A poem

Peeled out of darkness and tempered in glass
I fracture in light and I spread
My thund’ring voice crackles, my hands and feet grasp
My wraith is a stormcloud struck dead

I ponder in raindrops that flail as they fly
My noons do not redden, they blaze
Starving are the shadows I leave in the sky
Tempests are the marks of my gaze

My murmuring throat is a harbinger roused
I split into foam on its blight
I decay into sparks, I seep through the ground
Forgotten like music, like night


On the 20th of April 2023, I saw my first total solar eclipse.

Immediately after the end of totality, I started writing down my memories and feelings of the event. I’m posting an excerpt of what I wrote, both to record it for my own future reference, and in an attempt to convince whoever’s reading this to go see a total solar eclipse if you ever get a chance.

Here it is:

In the lead up the edges of shadows became hazy, like they were motion blurred even when still. Light became dimmer and redder as if there was smoke in the air. Like wearing sunglasses without sunglasses. A distinct coolness, and even though you’re not supposed to look at the sun, in the tiny glimpses when taking off my filter it was somehow less harsh.

During totality, the sky darkened past twilight, a deep purple-navy like the sky at the beach after sunset. Stars became visible. The moon was absolute black and the sun’s corona was absolute white, a hazy effervescence that drifted out like ink through water, but the absolute essence of brightness. Beads of diamond brilliance marked a few points around the corona, piercing and blooming through the star’s haze.

Transcendental. Cosmic beauty and brilliance. The total assertion in my mind was not of insignificance or of distance, but of beauty, the glory and wonder of the universe.

The end of totality was glorious as a point of pure light bloomed outwards into a crescent – and then its brightness was too much and a filter was required once more. If the beginning of totality was twilight, then the end was a second dawn – the horizon’s light shifted to the 5am blue of a misty beach before sunrise, and it is as if the sun rose again over the next few minutes.

This is probably the closest I’m going to get to the overview effect – why do people spend time fighting each other and working against each other when the universe contains such beauty?

All of existence is raw and quivering. I have not felt a glory like this since before I renounced religion.

I hope those words convey the magnitude of the experience. It can’t be communicated in pictures. The thing that struck me the most was that this was the opposite of the classic cosmic horror experience – it was cosmic wonder. The distances and scales involved didn’t matter in the slightest. All I could think about was how beautiful the universe is, and how lucky we are to be alive and able to witness it.

After this, it is of no surprise to me that people chase eclipses. Kiara and I are already looking at seeing another in a few years’ time, hopefully 2026. We spoke to one person who had seen 25(!) eclipses, though half of those were annular, not total. 100% totality is essential to the experience: without it, you don’t get the sky going dark, stars coming out and being able to look at the sun with the naked eye.

I’ve written before about my trip to NZ last year – there was a particular moment there that had this sort of incredible natural beauty to it. I consider that the absolute highlight of my 2022. This eclipse is probably going to be the equivalent for this year.

Whenever I experience something like this, for a brief time the purpose of travel becomes clear. It is to fully experience the natural wonders of the universe. Human ingenuity is a marvel in itself, but those things that we did not create have for me always dwarfed the work of our hands. Perhaps one day I will see something that upends this. That prospect is exciting too.

What I Would Do With a Billion

A million dollars isn’t what it used to be. 1 million Australian dollars in 1973 (50 years ago) would be worth over 11 BILLION AUD in 2023. Certainly, nobody would complain at receiving a million dollars whenever it happened, and it would be enough to set you up for life if you were smart about it, but it’s not the immediate “quit your job, do whatever you want” ticket it once was.

So for this thought experiment, I decided to take a more corpulent number in today’s terms, a billion, and think about what my life would look like if that amount of money magically appeared in my bank account, no strings attached.

What would I do with it?

Pay off loans, buy houses, gifts to friends/family, travel around the world, live in the lap of luxury. Let’s get this one out of the way. We’ve all fantasised extensively about the wonders we could experience with an unlimited budget, and I think anyone who earns a huge windfall like this would undoubtedly relax and live it up for a while. I certainly would. 

But that isn’t the focus nor the thesis of this blog post, because I contend that for many, myself included, there would come a time (maybe months, maybe years down the line) where even the most magnanimous of consumption wouldn’t be enough, in the sense that I would want to give back, to contribute something and make a mark on the world, make it a better place.

Now, the big caveat here is that this first phase may well change me enough that the remaining items on the list change as a result. I hope not, but it’s entirely possible. But let’s assume that I emerge from this phase of pure experience enriched and energised, but with much the same dreams as before.

