How Do We Know What We Want: Milan Kundera on the Central Ambivalences of Life and Love

Originally from Brainpickings

“Live as if you were living already for the second time," Viktor Frankl wrote in his 1946 masterwork on the human search for meaning, "and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" And yet we only live once, with no rehearsal or reprise – a fact at once so oppressive and so full of possibility that it renders us, in the sublime words of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, “ill-prepared for the privilege of living.” All the while, we walk forward accompanied by the specters of versions of ourselves we failed to or chose not to become. “Our lived lives," wrote psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his magnificent manifesto for missing out, "might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are." We perform this existential dance of yeses and nos to the siren song of one immutable question: How do we know what we want, what to want?

Czech-French writer Milan Kundera examines our ambivalent amble through life with unparalleled grace and poetic precision in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (public library) – one of the most beloved and enduringly rewarding books of the past century.

Because love heightens all of our senses and amplifies our existing preoccupations, it is perhaps in love that life's central ambivalences grow most disorienting – something the novel's protagonist, Tomáš, tussles with as he finds himself consumed with the idea of a lover he barely knows:

He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger.


But was it love? ... Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it? ... Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

The woman eventually becomes Tomáš's wife, which only further affirms that even the rightest choice can present itself to us shrouded in uncertainty and doubt at the outset, its rightness only crystallized in the clarity of hindsight. Kundera captures the universal predicament undergirding Tomáš's particular perplexity:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.


There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it bears repeating, is one of the most life-magnifying books one could ever read. Complement this particular point of inflection with Donald Barthelme on the art of not-knowing and Adam Phillips on the rewards of the unlived life.


I'm having a serious case of nostalgia today.

It started Sunday with one of the most surreal dreams I've had in like forever.... It was an L-shaped pool and I was swimming and diving like I used to when I was little in Chile. For some reason I had asked a little kid who was sitting by the pool and he kept pushing me to move forward and to hurry up because he had other things to do... It took me back to when I was little and had first learned how to swim... who would have thought I would end up swimming, biking and running on triathlons 🙂

There is a U2 song that has always reminded of my dad. It made me think of the fact that his hair was white by the time he was 40 (and I'm 2 years away from that) and how much my feelings towards him have changed since I came to the US.

My dad was authoritarian to the extreme and I reveled against that. I wanted trust but did nothing to earn it. I chose confrontation instead of conversation... when he'd say no I'd figure out a way to circumvent his orders and do what I wanted anyways.

A couple years ago I chose to accept the good times and forget the bad ones. It was equal parts forgiveness, letting go and moving on with my own healing process of not being with him when he died. It hasn't always been easy but it has been necessary. My mom probably wouldn't believe it but it has made me more tolerant; it made me really give a shit when everyone else was telling me not to.

I now realize that he was afraid. He was always in control and when that was denied to him he would freak out and lash out to everyone around him. I've tried hard not to get to that level but I have to admit that the way I. Which I have been back stabbed make it hard to relinquish control... Even when the control was just an illusion.

He left himself alone. He made his life such that when the time came he was alone and actively pushing people away from him. I tried, I know there were women in his life who tried to get close and he didn't let them... just don't want to end up like that.

I'm reminded of friends today. One because of birthday and one because of travel wishes. I've kept pushing doing Ironman Pucón for years and I'm starting to think that I don't want to wait any longer. I think that next year will be the time to do it. The race also gives me the excuse I've been looking for to visit friends and get that piece of my life back.

There is something magical about sunrises. The magenta colors as the show themselves shyly through the dark blues and the way that even the clouds, threatening and dark, lighten up and disappear. How the dark night before it gives way to something that is full of possibilities and the uncertainty and the dreams that come out of it. Will it be the day when you become the book publisher you've dreamed of becoming or will this be the day when you finally decide to pursue a relationship without fear of baggage or rejection? Who knows but the key is to never be afraid and to always look at the future with a child's imagination.

Baselines: Life Design and Life Planning

Rush themed post, in case you hadn't noticed 😛

What do I want and how do I plan on getting there. That seems to be the question on my mind lately... but the question itself won't do me any good unless I can provide answers... to the questions I've already asked and those that I have yet to ask.

As planned, my last day will be November 10th. I don't see a need to stay any further and I hate to already have worn my welcome as thin as I did as quickly as I did. Truth be told I don't want to be here... I don't fit the system and I'm tired of having hysterical people around me who think that, because it's ok for them to work 60 hours a week it's ok for everyone to do so. I love working for my current boss but a recent incident proved that it's not enough to like working with some people and not others... because we are a team one person not liking another breaks the whole team dynamics.

