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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I


December 25th, 2020


There are an endless number of ways we can help or give to others, but they all boil down to a change we wish to create in their experience.  A twenty tucked into a card likely creates a tiny burst of dopamine, similar to the rewards we might get by a well-liked post on social media.  The effect is certainly well intentioned but quite ephemeral.  The most precious gift is time, but of course such a gift is more complicated than just spending it with someone.  How exactly do we approach the issue of the quality of that time?  This pushes the arrow around and places the spotlight on who we are as individuals and what it is like to spend time with the person we happen to be at that time. Oddly, one of the best gifts we can give others - the best way we can change their experience for the better, is to first conspire to rally in a way that seems quite selfish.


This is the Oxygen Mask logic. The instructions are parroted at us without fail every time we have a seat on an airplane: in the event of an emergency, please place a mask on yourself before turning to help others.  This logic extends to one’s own children, and with a wider scope beyond emergencies and aviation, it’s wise to extend it to absolutely everyone.  


What exactly is it like to spend time with someone who has failed to concentrate on their own person, with an aim to improve and better their life?

This can be a delicate question, it can be a brutal and unforgiving one.  The divide is between people who really are trying or want to try, but somehow just don’t have the resources or the knowledge to make steps forward happen.  Then there are those who seem totally misplaced in their concentration and attention, giving little if any thought to practical improvement, the result of which can often be quite ‘needy’.


If anything characterizes this later segment of being, it’s perhaps a lack of self-awareness.  Neediness as it effects others often results from something a person is failing to give to themselves.  


Weirdly, the logic generally holds that the more we can give to ourselves, the more we capacity we end up having to give to others.  When this composition hits the sweet spot it is a non-zero sum game, and seems to produce more output than the sum of inputs it requires.  A lack of self-awareness usually inverts this equation, it’s not just difficult to be around needy people but being needy is inherently stressful: integral to such a disposition is an uncertainty about whether or not needs will be met, and uncertainty is one of our greatest sources of anxiety.


Without a strong practice and exercise of self-awareness, the original question of concentrating on one’s life with an aim of improvement is at severe risk of focusing solely on gains, often in status, money, lifestyle - all the ways that enable a person to show off.


A deep self-awareness questions the purpose of these gains.  What’s the point of showing off?  It doesn’t take much showing off or looking around at others showing off to realize that it delivers only quick blips of pleasure and that there is nothing sustainable nor truly fulfilling about it.  But this does not mean we should relegate our aims to a bare bones monastic life: even superficial material gains can be recalibrated to have an enormously generous effect on the lives of others.    Seeing this possibility requires a bit of that self-awareness because the broader attention afforded by such awareness can place the unsatisfying blip of pleasure in a context large enough to compare it to something done that is truly fulfilling and which has long lasting effects.  


Self-awareness ultimately is an act and exercise of zooming out and seeing one’s own self in a larger context.  Suddenly, a person isn’t so alone in their own perspective because now it is populated with other people who can now be part of the consideration of what effects one’s own actions might have.


Developing self-awareness, however, is a strange act of taking a step away from one’s own self in order to have more compassion for that person.  While the best effects of a healthy self-awareness ultimately focuses on what we can and might do for others, it begins with an honest look at what we might be able to first do for ourselves.

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