This imagery suits the task of writing. If I feel that I cannot create, then I wade into the river, watch what comes downstream and capture it with my pen. It also suits the process of meditation and mindfulness. Step into the river of thought, be still, and see what flows by. It has another layer too. Heraclitus said that we never step in the same river twice. It is true; every time I take off my shoes and make my way into the river of thought, it is different. The fish are different, the river bed feels different between my toes, the sky above me is new, and the water that so gently moves around me is, without question, not the same.
The mind is a labyrinth, easy to get lost amongst. Especially, when it conflates impression with reality. For example, we tend to believe that we are what we think. If I have thoughts of jealousy and anger, I must be a jealous and angry person. If I think like a liberal—whatever that means—I must be a liberal. It’s not true, though. We are not what we think. Or, phrased more enigmatically, sound is not what we hear. How can it be when the very cells in our body are entirely replaced, over and over again? How can it be when between our selves and reality there is a barrier of remarkably flexible permeability?
Because of this, because of my own attempted move towards grey thinking, I’ve started to explicitly highlight any dualities I find myself subscribing to or thinking in. The most recent comes from Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters:
“Shadowthrone cannot – must not – be underestimated. He possesses too much knowledge. Of the Azath. Perhaps, too, of us. He is not yet our enemy, but that alone does not make him our ally.”
My point, I suppose, is that Enemy-Ally is not a dichotomy, but a spectrum with many, many stop-offs between the poles. So don’t believe anyone who preaches the “If you’re not for me, you’re against me” rhetoric—especially if that preacher is yourself.
In The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon describes the structures of the Nazi concentration camps and the methodologies used by the SS, first, to control, and second, to exterminate their captives. In one chapter he describes the ritual degradation of new inmates, a degradation that began as soon as the individuals marked for death stumbled out of the cramped boxcars that shuttled them to the site of their demise.
“The end of the admission formalities removed the prisoners for the time being from the clutches of the SS, and few prisoners survived without some damage to their personality. Many kept their bearings only by a kind of split personality. They surrendered their bodies resistlessly to the terror, while their inner being withdrew and held aloof.”
When I came across the above passage, and recalled the Buddhist notions of inhabiting pain, the mindfulness exercises of sincere evaluation, and the Stoic cultivation of untouchable inner spaces, I realised that mindfulness is very much a fair-weather policy. It can get us through the ordinary trials of existence—fatigue, disillusion, frustration, interpersonal conflicts, and even ideological conflicts. But to endure the harshest, most unimaginable conditions and treatment? It doesn’t suffice. Embracing pain does not enable us to endure utter inhumanity. No. Another strategy is required: retreat, divorce, an agonising sundering of our very being.
A business is not an individual. An individual has ethics, can comprehend and live by systems of honour, kindness, compassion and morality. A business has no such internal scorecard. It exists only to propagate itself, to profit. Which is why appeals to ethics directed towards global brands are so ineffective. Companies only care about ethics when it impacts their bottom line. Luxury fashion brands didn’t stop using fur in their products because of concerns for animal welfare. They stopped using fur because people stopped buying fur due to a shift in how our culture regards its use.
This observation extrapolates. If we wish for businesses to be ethical, to abide by something akin to the standards of behaviour and morality with which we hold ourselves individually, our approach needs to change. Instead of appealing to ethics, we need to appeal to profit. Because the only way in which we can stop a business from acting unethically is if we first make it unprofitable.
Easy to say, hard to undertake. Especially when that which is unethical is often that with the greatest margins. Think about food production. Does a company make more from producing fresh fruit and vegetables, or from producing and selling highly processed foods?
– Control downside; let the upside take care of itself.
I stole the second from a Seth Godin blog post (which I can’t find):
– Spend as little as possible on what doesn’t matter, and as much as necessary on what does.
The first rule is the best kind of a rule: a simple one. The second rule is simple too, but it has some ambiguity built in, which means I can adapt it in the future—my understanding of what matters, what doesn’t and what constitutes “necessary” is likely to evolve over time. But enough with finance. See, what I realised—and why I’m writing this—is that these personal finance rules can double as time management rules. Time is my most precious resource, and I can’t do much better than knowing how I spend it (rule one) and resolving to devote as much of it to what matters as I can (rule two).