Invest. This is another no-brainer, but the remaining items on the list are not going to be started with the aim of making a profit. With a billion dollars I can easily make a self-sustaining fund from which to sink huge amounts of money into the things I care about and not have to care in the slightest if they make a profit or not. 

Now, onto the good stuff!

Defend the world’s forests. Over 80% of New Zealand used to be forest (source). A chunk of my money would go to buying up all the forests, particularly old-growth forests, that I can get my hands on, world-wide, and either keeping them privately-owned or handing them over to conservation organisations to protect and nurture. Forests hold a special mystique and wonder for me as they do for many, and too much of the world views them merely as a resource to be exploited. 

A fiction magazine dedicated to unpublished authors. Many fiction authors are encouraged to start with short stories before they tackle novels, and many professional-paying short fiction magazines won’t even consider you until you can say in your submission “my work has previously appeared in A, B, and C.” Getting that first credit, that first paying published piece, is a stepping off point for authors, and a source of validation and encouragement that they can make their dream a reality. I would start a short fiction magazine that only accepts submissions from unpublished authors and pays professional rates. I want as many people who yearn to become professional fiction writers to succeed, and giving them a destination that accepts them with open arms will help them on their way.

If I like how this goes, I could even double down on this to establish grants for aspiring novelists, or even make a full-on publishing house for novels.

A record label. Just like with writing, there are people out there with ideas for music that can enrich others’ lives but can’t commit to making those ideas real because they have to contend with holding down a fucking job. I want to break those people out of the heinous cycle of capitalism and give them album-and-tour deals with complete creative control at very generous terms. I don’t care about making money off this – I want to kickstart these bands and music artists and send them on their way so they can inspire others and make this world a better place. 

Because this is a private venture, all the people I hire to help these bands along will have to share the ethos. This is not about making albums that will make money back, this is about giving aspiring artists a chance to make their vision real. Certainly the artists can seek advice from the staff (who will hopefully know about the industry etc), but in the end, what the band decides goes.

This label will probably lean towards metal music, especially metal music that tells good stories (because that’s the music I like) but I’ll do my best to be flexible.

The Mythic Tales Festival. The name’s a work-in-progress, okay? This is a music festival that goes all around the world, and exclusively features bands that have written concept albums playing those albums in full from start to finish. I can’t believe no one has done this already.

It’s hard to overstate the impact concept albums have had on my life. From American Idiot by Green Day, the very first album I ever listened to properly when I was maybe 13, to Deep Blue by Parkway Drive, an album that both soothed and exploded my teenage disillusionment and misanthropy, to practically everything by Coheed and Cambria, to Vessels by Be’lakor, which I have already written about extensively, to The Forest Seasons by Wintersun… concept albums, collections of songs that together tell a story, speak to my soul in a way that nothing else does. These need to be celebrated so much more than they are, and I would be willing to sink a lot of money into a festival that brings these juggernauts of musical storytelling together so the world can experience them.

My game dev studio, Fallen Studios. I have my own ideas for stories I want to tell, and a few of them are written fiction but a lot of them work best with interactivity. Fallen Studios would be the venture I would personally spend the most time actually working in since I have relevant skills – I know programming and I have the vision for stories. I don’t know how to make art, and I don’t know game design. Certainly I could learn, but with money effectively not being an object I’d love to hire people like a game designer, an artist, a music composer, and maybe even a writer to help me hone my ideas. We could work as a little game studio making games that exalt nature, challenge eldritch horrors, and tell heart-wrenching tales. If it goes well, I could take more of a directorial role, hiring more people to do the day to day work with me being responsible for the vision. I’m unsure how much I’d want to keep doing programming itself, but I’m always of the view that executives need to understand what goes on in the day to day of their companies, so I’d probably continue doing that to help keep me humble and to keep my skills sharp.

Fallen Studios would have a strict no crunch policy and overtime would be scrutinised. Salaries would be high. Flexible working arrangements, the whole deal. I want to make games with enthusiastic people and I want us all to be happy while we do it.


You can see the shape of where all this is going. The billionaire version of DJ turns out to be a huge patron of the arts, with a side of environmental conservation. If anyone has a spare billion dollars lying around, I can promise I’ll do good things with it.

What would you do with a billion dollars? After all the travel and gorging and sleeping and partying and experiencing was done, if ever, what would you do then?

People want to live meaningful lives. For me, meaningful means protecting Earth and promoting the arts. I am not unique. If I would take these unbelievable riches and use them to start businesses, help others pursue their dreams, and help the world, then lots of other people would too. 

