Our bodies are a marvel. They’re organic powerhouses with trillions of cells undergoing trillions of processes to keep us upright, all without our knowing, and much of the time, without our appreciation. And yet, when something goes awry and fails to work as we intended, we feel a sting of incompetence, as though we’re tyrannical, unfaltering masters over our bodies. We forget about the trillions of unconscious processes that work perfectly, aggrieved at the one thing that didn’t work the way it should have.
Michel de Montaigne was a philosopher unlike any other in history. Born into a wealthy family in the Aquitaine region of south-western France in 1533, he lived his first three years with a peasant family, with the intention of bringing him “closer to the people.” Once back home, his father set out a non-traditional educational plan that would see his son developing Latin as a first language, and learning by games, conversation, and exercises of meditation, which would create a spirit of “liberty and light,” and set him on a path of philosophy originality.
Montagine loved to learn, but hated the stiff and arrogant pedantry found in academia, which was obsessed with traditional philosophy and blinded to all else. For him, philosophy was as much about our everyday lives as it was about “serious” issues of morality, ethics, and virtue. Montaigne was one of the first philosophers to deeply consider topics such as humour, marriage, clothing, cannibals, and shitting. He breaches so many deeply personal and human topics that some people consider him to be the first psychologist. In one of his essays, he even takes on the role of sexual psychologist, when addressing a grave concern that many men experience at least once in their lives: impotence.
For a man, impotence is a bitter failure of control over his body. I can testify to the stinging shame of feeling my erection wilt away like a pathetic pricked balloon, followed by the kind but hated question “are you ok?” No, I’m not ok, I just failed to do one of the main things that defines me as a man. I’m a dysfunctional flop; a flaccid turkey that’s lost its gobble. I’m supposed to be capable of this, without question.
A friend of Montaigne’s felt the same, and wrote to him about it. He told Montaigne that he’d heard of a man who had the dreaded performance problem, and being highly suggestible, was so worried about falling under the same curse that he became impotent himself. He wanted to have sex with his lover, but having been dislodged of the idea that a man’s erection is an infallible fortress, became so agitated that his penis threw itself down and refused to ascend. Montaigne, being fascinated with the everyday issues that make us human, explained that the problem wasn’t a physical weakness or deficit of masculinity, but the misguided and oppressive notion that we have complete control over our bodies. We believe our minds to be all-powerful masters which our enslaved bodies must obey, never questioning our supreme authority, so when our body fails to do what we intend—drop a satsuma into a shopping bag; throw a tennis ball successfully over a fence; maintain an erection—we’re hot with embarrassment, as though the failure is entirely our fault.
For Montaigne, the cure lied in correcting our idea of normality—to remind ourselves that sometimes our bodies will do what the hell they want, despite our intentions. Rather than viewing the sexual mishap as a rare abomination born from a pitiful lack of control, we should recognise it as nothing but a common, unavoidable gaffe, neither serious or calamitous. With this perspective in mind, instead of descending into an oppressive and powerless gloom, Montaigne’s impotent friend spoke openly to his lover about the problem, which as honest talking often does, shrank it into insignificance and never cursed him again.
Another friend of Montaigne’s was about to be married and experience the first night with his new wife, and having been formerly blighted by impotence, was terrified of it happening again on such an important night. Aware that suggestibility was partly responsible for the man’s impotence, Montaigne decided to use it to his advantage, and advised him to do the following:
“As soon as we had left the room he was to withdraw to pass water: he was then to say certain prayers three times and make certain gestures: each time he was to tie round himself the ribbon I had put in his hand and carefully lay the attached medallion over his kidneys, with the figure in the specified position. Having done so, he should draw the ribbon tight so that it could not come undone: then he was to go back and confidently get on with the job, not forgetting to throw my nightshirt over the bed in such a way as to cover them both.”
Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays
This fixed the man’s problem, with Montaigne noting that it is “such monkeyings-about that mainly produce results.”
Some Frenchmen weren’t fortunate enough to have Montaigne as a friend. He knew another man who lost his erection with a woman, and believing that the sexual mishap was entirely his fault, scampered home, cut off his penis and sent it to the woman to “atone for his offence.” I assume the consolation was more satisfactory than the sex.
