One Thing & Another

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua

Notes From My Journal: The situation here is bad… and it’s likely to get worse

I’ve been at Rancho Santana for several days, hoping the political turmoil would settle. It hasn’t. (And there’s been scant coverage about it in the US press.)

Here’s the history in a nutshell…

Daniel Ortega, the revolutionary leader that toppled the US-backed dictatorship of Somoza back in 1978-9, was elected president in 2007, bringing his Sandinista party into power. It was by all accounts a fair election. He won because he had a message that appealed to the poor, of which there are many, and because the opposition splintered.

I was worried at the time that he would wreck the economy, as he and his party members had done in the 1960s. But he had a different agenda. He allowed business to continue, more or less as usual, and implemented some social programs that were successful and others that were not. A secondary agenda seems to have been to put his family and friends in high places.

When he became president, he was a man of modest means. Today, some say he’s among the country’s richest.

Whatever Ortega was or wasn’t doing, the economy has been gradually improving for the 20 years I’ve been coming here. And its continued improvement during his regime boosted his popularity. That popularity, along with some hotly disputed elections, allowed him to put his wife in the vice-presidency seat and elevate his own power to what he once enjoyed as a revolutionary dictator.

All that changed about six weeks ago when his administration put into effect several seemingly sensible changes in an effort to balance the budget. (Nicaragua can’t print money the way the US can.) This led to a strike by pensioneers, which was responded to by violence. Twenty were killed and hundreds injured. Since then, the protests have gotten larger and there are roadblocks up and down the Pacific Highway. This has caused all sorts of problems, including a fuel shortage. Everyone is scared. The fact that paramilitary gangs continue to kill and kidnap protestors hasn’t helped.

Were it not for social media, we’d know nothing about all of this at Rancho Santana. There is no highway that runs through here, no protests or roadblocks, and no thugs with guns intimidating the local population. Business is way down. But those that are here can still enjoy all the comforts of a five-star hotel, so long as they don’t worry about the rest of the country.

Directly or indirectly, Rancho Santana employs more than a thousand locals. Another 50 or so work at FunLimon, my family’s community center across the street. Though supplies from Managua cannot reach us because of the roadblocks, we intend to keep these people employed as long as possible. But other, smaller resorts on either side of us have shut their doors and put hundreds out of work.

I’ve been talking to everyone I can – gringos and locals – about this situation. The consensus opinion is that things will get worse before they get better. I’m hoping that’s not true. This is such a beautiful area. And there are so many people here that are dependent on tourism.


Today’s Word: traduce (verb)

To traduce (truh-DOOS) is to blame or shame by lying. As used by Shakespeare in Othello: “In Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and turban’d Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus.”


Fun Fact

 40% of the US population has never visited a dentist.


 From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

The Bipolarity of Self-Improvement Literature*

Although it’s fashionable today to discredit self-improvement literature, the genre has a long and dignified history.

A fair number of the most ancient texts, in fact, were treatises on how to accomplish objectives, avoid problems, and live well and/or prosperously.

The Maxims of Ptah-Hotepdates back to Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty. (2414-2375 BC)

From China, we have Confucius’s Great Learning. (c. 500 BC)

Ancient Greece produced some of the greatest “self-improvement” tracts of all time, including Hesiod’s Works and Days(c. 700 BC), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics(c. 350 BC), and Ovid’sArt of Love and Remedy of Love(2 AD).

The Romans gave us Cicero’s On Friendshipand On Duties (c. 44 BC) and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations(170-180 AD), which is still widely read today. (In fact, it’s been in renaissance along with other “stoic” philosophy for several years.)

And let’s not forget the Bible, parts of which (scholars tell us) were written as early as 1445 BC.

The subject matter maintained a modest position in literature through the middle ages, continued through the Renaissance, strengthened during The Enlightenment, and grew stronger in the 19thand 20thcenturies. In this century, it’s bigger and more popular than ever. Much (actually, the great majority) of it is now written for the masses, which accounts for its degraded status among educated people.

The genre has a wide scope:

  • How to govern well and/or strongly
  • How to fight and/or win wars
  • How to compete in and/or win athletic competitions
  • How to compete in and/or win other sorts of competitions
  • How to conduct and/or succeed in business
  • How to acquire wealth quickly and/or well
  • How to acquire skills quickly and/or well
  • How to learn quickly and/or well

And then there are the many texts on how to live a satisfying life.

You will notice the qualifying  (and/or) statements above. Those are meant to indicate something one cannot help but notice from even a cursory review of the genre today.

