Lose Yourself In Action

“When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear of poverty no more, tremble no more at death…”

Thus says Machiavelli in a letter to Francesco Vettori, Italian diplomat and writer, in December 1513. Machiavelli, founder of modern Political Science and best known for his political masterpiece book, The Prince, was a gifted writer in making visual scenes out of his writings. When I read to him, though he could be describing a strategy for the ruler on how to organize his army, I feel as if I am seeing how the army is getting organized before my eyes. In the above quoted from his letter, Machiavelli is beautifully picturing the tiresomeness of the day life – in which he describes his workday clothes as “muddy” and “sweaty”, denoting that what he was doing involved movements and actions (sweaty) on the ground, not in a comfortable room (muddy). Besides the sense resultant from this condition, it also infers that the physical body must be tired after that day of actions.

However, the remarkable thing about the message here is losing one’s self in something worthwhile that one enjoys doing for itself – not for money, not for fame, not for the boss. Beware! This is different from losing one’s self in a task at hand, like filling accounting balance sheet or envisioning a tracking system for an inventory. Machiavelli here is describing a higher level of engagement in something at hand, which is more than just the traditional busyness of our day work or house duties, that maybe can take our minds, but not our souls, senses, feelings, and the intellect. This is described by Machiavelli in that when he gets to study, his soul is teleported to another world; that he feels as if he is one of them – sitting with them, clothed like them, eating with them, and even discussing matters with them. Not only this, but he also feels as if they are responding back to him and answering him. An interactive experience. Such vividness of experience of the invasive absorption of one into something that close to his soul and mind is an experience to be envied. It’s the experience of losing yourself, with all its sides, in action. It’s a bliss that one can have something in his life that can take him away from his life – even if it was a living person. It must not be a study, or a book. It could be a dream, a beloved person, a mission in life… The key is the transcendence of the experience, of going beyond one’s self into something else. This is because humans need transcendence in their lives – not to live self-centred all the way in their course of life. We need that feeling. Besides the beauty of such experience sufficient for itself, that experience is also important as a defence mechanism: losing oneself in action is a shield from depression, despair, and negative emotions. This is because our minds can only focus in one thing at a time and when our minds are vacuum, there comes the chances for negativity to occupy that empty space. As such, losing ourselves in action, best if it was something we enjoy for itself and something that grabs all our senses and mind, is a therapy to many psychological illnesses – in fact, it’s an actual technique in psychiatry, termed as ‘Occupational Therapy’, in which patients are treated by getting them busy in something that absorbs them. As Tennyson said “I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair.”

Let’s not be dwelling into ourselves only all the time. Let’s give ourselves to something we deeply love and appreciate: a study, a mission, a memory, a beloved, or a thought … to give ourselves wholly so that, like Machiavelli had, we lose sense of our current world, our time, and even the clothes on our bodies and just transcends and be with that something – to tear the imprisonment of time and space and travel with our soul and mind to something beyond ourselves. If that something was of yielding a result, like a study or a writing or a mission in life, the outcome would be extraordinary if we did the thing with that level of transcendence rather than just doing it as a busy task absorbing only the mind. And if it was something that has no specific result, like a memory or a dream or a book we are reading or a thought about the beloved, enough with the outcome of losing ourselves and the exhaustion of our day into something we love – something/someone with which/whom we would just be happy being with with all of our soul and mind, even for a short time. This would the least bring us happiness and shield us from many psychological illnesses.

“Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn to live, and what will amaze you even more, throughout life once must learn to die.” Seneca

The journey of life is full of births… And in return full of deaths – because every birth is a death for something else.

Learning to live is something that might seem common sense; however, the meaning of “Learn to Live” is much more subtler than we might initially think. This is because Seneca here is not referring to lay living as in the daily running of life per se. However, learning to live is to proceed in the different stages of life with what each stage takes, because each new developmental stage requires learning a new living. An exemplary case of failure to live we might see in the couple who fails to live as parents when they have children, continuing in the same way it was. Learning to live is to learn to proceed into life through the different developments and shifts imposed by our choices and the course of life. Those who fail to live are the ones who live a specific life that’s not suitable for the current situation – like the old who refuses to believe that youth has gone and tries to relive it in actions.

Failure to learn to live is manifested in critical stages of development. A notion we hear about is “Mid-life Crisis”, for example. What’s making it a crisis is the challenge to accommodate rebirth into a new stage and the death of an existing one – which entails a painful tension inside, a battle. There are many crises of that sort. Many tend to avoid the pain associated with such shifts and thus either live inadequately or under depression; however, maturity through life and learning to live is to confront such painful experience of tension – it’s like the woman’s delivery pain to give birth to a new human being. This is what psychologists refer to casually as the Healthy Depression, or simply Healthy Tension. It takes an effort to move from stage to stage; a courage and work on thyself to handle the death of old portion of one’s self and a birth of a new one. That’s learning to live, in the character developmental stages sense.

Also learning to live is adaptation to shifts in the course of life due to change of circumstances: the married becomes divorced/widowed, the healthy becomes sick or handicapped, the parented to orphaned…and vice versa. Some in their avoidance to confront the pain, the fear, and the anxiety associated with such shifts stuck into the old map of looking into reality. They cling to lifestyle, emotions, and attitudes of the old life and in doing so they live not living. Some other remarkable form of change of life route is when one discovers that his/her life is leading in the wrong direction after embarking on a specific road. Some people would tend to let go their dreams or sense of what’s right for them for the same of avoiding battling with something existent. For example, the student who discovered after two years in Engineering school that the Medical profession is right for him and his interest. In such situation, some would take the courage of taking a U-Turn to their living; to mark a death of something that came to be realized as not the right thing and come to learn to live something new thought to be the right thing. However, some would fret on the stress and pain of putting off something they already started to the fear and uncertainty of living something new. They are afraid of dying in what they started and try to live again in something else, that fear is so great that it’s easier to let go the dreams than confronting the pain of shift. There are always valid reasons for doing this or that; what I am saying here is that the key point is a deep reflection and correct thinking about the matter – if  it’s something really the right thing, then learning to die and to live are what’s being called for.

That’s what it meant that one must learn to die, many times, in the journey of life… Because as the course of life takes us, things, including our selves, change and in the eternal change of life, we must learn to confront death and letting go a long cherished part of us and learn to live a new living.

To that end of concept, I would dedicate the below poem “Journey of the Magi”, by Eliot:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? This was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But bad thought they were different; this birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.