Go and Stand on Hallowed Ground

November 27, 2011

I suppose it is a contradiction that someone like me who so firmly guards against the narrative fallacy would be such a deep believer in hallowed ground. But I am. See, those who ascribe to this school of thought simply believe that there is something to be gained from going to old places, places where people died or where great things happened. And that by standing on this ground are transformed by it.

There you can experience what Hadot calls the “oceaniac feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, to realize that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” It is in this instance, that you can ask yourself the important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?

The battlefield at Vicksburg. The canals and palazzos of Venice. The forum in Rome. The streets of Tombstone. Old South Meeting House in Boston, the grounds of Harvard. The Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park. I’ve spent a lot of time in the American South. Part of the reason I like it is for its hallowed ground potential. Huey Long trained at the gym where I work out. As far as I know, the heavy bag I hit is still in the same place he learned to box. The building I write this in is 200 years old. How many people have passed through it? Wasted time? Enjoyed themselves?

I don’t always even need to physically step in these places or, if I do, spend more than just a few moments. I’ve driven slowly through the streets of old Birmingham, I didn’t really see why I needed to get out of the car. The thoughts are the same.

Violence. Money. Death. Politics. Sex. These are the themes of humanity. Nothing makes this clearer than hallowed ground of every era. To see your face in a statue and understand how little has changed since then—since before and as it will be forever after. Here a great man once stood. Here another one died. Here a cruel rich man lived in this palatial home…

Yet where are they now? Nowhere. Their works? Mostly gone. As William Alexander Percy wrote, even most extraordinary individuals like his father, “who warmed and led and lighted our people,” are barely remembered. Their name and deeds will be soon forgotten. And ours, which pale in comparison to theirs, will too. What does it matter if “soon” means tomorrow or 1,000 years from now? This is what hallowed ground can teach us.

We are left only with first principals: be a good person; do what you love. Contribute your little bit to the universe before it swallows you up and be happy with that. On hallowed ground,  we can channel the energy of the accomplishments of the people who came before it, the passage of time having long stripped them of their vanity, and direct it properly in our own lives.

Of course, it is possible to take the wrong lesson from hallowed ground. Like Caesar, weeping at the sight of a statue of Alexander, that’d he’d conquered fewer nations in the same amount of time. It should not spur our ambition, but chasten it. It is a flash lesson in humility. We are put in our place, and yet at the same time, left with a sense of the magnitude of possibilities.

We read the biographies of great men and see similarities in ourselves. We see a plaque for a division that fought and was slaughtered, and it might pain us to know that we’ll likely never warrant even a generalized marker like that. We fail to realize all of these events are just blips on the larger radar of life. The difference in posthumous recognition between Ulysses S. Grant and an infantryman means nothing to either of them. And in turn between Grant and a greater general—Ghenghis Khan, let’s say—matters less still, even though one’s achievements echo louder and have for longer than the other. All dead. All trod upon by you and I today.

Take comfort in that fact. That decade earlier, a century earlier, a millennia earlier, someone just like you stood right where you are and felt the same things you feel, struggled with the same thoughts. They have no idea that you exist, but you know that they did. Embrace the power of this position and learn from it. It is an exhilarating moment, let it propel you.

Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, because it helps you reconcile yourself a bit better with the mundane. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain today, and that anyone can go and—to quote Murakami—breath death into their lungs like a fine dust. Breath it in so it becomes a part of you. Do it as often as you can, whenever you can: go and stand on hallowed ground.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

34 responses to Go and Stand on Hallowed Ground

  1. Well said. Our environment directly affects the range of our thoughts at any given moment. This is not to say that as I write this in my apt that I can’t understand my infinitesimal place in the universe, I surely can, but that I don’t have an emotional connection to the idea, which communicates much more powerfully than logic.

    This is why I find it necessary to climb mountains, ford swollen rivers, and paddle out into the ocean. These practices are not a way to escape the real world as one is tempted to think, but are really ways to feel the real world in ways that we otherwise cannot. As you’ve said, hallowed ground produces this same effect.

    Words alone cannot evoke the same feeling, although they can come close.