Many self-improvement texts emphasize winning, defeating the competition and coming out ahead of the pack. Some of them are very aggressive – celebrating victory and advocating winning “at any cost.” They tend to advocate strength and fearlessness and determination, and often depict other impulses as negative and weak. Becoming “number one” is put forward as the ultimate in human achievement. Competition is favored over cooperation. Intimidation is a legitimate tactic. Passion and aggression are praised. Delicacy and sensitivity are ridiculed. The goal of the state as well as the individual is to achieve and maintain first place.

There is a small but substantial number of texts that advocate a different set of ideas. These tend to fall into the last category mentioned above: how to live a satisfying life. Zen literature has the earned reputation of advancing this viewpoint. Some religious ideas (e.g., “turn the other cheek”) do too.

It’s worth noting that the former view tends to be popular with young people and those that teach and coach young people. This might be seen as reflective of the natural physical advantages of being young.

But as one ages, one discovers that nature has determined that the physical – and even many of the mental – advantages of youth ebb over time. If one is interested in living well after youth’s natural advantages have passed, one must employ other skills that can be acquired with experience and the acceptance of nature’s design.

Youth wants to go to war. Age wants to negotiate for peace. Youth leans toward danger. Age stands back.

Viewed through the lens of our thesis*, it’s easy to see that the texts that advocate winning favor ideas and behavior that are tense and defiant and contracted (towards the ego). The texts that advocate living a satisfying life favor ideas and behavior that are relaxed and accepting and expansive (towards the inevitability of death).

In fact, it is possible to see self-improvement literature as the attempt to grapple with two very different impulses: the instinct to contract like a black hole, and the instinct to let go and expand like the universe.

Contraction-based self-improvement literature is all about strength, self-confidence, and the acquisition of specific knowledge. (In order to become a better (i.e., more successful) person, the argument goes, you must arm yourself with qualities that make you more capable. You must learn how to speak well, how to write well, how to outthink your competition.

This school tends to see the world as a circumscribed environment of wealth and poverty, happiness and despair, goodness and evil. The total amount of wealth, happiness, and goodness is always the same. The object of life is to claim larger and larger shares of those things by competing aggressively against your neighbor. The more your neighbor gets, the less you can get. So you must do everything you can to get to the wealth and happiness and goodness before he does.

The relaxation-based school sees the world as immaterial and/or infinitely expanding. It posits that success comes from accepting our existential limitations and restraining the impulse to do more. To become all that we can be, we must resist the urge to excel in egotistic or materialistic pursuits. Instead, we should align our spirits with the cosmic flow, which is gentle and universal and ever-expanding.

In categorizing self-improvement literature so rigidly, I am being unfair to texts (such as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations) that record both points of view. It is not coincidental that these texts are rooted in personal, phenomenological observation. But they are rare.

The argument I’d like to offer is this: Each of these schools of self-improvement springs from a genuine perception of human experience. The school of contraction reflects the experience of accomplishment that comes from efforts that are fundamentally concentrated and egocentric. These efforts are most effective when one (or the state) is strong. The school of relaxation reflects the experience of accomplishment that comes from allowing the egocentric impulses to subside. These efforts are necessary to live a satisfying life when it is not (or no longer) possible to dominate.

The problem with most self-improvement books today is that they tend to be unilateral and polarizing. Advocates of relaxation argue that the ego is the enemy. Contractionists pooh-pooh relaxation ideas as ephemeral and advocate power.

As I have suggested throughout this series of essays, human experience includes both kinds of impulses. If you want to become better at many things – especially in environments that are competitive – you are going to have to learn and use some contracted skills. On the other hand, being contracted continuously is not possible, even for the strongest in the game. Relaxation techniques are a critical part of a concentrated strategy. Competing and winning effectively for any length of time requires a mastery of both impulses.

To live a full and satisfying life, we must accept the fact that, however much we might strive against it, our destiny is to lose our inward gravity and atomize into the ever-expanding universe.

We must accept the existential fact that we are bundles of energy that are always in the process of contracting and expanding. And this is true even for people who spend their lives cultivating one of these impulses instead of the other.

By accepting both impulses as natural and inevitable, we can begin to see them as equally useful. And when we accept that the ultimate impulse is expansive, we can also learn how to live and die in peace.

 * In this series of essays, which hopes to become a book, I’m exploring an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time — that our knowledge of the universe and our experience of living can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation – of contraction and relaxation – and that such an understanding might helpful in succeeding in life and accepting death.

Watch This…