The Lost Art of the Parable, How Cancel Culture Moved My Cheese, and Musings on Integrity

Of buried talents and the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

The lost art of the parable

The Bible has been printed and papyrus-ed over 5 billion times, and it’s supposedly the most pilfered book of all time. Why is it so successful? Because of its parables. (Yeah, I’m being facetious.) I’m an atheist, but I did briefly attend Catholic school. Nuns didn’t rap me on the knuckles to tell me ‘Fear is the heart of love’ as per the Death Cab for Cutie song—in fact, we had a young priest who was constantly trying to reach us through Harry Potter analogies. Nor, being a non-believer, did I allow myself to enjoy the tastiness of transubstantiation. (You principled fool, you denied yourself a possibly delicious wafer, and for what?) But it does mean I’ve read quite a bit of the Bible.

I came across the Parable of the Talents during quiet reading time in Religious Studies. I still reflect on it from time to time. A master entrusts his servants with talents (weights/units of money); two of them grow his wealth for him, while the third buries his gifts and is gently chastised. Or outcast. One of those. It’s a valuable lesson about not squandering your potential by playing it safe or failing to develop yourself. And it’s why a natural aptitude is called a ‘talent’.

A few years later, still as an impressionable child, I came across a ribald parody of this parable wherein a male manager gives three potential secretaries a sum of money and, in a subversion, ends up hiring not the one with the greatest profits but the one with the largest, um, assets. This joke was from a startlingly non-PC joke book purchased by my parents after we had just arrived in Australia in the mid-1990s. Presumably, they thought it would help them assimilate into the local culture. My folks also learnt English by committing to reading one book all the way through—that book was Dracula. (I still remember them reading it in the kitchen of our one-bedroom flat while I tried to sneak a peek at its racy cover.) They were certainly charmingly unorthodox in their language acquisition methods.

Another parable that has helped me lately is Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr Spencer Johnson. In this best selling business classic, two mice and two miniature humans discover cheddar galore in a particular area of the maze they call home. Promptly, all four of them set up shop in this Brietopia, the humans growing fat and complacent. One day, they wake to find that someone has moved their cheese. In reality, the cheese supply hadn’t disappeared but rather became mouldy and eventually dwindle. The mice move on, sniffing out new opportunities and scurrying away. Meanwhile, the humans waste time railing against the slings and arrows of fate, alternating between disbelief and self-pity. They await the miraculous return of their cheese until one of the braver humans find his gnawing self-doubt is no longer equal to his hunger.

There’s a little more to it, but the gist of it. The story teaches us that we have adapt because change is inevitable and every source of revenue invariably dries up, every relationship evolves. Neither willful ignorance nor wishful thinking can stem the tide—yet that’s where we spend our energy, digging our heels in and burying our heads in the sand (along with our talents). We are prone to overthinking—one of the many double-edged swords pressed at humanity’s throat, the ability simultaneous a blessing and curse—and this leads to crippling fear. But, well, it’s time for me to venture back into the maze in search of a fresher and tastier cornucopia of cheese. This newsletter is my first foray.

Nothing good lasts forever, right? People brave and/or foolish enough to contradict that delightful contingent known as the Regressive Left, who’ve blessed us with cultural relativism and gender identity ideology, soon find themselves booted off to greener pastures by our technocrat overlords.

They say forewarned is forearmed, but damn, it still hurt when:

Cancel culture moved my cheese

The cheese parable is simple but difficult to apply because it runs counter to human nature. When I first picked up Who Moved My Cheese? from one of those miniature street libraries I had just begun publishing low/no content books—journals, daily planners and the like—through Amazon. I was fully cognizant that the rules could change without notice and this venture would be dead in the water. However, the cheese I lost was not the one I was prepared to lose.

And what was that cheese anyway? Access to but one of the multitudes of blogging platforms. My almost twelve-thousand followers largely an artifice of following people bound by the rules of reciprocity, a tall pillar of salt with only a handful of grains representing repeat readers. (Did that Biblical reference even make sense? No, but I do love threading a theme.) People who actually looked forward to my stories, perhaps even sought them out rather than mindlessly lapping up whatever the algorithm had upchucked that day, were few in number. I feel I can change this by building a real readership here—without sacrificing quality for quantity to vie for front page dominance.