    A man said to the universe:
    “Sir I exist!”
    “However,” replied the universe,
    “The fact has not created in me
    A sense of obligation.”
    — Stephen Crane

  2. Does it have to be somewhere something “famous” happened? I get the feeling youre talking about near the ocean late at night. Or in the desert, alone. It’s a reminder of your smallness. Humans are quite frail and defenseless, all our bluster non-withstanding.

  3. “Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago.”

  4. Definitely seems like a contradiction. The ground is only hallowed as a consequence of the narrative. If the narrative* didn’t exist and wasn’t believed in or given weight, the ground wouldn’t be hallowed. It’d just be regular ground.

    How does one reconcile a commitment to hallowed ground with rejection of the narrative fallacy? The solution is to realize that narration is not a fallacy; self-narration may be. A narrative is just historical memory. And since we inform ourselves about the past in the form of narratives (there is no other way), we also will tend to treat our own story the same. If you want a subjective, bias-laden narrative about a person no one is better suited than that person himself. Indulging in that kind of self-narrative may be fallacious.

    But narratives written by other people? Good. The sum of all narratives about a subject? Great. Not a fallacy at all, a truth.

    *Narrative here means a distillation of experience. The movie montage which neglects the days we sit on the couch and almost quit. Narrative sometimes means a series of cause-and-effect attributions, which is not the sense I use it in this comment or saw it used in the narrative fallacy post.

    • Really, you don’t see the difference between a constructed narrative and Caesar was assassinated on this spot, William Randolph Hearst built this massive monument to himself, 100,000 American troops fought each other right here etc?

  5. Great post. Have you read “The Architecture of Happiness” by Alain de Botton?

    I suggest a musical pairing for your post: Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlHRSpFGtQk&feature=related” or “Cycling Trivialities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pi5jdkO94A” by Jose Gonzalez.

  6. It doesn’t even have to be a place, at least for me. I like to use music that feels greater than myself for that same effect, that “oceanic feeling”.

    I have found that for me, music from an orchestra works the best, but it isn’t a requirement, and a good example would be the Lord of The Rings Movie Soundtrack, which is pretty amazing.

    • Check my post on the Sound Track Delusion. I would actually disagree–at least in theory, it’s hard to resist in practice–with this.


      • Hum, that makes sense, I’m creating a story out of the music. Thanks for pointing it out, completely missed it.

        Still, like you said, it will be pretty hard not to feel like a badass warrior ready to take on the world listening to those songs.

        • Seneca talks about how people taking vacations to relax are fools because what they’re running away from isn’t the the noise of cities, but from themselves. They’ll be restless until they learn to stop running. Relying on external stimuli to motivate yourself is just running away from reality. It distracts you from achieving your goals by making you get lost glorifying the legendary.

          • Except you’re doing the opposite of glorifying the legendary.

          • I should have been more specific, that was at Joao’s “it will be pretty hard not to feel like a badass warrior ready to take on the world listening to those songs.” The music is a lie.

            I agree with the idea of this exercise, but it’s important to remember that it can be dangerous when practiced without a deeper ethical foundation. By using hallowed ground in this way, its inevitable that you will become proud of your humility. Do this exercise rarely and you will be misled by false pride; do it too often and the humility itself will become a source of false pride.

          • Humility as false pride, that’s a problem I want more of! Not that the consideration is without merit.

  7. Wonderfully written piece. It is very powerful the energy we experience when we are in tune with our surroundings. Taking the time to absorb what is around us is indeed very powerful and life changing if we will allow it to be.

  8. You sonuvabitch. Here I was thinking that all this time you were a fake, and then I see the news of the book deal. You’re the real thing, son, you’re the real thing.


  9. Sounds very similar to what I’m reading in Meditations. It’s great to be reading the book and seeing the concepts and patterns showing up elsewhere. I find that it’s hard for me to read Meditations in one sitting for very long, probably because of how it was written. Do you and others find that too?

  10. Ever imagine being able to write lucidly and to the point, avoiding esoteric terms, instead of foggily throwing together words that reference internal things, while explaining nothing?

  11. Of course, history is only full of men doing notable things that results in the ground being hallowed.

  12. you need to stop projecting. couse i am gettin it. pretentious douche …

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