At the end of his conversation with Tim Ferriss, Sebastian Junger offered up a question everyone that should ask themselves.
“Who would you die for? What ideas would you die for? The answer to those questions, for most of human history, would have come very readily to any person’s mouth. Any Comanche would tell you instantly who they would die for and what they would die for. In modern society, it gets more and more complicated, and when you lose the ready answer to those ancient human questions, you lose a part of yourself. You lose a part of your identity. I would ask people, ‘Who would you die for? What would you die for? And what do you owe your community?’ In our case, our community is our country. What do you owe your country, other than your taxes? Is there anything else you owe all of us? There’s no right answer or wrong answer, but it’s something that I think everyone should ask themselves.”
I happen to agree. In Western society, we’re becoming divorced from danger and estranged from physical discomfort. And one of the consequences of this is that it’s becoming harder to transcend ourselves, to put something—be it a religion, a value, a community—above our own existence and wellbeing.
But in the same way that there’s a reverse to the question, “What do you stand for?”--“What will you stand against?”—I believe there’s a darker, more dangerous reverse to the “What would you die for?” question:
What would you kill for?
Would you kill one to save ten thousand? Would you kill someone who’s trying to murder someone you love? Would you kill to preserve the existence of someone you don’t love or know nothing about? Would you take the life of the person who tries to take yours? Would you never kill, under any circumstances, for any cause, for any reason?
These questions are intensely personal. They penetrate right to the core of our beliefs about life, existence, what it means to us, and what we think it means to others. So I’m not going to share my answers, not now. Maybe in the future.
But I will say this: the difficulty of these questions, the moral and ethical quagmire they force us to find a way through, are better confronted now, in times of relative ease. The sooner we ask these hard questions and force ourselves to give a tentative answer, the better prepared we’ll be for when fate forces us to go on record with a definite reply.
I just finished Phillip Pullman’s masterful His Dark Materials trilogy. Typically, at the end of a book, I note what date I finished reading it and record some immediate impressions and takeaways. This is what I wrote straight after finishing the three-part story:
“A story that has revealed (in part) how to be brave, how to think, how to decide, and most of all, how to love and live.”
That’s it. Nothing else. And it’s because the things I felt and learnt from the story are too big, too raw, to be captured explicitly right now.
But there is one passage that really intrigued me and won’t budge from my mind. Early in the story, Lyra, one of the protagonists, is given a device that allows her to ask questions and learn the truth. The following passage comes later in the story, soon after Lyra loses the ability to read the truth from the interplay of symbols and meanings on her alethiometer, and she is asking the angel Xaphania why.
“Once more she gazed at the symbols, once more she turned the wheels, but those invisible ladders of meaning down which she’d stepped with such ease and confidence just weren’t there. She just didn’t know what any of the symbols meant.
In Impro, Keith Johnstone’s posits that adults are atrophied children. That as we transition into adulthood—whether because of society or culture, or because that’s how it must be—we leave something behind. And thanks to Phillip Pullman and the above passage, I think I know what it is that we leave abandoned on the shores of childhood as we sail into the oceans of the adult world. In part, it is our creativity, our innocence and our un-self-consciousness. But really, what we leave behind when we enter adulthoood is a sense of who we are.
As kids, on a subconscious, intuitive level, we understand who we are, and we have no trouble expressing it. But as we grow we lose this knowledge. It goes missing among the eddies of desires, expectations, influences and events.
As the angel Xaphania says, when we are young, we can read our nature by grace, effortlessly, as if it is the most natural thing in the world. We can do it without thought. But as adults, we must re-learn who we are, and this time, it does not come so easily. It is painstaking and tiresome. It takes work, and that work, the effort to understand again who you are, takes the rest of a lifetime.
A lot of people, as well as having social media accounts and a CV, also have a personal website. Or a site that promotes their professional selves. Sometimes it’s used as a placeholder. Sometimes it’s used as an infrequently updated portfolio. And in some cases, it’s a frequently updated hub of activity. It tells people what they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, what they have and are working on, what they’re into and what they’re not, and why.
The small subset of people that use their own slice of the internet in such a way probably want to build an audience of some sort, often for a variety of reasons. But they—and I include myself in this group—go about constructing their site or resource with one thing in mind; what they want.
They want to build an audience, and they’ve heard a key component is building a permission asset. The simplest permission asset is an email list. So they optimise everything with that end in mind. Autoresponder sequences and targeted copy. Calls to action. Pop up boxes and prompts at the end of every post, in the sidebar and in the footer. Constant link-dropping to the page that promotes their email list.
I don’t know about you, but when I go to a site and get bombarded by pop ups telling me about an email list and free things I’ll get for signing up and how many other people cannot live without the newsletter, I get annoyed and leave. I want to look around. I want to see what I can find. I want to explore your work, portfolio, story, whatever, in my own time. I don’t want to be nudged into doing anything.