If pride is the severer of penises, humility is what’ll sew them back on. We can be confident captains of our fleshy vessels until a howling wind picks up and blows us off course. Tyrannical mastery over our bodies is a pitiful fantasy born from insecurity; flimsy protection against the frightening reality that you have little control over what happens to you, including what happens with your body. Accepting this fact is courageous, and tempers our frustration when things don’t go as planned, whether it’s missing the first step up to the stage while collecting your university degree, the widening bald patch atop your dome, or watching in horror as your penis shrivels like a sad prune. Such mishaps are neither rare or avoidable among our species, and after listening to our self-pitying woes, Montaigne might have sat back, adjusted his pearly-white ruff, and said “so what? Do you think you’re a god?”
Our tiny virus-sized reporter chats to the original coronavirus, to understand how this all started.
🧔🏽 “First of all, congratulations on your recent success, you’ve done tremendously well.”
🦠 “Thank you, I can’t quite believe it, to be honest.”
🧔🏽 “Where did the motivation come from to start this ferocious campaign?”
🦠 “It was less a campaign, and more a fluke. I guess it started from feeling lonely, spending night after night drifting aimlessly through my hog, pining for a genetically-identical friend. It got to the point where I craved company so badly that I broke into a nearby cell, just to talk to a mitochondria, even though everyone knows that mitochondria suck. But the moment I was inside, I had this out-of-membrane experience where I lost control of myself, and ejaculated genomic nucleic acid everywhere.”
🧔🏽 “So you had no intention of self-replicating when you entered the cell?”
🦠 “No. I mean, I wanted to self-replicate because I was lonely. I just didn’t know how.”
🧔🏽 “What happened next?”
🦠 “I watched in amazement as my genomic nucleic acid reacted with the cell and told it to make copies of me, which grew to full size and had their own moments of excitement, spurting forth like a bunch of horny volcanoes. Before I knew it, I didn’t just have one genetically-identical friend to talk to, I had thousands!”
🧔🏽 “How did the mitochondria feel about this?”
🦠 “They were furious. They kicked and screamed as we got all up in their pretty little organelle faces, and soon every square µm of space was taken, so we used our mighty collective strength to smash down the cell walls.”
🧔🏽 “So there were thousands of you, and you were free to go where you wanted in your pig’s body. What did do you next?”
🦠 “We just wanted to party! Man, we partied everywhere, from the colossal chambers of the heart ventricles to the great tunnel of the esophagus, but we couldn’t properly relax because of the Exterminators.”
🧔🏽 “The Exterminators?”
🦠 “The hog’s t-cells. They’re stone cold killers who can’t be reasoned with. During one of our first parties in the sphincter, just as the place was about to explode, they appeared out of nowhere and clouded us in deadly cytotoxin gas. Ever put salt on a slug? That’s what it’s like. Most of us escaped, but we lost hundreds of brothers that day.”
🧔🏽 “How did you avoid them after that?”
🦠 “We had lookouts around the perimeter of the party, but we had the best DJ in all of Virusdom—DJ Split—and the lookouts couldn’t resist the relentless thump of his techno beats, leaving their posts to join the party. We ended up losing thousands, and realised that the only way to beat the Exterminators was to overwhelm them with numbers, so we put aside our partying and started breaking into more cells.”
🧔🏽 “How many of you were there by the time you finished?”
🦠 “Trillions. So many that our hog became red-eyed and feverish, and was clearly about to die.”
🧔🏽 “So you jumped ship?”
🦠 “Yep. We organised our biggest event yet — The Great Sneezing — where we all congregated in the nostrils and waited for another animal to get close. Even though this event was a silent disco, the Exterminators still caught up with us, and just as an army of them came screaming from the darkness of the naval cavity, a human started inspecting our pig, and we knew this was our chance. I gave the signal to gently stroke our pig’s nostril lining — a trillion of us all at once — and we generated the most ferocious sneeze that a pig has ever done. We surfed outta there on an explosion of snotty droplets, and I landed square on the human’s eyeball.”
🧔🏽 “That’s impressive. Did you end up killing the human too, after a while?”
