about what matters
Sometimes I do a talk. It is actually a kind of performance because almost every kind of public speaking is a performance. What I mean by public speaking is : you go into a room and people are there waiting for you or someone to say something. This is called an audience but they may not be there to listen. They may just be waiting for an opportunity to say something in public themselves which may or may not be relevant to the topic under discussion and which may not be very interesting.
I am tempted here to put in a quip about Dutch people being especially keen to say things and voice their opinions because it seems to be a tradition in Nederland for people, no matter what their age, to speak in a longwinded and ponderous way and to expect other people to listen or to pretend to listen, but I will put it off to the side.
I did a talk/performance in Folkestone in England in 2017. Everyone who was there was listening and it is extraordinary what happens when people really listen. When it was time for questions, someone asked: how do know what matters?
Something happened then. I am still not exactly sure what. I was exhausted. I had come from Liverpool where I’d done a talk followed by two solid days of one to one conversations. I had little more than a few hours sleep a night for a week. And someone had just asked the most important question that it is possible for a human being to ask. One that we should all be asking continuously, over and over, every day — of ourselves, and of each other.
I became aware of tears forming in my eyes. I walked over to the chair and sat down. I said nothing. The room was silent. I said, give me a minute.
Diane was standing at the back and she came over to see what was happening and she said something like, for those who can’t see, Johannes is crying. I think she was overstating it for dramatic effect.
When the minute had passed, I gathered my loins and stood up. I said:
Thank you for that question. I am so very glad that you asked it. Because it is the most important question that it’s possible for a human being to ask. And it is also the most difficult question — difficult, one, because it takes such a long time to work out what matters. It took me the best part of 60 years. True, I’m not very smart and I kept getting distracted but I began thinking about it as a child and I never really stopped.
And two, it’s difficult because the world is full of people, institutions, authorities, experts, all trying to tell you what matters and they say this is important and that you must believe them, rather than someone else. And everyone keeps saying, listen to me, listen to me, click here, watch this.
And difficult because there are so many distractions. And the world keeps inventing more distractions. And then there are all the things that prevent you from being able to think clearly, chief amongst them and especially relevant in my own case at this moment, is lack of sleep. And then there is alcohol and drugs and all the other substances and attention sucking, brain chemistry altering traps.
And then there are all the brain loops that we get caught up in, the biggest brain loop of all, the ego - the Ich, as Freud called in the original German. I do wonder whether Ego is the best translation for ‘Ich’ which is simply the German word for ‘I’. Calling it ‘The Ego’ makes it seem as if it’s something seperate from what I think of as ‘my self’. And this is why Freud, at the same time as doing something very important in identifying it (not to mention the unconscious and narcissism! which are also extremely useful ideas) also made a grave error, just as Descartes did when he said ‘I think therefore I am…’
Or that’s what I would have said, if there had been time and I’d had the wherewithal. I think the nature of that question, at that moment, meant that at least one person present had followed what I’d been saying. And this is what you do it for.
So what do we do about the ‘Ich’?
I read somewhere that in AA’s twelve steps literature Addiction is accorded a status like a person, it is described as “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” I am struck here by two things. One is, that’s exactly what the ego is like - and two, is the ego also like an addiction? Are we all addicted to feeding our cunning, baffling and powerful egos, both collectively as humans and individually, as beings?
And what do we do about working out what matters? I think there are four things : we can think, we can read, we can write and we can talk together.