There was another incident that happened last week that really makes me uncertain as to role and place in this team. I was asked what kind of instructional designer I was and then there was a long conversation between our dean and my boss as to what would the characteristics of their ideal person would be... I don't think I'm it and if I'm not then I don't want to be here (again)

Do or do not. There is no try - Yoda

We'll try a different strategy this time.... We'll just go for it and not worry about falling flat on our faces; after all it won't be the first and it won't be the last time. Worry about being happy and worry about making a difference. Karma will sort the rest because, as much of a bitch as karma is, at least it's a fair bitch who will give you what you deserve.

We don’t beat the reaper by living longer, we beat the reaper by living well and living fully
Randy Pausch

Both Time Stands Still and Marathon remind me (again) that life will wait for no one. There is no "stop the world, I wanna get out" option. You get to play the cards given to you... what you do with them is up to you for better or worse.

Fear is a great motivator, if you let it, if you don't stop whenever things get tough. Life's challenge is a limited time offer. Either you get it now or you loose it buddy 🙂

Right now I'm afraid that I'll end up fired before I'm ready to move back. I'm afraid, once again, of being irrelevant, of not having a real purpose while going into the office from 8 to 5 and then off to training and to do the things that are really important right now.

But, you know what? This time I'm ready to take it as it comes... I'm tried of being afraid and I'm tired of holding myself back

I am trying to figure out what I want and what I can offer. I even did a mindmap of where would I want to be to do it. Location independence is nice but it's not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to have enough income and a schedule that is flexible enough to allow me to do the crazy stuff I want to do.

Dreaming is big but it also has to be grounded. The chorus for Presto reminds me of those dualities. "I'm not one to believe in magic, but I sometimes have a second sight."

We'll see if it works this time 😛

Hell yeah or f**k no

The idea on this video has been resonating with me for the last few months. I've heard it from different people at different places and for different circumstances. The closer I get to "the date" the more this message is starting to resonate. If you can't fully commit to something; if you can't give something or someone your fully undivided 100% attention then say no. If you're going to do something half assed then why bother doing it at all? You have better things to do than waste your time.

The worst of it all is that you're not doing the people you're trying to help a favor either. Your not being there 100% is actually hurting the people you're trying to help. What do you say no to? How do you say no?

Saying Yes, No Matter What is The Challenge

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.

Part of what's been keeping me upset and depressed over the last few days was this simple realization: My immediate future is no longer on my hands and I lost what little control I had over what I was going to do outside work.

I was diagnosed with Gallbladder attacks Memorial day and the earliest I could get scheduled for surgery was tomorrow (6/13) which means that I won't be able to go back to training until 6/27 at the earliest (I'm still hoping the doctor will only give me 1 week recovery but it doesn't sound very likely) which in turn makes it unlikely that I will be allowed to continue training with the IronTeam for Arizona.

Don't get me wrong, I want to continue training really badly but it's not up to me. Mary and Mike will be the ones deciding when/if I can continue. All I can do is the best I can and hope that it'll be enough.

Going back to training or lack thereof today (6/17) I got a call from one of our coaches. In and of itself that's not unusual (maybe not welcome but not unusual) but the content of the conversation made me happier and gives me hope that I'll continue with the team all the way through the end in November. Holding my breath but not too deeply 🙂

But even if I can't continue training there are questions that bring up the larger picture and the larger questions that I have been avoiding so far: How do you live a remarkable life in a conventional world?

Then there's something to be said for fear. The first question is to ask what are you really afraid of? Are you afraid of not making it it, making it or just staying where you are while you wait and see all the people who actually took a chance and made it pass by?

What is holding you back? What are you afraid of? Why are you letting fear hold you back? WHy not use the fear as the fuel that pushes you forward?

The Art of Non Conformity and Legal Nomads have opened my eyes. I know there is something bigger and better to be had outside the conventional 9-to-5 salary mindset. I've blogged about it before but there's still something holding me back and not letting me explore what it is that I really want to do.

Doing Triathlons and endurance sports is one thing but it's not the only unconventional thing I do or rather it's not the only thing that I would like to do in a regular basis.  There is so much more to do and so much more to be in this life that every time you constraint yourself you're hurting your life and your future.

Yeah, people tell me that 37 is not old but it's older than I was when I first started exploring questions of happiness and trying, as poorly as I did at the time, to define what success really means and in what context. It's never to late to start but there are times when it's too late to realize you can begin to change.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs - 2005

There is such a feeling of freedom when you realize that you really don't have anything to loose (and even more when you realize that you never did). If there is a time to take risks is now. Don't wait until you're sure (when are you ever 100% sure that you'll actually do something or that your plan will work exactly as you intend to?)

SO the next challenge is to actually do things. If you think it's going to be worth the effort then go for it. Don't let anything get in your way. If the sky is the limit then you're the rocket that will get there but only if you let yourself do so.

So what will 2012 look like?

Part of accepting challenges is to accept that you can't win them all but that it doesn't mean you stop trying. 2012 will be shaped by this year regardless of what happens in the TNT/Ironteam front.

