The Light Triad
One year and 700,000 words later, I have landed on three foundational, interrelated forces that drive all of human activity. As I close the chapter on this project, I wanted to share them with you.
A year ago, I embarked on a mission to write 365 thought pieces in a process of self-discovery. I had a vague plan: unearth, explore, test and debate anything and everything I could find, related to the human psyche, with the hopes of ultimately distilling insights from our dizzying complexity.
The idea came to me after experiencing the alchemy of Burning Man for the first time. In Black Rock City, I encountered a 75,000-strong community of unconnected individuals, but for their unusual degree of curiosity, bravery, generosity, electricity and creativity. I’d never seen anything like it. The two weeks I spent helping to build, then live in, the city fundamentally renewed my faith in people.
Over the preceding forty year period, that faith had consistently eroded, to an unhealthy place. And so Burning Man was, it’s fair to say, a personal revelation, and a renewal.
I wanted to understand what made it—and the people who were attracted to the event—so exceptional, so that I could tap into that life force consistently in a decidedly duller world.
Within a month of my return, with the patina of desert still clinging, I sat down at my keyboard to begin the journey. My only plan was to do so daily for a year, until whatever came out of it had run its envisioned course.
That day is tomorrow.
And while I wrote that coda — the 365th chapter — last week in a flash of inspiration, I decided to publish it last, which makes this piece the very final one I am writing, and a fitting place to share the project’s inception, before closing it with 100 lessons learned.
Come back tomorrow.
It has been, to say the least, illuminating. In ways I couldn’t have imagined, this deep dive into stories, books, research papers and news articles — all of which has been filtered through my own experiences, and a predisposition for soul-searching and over-sharing— has collectively expanded my own understanding of so many things that it would be difficult, if at all possible, to measure the quantum between my originating and current mind-states.
Hundreds of thousands of words later, the exercise has — truly — transformed me, and with it, not insignificantly, my relationships.
Writing, in the format I chose, has been a protracted mental meditation — a sustained exercise in sense-making. I’ve debated and tested these ideas continually with my wife and children, family, strangers and friends alike. We’ve plunged into the deep end, and the process has made me only thirstier for more of the same.
Every Day In Sight
I gave the project a name: Every Day In Sight. It was meant as a “double entendre”, juxtaposing the idea of “armchair wisdom” (everyday insight) with mindfulness (the act of keeping every. day. in. sight.)
While the project’s modus operandi itself was selfish — my own growth — I have always loved sharing what I find interesting or insightful, in the hopes of lighting a spark in someone else’s mind. If nothing else, I am continually accused of being passionate about ideas, discovery and sharing both.
And so, while I leave a year’s worth of reflections for tomorrow, I did want to dive here into something that has emerged, in my head, as universally common threads to the human experience. I’ve mentioned these obliquely in a dozen pieces, without expanding on the thoughts.
I believe there are three connective threads to the human experience — the drivers that unite all people, in that we all continually seek these in life above anything else, until we land on a resonant expression of each to quench that particular thirst.
The Light Triad
Scott Kaufman is a psychology professor at Columbia University, in New York. He set out to uncover the common traits of “loving human beings” — a white “yang” to the Dark Triad’s black “yin”. The Dark Triad, if you’re not familiar with it, is a psychology term that describes the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. In searching for a countervailing Light Triad, Kaufman “wanted to see if there was anything interesting about people who are not arseholes.” He interviewed thousands of people, and came up with three common values:
Faith in Humanity — the underlying belief that people are fundamentally good, at their cores
Humanism — valuing and respecting the dignity and worth of every individual
Kantianism — the belief that people are an end in themselves, not a means to one, to be used
In my view, he’s partially right, and as I said, my own faith in humanity was restored following my initiating Burning Man experience. For the first time, I was exposed to the best of what people could be toward one another—thousands of strangers. I realized that in the “default world”, as everything outside of Black Rock is called by Burners, the negative thoughts and acts that we encounter daily are all symptoms of a sickness, not foundational true states of being; and that by undoing the damage that has been done to our loving cores—or by counterbalancing it—we can restore people to a place where their fundamental goodness can shine through, unabated.
In this, Kaufman is spot on. But what he was describing were common characteristics of loving people—not underlying drivers of human behavior. I wanted to know what connected all of us; because if I could understand that, then perhaps I could be more mindful in my own life of our common humanity, and increasingly align my interpretations and actions with it.
As I wrote last September,
“Most people on Earth — the overwhelming majority — are born into the full and enveloping presence of love. This is long before the forces that chip away at its purity, bit by bit — throughout our lives — have begun to act on our core truth, to corrupt it.”
Love, as I wrote then, is the only true thing. Every other emotion builds on, or strays from, that equilibrium. Every human on Earth seeks love, above all else. There is not one exception. That doesn’t mean that they’ll find it, or that they even know where to look, or are ready to give or receive it. That particular journey begins with self-love. Dr. Theodore Rubin’s excellent book on Compassion and Self-Hate unpacks the nut of this idea. Without self-love, we cannot love anyone else, or find our center.
My own brother learned that when medical science gave him a 0% chance of surviving a rare form of brain cancer, which he contracted at 23 years of age. It was the most clarifying experience in his short life. On June 8, 1995, standing in front of his med school classmates as their elected valedictorian, after having vanquished his cancer, he said,
“With Death breathing down my neck… the only experience that retained true meaning was giving and receiving love. The rest was but a dance around that central nourishing theme.”
For the remaining fifteen years of his life, he did just that.
Life, then, is a perpetual exercise to return, again and again, to the pure state of love.