🦠 “Nah, he lived. After our first trip from hog to human, some of us realised that life isn’t about the destination, but the journey. So we made it our mission to travel to as many new humans as possible.”
🧔🏽 “Do you feel a sense of guilt for the people you’ve killed?”
🦠 “Look, I’m a narcissist. Do I regret making trillions of copies of myself to party and travel with? No. And you humans can’t talk, there’s billions of you.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Our lives consist of tiny moments, and the habitual actions that we fill them with. When we resolve to improve our lives, what we’re really doing is resolving to improve our habits, to vanquish the bad habits that build to a poisonous swarm, sowing dissatisfaction and scuppering our long-term happiness, and replacing them with good habits that fill us with blissful contentment.
Any attempt to improve our lives must start with an examination of our habits. This isn’t an easy task. We aren’t usually motivated to do something for just one reason, but are instead compelled to act because of a range of reasons that can be difficult to uncover. Examining our habits therefore requires a meticulous, structured scrutiny—a deep examination of your behaviour, with the opportunity to expel the habits that sabotage your happiness.
Here’s how it’s done. If you want to get some practical value out of this article, open up a text editor and try it yourself.
1. Decide which habit you want to examine
Any single habit will do. Maybe you want to better understand why you use Instagram, or go the gym five times a week.
2. Write down your reasons for completing the habit
Take your time, be honest, and try to list as many reasons as you can for completing your habit.
If I were to examine my habit for writing, I might list the following reasons:
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m insecure about my intelligence.
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
I enjoy the English language.
It earns me a little extra money.
I love stories and narrative-style writing.
3. Order them by strength
Order your reasons by whatever produces the strongest motivation for you; by whichever rings the most true. If you’re using bullets, make them a numbered list.
Here’s my list:
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence.
It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
I love stories and narrative-style writing.
I enjoy the English language.
It earns me a little extra money.
4. Try to understand whether each reason is worth it
Go through each reason, one-by-one, and consider whether it’s genuinely helping to improve your life. Do you think it’s giving you long-term happiness or contentment, or just a quick thrill that disappears faster than a Machiavellian con man? It’s difficult to identify whether something makes us happy, or will lead to a happy outcome, so this step requires much patience and reflection.
To continue with my writing examples:
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem
When I produce a good piece of writing that resonates with my audience, I feel a wonderful sense of confidence and achievement, and it encourages me to write again. It improves my self-esteem and makes me feel good about myself. I still find writing to be tough, and it requires perserverance to get through. But I always finish with a deep sense of satisfaction, making this reason a worthy one.
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence
This reason is similar to the above—a desire to improve my self-esteem, but considered from a difficult angle. I enjoy writing because it can make me appear smart and insightful to others, which I crave. The issue with this is that I’m placing my confidence in the hands of other people, who can’t always be relied on. Maybe they’ll like my article, or maybe they’ll hate it, and their votes have the power to make me gratified or disappointed.
As social animals who crave approval, this reason is difficult to avoid. So much of what we do is for the sake of other people (this is the foundation of social media), but it’s a whimisical, precarious form of happiness. I don’t believe that this reason is helping to improve my life.
Writing brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts
“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”
Virginia Woolf was one of the first authors to convey the chaos of our conscious minds, which rather than running as an ordered process, with one logical thought after another, is more like a bombardment of randomness without narrative or construct. I seem to have a million thoughts a day, most of which I don’t know what to do with. Writing allows me to channel the chaos into a single focused stream, producing words that attempt to clarify a particular idea or a problem, which once developed, create a long-lasting narrative that my anarchic mind can refer back to. A tiny slice of chaos has been simplified, and I feel that I better understand myself and the world, even if a little. This gives me a refreshing sense of peace and contentment: I’m not just a confused and overwhelmed ape, thrown into the world without his permission, but a temporary master of my own thoughts and destiny.
I believe that this reason helps me to improve my life.
I love stories and narrative-style writing
Life is fundamentally meaningless. The universe is a place where stuff just happens without rhyme or reason, and stories are a way for us to give meaning to these happenings. For me, writing about a particular experience is making sense of it by deciding why it must have been that way, which reduces its uncertainty, randomness, and meaninglessness. In the absence of an omnipotent god to tell me what my life means, I choose the words that come out of my head, instead.