Either way I'm moving to California at the end of 2011 (exact dates depend on whether I actually race IMA or not). I don't think that UWG is the place for me long term and I will sure as all hell not make myself miserable trying to figure out if it is or not.

If I make it through to Arizona

If things work out the way I want them to then I'm quitting UWG at the end of September (week after Ironman 70.3 Augusta) and start shipping crap at that time. I'd travel with the team to Arizona and then come back, close the lease and fly back to California sometime in early December.

If I don't make it through to Arizona

Part of what worries me about moving to California is that my mom mwill continue to try and live my life for me; maybe not overtly but with her subtle "you should do this" hints and pronouncements and 'this is my house and my rules' situations.

But I still need a few months of California before I can jump in to dreaming big. If I can't make it to Arizona I don't know how much real training I'll have for Augusta and that may dictate that I live mid September instead of December. It may cause issues with the landlord but I think I have that taken care of 🙂

The rest is all up in the air and for the first time, I'm OK with that.

Restless (WIP)

No words, My tears won't make any room for more,
And it don't hurt, like anything I've ever felt before, 
this is No broken heart,
No familiar scars,
This territory goes uncharted...

Just me, in a room sunk down in a house in a town, and I
Don't breathe, no I never meant to let it get away from me
Now, too much to hold, everybody wants has to get their hands on gold,
And I want uncharted.
Stuck under this ceiling I made, I can't help but feeling...

I'm going down,
Follow if you want, I won't just hang around,
Like you'll show me where to go,
I'm already out, of foolproof ideas, so don't ask me how
To get started, it's all uncharted.

Uncharted – Sara Bareilles

I'm envious.

I'm envious of the people who seem to have it all together. The people who can set really aggressive goals and really work towards them. People who can leave everything behind and accept that the world doesn't revolve around them (or at least not completely around them) and who can see beyond themselves and serve others while doing what they want.

I'm envious I'm not in that group... at least not yet.

As I wrote elsewhere, I thought that moving out of my comfort zone would make me happy. It has but it also prompted a lot of questions. Some new and some old friends who are coming for repeat visits. I think that it's good, especially now, to start dissecting some of these questions as the answers will inform decisions that I'll make over the next few months and years.

Who are you?

The standard answer to that is: I'm a soon-to-be-36-year-old Chilean transplant who has been living in the US since 1994.

I have a bachelor degree in general studies from Central College in Pella, Iowa and a Master's degree in Instructional Technology from San Jose State University. I completed coursework in applied anthropology but decided it was time to get back to the real world and get a job. Still on the fence about more graduate school and on what field.

I lived in Vermont while I went to school in Iowa and then lived in California until July, 2010 when I moved to Carrollton, Georgia to take a job as an instructional designer at the University of West Georgia. I expect to move to Atlanta next summer so I can be close to the things I want to do and the people I want to be close to.

I am the only child of my parent's marriage. My dad had two kids before he married my mom; I don't consider them relatives... we just happen to share half our gene pool. My dad passed away from cirrhosis of the liver about 7 years ago... He was 57. My mom lives in California and remarried twice here in the US. She is now single.

I graduated high school in Chile... From Saint George's College. I also did a year of film school, long enough to realize I didn't really want to do that for a career. When I moved to the US I decided to commit to theater as a career... didn't work out either

It can also be said that I'm defined by my hobbies.

  • I train for endurance sport;. I have a 70.3 race the weekend of my birthday and depending on the result of the race on the 26th I'll decide if I'm training for a full Ironman race in 2011. If I do it we'll be training for Ironman Arizona with the Team in Training Iron Team.
  • I practice Japanese martial arts; I am sho dan in Naginata and want to take up Kyudo when I get a car to drive to Atlanta. I also want to find a place where I can start a Naginata dojo here in Georgia.
  • I love miniature war gaming and have extensive collections on the two primary game systems I play and intend to rebuild the army for the third game system in the near future.
  • I love photography. I should dust off the camera and start taking pictures around the university and around town.

The more honest answer is that I still don't know even after 36 years.

I've asked this question several times over but until recently I have not been able to provide an answer that I happy with. In the past I've been able to derive glimpses of an answer by defining who I'm not and that's a good starting point but it is not an answer.

Over the next few months I hope to dwell deeper into the answers to this and other questions as a way to build a life that is meaningful beyond immediate satisfaction.

What do you want?