Well, I’m 30

There is an album by the metal band Wintersun called The Forest Seasons. It contains one song for each season, starting from spring and ending in winter. Even disregarding the contents of the songs entirely, there is a lesson in the fact that the song for autumn is named Eternal Darkness, while winter is named Loneliness. It seems to say that eternal darkness is bearable if you can do it with others, while the soul’s true winter is that of being unwillingly alone.

I’ve had several experiences in the past few months that have driven this lesson home for me.

In late 2022 my partner and I took our long-awaited trip to New Zealand. It’s a land of incredible beauty, and we had some unforgettable experiences that I hope to remember forever. I am not saying by any means that experiences had alone are less valuable than shared ones – anyone who knows me knows that I need my alone time and my personal space – only that there was a virtuous cycle in that this amazing travel experience enriched our relationship, and that in turn deepened the impact the trip had on me as an individual.

In 2022 I started a tiny Youtube channel. I learned that I unexpectedly enjoyed the audience interactions on my videos as much as making the videos themselves. Responding to people’s comments and incorporating their suggestions into future videos made the whole thing more rewarding. It’s the flipside of the experience I had years ago when attempting to write novels. Having to work for months over something before another person could lay eyes on it, and having to commit to the entirety of a long story without incorporating any feedback was immensely draining and I never finished more than a first draft of anything.

The roleplaying games I participate in reinforce this. I get so much more joy out of telling stories and building worlds when I can do it incrementally and with friends that I like and trust. In the D&D game I run, I live for seeing the expressions on players’ faces when they uncover something, or their reactions when I describe how well they succeeded or how dismally they failed at something they attempted to do. This is what I think about and plan in my spare moments, this is what my mind drifts to when it’s vacant. I’ve spent so many years trying to find my “passion” when something I’m clearly passionate about has been staring me in the face all this time.

It’s delightful when I’m on the receiving end too. My best friends in the whole world put together a birthday RPG session for me, and throughout it all I felt loved: in how our characters riffed off of each other, in how the people running it took the unspoken but implied goals of my character and wove them into the story, in how we were able to spend 10 hours telling this story together. I want this to be a part of my life forever.

I read a lot about the experiences of digital nomads, because I’ve wanted to experience that lifestyle for some time, and the downside that I read about most often is the loss of connection, loss of friendship, and how quickly people move on when you’re not involved in their lives. I still want to travel extensively – the whole world is out there and I want to see different cultures and places. But I also want to make sure to maintain and honour the friendships I’ve built so far, to be there for those people so that we can continue to enrich each others’ lives.

Solitude is not the same as Loneliness. It’s vital that we are okay with spending time by ourselves, since it will only increase as our lives go on. However, I’ve realised how important it is to treasure and nurture the connections we have with those we love, so that when Eternal Darkness comes, we have the option, should we choose, to weather the storm together.

Hidden Window by Be’lakor – a harbinger of coming wonder

How do you follow something as grand a masterwork as Vessels? If Hidden Window is any indication, Be’lakor has plenty left to give us.

Five years ago, I did an in-depth analysis of Vessels. Be’lakor themselves tweeted that they thoroughly enjoyed reading it. After listening to and reading the lyrics for Hidden Window, I felt a similar urge to dig deeply into the song and see what treasures I could unearth.

This post is going to assume you’ve listened to the song and are familiar with the lyrics or have them handy. No preamble, let’s enter the mountain.

From Fall to Rise

I want to take an extensive look at the rhyming structure used in the song. Most of the verses follow an ABBA rhyming structure, where the first and last lines rhyme, and the middle two lines rhyme. This does two things. For one, it creates a sense of outside and inside the verse. As you read the lyrics, you get a rhythm of go in, come out, go in, come out. This mimics the daily rhythm of the song’s characters, who spend day after day entering the mountain, mining, and exiting again.

Secondly, you’re constantly kept off balance by the changing rhyme. You start with the first line of a verse, move to the second which doesn’t rhyme, you get a little bit of closure from the third line, the fourth line maybe makes you think of the first, but then the next verse begins and you’re thrown off again. There’s a stumbling to the lyrics, a deliverance of unease, accentuated in the vocals by the sometimes sped-up delivery of a verse’s third line. The outer lines give a nice framing to the verses when written down, but that framing doesn’t come through when those lines are vocalised, and that’s intentional. This is masterful, deliberate use of rhyme (and lack) to strengthen the themes of the song. There are only four verses that don’t use ABBA for their rhyme. Let’s look at them in detail.