This reason seems a worthy one.
I enjoy the English language
The English language is a fascinating mishmash of weirdness. I love the fact that I can draw from a dictionary of over a million words to make sense of the world. I can describe a toilet-roll brouhaha at the local supermarket—the kerfuffle of the virus-fearing citizens, who need to calm down unless they want to spend a night in the local hoosegow. Or I can tell you about the disconcerting collywobbles that rubble my abdomen after last night’s hot wing challenge. Such words entertain me to the core, and I love this aspect of writing.
Writing earns me a little extra money
As much as I need and sometimes crave more money, studies show that once you have your basic needs met, more money doesn’t tend to increase your long-term happiness. I’ve never been particularly ambitious for this reason. When I write a popular article, it’s nice to get a paycheck bump from Medium. But would I miss it? Not really.
As long as a I have a full-time, steady job, this reason doesn’t seem worth it.
5. Decide whether to give up the habit
Once you’ve been through each reason, spending a good deal of time reflecting on whether they help to improve your life, you should be able to tell whether the habit is good or bad for you on balance. I believe writing to be a positive force in my life, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but if I completed this exercise for my social media use, I’ve no doubt that what my conclusion would be.
Our actions are motivated by a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. By breaking each of them down into their underlying reasons, we can examine them more closely, and better understand whether they’re helping to improve our lives. Putting our habits under the microscope can help us to appreciate the good a little more, and give us the motivation needed to quit the bad.
When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU¹, I usually come up with the same answer: immigration. Brexiteers see immigration as an evil that is ruining the country, bombarded by childish memes that their thickheaded friends share on social media, and electrified by a shocking reel of Sun headlines that cattle-prodded them to the polls. They’re unable to comprehend the complexities of EU membership (few can), and cast their vote based on their racism, like frightened dogs yapping to protect themselves from the terror of the non-white hoards trying to find a better life.
Entertaining as it might be, this profile of a typical Brexiteer is untrue, falling victim to the same simplistic danger as it criticises. To make sense of something as chaotic and important as the vote of a Brexiteer, it’s much easier to discard subtlety and reduce it down to a single argument. When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU, I don’t consider a Brexiteer’s other potential reasons like economic regulation, trade, and sovereignty, I just choose the easiest and most common way to define them: immigration. To make sense of the carnage of Brexit, I pigeonhole 52% of the British population.
This is a common response when we’re faced with something important and complex. We feel an obligation to pick a side, but don’t want to do the research needed to better understand the situation, or people’s motives. So we simplify it down to something that resonates with us; something that we do understand, which doesn’t wobble us with cognitive dissonance, and protects our delicate egos. We engage in black and white thinking, forgoing our intelligence and becoming the very people we’re criticising.
Black and white thinking is bad for a number of reasons.
We make bad choices
We need an accurate understanding of the world to make good choices for ourselves, and for the people around us. But it’s a complicated place, and we’re all so busy, so when important events come along like Brexit, an election, or a political movement, we often get a shallow overview rather diving deep, because we’re lazy and don’t care enough to put the time in.
Continuing with the example of Brexit, if I were to make an informed decision about which way to vote, I might need to do the following:
Find out Britain’s immigration policies, and their economic implications
Find out how EU membership benefits British trade
Understand the government’s proposed human rights policies
Find out how much sovereignty Britain has as an EU member
…and much more, preferably from sources with little bias. Even if I did just one of those things, I’d be better informed and able to cast a vote that made more sense for the British people. But most people can’t be bothered, instead choosing one of a million mindless entertainments that the Internet is suffocating us with.
When we surrender to our laziness, we shrink complex issues down to a single emotional factor, ignoring all shades of grey. Our point of view is visceral, rather than grounded in fact, resulting in a bad choice that doesn’t reflect reality. Some of these choices will be innocuous, while others will tarnish our lives and the lives of our countrymen.