I wake up to the sunshine out my window and the passin' sound of a homeless man
Singin' an ol' Cole Porter song
The faucet leaks, the TV's on the blink again
But my restless dreams are still intact
Even though it's takin' way too long
Got a hundred dollars in a coke tin on my shelf
And I'm thinkin' to myself, whoa

These are the days you will remember for the rest of your life
These are the memories you'll pack in a box and pull 'em out sometimes
So pick your flowers, count the seconds, roll the dice
But baby, don't wait 'till its too late
Put a smile on your face
These are the days

These are the days – Jo Dee Messina

Like Queen used to sing I want it all and I want it now but we all know that it ain't gonna happen and perhaps that is a good thing. Having to choose and prioritize what I want will help me further decide who I am and what I want.

I want freedom.

  • I want freedom to live life the way I want to and not be tied up by other people's definitions and ideas of what I should be doing or where should I be. I guess that's why AONC caught my attention... It answered a lot of questions and generated a lot more questions as to what it means to live life in your terms.
  • I want to explore the word by traveling and learning as much as possible. I'm a culture whore and it's time I star living like one. Need to save and prepare for whatever it is that the future brings.
  • I want the freedom to make a difference (and find out where do I need to be and what do I need to learn in order to make a difference). My friend Lorea may be a good source of information in this department.
  • I want the freedom to go to places people don't usually go to and do things that are completely non conventional. I want to be able to do things spur of the moment without having to worry where the money is coming from.

What do you have to offer?

That's always been the question I've had the hardest problems with. How to answer in it without sounding or being arrogant? When growing up I'd reserve the worst of my tirades for those of my classmates I perceived as arrogant asses.

But there might be a difference between being arrogant and acknowledging that you are skilled at something. I am a good communicator, I can train people in almost anything and can build rapport with them quicker than most people.

Beyond that... I'm still working on identifying what else do I have to offer.

Why do you want it?

Besides the fact that I'm getting awfully close to 40 there has alway been a void in my life. vie always known there's something missing but I've never been able to identify what it is or how to work towards it.

For a while I thought that doing work for my church in California would be the answer but, to be honest, the attitude of the church on things like prop 8 soured my opinion of the specific individuals and of the church in general.

And it wasn't just this one particular church but the fact that evangelical Christians were the main sponsors of prop 8 and the main financial backers of prop 8 were the Mormons! You should hear Christian apologist talk about Mormonism to understand why the level of hypocrisy bothers me so much. Maybe I'm reading too much into it but I still think that if Jesus were here today he would be preaching against that level of hate.

now I want to go out in the world because I think I can make a difference even if it's a small impact it'll be important to someone down the road. I just need to figure out the what and where.

What do you believe in?

  • I believe that people are essentially good. We become bad/evil because of the environment and those people around us
  • I believe that an individual can make a difference.
  • I believe that we can all achieve happiness. It is not just material things but also in the way that we serve others.
  • I believe that we’re all going to find that special someone and start a long-term relationship. Maybe as a married couple or maybe not but if I’ve learned anything over the last few years is that marriage does not imply a committed relationship.
  • I believe that honesty is the most important quality in a human being; even more so than money.
  • I believe in being fair to all people.

What are you willing to give up to get what you want?

The moment we refuse to give up power (or whatever kind) that has been given to us then we need to recalibrate our priorities.

We ought to stop hoarding material things. We should never put things ahead of people.

Monetary rewards if it means I get to help someone.

How strong are your beliefs.

I want to think that I would stand up for what I believe no matter what. "There is no bigger gift than to give you life for your fellow men."

I also want to believe that I am not judgmental, at least I try not to be. There are times when I fail miserably and I know there are times when I don't even try and where my prejudices are worn on my sleeve.

This op/ed piece from the NY Times gave me even more to think in that department. How many times are we so judgmental about those who are different or who hold a different opinion than we do.

Planning Ahead

There are a lot of things left to decide... One of the things on the plate for after I get a car is whether I want to move closer to Atlanta or to Atlanta itself. The pros so far outweigh the cons... Particularly if I'm accepted for Iron Team then Atlanta becomes a necessity and with the non-existent public transportation in Georgia then I hope yup can see why I really need this. Plus All my teammates and friends live closer to Atlanta, I miss being able to get on the bus and go to places without having to take cabs.
I'm also re-evaluating grad school. Despite being soured to the whole concept I have to admit that the idea still holds some appeal. Either as a professional culmination (if I decide to stay in instructional technology) or as a way to start something different yet again... Which is very appealing and very scary at the same time.</p
Emory university in Atlanta has a 5 week I introduction to Kyudo course. I so want to do it... you have no idea. Then I have to find a place to set up a Naginata study group / dojo before too long... I don't want to stagnate in that department any more than I already have.

But I guess the biggest question is whether I want to stay in Carrollton long term for work or if I want to move onto something else closer to Atlanta. Don't misunderstand me... I love UWG and Carrollton to a degree but I miss being able to do things like I used to in the Bay Area... I want to go to the theater, movies, good restaurants and so many other things that I'm very ambivalent about my place of residence. If I had a car it would be a non issue but I don't so it is.