Category Archives: Wisdom

21 Epigrams That Can Make You A Better Person

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAn epigram is a remark that expresses an idea in a clever way; an ingenious thought. Or expressed another way: wisdom in a nutshell. The word is based on the Greek word epigramma, meaning “an inscription (typically on a tomb or monument).” The ancient Greeks were very fond of epigrams. The prominent Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed: “What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated — tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom who say that only the educated are free.”

Ryan Holiday, originally a marketing director and now a successful author of several bestselling books, has popularized the wisdom of stoicism, particularly in The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016). In an article for Manliness, Holiday reflects on the enduring significance of epigrams: “As long as man has been alive, he has been collecting little sayings about how to live. We find them carved in the rock of the Temple of Apollo and etched as graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. They appear in the plays of Shakespeare, the commonplace book of H. P. Lovecraft, the collected proverbs of Erasmus, and the ceiling beams of Montaigne’s study. Today, they’re recorded on iPhones and in Evernote… And they pack all this in in so few words.” Remarkably, Holiday believes that by following 21 epigrams, which he has collected over the years, can make you a better person — and here’s the rub: if you apply them.

“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” (Epictetus)

“The best revenge is not to be like that.” (Marcus Aurelius)

“There is good in everything, if only we look for it.” (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

“Character is fate.” (Heraclitus)

“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” (Nicholas Nassim Taleb)

“Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“This is not your responsibility but it is your problem.” — Cheryl Strayed)

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius)

“You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits.” (Bhagavad Gita)

“Self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth.” (Epicurus)

“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

“Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.” (Zeno)

“Space I can recover. Time, never.” —Napoleon Bonaparte)

“You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” (Warren Buffett)

“Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.” (Benjamin Franklin)

“The world was not big enough for Alexander the Great, but a coffin was.” (Juvenal)

“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” (Winston Churchill)

“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Jesus)

“Time and patience are the strongest warriors.” (Leo Tolstoy)

“No one saves us but ourselves / No one can and no one may.” (Buddha)

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The Wisdom of Supercentenarians

alex atkins bookshelf booksEach year, Americans spend close to $1 billion on over 30,000 different self-help books, seeking guidance to life’s challenges or simply finding inspiration to live the “good life.” But who are the wisest people, the real experts on life? As Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie) and Karl Pillemer (30 Lessons for Living) have discovered, the best persons to ask about persevering through hard times, living a life with fulfillment and without regret, and learning to love authentically are the people who have already done it themselves — what Millenials refer to as “oldies.” Invariably, those who have lived longer have also learned longer — with age comes experience and the wisdom gained from reflecting on that experience.

For truly timeless wisdom, let us turn to a very select group of oldies — supercentenarians: people who are older than 110 years. According to the Gerontology Research Group, as of this writing, there are only 35 supercentenarians alive today: 33 are female, and only 2 are male; their average age is 113 years. Over the years, in various interviews, these remarkable human beings have shared their secret for a good and long life. Basically, if you want to live past 110 years, you have to subscribe to the philosophy of “Don’t worry, he happy.” I know — easier said than done. Here are some of the highlights (name followed by age):

Jeanne Calment (122, died 1997): “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.”

Sarah Knauss (119, died 1999): She explained that not letting things upset her was her secret to long life.

Marie-Louise Febronie Meilleur (117, died 1998): “Hard work could never kill a person.”

Violet Brown (117, died 2017): “Hard work; I was a cane farmer. I would do every work I could manage to help myself.”

Emma Morano (117, died 2017): “Being single” and getting to bed early each day.

Maria Capovilla (116, died 2006): Her daughter said, “She always had a very tranquil character and she does not get upset by anything.”

Susannah Muscat Jones (116, died 2016): “I have no secret. I just live with my family. That’s the only thing I can say. My family makes me happy.”

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What is the Best Cure for Sadness?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureSadness is an inevitable part of life. It washes up on your shores one day completely unexpected or perhaps as a result of some event in your life. So what do you do? If you turn to the web, you will find thousands of articles on the best ways to deal with or overcome sadness. They trot out the usual suspects: take a walk, go out in nature, listen to music, work, meditate, take a bath, and eat. But why not turn to literature? A great book, is like a childhood friend that has never forgotten you and has not finished sharing its insights. Long after you read it, it whispers to you — in your dreams, in your unconscious — reminding you of its timeless wisdom.