So, I would propose my own “Light Triad” in slightly different language from Kaufman’s. His triad may well be common characteristics of “non-arseholes” but they are not underlying common drivers of human activity, thereby revealing our nature. Those, I’d propose, run deeper.
Love — in its self-loving and interpersonal forms — is the first of these drivers. Every human on Earth, bar none, longs to feel love: for themselves, and for — and from — others.
If the ability to love — and be loved — stems fundamentally from our ability to love ourselves, then our second common driver is more overtly interpersonal, in that half of the equation lies outside of our bodies, minds and control. It is the desire to belong — to be unconditionally accepted by others. As I wrote last August, in Accepting Others Without Aster*sks,
“There are no healthy relationships whose end goal — whose vision — is to change them.”
The prolific poet, author, memoirist and activist Maya Angelou said it another way: “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
Home, in this sense, is human belonging. As I wrote then,
“At our cores, we are social creatures: there to bond over commonalities, and bridge over differences; not only to find meaning for ourselves, but to find one or more people with whom to share the privilege of the journey, in order to enrich it.”
Said another way, as I wrote just yesterday, “As individual members of an innately social species, the “self” cannot exist without being understood in the context of others — of relationships, or relating.”
The inherently social root of belonging, therefore, is the underlying connective thread of our shared humanity — on which we spend a huge part of our temporal and emotional lives, in pursuit.
Life would be cozy indeed if we loved ourselves, and shared a lifetime of loving exchanges with others who accepted us into their hearts and communities unconditionally. But something would still be missing.
That something is, in my view, actually the thing that distinguishes humans from every other loving, social creature on Earth. It has driven us since the first conscious thought we had, and has organized nearly all of human activity, apart from the spheres of love and belonging.
This last item is the search — a perceived need — for purpose. An answer to the questions about why we are here; what are we here to do; and how can we understand ourselves in the context of these things. A person without purpose, as loved and accepted as they may be, will wither in the face of feeling rudderless. Buoyed by purpose, however, human passion is ignited, and the idea of fulfillment becomes possible.
It is the pursuit of purpose that led us to philosophy. It is philosophy that underpins our understanding of humanity, and has driven every construct, since the time of Aristotle: ethics, values, psychology, rhetoric, poetry, politics, and education. It is the pursuit of purpose that led us to every religion on Earth; to metaphysics; and to scientific inquiry. It is the pursuit of (common) purpose that has aligned human beings, allowing us to create cities, institutions and governing structures. And it is purpose alone that forms the greatest debates of any age, often leading us to our most passionate promulgations — ideas and doctrines — as we champion our answers to that central question:
Why are we here?
I’ve spent a year with these thoughts. So far, I haven’t found a way of eliminating or further distilling any of component of this triad—the forces that drive human nature, and bond us in common pursuit.
Love is our baseline state of equilibrium—of healthy operation—from which life’s trials continually conspire to separate or reunite us. Belonging is the root of our social being, a deficiency of which manifests in cries for help, and destructive acts, equally. And purpose is the arrow that aims our time on Earth, allowing us to act with passion, and deep fulfillment.
In the absence of any of these things, life isn’t complete. By contrast, when we have invested enough time and energy in building capacity and strength in all three spheres, the outcome is what Abraham Maslow referred to as self-actualization, which crowns his famous pyramid.
The only disagreement I have with Maslow is that I would call self-actualization an outcome, not an input.
Yogis know this. In yoga, the seven chakras — or energy points — that every human has culminate in what’s called the crown chakra. This energy point, which resides at the very top of our bodies, is considered the chakra of enlightenment and represents our connection to our life’s purpose, and spirituality.
Deep meditators have all experienced this. Psychonauts have, as well. I’ve experienced it many times through both of these pathways, and can say it manifests as an all-encompassing alignment between love, belonging and purpose. Burning Man, as strange as feels to articulate it as such, was one of the most illuminating and life-affirming experiences I ever had, in that it opened the door to a vision of what life could look like, if it were connected to all three of these forces.
It manifested as a definition-defying “completeness”.
My daughter’s birth, thirteen years earlier, was the first time I ever felt complete. But one can’t do that every day…
To this last point, Mia’s birth led to a transformation of sorts for me, cracking the door open to a world of unconditional love, deep connection and clarified purpose I hadn’t known, as such. It has only amplified, over time, as she has grown and blossomed, and as our relationship has deepened. Many, if not most, parents know these feelings intimately and intuitively, if not consciously.
For something as fundamental to human existence as child-bearing and child-rearing to connect us to all three of these forces is — in my view — a pretty good indication that however imperfect my words and insights may be, they scratch at the surface of deep truths.
The search for such truths is what led to this year-long exercise. Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, I’ve no idea where it will lead next. What I do know is that it has been one of the most enlightening things I have done, fueling a level of growth, at mid-age, that I wasn’t sure was possible. Scientists and psychiatrists are increasingly in agreement with pioneer Carol Dweck that growth is a mindset, not the exclusive domain of young children.
We are all, if we resolve and invest in this, lifelong learners.
And so, I close a nearly 700,000-word journey with a few words of thanks, for all the encouragement I received along the way; for all the private messages that let me know I am not alone in the search for deeper truths, and that this shared meditation has helped to bring clarity, peace or connectedness to others; and for the experiences that led me to the conclusion that most of us truly want the same three things, in the end: to feed our foundational wellbeing, to share that privilege with others, and to aim our combined energies toward consequential outcomes that collectively conspire to galvanize and invigorate our lives.
What else is there?