In the almost two years I was a member, Medium let me into the minds of over seventy-thousand readers—nothing to sneeze at. Once inside, I proceeded to make myself comfortable. Writers make for terrible house guests; they wedge new books into your shelves, sweep throw-pillows off the chaise longue, tinkle the ivories of your dusty pianoforte, and lift photo frames off the mantle to nonchalantly ask, ‘Who was that?’. Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Readers, why ever do you let us into your head? Don’t you know we’re rearranging things to our liking even as we’re distracting you with witty prattle?)

I can’t say I regret writing on that platform, though lately, it was increasingly a poor use of my time. Even before my cheese was taken away from me—as is the right of a business whose purpose is to promulgate certain ideologies or spare itself the ire of activists—it was growing stale.

Though I didn’t want to admit it, my views and payout weren’t what they used to be, with writers’ steady income slowly but surely supplanted with gamification in the form of bonuses. In the first financial year, I earned about $8K (Australian dollars) but less than $1K in the subsequent year, which surely isn’t how things ought to work. Although it was exhilarating to be a) writing again after a decade-long writer’s block and b) appreciated and remunerated for my efforts, it was time I changed tack. And I probably wouldn’t have done of my own accord.

The other silver lining is that now I have more time to finish my book Psychology of World Domination, a tongue-in-cheek examination of our endlessly exploitable cognitive quirks and an instruction manual to be taken about as seriously as The Prince. (‘Real citations, outlandish suggestions’ will be emblazoned on the front cover and the introduction will make it clear I won’t be posting anyone’s bail money.) All in all, it’s a blessing in disguise as blogging was sometimes an advanced form of procrastination for me. Now, with a backlog of articles to dole out, I can focus on self-improvement, reflection, and larger-scale projects. Much of writing it just glutting yourself on life and then giving yourself enough time to digest… yourself and emerge a beautiful butterfly? (Sorry, but I had to escape that digestive tract analogy somehow considering it doesn’t end anywhere pretty.)

Lessons from Squids and Seneca

My positivity in the face of change isn’t just thanks to parables about cheeses and talents, but due to two very instrumental books: Phosphorescence by Julia Bard and Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars. Phosphorescence, in particular, because it had me questioning: why should fear, loneliness, or dread threaten to extinguish our spirit? Surely when the world is darkest, the wisdom absorbed from our parents and teachers, books and philosophers, ought to shine all the brighter?

Phosphorescence is not just the purview of the bioluminescent cuttlefish or vampire squid, argues Baird; it is the guiding light in each of us which illuminates the way forward… from within.

‘What’s the point of all you have learned if you can’t employ it when you are floundering in a nadir? Haven’t all those lessons, and loves, been pooled in a reservoir you can draw on?’ — Julia Bard, Phosphorescence

Now is the perfect time to put what I’ve learnt about Stoicism and gleaned from various parables into action. Suffering and loss are inevitable—appreciating this is the only way we can prepare for pain and thereby lessen it. After all, we do this already. At least, no one I know spends their days and nights weeping they’ll be ashes to ashes, dust to stardust one day. Well, very small children do on occasion. I remember my little brother once asked through sobs, ‘You mean I’ll only live to a hundred?’ ‘A hundred? Life expectancy is much lower than that’. (Ah, what are big sisters for?) On the other hand, I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there cradling their newborn and in that moment acknowledging, as Stoicism teaches us, that one cannot lose that which was never ours to keep.

Yes, alright, I am being rather dramatic over the loss of a blog. I probably don’t need the wisdom of ancient philosophers or dinoflagellates, jellyfish, and glowworms to bounce back from a minor setback. Any-who, a timely reminder to diversify, and not bury all my talents in, uh, the fertile soil here at Substack either. Or is Substack a cheese? (All these metaphors are getting confusing so what I’ve done is I’ve gone and buried a Camembert in my neighbour’s backyard and any day now we’ll have a Camem-tree.)