Recently, I was feeling sad, having learned about the serious illness of an old friend. Not only was I aware of his mortality; I was reminded of mine. How quickly time passes — you blink, and you are graduating from high school; then you blink again, you are graduating from college, racing toward adulthood, middle age and beyond. Tempus fugit. So here I was — standing in front of a bookcase in my private library looking for a specific book, when I came across a cherished hardback edition of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Just then, in that silent moment awash with contemplation and sadness, it whispered to me, like a siren’s call, “Pick me up; turn my pages, once again, old friend.” Without even thinking, I carefully lifted up the book and noticed a red satin ribbon disappearing into its pages. I opened it up to the page marked by the ribbon, and my eyes drifted right to the passage where Merlyn shares the best cure for sadness:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

I gently placed the tome back in its place on the shelf, shoulder to shoulder with other great classic works. I smiled on this serendipitous literary remedy. Truly, the greatest insights are in literature — awaiting discovery; or in this case, rediscovery. I spent the next hour browsing, reading and learning. And slowly the sadness melted away, cherishing the memory of the day I rediscovered Merlyn’s wisdom.

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For further reading: The Once and Future King by T. H. White

The Bible Can Be True Without Being Literally True

alex atkins bookshelf booksMarcus Borg is a leading theologian, Biblical scholar, and former professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. He is the author of several best-selling books on Christianity and the Bible, including: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again of the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity. Upon turning 70, Borg had an epiphany: why not write about his convictions — “foundational ways of seeing things that are not easily shaken” that have shaped his life. The result is a brilliant and insightful work, titled Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. At the core of Christianity, of course, is the Bible. Consider that it is the world’s best-selling book — close to 5 billion copies have been sold since 1815 — however it is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted books (although Jame Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is certainly a worthy contender). Having studied and taught about the Bible for almost half a century, Borg shares his insight about the true meaning of the Bible in a chapter entitled “The Bible Can Be True Without Being Literally True.” True that, brother. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:

“My Christian journey has led to the conviction that the truth of the Bible and its importance for Christians do not depend upon its being literally true. Though sometimes… the Bible is wrong even when understood correctly, I have become convinced that its major stories and themes are true regardless of their literal-factual truth. The process whereby I became convinced of this is the… journey from precritical naivete through critical thinking to postcritical conviction.

I grew up with a soft form of biblical literalism, taking it for granted that the stories in the Bible happened. Then I began to wonder whether they really did. Were Adam and Eve real people, and was there really a Garden of Eden? Did God really send ten plagues on Egypt in the time of the exodus? Did God really make the sun stand still in the time of Joshua? And did God cause the walls of Jericho to fall down as the ancient Israelites marched around the city blowing rams’ horns with their ear-splitting sound? There are many more examples, including in the gospels. 

During this stage, I encountered naturalistic explanations: that the plagues on Egypt were regularly reoccurring events that the ancient Israelites interpreted as divinely caused; that the walls of Jericho collapsed because of intense vibrations caused by the shrill sound of the rams’ horns; that the star of Bethlehem was really a comet or supernova or conjunction of three planets. Note that these explanations rationalized the texts as mistaken perceptions of natural phenomena. The texts preserved memories of “what happened” but erroneously attributed the causation to God. Such explanations never seemed persuasive or even interesting to me. 

Then I began to realize that the truth of religious stories—including the stories in the Bible—does not de­pend upon their factuality. This does not mean that reli­gions in general, or Christianity in particular, are based on fable or fantasy (often seen as the alternative to factuality in modern Western cultures). Rather, it means that the truth of the Bible is its “more than literal” meanings, its “more than factual” meanings. 

The more-than-literal meanings of religious texts are their metaphorical meanings. “Metaphorical meaning” refers to “the surplus of meaning” that stories can carry. An approximate synonym of “sym­bolic” meaning—what the story points to. Many—perhaps most—of the biblical stories are metaphorical or symbolic in this sense. Our biblical ancestors told the stories they told not for the sake of providing a reliable factual account of what happened, as if their concern were like that of mod­ern newspaper reporters or historians. Rather, they told the stories they told because of the meanings they saw in them.

A less familiar approximate synonym for the “metaphor” or “symbolic” meaning of a biblical text is its “parabolic” meaning. The model for this meaning is the parables that Jesus told. He was a master of the genre: more parables are attributed to Jesus than to any other ancient figure in the Jewish tradition.

Jesus’s parables were “made up” stories. Their purpose was not to report something that really happened. To cite his best-known parables as examples: I do not know any Christian who insists that the parable of the good Samaritan sim­ply reports something that happened as a priest and Levite encountered and passed by a man who had been beaten up by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, even as a Samaritan (a despised class) stopped to help. Nor do I know any Christian who insists that there really was a father who acted as the father in the parable of the prodigal son did. We all get the point: parables are about meaning; they are not intended as factual reports. Parabolic meaning is both less-than-factual and more-than-factual meaning. 