The first is a verse that follows an ABAB rhyming structure:

What if he knows that I saw?
And what if he decides to strike?
But what if it was nothing more
Than light’s deceit and failing sight?

This verse marks the break between the two halves of the song (in terms of lyrics, not runtime). The first half sets the scene of the characters and the setting without getting into specifics. The second half, starting with the verse above, has us diving into the mind of the central character who grapples with his friend’s theft.

You could argue that if Be’lakor wanted to mark the break between halves with rhyme structure, they should have had the previous verse do that, which describes the actual “observation” of the theft. However, by maintaining ABBA for that verse, we are caught by surprise – the rhyme doesn’t tip us off that something is changing. Instead, there is a long musical interlude which punctuates the break more than any lyrics could do. The piano is introduced here, and it’s mellow but hurried – there’s tension even as our point of view descends into the mind of our main character.

Which brings me back to the ABAB verse. The vocal delivery is more subdued than in the other verses. Coming out of that melancholy musical interlude and all those prior off-kilter verses, the smoothness of the rhyme structure here provides relief, reflecting the tantalising, tempting thoughts of paranoia that haunt our character. Although doubt lingers, the character has at least partially bought into the thoughts that lead to the song’s eventual tragedy.

The guitars then resume, and we go back to ABBA, with our POV moving back out into the third-person. Music and rhyme complement each other excellently.

The second exception to the ABBA rhyme structure is the climax of the song:

In pebble’s bounce, the avalanche
In falling drop, the bursting dam
He gripped the pick, and looming, then
Swung an arc that killed his friend

Whereas the previous verse we focused on was centered on thought, this one marks the song’s definitive action. The music rises to its height here, and for good reason. This verse is the only one with the rhyme structure AABB. With its focus on action, the rhyme provides a sense of progression, of moving forward from one thing to the next. The verse invokes an avalanche in the lyrics, and it reinforces that with the lines moving irrevocably from one rhyme to the next. The riff at swung an arc stops and hangs, and it feels like a point of no return, you can imagine the movement of arms and torso to power the swing, which follows through on momentum, until it makes contact, marked with the chord on killed emphasising the end of the arc.

Notice we are not given time to grieve. Where there feels like there should be an ode to the moment, there’s instead a ferocious, frantic moving on. We immediately move on to the next verse:

He barely saw their third had fled
As febrile haze evaporated

And with it, certainty faded
Abandoned now for churning dread

I went back and forth a lot over the rhyme in this verse. “Fled” and “dread” definitely rhyme, and if you were just reading the verse in a normal speaking voice, it would be ABBA because the emphasis in “evaporated” and “faded” isn’t on the last syllable. However, the vocals in the song hugely elongate the last syllable of the middle two lines, which turns this into an AAAA(!) verse – all the lines rhyme to remove cruft and bring us deeply into the character’s panic, bringing us into the moment now, even as we’re processing the death that’s just occurred. The guitars insist we listen with wonderful leads that aren’t as piercing as they were in the climax. The word dread then leads straight on again into the last verse, which has structure ABAB:

Endless whispers from the void
Each offering narration
He searched the body frantically
And begged for vindication

The structure is the same as the previous ABAB verse because this verse, as with that one, narrows onto character thought. This seems counterintuitive, but even though the action here is critical, only one line out of four describes it. The other three describe the character’s mental state, pleading, please let me be right, please tell me I didn’t murder him for nothing. The riff here is a brilliant descent into dread, each measure seeming to draw us down into a pool from which there is no escape.

I want to call out one other thing here: at least from the lyrics, we don’t get an answer. The last visual we have is the character rifling a corpse in panic as (at least in my mind’s eye) the camera slowly zooms out of a cave in which the final candlelight is sputtering out.

However, the lack of answer is answer itself: he can keep searching forever, but he’ll never find that treasure. The last chord of the song, and the finality of the ABAB final verse, definitively states that the story’s over. If the lyrics had outright stated that he found nothing, it wouldn’t have been half as effective. We know, even if it’s not said, just as, probably, the character knows too. It’s a fantastic example of a writing principle: describe what’s there, not what’s not there.

Overall, Hidden Window is lyrical excellence. I adore the sheer intention that permeates every line, and the use of rhyme to complement the themes of the song is unmatched.

This concludes my main analysis. The two next sections will be a couple of smaller thoughts I have about the song, and I’ll wrap up with my hopes for the upcoming album.