Before I wrap this up, just one more book mention. (This is the reason this newsletter was almost called I Read Books So You Don’t Have To —not as catchy as KIPFIB, though.) A while ago, I wrote the following book review, and now I finally have my answer to the question I raised therein:

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall chronicles the ‘rise and rise’ of lowborn Thomas Cromwell, the second most powerful man in the kingdom after Henry VIII.

‘With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep.’

Cromwell is good with money, and he’s even better with people. His position as the archbishop’s former right-hand man makes him perfectly poised to inform the King just how much land he could reclaim were he to sever ties with Rome to marry Anne Boleyn.

This first book in the trilogy parallels the ascent of another Tom—a name, Mantel points out, as common as muck—scholar and Chancellor Thomas More, ‘a star in another firmament’.

In this powerful fictionalised account of the English Reformation, the amorality of Cromwell’s ‘one chooses one’s prince and serves him or else finds another’ brand of philosophy is pitted against More’s staunch religious convictions.

‘What’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more.’

I’ve never been so deep inside a character’s head as Cromwell’s in Wolf Hall, privy to fleeting fears and stray, sentimental thoughts. Yet it’s Thomas More we pity as we wonder, is one’s integrity really worth more than one’s life? Is being steadfast in one’s beliefs commendable or merely foolish?

Mantel weaves a rich and sensuous tapestry with her words. Every line lights up the senses, and one cannot help but find even the lecherous King Francis’ rhapsodising over Mary Boleyn’s figure utterly delightful:

‘He would like to stop him but you can’t stop a king. His voice runs over naked Mary, chin to toes, and then flips her over like a griddle cake and does the other side, nape to heels.’

Without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in recent times.

Your integrity or your life?

One’s integrity is worth one’s livelihood, station, associations, and one’s life. Because, as Shakespeare tells us, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths. The brave experience death only once’. There’s death, and then there’s being complicit in one’s own self-annihilation. (First a fragment, then a piece and then a piece more.)

When I was researching my controversial Pornography is Neither Harmless Nor Fantasy article (to be shared with subscribers, of course), I started with the assumption that physical/sexual violence is worse than humiliation. However, I then came upon research examining both pornography and torture of the sort that’s not filmed, which revealed that the betrayal of self inherent in ‘willingly’ abasing oneself due to various complex constraints and pressures is why humiliation ‘has longer-lasting and more deadly effects on the soul and mind…than does physical torture’.

All in all, I don’t think I’ll be kowtowing to the mob, scraping and bowing, or grovelling my apologies anytime soon.

Should you choose to subscribe

You will receive a grab-bag of articles on science (quite a lot of pop-psych), art, books, writing tips, humour pieces, and various musings. Some examples of upcoming content to look forward to include:

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  • The Psychology of Mirrors: What you see is not always what you get

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  • Body Snatchers and Snitches: Eclectic etiquette for grave occasions

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  • The Artist, the Sausage Dog, and the Stripper: Pontifications on life drawing

And let’s say it will be twice weekly for that sweet, sweet anticipation (dopamine is released in when you expect a reward, it isn’t just reinforcing). Or perhaps I’ll use a variable-ratio schedule to get you hooked? Let’s leave it as ‘to be determined’ for now.

Lately, I’ve been really into new ways of looking at communication and storytelling, so there are likely to be insights on statement analysis (as used by interrogators), improv/theatre sports, cold reading, virtual reality, and mentalism. I’m hoping to get some first-hand experience in these intriguing areas, so it should be spectacular.

Oh, and a drip-feed of facts about my personal bugbear—though it should be yours too—gender ideology. Frankly, I don’t know of a more fantastical or corrosive set of unsubstantiated beliefs. I’m sure even Orwell couldn’t have predicted a world where men are women, and women are ‘uterus-havers’ and ‘bleeders’. Double-plus-ungood.

And finally, you ought to subscribe not because I write to a certain niche (I’ve never been one to limit myself), but because you’ll enjoy the ride wherever it is I choose to take you.

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