So it is with the stories, the narratives, of the Bible. Their purpose is meaning, not factual veracity.” [emphasis added]

Can I get an “Amen!”, brothers and sisters?

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The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790),” wrote Walter Isaacson, “was the most accomplished American of his age.” If you look up the word polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning) — you will find a photo of Franklin. He was a brilliant diplomat and political leader, founding father of the United States, accomplished writer, publisher (Poor Richard’s Almanac), inventor, scientist, and businessman. Over the course of his very rich life, he gained much wisdom. It was in his old age that he observed one of life’s greatest paradoxes: “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.” Here is some of his timeless wisdom:

The noblest question in the world is: “What good may I do in it?”

There is too much stress today on material things. I try to teach my children not so much the value of cents, but a sense of values.

While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.

Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it is.

Money can help you get medicines but not health. Money can help you to get soft pillows, but not sound sleep. Money can help you get material comforts, but not eternal bliss. Money can help you get ornaments, but not beauty. Money will help you to get an electric earphone, but not natural hearing. Attain the supreme wealth, wisdom, and you will have everything.

In dealings between people, truth, sincerity and integrity are of the utmost importance to the felicity of life.

Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a
person in the course of their life.

Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

He does not possess wealth that allows it to possess him.

There are two ways of being happy. We may either diminish our wants or augment our means — either will do — the result is the same. If you are
wise you will do both at the same time; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.

Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of its filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles and trebles that want another way.

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For further reading: Benjamin Franklin an American Life by Walter Isaacson


The Greatest Life Lesson: Life is Transitory

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomOne of the greatest gifts of getting older is wisdom. Life’s journey, that inevitably traverses through the steepest hills and deepest valleys, eventually leads you to a plateau that is high enough for you to look back and reflect on it — to appreciate its point of origin and its meaning. And if you turn around and look ahead, it shows you a horizon that is wide enough that allows you to see the real possibilities. It is from this perspective, that one of life’s great lessons becomes crystal clear: life is transitory, ephemeral. In youth, we tend to think that some of life’s great moments or stages in one’s life are permanent; that they will last forever — or perhaps if not forever, it will be for a very long time that seems like forever. But as you get older, you realize that life is played out over decades and not days, like a massive ball of beads that is rolled out, each bead separated by a thin strand of twine, each representing a moment in time, each presenting something joyful or painful, happy or sad. So in youth, we obsess over each bead or group of beads, oblivious to the beads that will come after; but in middle-age and beyond, we view really large sections — hundreds, perhaps thousands of beads — at a time; mindful of the beads that come before and after those sections. To put this another way, life at any particular time in one’s life is not a moment, but a clip from a very long movie. Knowledge of this is what gives us hope and perseverance, to move forward to the next frame, to the next scene, especially if we want to move from the shadow to the light.

American poet, Carl Sandburg, was very much aware of this life lesson when he wrote the poem titled “The People, Yes” published in 1936. It was written in the midst of America’s Great Depression in the hope that it would inspire people to persevere through extremely challenging times. One of the greatest life lessons is buried inside the 300-page poem, told as a story about a king that wanted an inscription that would stand the test of time:

And the king wanted an inscription
good for a thousand years and after
that to the end of the world?
“Yes, precisely so.”
“Something so true and awful that no
matter what happened it would stand?”
“Yes, exactly that.”
“Something no matter who spit on it or
Laughed at it there it would stand
And nothing would change it?”
“Yes, that was what the king ordered
his wise men to write.”
“And what did they write?”
“Five words: This too shall pass away.”

Five simple words: “This too shall pass away.” May it provide some solace and inspiration as you walk through the darkest valleys of your life journey. Remember it always; and be sure to share it with a friend in need.