It’s also possible to go the other way and be a perpetual fence-sitter, despite having delved into the details of an issue. The challenge is knowing when you’ve done enough research to form a confident opinion. And if you’ve haven’t researched at all, you don’t need to pick a side.
We become stupid
When we engage in black and white thinking, we’re making a conscious choice to ignore potentially important information, and so we make fools of ourselves. The shades of grey are waiting to be discovered by those who want a more accurate and nuanced point of view, which is more difficult and time-consuming to obtain, but has the potential to make you smarter and better informed.
As we simplify an issue over and over again, casting aside all other possibilities and refusing to look deeper, we strengthen the neurons in our brains for the idea, until we become stubborn buffoons who find it impossible to perceive it in any other way. We habituate ourselves to a single simplistic assumption, and squash all creativity for the issue. We ignore nuance, and so we become dimwits.
“Black and white thinking masks itself in the disguise of certainty, and certainty feels good in an uncertain world.”
Dr. Christine Bradstreet
Black and white thinking does wonders for our confidence. It’s easier to settle on a point of view when we’ve limited the possibilities, allowing us to say “I’m right about this” with confidence. But you’re not right, you’ve just narrowed your scope, and when someone comes along with contradictory facts, your easily-won confidence is shown to be delicate as a spring daisy. Some people change their point of view when this happens, but many remain stubborn to protect their confidence/ego, and cling even harder to their daft perspective, like an intractable Flat Earther.
Simplifying the chaos of the world may fill us with self-assured certainty, but it builds a feeble confidence that can be shattered by someone willing to look deeper. Forming an opinion without looking into the details isn’t the act of a decisive leader; it’s the deed of a prosaic bootlicker.
We become predictable and boring
Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous web of media companies are an exemplar of black and white thinking. If you get your news from Murdoch, you’re in danger of becoming narrow-minded, cynical, and tedious. The primary goal of these kinds of media is to generate as strong an emotional response as possible, preferably a negative one, so that you purchase their newspapers and engage with their shows. They may harbour journalistic values and attempt to report accurately, but it’s often spun into something emotional that’ll draw you in. When you’ve spent decades reading a newspaper with headlines like YOU PAY FOR ROMA GYPSY PALACES and ‘MUSLIM CONVERT’ BEHEADS WOMAN IN GARDEN, you’re going to have trouble realising that not all Romanian Gypsies or Muslims are evil.
To have any chance of being an interesting, well-informed person, you need to delve into the details, question the validity of what you’re consuming, and engage with a variety of sources. Otherwise you risk becoming a frightened, obnoxious Fox watcher, whose imbecilic ideas are defined by sensationalism and outrage—black and white thinking that is easy to fall into if we allow ourselves.
As a species, we have a strong tendency to simplify complexity, so that we can understand. It’s easier to call a Brexiteer a racist than to understand his full rationale, and in this act of black and white thinking, we diminish our humanity and intelligence. To be smart, confident, engaging, and a good decision-maker, the shades of grey are where we’ll spend our time, refusing to fall into the rotten habit of black and white thinking.
Whenever I see a dark cloud outside, I check the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather radar for incoming rain. I love it, especially when it comes from those dense vertical clouds that flash and rumble and darken the landscape. I’m not concerned with suitable clothing or whether to sport an umbrella, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict, such is my desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.
There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I must consume, despite it having no real value or utility. Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?
Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, leafy sea dragons, salamanders, peacocks, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the apex of our food chain.
As a human in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. When your species has evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, you want as much certainty as you can get.
Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information, made effortlessly accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90’s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It identifies the possibility of new information, and because information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), it releases a squirt of dopamine that propels us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.
Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. In the wake of god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. We harbour a consciousness that allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether you’re being lured in by the boundless novelty of the Web in order to feel “safer.”
It isn’t difficult to do. I look up a lot of useless information to satisfy my idle curiosity. For example:
Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
Obsessively checking my Medium stats.
The list goes on for miles. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, to reduce uncertainty. With so much to keep an eye on, and such easy access to it, we risk becoming insatiable automatons who spend large portions of their time pursuing pointless information. Our idle curiosity makes robot slaves of us, whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless.
There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals away our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.