Would Finally Snuff

The lyrics do have at least one weakness. In the first verse, we have closest friends now that their greed / had burdened them with things to hide. The song mocks the “friendship” between the characters, implying that it’s a grudging friendship, born out of opportunity only. But the climax of the song has swung an arc that killed his friend. The friendship here is being played up for emotional effect, which contradicts its depiction in the first verse. We could imagine that over the timeline of the song the necessary friendship blossomed into something genuine, and was then tragically destroyed by the onset of paranoia, but there’s nothing in the song to indicate that.

A Note on Tragedy

One last note about the story. Plenty of Be’lakor’s songs have fantasy or supernatural elements to them, such Venator or The Dream and the Waking. Let’s look at the two verses in Hidden Window that describe the journey from onset of paranoia to climax:

From just a flicker in the mind
The thought would twist, consume, then grow
And with each wave, doubt would erode
Til all he knew confirmed his bind

Those ancient paths bore only fear
That, left unchecked, had overflowed
To shatter balance he had known
As shrinking walls began to near

The first of these two verses is decidedly human; it is located entirely within the mind of the character. But in the second verse, it’s the ancient paths that bore only fear. This is possibly an implication that there’s something in or about the mine itself that is influencing the character. The last line of the verse, however, seems to overturn this, as shrinking walls is definitely a perceptual thing.

Then we also have the first line of the final verse: Endless whispers from the void. Literally, this seems to be an external void feeding whispers into the character, but in context I read it more as a multitude of thoughts assailing the character’s mind in that darkest of moments.

So while, overall, the song pretty strongly implies that this whole sequence of events is just the product of stress and emotion, the ancient paths line is a little sliver that hints at the mountain itself playing some part. I love this little bit of ambiguity, but at the same time, the story is all the more tragic because there are most likely no other influences here. We can very plausibly imagine a situation like this happening. It’s just people being people, but the song is a masterpiece in elevating the tragic, terrible detail and feeling of this story.

Parting Thoughts

Even five years later, I still get the occasional comment on my analysis of Vessels. People have gained insight and enjoyment from it, and I hope this post does something of the same.

It’s clear that Be’lakor is still crushingly effective at using their signature style to deliver dread riffs, and their lyrical chops have actually gotten even better, which is incredible. Vessels is delectable, but five years has definitely been long enough to savour it. Bring on Coherence. I’m more than ready.


Growing up believing with your whole being that a perfect God has an infallible purpose tailored individually to your identity means that, when that bulwark faith is ripped away, it is near impossible to find anything that compares. It is difficult to feel that a purpose like that can exist in a world without a benevolent, guiding force.

So far, after the ache of piecing together what remains of my identity without faith has largely been numbed, my search for purpose has ranged from wholly passive to what feels like stumbling in a random direction once every few months when my motivation flares.

I retain the lingering habit of my earlier days of eagerly awaiting the end of the workday or workweek so I can do what I like, but when I get home, I am often met with boredom and overall lack of desire. Bursts of fixation are welcome, and I stride into new hobbies and interests that captivate me for a few weeks or months, before they too fade away. So far, the list includes philosophical study (a semester), axe throwing (most of a year), sailing (10 months, reluctantly ongoing), archery (2 months), drawing (a week), game development (a month), and 3D modelling (a month). That last one is still hanging around in my head, but not by much. Do I pick these things hoping to find purpose? No, I suppose not. But on some level, I hope they lead me to it.

The last couple of days, I have theoretically — and that’s a heavy caveat — conceived of a scenario where I believe I would find purpose rivaling that of one chosen by God. That scenario would be working for SpaceX, helping to make their Starship program to take people to Mars a reality. I have high confidence that SpaceX will be the entity primarily responsible for making humanity a multiplanetary species, and they will do it within my lifetime. Nothing calls to me as much as this.

I currently work a quite comfortable job. I do not have to do much overtime. I am paid very well. I have opportunities for learning and advancement. Throughout my 6-and-a-half year career so far, I have taken great pains to ensure good work-life balance for myself, and have been successful in doing so. In the hypothetical scenario where I got a job at SpaceX, I would be knowingly and willingly throwing that away and essentially dedicating whatever years I put in to the cause. But, for the first time ever, I cautiously believe it would actually feel like a cause, and not just a job.

The specifics of the scenario aren’t the point, though, especially given it’s a highly improbable scenario in the first place. The key takeaway for me from this post and my musings over the last few days is that if I have identified one possible scenario that could give me the sense of vital, grand purpose that I crave, there could exist other scenarios, with much higher probability of occurring than this one, which do the same.

In other words, I have established that it is possible for me to find a sense of purpose even without faith.