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Best Commencement Speeches: Tim Minchin

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomTim Minchin may not be a recognized name in the United States, but in Australia he is a well-known comedian, actor, musician, writer, and director. He is best known for his musical comedies that have been performed around the world, such as Matilda that received seven Olivier awards. Back in October 2013, his alma mater, The University of Western Australia, honored Minchin with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters and asked him to deliver the commencement speech, which the university calls the “Occasional Address.” His thoughtful, and at time hilarious, speech entitled “Nine Life Lessons” delivered to the 225 Arts and Sciences graduates and their families, manages to pack a lot of wisdom and inspiration in just 12 minutes. Here is Minchin’s memorable graduation speech delivered in his inimitable way:

“In darker days, I did a corporate gig at a conference for this big company who made and sold accounting software. In a bid, I presume, to inspire their salespeople to greater heights, they’d forked out 12 grand for an Inspirational Speaker who was this extreme sports dude who had had a couple of his limbs frozen off when he got stuck on a ledge on some mountain. It was weird. Software salespeople need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic, ex-mountaineer. Some poor guy who arrived in the morning hoping to learn about better sales technique ended up going home worried about the blood flow to his extremities. It’s not inspirational — it’s confusing.

And if the mountain was meant to be a symbol of life’s challenges, and the loss of limbs a metaphor for sacrifice, the software guy’s not going to get it, is he? Cause he didn’t do an arts degree, did he? He should have. Arts degrees are awesome. And they help you find meaning where there is none. And let me assure you, there is none. Don’t go looking for it. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook: you won’t find it and you’ll bugger up your soufflé.

Point being, I’m not an inspirational speaker. I’ve never lost a limb on a mountainside, metaphorically or otherwise. And I’m certainly not here to give career advice, cause… well I’ve never really had what most would call a proper job.

However, I have had large groups of people listening to what I say for quite a few years now, and it’s given me an inflated sense of self-importance. So I will now — at the ripe old age of 38 — bestow upon you nine life lessons. To echo, of course, the 9 lessons and carols of the traditional Christmas service. Which are also a bit obscure.

You might find some of this stuff inspiring, you will find some of it boring, and you will definitely forget all of it within a week. And be warned, there will be lots of hokey similes, and obscure aphorisms which start well but end up not making sense. So listen up, or you’ll get lost, like a blind man clapping in a pharmacy trying to echo-locate the contact lens fluid.

1. You Don’t Have To Have A Dream. 

Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine, if you have something that you’ve always dreamed of, like, in your heart, go for it! After all, it’s something to do with your time… chasing a dream. And if it’s a big enough one, it’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter.

I never really had one of these big dreams. And so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you… you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. Right? Good. Advice. Metaphor. Look at me go.

2. Don’t Seek Happiness

Happiness is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy, and you might find you get some as a side effect. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented Australophithecus Afarensis got eaten before passing on their genes.

3. Remember, It’s All Luck 

You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which — when placed in a horrible childhood environment — would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.

I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved… but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.

Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

4. Exercise

I’m sorry, you pasty, pale, smoking philosophy grads, arching your eyebrows into a Cartesian curve as you watch the Human Movement mob winding their way through the miniature traffic cones of their existence: you are wrong and they are right. Well, you’re half right — you think, therefore you are… but also: you jog, therefore you sleep well, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst. You can’t be Kant, and you don’t want to be.

Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run… whatever… but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred, and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of. And this long, luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed!

But don’t despair! There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run. And don’t smoke. Natch.

5. Be Hard On Your Opinions 

A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like [assholes], in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from [assholes], in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things. If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.

You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion.

Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.

The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. The idea that many Australians — including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick — believe that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial, is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30% of this room just bristled is further evidence still. The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.

6. Be a teacher.

Please be a teacher. Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Just for your twenties. Be a primary school teacher. Especially if you’re a bloke — we need male primary school teachers. Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn, and spray it.

7. Define Yourself By What You Love

I’ve found myself doing this thing a bit recently, where, if someone asks me what sort of music I like, I say “well I don’t listen to the radio because pop lyrics annoy me.” Or if someone asks me what food I like, I say “I think truffle oil is overused and slightly obnoxious”. And I see it all the time online, people whose idea of being part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party. We have tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff; as a comedian, I make a living out of it. But try to also express your passion for things you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank-you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.

8. Respect People With Less Power Than You.

I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with — agents and producers — based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.

9. Don’t Rush.

You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I’m not saying sit around smoking cones all day, but also, don’t panic. Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are having midlife crises now.

I said at the beginning of this ramble that life is meaningless. It was not a flippant assertion. I think it’s absurd: the idea of seeking “meaning” in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them. However, I am no nihilist. I am not even a cynic. I am, actually, rather romantic. And here’s my idea of romance:

You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad. And then you’ll be old. And then you’ll be dead. There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is: fill it. Not fillet. Fill. It.

And in my opinion (until I change it), life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running, being enthusiastic. And then there’s love, and travel, and wine, and sex, and art, and kids, and giving, and mountain climbing… but you know all that stuff already.

It’s an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours. Good luck.

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