophy will almost certainly reject your efforts at self-authorship, unless it is unusually benign and enlightened. As a rule, you will be instructed to follow, not lead, and to accept their dogma as the gospel truth.
51. Your employer will almost certainly reject your efforts at self-authorship. He will demand loyalty, secrecy, subservience, obedience, and lots of company cheerleading. You are to toe the line at all times, not venture out and write your own script.
52. All these forces and many others stand opposed to your efforts at self-authorship. And you yourself may be opposed to the idea. You may hate carrying the weight of freedom on your shoulders and happily drop it for the sake of a certain ease.
53. You may find it less stressful, more convenient, altogether safer and maybe even more responsible to wear blinders, nod in agreement, bow to every pressure, and never stand up or speak up. Of course, this won’t make you feel very proud.
54. In our philosophy, you are obliged to thoughtfully author your own life, aiming to do as much good as possible, because your ethical sense demands that. Have you had a recent chat with yourself in which you lay out those obligations?
55. Maybe you once had that chat with yourself on a train ride from Budapest to Vienna or maybe you had it a very long time ago, when you were four years old, as you listened to a fairy tale about good and evil. But have you had it recently?
56. Have it now, again or the first time. This chat sounds like the following. “Hello, me. I guess I am writing my own story. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. This puts a lot of pressure on me to be calm, thoughtful, wise and good. But I’m obliged!”
57. Self-authorship means tolerating the process of life, just as a creator must tolerate the creative process. A creator knows that no creation comes with a guarantee of excellence or a certificate of meaning. You make the effort and then you see.
58. You make the effort. Self-authorship is effortful. You may hear yourself murmur “I’d like to take it easy” or “I prefer a little drama to all this steadiness!” But you catch yourself. You remind yourself that self-authorship is exactly this demanding.
59. Kirism is demanding. You can certainly find philosophies and religions that demand much less, or even nothing. There are plenty of breezy philosophies and religions that do not ask you to do much, be much, or care much. Are they for you?
60. You can also find plenty of philosophies and religions that demand a lot, much more than kirism does, but with all that demanding coming from on high. Most philosophies and religions are like that, full of dogma delivered by iron fists.
61. You can find all sorts of philosophies and religions that boss you about, that meddle in every corner of your life, that have you bowing and scraping, that tell you what to wear, what to eat, what to think and which way to face. Are they for you?
62. Kirism is demanding but it only makes proper demands that match your understanding of what’s required. You yourself appoint yourself an ordinary hard worker in the service of justice and goodness. You demand that of yourself.
63. Among those appropriate demands are steadiness and a serial letting go. You stay steady in your determination to author your story and to meet your self-obligations. At the same time, when change must occur you let go of your desire to cling.
64. When must you let go? You could jump high when you were twenty and now you can barely get off the ground. So be it. You organize your life around your new reality and you do not sign up for any high hurdle races, despite the temptation.
65. When must you let go? Your career made sense to you a decade ago. Now it doesn’t. Maybe you can make new sense of it, maybe you can wait it out to retirement, or maybe you are obliged to make a huge change. You decide without clinging.
66. When must you let go? You hoped that your children would have children. They have their own ideas. If you cling to that hope you will only create pain and resentment. You let go of your demanding desire and love your children as they are.
67. Where must you stay steady? You stay steady in the knowledge that the universe has no messages for you and no secret missions for you. You accept that the locus of purpose is within you, not out there somewhere in the vast reaches of darkness.
68. Where must you stay steady? You stay steady in your belief that you are obliged to live your life in a worthy way. You have chosen this obligation and ratified your choice. This is bedrock, though when the rains come it can get slippery.
69. Where must you stay steady? You stay steady in the knowledge that there is no destination, no holy grail, no nirvana, and no alternative ending. You stand up and live. Maybe you take in a movie, maybe you despair, maybe you laugh out loud. You live.
70. This staying steady and this letting go are integral parts of the process of self-authorship. You are a rock and a shape-changer. Looking back, you will recognize yourself and also not recognize yourself at all. How perplexing. And how dynamic!
71. You accept that there will be agitation. You hear yourself thinking something. Is that your own opinion? Or your father’s? Or your mother’s? Or your rabbi’s? Or your culture’s? Can you tell? How agitating! You accept that agitation is coming.
72. You accept that there will be a lot of not knowing. Should you choose this path or that one? The law, which has a ring to it, or psychology, which has its own ring, or animal husbandry? How can you know for sure? Not knowing will not be pleasant!
73. You accept that your instincts are shadowy and powerful. They date from the beginning of time, from pitch-black caves and creatures crawling over you in the dark. You come with strange desires, nightmares, and strangled screams. That is who you are.
74. You accept that the blues may dog your heels. Who is immune to sadness, disappointments, grief, and despair? Your life story will have pages of woe and maybe even chapters. If you could eradicate unhappiness, you would. But how is that possible?
75. You accept that you may find yourself racing out of control. So much is propelling you, chasing you, obsessing you, and making you feverish. You do your best to step to one side, off that speeding conveyor belt, and murmur, “Get a grip, please.”
76. You accept that these challenges have come, are here, and are coming. You say, “I may be sad, I may be buffeted, I may be racing, I may be overwhelmed, but I am not losing sight of my twin guiding principles, self-obligation and self-authorship.”
77. Will you take breaks from this rigorous work? Of course. You must allow yourself some pancakes, fantastical reveries, lusty side glances, diatribes, catnaps and indulgences. But these are mindful breaks, not serious slips or dangerous meanderings.
78. If, however, you dangerously meander away from self-obligation, if you seriously slip away from self-authorship, if you begin to answer some siren’s call, you must leap up, take that brilliant step to the side, and cry, “Time to right this ship!”
79. Whatever your story has been, however your personality has been baked in, however many times you’ve slipped and fallen, you locate your freedom and recommit to righteous action. It is like sitting for too long and remembering to stand up again.
80. Steadiness is the string and recommitments are the beads of the necklace. You will not always feel committed. How could you? There are just too many competing ideas and forces. But picture that beautiful necklace with all those recommitments.
81. You coax your best self into existence and employ your best self in the service of your life purposes, your intentions, and your commitments. Then you roll out your movie: part noir mystery, part heartfelt romance, part drama, and part screwball comedy.
82. Will it be a beautiful story? It will be made that much more beautiful by the attention you pay to doing the next right thing. Is a hot shower the next right thing? All right then! Is it that difficult conversation with your daughter? All right then!
83. Will it be a beautiful story? It will be made that much more beautiful by the deep obligation you feel to our noblest sentiments, to those human-sized heroic acts of standing up, speaking out, comforting the afflicted, and sparing the children.
84. Will it be a beautiful story? It will be made that much more beautiful by the care you take in your thinking, in your speaking, and in your actions. Every calm thought, every kind word, every generous act beautifies your story.
85. Will it be a beautiful story? Who can say? But it will be the most honorable and rewarding story you can write. We only rarely see such stories. More usual are stories of self-interest and carelessness. Yours can be ever so much more beautiful than those.