Focusing on the only other thing

There are only two possible states for the mind to be in: internal reflection, or external focus. Internal reflection is what you typically consider thinking – you’re puzzling over something, figuring out to solve a problem, replaying a memory in your head, etc. External focus is when you turn a corner and a stunning view makes you gasp, or you really feel the warmth of someone’s skin on yours. Of course, the mind is almost always doing both of these things at once, but the reason I’m reducing the mind to these two states is because it’s really helpful to me in dealing with overthinking and anxiety.

When I get anxious, I start thinking about a past event or an imagined future (the only kind of future, really, right?). If it were just that, it might be fine. But my brain then goes and starts this cannibalistic recursion where I think about my own thoughts about something, endlessly imagine possible permutations, replay the same event over and over again… it’s a downward spiral. Sometimes I lose a lot of sleep over this because I just can’t stop. When I’m in this state, it’s impossible to divert the mind from anxious thinking to calm. No matter what, the anxious thoughts take priority and barge in again.

The only other option is to get the mind feeding on something that isn’t internal. The only other option is focusing on the sensory input that the body is sending in. Consider your heartbeat, or the mindfulness classic of your breathing. This is an endless stream of data, never static, always changing, and it’s something that the mind can do nothing about. It’s the biological equivalent of watching waves crash or a fire crackle. Ample fuel for the frenzied mind to consume, and it provides you with a real alternative to indulging those unwelcome thoughts.

It does take practice to learn to focus on those things instead of being led along by the mind. I and many others are unused to truly focusing on the present. This is what mindfulness teaches. I use Headspace, which costs money (though there is a free trial), but there are heaps of free options for guided meditation and mindfulness apps. I meditate for 10 minutes a day in the mornings before work, and then sometimes use a sleep meditation if I’m having a rough night. When I started, I did 5 minutes a day and skipped weekends. That’s all it takes.

I’ve heard a lot about meditation, with people claiming that it’s transformed their lives. It hasn’t quite been that impactful for me, but it’s a very significant tool in my battle for mental health. When I stop using it, I notice demonstrable, significant declines. When I pick it back up again, I find improvement. This post, as well as encouraging others to give it a try if you feel like it might help you, is a reminder to myself that even if I feel like it’s not helping, it’s definitely actually helping.

Waking Up

So that while paralyzed in thought

I will always have an alibi

Just another excuse to hesitate

Delaying true progress with passivity

Paralyzed – As I Lay Dying

The past year has been one of great change for me, and yet not enough change. It’s been the first year where I’ve felt like I’ve started, started, to take an active role in shaping my life rather than just letting things happen to me. 

I turned 28 yesterday. I did wonder if we should perhaps round our ages to the closest birthday – wouldn’t it be more accurate for me to tell people I was 28 for the six months preceding my birthday, and six months after, until I flipped over to the point where my next birthday was closer than my last one? 

Anyway. Waking up. This last year I’ve allowed myself to think things that I wouldn’t have thought before. I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want the “normal” path through life of a suburban home, kids running around in the backyard, and putting on a buttoned shirt for my day job. I have been graced by utmost fortune in finding a life partner who doesn’t want these things either.

Let’s briefly review the most notable things that happened to this random internet stranger over the past year:

Firstly, I moved interstate, out of my own suburban home with a backyard and into renting an apartment with my partner. I’ve since gotten targeted ads on Instagram encouraging me to “escape the rent trap” and give myself back over to the mortgage hellhole. Let me be clear: I love living in an apartment. There’s no lawn to mow or weeds to pull, there’s no plants to water, no retaining walls or infernal bark chips or black tarp or pavers or paving liners. If I want nature, I can walk five minutes to the nearby lake and make googly eyes at all the adorable ducklings waddling around (I do this frequently). My suburban home is still sitting there in a different state, being rented out, giving someone else the same flexibility that we have now: if we get tired of the place in a year, we can go somewhere else. Freedom. 

Secondly, I switched from working for a company of 500+ people where I was doing projects for defence and coal miners, to a startup where I’m one of 3 full-time employees. I’m contributing positively to the climate change disaster by building renewable energy storage systems instead of taking money from the soulless husks who are actively dooming the whole damn world. The fact that I was able to find a job like this in Australia of all places is something I’m incredibly grateful for. 

It’s not enough, though. I don’t mean this in a greedy sense, but my career is something that I’m still very much figuring out, and is going to be my main focus for the year to come. I’ve opened my eyes, but I haven’t yet sat up or gotten out of bed. I’m so, so grateful that I’m not still asleep, letting myself be steered without taking part in the steering.