Yes, by all means, be helpful by providing a nice user experience and interface, links to your best or most popular work, and clear navigation. Yes, tell me about what you do and why you do it. But don’t think for one second that I care what you want me to do. I don’t care if you want to build a permission asset. I don’t care if you want me to buy a product or sign up for a trial of a service or share your post.
In an ideal world, this is what I want to happen when I go to any site: I want to be able to do anything I can think of, and be forced to do none of it. Give me options, and make taking them as frictionless and risk-free as possible. But don’t try to manipulate me into doing what you want. Let me immerse myself in your life, story and work. Don’t interrupt.
It’s a different approach to design. Instead of trying to show off and shove the value we create down the throats of the people that pass through, how about we let what we do speak for itself? How about letting people discover things for themselves? How about we give them a map, a short history, and allow them to explore, rather than trying to take them on a guided tour?
Way back when, before the internet and before the industrial revolution, religion proliferated. Around the world, everyone believed in something, and everyone demonstrated the strength of their faith by visiting sacred spaces. They frequented churches, chapels, temples, meeting places, prayer rooms, meditation spaces, retreats, and monasteries.
But now, we live in the networked world, and religion is less a social necessity and more a personal choice to be shared or concealed as we see fit. And with this declining prominence of religion we’re seeing the decay of sacred spaces. The great churches and cathedrals are no longer places of worship, they’re tourist attractions. Sacred spaces are no longer stalwarts of our communities and integral parts of our daily existence, they’re remnants of past cultures.
So as we continue to move away from socially practised religion and into a more privately religious world, what’s going to happen to sacred spaces? Are they going to continue on the path they’re on and die out? Will their use adapt and evolve? Or will the very nature of what we call sacred change? I think, like religion itself, the meaning and use of sacred spaces is going to change, rather than cease to exist altogether.
What is the single thing that ties together the lives of all people in the developed world? It’s not language, wealth or ideology, but connection. We’re all wired up to, and becoming increasingly dependent upon, the functioning of the internet and the global network. Now, I’m not going to lament or argue against such dependency. Instead, I want to explore how sacred spaces manifest themselves in this interconnected, interdependent world.
In a world dominated by religion, sacred spaces were considered as hearts of religion. As places you go to immerse yourself in your faith and belief. In a world dominated by the internet and constant-connectedness, our sacred spaces will have a different function. Rather than spaces in which we worship at the altar, they will be spaces in which we can escape. In a world of networks, in the connected world, sacred spaces are where we go to disconnect.
It’s already happening. People take technology sabbaths. Limitations are imposed on access to social media and the web by tools like StayFocused and Freedom while we work. It’s becoming increasingly taboo to, not only be on your phone, but to have it in sight at all at the dinner table. There’s studies that show that even having a phone in sight disrupts the intensity of connection between individuals.
People ban screens in their bedrooms, understanding the negative effect they have on sleep and circadian rhythms, but also realising that the bedroom is somewhere where the tendrils of tech shouldn’t be allowed to reach. Single-tasking—a word whose very existence is owed to the proliferation of the internet—is becoming an actual factor in productivity. We create rituals and systems which force us to focus on one thing at a time—reading, writing, creating, conversing—and prevent us from submitting to the allure of exploring online.
In the networked world, sacred spaces aren’t grand cathedrals or candle-lit altars. Sacred spaces are disconnected spaces. Sacred activities become those activities performed in absence of connection to the global network.
In the networked world, the connected world, the only sacred thing is disconnection.
“If you only had six months to live…”
“If you had ten million…”
“If you could go back and change one thing…”
Hypothetical scenarios have a strange ability. They help us to move past the minutiae and see the things that really matter. They help us to identify what is truly important.
I have another scenario to add to the three listed above. It’s based around a question that I found myself asking as I gazed out the window, wondering what exactly I’d like to say to you. Here it is:
Some higher power appears beside you and says, “Your time is up. What you’ve done in the past is irrelevant. What you were going to do in the future doesn’t matter. But before you come with me to the land of the un-living, you have a decision to make. You have to choose one single act to perform. All that the world will remember of you is this act. Whatever it is, I will help you accomplish it. So what is it going to be? What are you going to do?”
Do you do something small, like tell your partner you love them? Do you hug your parents? Do you do something kind, like sit with a child as their life leaves them? Do you make a sacrifice for someone or something? Do you spend your final act doing something you love, or helping someone else do something they love? Do you visit your home? Do you stand on a beach and let the waves wash the sand from in between your toes? Do you have a drink with friends, or do you call on someone from your past with words of thanks?
If the world is to remember you for only one act, what would you like it to be?