From tree to tree

Most books that are proclaimed to be “profound” and “life-changing” aren’t. Sometimes they are, but never to the degree advertised. Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to Be Disliked is one such book. It didn’t shatter my soul into a million pieces and then give me a blueprint for a more aesthetically pleasing and functional reconstruction, but it did offer some concrete advice about the how to live a life. But more importantly, it brought to my awareness the fact that all philosophies and all religions tend towards a consensus on the human condition.

The book is based on the psychological research of Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, and it has a few key concepts. One such idea is “the separation of tasks”. Here’s how it works: it is my task to trust and believe in the people I love, but it is their task to decide what to do with that investment. The book uses the example of a parent-child relationship:

“…a parent suffering over the relationship with his or her child will tend to think, My child is my life. In other words, the parent is taking on the child’s task as his or her own, and is no longer able to think about anything but the child. When at last the parent notices it, the ‘I’ is already gone from his or her life. However, no matter how much of the burden of the child’s task one carries, the child is still an independent individual. Children do not become what their parents want them to become. In their choices of university, place of employment and partner in marriage, and even in the everyday subtleties of speech and conduct, they do not act according to their parents’ wishes. Naturally, the parents will worry about them, and probably want to intervene at times. But, as I said earlier, other people are not living to satisfy your expectations. Though the child is one’s own, he or she is not living to satisfy one’s expectations as a parent.”

This sounds remarkably similar to ideas contained within a poem called, “On Children”, by Khalil Gibran, which itself is a part of a collection entitled The Prophet. Here’s the poem in full:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

The “separation of tasks” also has a striking similarity to the Stoic “dichotomy of control”—the identification of what is within your control and what is not, and the decision to focus only on the former. The premise being that attempting to control what you cannot is a straight path to pain and suffering. Better, Stoicism teaches, to focus on the only things within your domain: your words, your thoughts and your deeds.

Another key idea in The Courage to Be Disliked is that “all problems are interpersonal problems”. It goes on to explain that one of the main causes of these interpersonal issues is vertical-versus-horizontal relationships—perceptions of inferiority and superiority versus perceptions of equal value. The person who sees relationships in vertical terms is always placing others above themselves and themselves above others—thus, they flip-flop between arrogance and insecurity, between a cruel elation and a cynical despondency. The advice the book provides is to “flatten” vertical relationships and make them horizontal. How? By choosing to value human beings on “the level of being” instead of the “level of acts”. By appreciating a person because they are, not because they do. Doing this removes the barrier of comparison, making the route to sincere and honest communication easier to travel.

This “flattening” of relationships reminds me of something I picked up from Nassim Taleb’s Incertoit’s better to exist outside of hierarchies. I can’t re-trace his exact path of reasoning, but I believe he implied that, bound by the constraints of a traditional hierarchy, humanity’s priorities become warped and everything is evaluated according to its ability to help or hinder a person’s rise upwards. In the midst of hierarchies, moral and ethical considerations fade into the background and the only thing that matters is one’s status relative to others.

Nassim Taleb is also the person who, when talking of Seneca the Younger in Antifragile, defined “the modern Stoic sage” as “someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” Why would such alchemy make someone a “sage”? Because if a person can transform all the negatives of existence into positives—or, at least, neutrals—then that person experiences nothing but upside from the march of Time. As Taleb says, Stoicism as he understands it is not the “elimination” of emotion or adverse events, but their “domestication”—which is, as far as I can see, a key tenet of Buddhism.

However, this “transforming”, or leveraging, of negative emotions and events is not exclusive to Taleb or Stoicism. Rene Girard also advises it. Girard, prodigious scholar, academic and late convert to Christianity, is known for theorising “mimetic desire”, the idea that our yearnings are not spontaneous. He says that all desire begins with the imitation of a model. Example: for a long time, I’ve been trying to build a remote business that generates a lot of value for others and provides just enough for me to work less than full-time (so I can read, write and all that). The advantages to such an arrangement seemed self-evident to me—location independence; satisfaction from bespoke, high quality work; mastery of my time—but I only began to lust for the achievement of this goal after I had selected certain eminent people as worthy of my admiration. I learnt about them and so learnt what they desired, and in the process I begun to desire it too.

In his books, Girard lays out the structure and subtleties of this mechanism. But, contrary to my expectations, he didn’t argue that because the mechanism is revealed it can be dissolved. No, he suggested that if we understand the mechanism we can co-opt it. Girard points to Christianity and describes how the taking of Jesus as a mimetic model can have transformative effects and result in a mimetic desire that is beneficial to society and the self, instead of harmful.


I could continue to draw connections unearthed in my own experience, but I think I have made my point. If you look close enough, all religions and all philosophies are concerned with the same things and they all manage to reach some consensus. They all discuss and debate concepts like agency, awareness, truth and suffering, and for every point at which they draw apart there are two at which they come together.

consensus on the human condition

Why is that? Well. Humanity shares its hard- and software. We are all made from the same stuff and have mostly similar instincts—they differ only by degree. And we are all confronted by the same problem: life. So is it so unreasonable to suggest that the solutions we propose only diverge once they come out of the ground? After all, whilst the trunks, the branches and the leaves may differ from tree to tree, all must have their roots, and to remain standing those roots must bury deep into the earth that is the human condition.