Thirdly, I dyed my hair blue. This seems minor compared to the previous two items, but it is the first time I have expressed myself through my personal appearance, and I love how I look with it. It’s another thing that my previous self and circumstances would not have allowed, and I hope to keep pushing the envelope on those things. Maybe a piercing next?

Fourthly, I started a second degree. This one will lead to no career progression or upskilling, but I hope to glean a sliver of wisdom from it. I’m studying philosophy. This represents a couple of things: one, that I’m allowing myself to study something just because I’m interested in it, and two, that I’ve sufficiently come to terms with my loss of faith from a few years ago that I’m ready to venture into vaguely related areas again. I’m only doing it part time since I’m working at the same time, but that’s plenty. So far my studies have focused on ancient philosophy, since it serves as a grounding for most of what came after, but we’ve also covered basic concepts of social justice and applied it to modern day problems of immigration, wealth distribution, and climate change. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time on critical thinking skills, and analysing written and visual arguments to extract their rational core. This last in particular I have loved. 

Fifthly, I’ve started working with a professional life coach. I hope to use this to accelerate the waking up process and get to the point of taking charge of my life quicker, but I need to be wary of outsourcing my progress to my life coach and using her as a crutch. I doubt that will happen, but it’s noteworthy.

Sixthly (is that a word?), I’ve taken up the new hobbies of competitive axe throwing and sailing. Neither of these things are things I ever thought I’d do, but there you go. Axe throwing is just a plain bit of fun and makes you feel like a viking, while yacht racing/general sailing is a gesture towards my increasing desire for freedom in all aspects of life. Contrary to what you might think, you can get sailing experience for free/very cheap, at least here in WA. Owning a boat is expensive, but sailing itself is not.

Seventhly(!), in the very last days of the previous year, my partner and I sat down and crunched a bunch of numbers regarding our finances. Yes, boring, I know, but the results indicate that in 20-25 years… we could stop working if we wanted to. This is of course barring any disasters that occur, but the thought that I could be free by my late forties or early fifties is… well, it’s something. It’s a timeframe. I’m not going to say it’s comforting. Whether by design or emergent property, it seems that you need at minimum a couple decades of solid income and solid investment to accomplish something like this in modern day capitalism, provided you’re not starting with vast sums of money, which we aren’t. The trick now becomes not to squander away or sacrifice the next two decades, because that end date may never come, but to live a varied and full life, and strike a balance between investing in our future, spending to live it up now, and using our money to improve the world.

In between all this, my search for purpose continues. By practically all accounts it’s been an incredible year in retrospect. I’m on vacation until next week, and I’ve noticed that every year, being buried under the tumult of work along with all the activities described above means that it is a lot harder to actually reflect and plan ahead. So I thought I’d write this while my head is above the water, so that I can look back and appreciate all the progress I’ve made.

A key reflection point for me actually occurred on NYE, where we were all doing a few of those shitty personality quizzes for fun. One of the questions was “Which of these do you find most important?”. There were four options, but the two I remember were “knowledge” and “freedom”. I remember these because in the past, maybe even up to a year ago, I would have instantly chosen knowledge. Intelligence and knowledge were unquestionably the most valuable traits to me. This time, however, I chose freedom and was happy with my choice. I’ve undergone a fundamental shift of perspective over the past twelve months, and I’ve finally given myself permission to do so.

What is it that the child has to teach?

The child naively believes that everything should be fair and everyone should be honest, that only good should prevail, that everybody should have what they want and there should be no pain or sadness.

The child believes the world should be perfect and is outraged to discover it is not.

And the child is right.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

Optional addendum: a note about the pandemic

For those of us in the first world, the whole pandemic situation has been seemingly unprecedented. The counting death tolls, the daily drama, the lockdowns, the incredible vaccine development speed… we’ve all reacted like this has never happened before, and maybe it hasn’t, not on this scale. But remember that while the first world may have had its first share of this sort of situation in centuries, people in third world countries continue to struggle with the likes of malaria and ebola. Even the freaking bubonic plague is still kicking around. We’ve had the Siddharta Gautama experience of shock at seeing a sick man, a corpse, for the first time. Our poorer neighbours have to live with terrible sickness daily and worse besides, and have done even when we were healthy.

And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Empathy: The Cornerstone of Good

Earlier this year, I was given an opportunity to deeply examine my core values. In this context, values are how a person wants to live their life and how they want to behave, rather than things they want to achieve or get. In the exercise I did, I was presented with a long list of possible values and told to select 5-6 that I identified with the most. I thought such a thing would be easy, but in reality I couldn’t get it down past about 10. The most interesting part, however, has been that in the few months since then there have been different periods of time where a subset of those values, say 3-4 of the 10, resonated with me and drove me much more deeply than the rest. I’ve found that in different situations I’ll look to different parts of my list of values to drive my behaviour. On the other hand, I’ve also found that one of those values, empathy, has been a strong, constant force in my life, and has not varied by situation like the others have. Over time, I’ve come to realise that I consider empathy the most important of all the values I hold, and I want to explore why that is.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s feelings, thoughts, and situations from their point of view rather than your own. It is putting yourself in their place. There are many values and behaviours that are widely considered good, such as love, compassion, and generosity. I believe that empathy is the key to them all, and if someone adopts empathy as a guiding force in their life, it will lead them to love, compassion, and generosity, as well as other good values.

The reason for this is that empathy leads to open-mindedness.

Being able to put yourself in another person’s situation and understand them, particularly if it concerns a viewpoint or belief you disagree with, may actually lead you to realise the truth of a viewpoint other than your own. If you’re able to put yourself in another person’s frame of mind effectively enough, you will see the reasoning or emotion behind their decisions. Having seen this, you can then more accurately decide if you agree with their viewpoint or not, instead of relying on your own preconceptions. Open-mindedness is important because humanity is discovering new things every day. In the future, we may stumble on something that has the potential to change our lives in a positive way, or that requires strong action to prevent a negative outcome, and it is only if we are open-minded that we can recognise the truth of a new situation, move with it and learn from it, rather than resisting it and staying in place. Empathy is key to that, especially on an interpersonal level.

The above paragraph is really the crux of this post. Everything else stems from that. If you’re open-minded and empathetic, you can find things to love about people that you may strongly disagree with. When someone in a struggling situation asks you for help, empathising with them will lead you to the reasons for helping them, drive you to act out of compassion instead of selfishness, and to be generous with your assistance, not paying heed to your own needs or expecting reward. This covers the three values I listed above. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks for others too.

I want to look at a more specific application of empathy, because it underlies many things that are relevant to now and the immediate future.

Empathy reduces inequality
Inequality is a broad term, but empathy can help with most forms of it. If the rich empathised with the poor, actually understood what living in poverty meant, they might be more moved to part with their own wealth and power to improve the lives of others. If a perpetrator of abuse empathised with their victim and understood the damage their actions were causing, they might recognise that they’re doing the wrong thing. If, hypothetically, the politicians in a government empathised with suicidal offshore refugees that they’re keeping trapped in a situation that has been internationally condemned as a violation of basic human rights, they might be more moved to get those people the medical care and chance at life that they need.

We can look at inequality on a much smaller scale too. It is well-known that often, managers don’t understand the problems their employees face. This leads to managers putting up obstacles for their workers instead of tearing them down. If managers were either directly exposed to their employees’ working situations on a regular basis (often impractical), or if they were able to empathise enough from listening to their workers, they might be able to serve their workers better and maximise their performance because they understand what their workers need.

To give a personal example, my understanding of gender inequality was practically nonexistent until I met my girlfriend. Interacting with a woman on a regular basis and learning about challenges, obstacles, motivations and fears that are completely inconceivable to me as a male, but that real women around me have to go through and have gone through every day, has given me insight into situations I’d never imagined. Sometimes, I try to imagine myself as my girlfriend in a particular situation, weighing up everything she’s told me about how she has to go through life, and this gives me a different perspective on the world, one that is less biased and less one-sided. As a result, I am moved by the plight of women and those of non-binary gender, and willing to support all those who strive for gender equality. It is empathy that has done this.

Implementing empathy
Of course, actually applying empathy in this way can be hard. Empathising with someone requires some understanding of their situation. You can only empathise based on the data you have about a person, so learning more about the people around you may help you in placing yourself in their situation. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes found it easier to empathise with strangers than with some people I’m close to! Empathy can be very difficult, particularly when you don’t want to empathise with someone. This can happen when someone does or says something you very much disagree with. Understanding their position is uncomfortable, because understanding why someone acts in a way contrary to your own ideas may mean that your ideas are wrong, and that’s a scary thing for anyone to face. And so, even as empathy can lead to open-mindedness, it also requires a degree of open-mindedness to begin with. This is something that I’m still struggling with, but I’ve come to realise that moving towards having empathy for everyone around me is a worthy goal, as empathy can serve as a moral beacon that informs and directs other worthy values. This is not an easy task, but definitely a worthwhile one.