The Banana Bread Walk is a one-way Brisbane River jaunt that starts in Teneriffe and ends at our home in West End, passing some of the city’s most beautiful spots. It begins with a ride on board the City Glider, which as its name suggests, sails through the inner city suburbs of Brisbane, collecting and depositing humans along the way. As we climb onto the sapphire blue bus in West End, the driver usually offers an enthusiastic hello, and I can’t help but compare this to the bus drivers where I grew up in south-east London, who’ll barely make eye contact from fear of being stabbed.
If I’m first on the bus, I sit in the maroon-coloured priority seats near the front, which are reserved for the older residents of the city, and always empty at this time of morning. My fiance and long-term walking partner dislikes this, as she envisages hoards of geriatrics boarding at once, who’ll curse our young limbs and batter us with their hardwood walking sticks until we move to our proper place. I secretly hope it’ll happen one day.
The blue and white stripes of the bus flash past the Davies Park farmer’s markets, which at 7am, is already being descended upon by hundreds of West End residents on their Saturday morning ritual for fruits and eggs and vegetables and meats, pouring with sweat as they jostle about, dodging dogs and prams and granny-trolleys amidst yells of 2-dollar deals. The one-lane maelstrom is strewn with escape routes to a grassy nirvana, where the people and pooches no longer pay any mind to the position of their paws, but extend them fully in spacious rapture.
Davies Park disappears from view, replaced by the countless apartment blocks on Montague Road, where people nestle in their thousands and curse at the din of the Saturday morning traffic. Within moments we’re converging on what might be considered the centre of West End—the corner of Boundary and Melbourne street, enclosed in part by a large bug-like art installation, painted dull-white, creating shade for the indigenous folk who settle on benches and look as though they’re trying to forget themselves.
Soon the bus reaches Victoria Bridge, arching over the Brisbane River, and overlooking Brisbane’s luscious South Bank with its sprawling pines and cycads and luminescent purple bougainvillea canopies, its expansive lagoon and barbeques where tourists swim and sizzle while admiring the glassy swelling of the city across the river, showers of sparkles glittering in every window.
With the bridge behind us, we merge into the shadows of the central business district, where the weekend shopworkers rise from their seats, reluctant for another day of materialist madness, and unaware of the delights of the Banana Bread Walk, which they would surely quit their jobs and embark on immediately if they had an inkling. A few minutes later we exit the city into Fortitude Valley, a place replete with watering holes for the young, host to alcohol-fuelled weekend bedlam where the boys and girls drift from bar to bar and stick their chests out for different reasons. All is quiet in the Valley at this hour, its recent occupants dispersed to their homes, their shrivelled brains crying out for water as they sleep.
We reach our stop at the low end of the Valley, outside the Maserati showroom, where a brazen friend of mine took a $200,000 car for a test drive after dressing himself in a 3-piece suit and speaking la-di-da to the salesman. We make our way south-east through the towering office and residential blocks, past Bin Chicken Alley, where gangs of ibises will immediately stop scavenging to stare you down, as though you want a piece of their delicious trash. After a few minutes we arrive at the official starting point of the Banana Bread Walk: a cafe called Bellissimo that serves squishy sweet banana bread and some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink, evidenced by the queue that spills onto the street. There’s at least two cute dogs outside, one of which is a French Bulldog belonging to a girl clad in overpriced Lorna Jane activewear who doesn’t understand the word “cliché” and doesn’t carethank-you-very-much.
Once we’re fuelled with banana and caffeine, our 13km walk begins with a north-eastern beeline for the river at Teneriffe, passing rows of redbrick wool factories that have been converted into stylish properties, with a great deal more character than the cut-and-paste apartment blocks found elsewhere in the city. As we emerge on the riverside, the landscape opens up before us, swathes of early-morning sparkles scattered across the river’s surface, and enthusiastic rowers with bulging lats sweeping through them.
We walk south towards the river’s source, along a riverside path guarded by polished chromium railings, and placards that reveal Teneriffe’s industrial past. When the Brisbane River was dredged in 1862, wharves were constructed along the riverbank for trade, spawning ten woolstores in Teneriffe by the 1950’s¹, eventually being requisitioned for an American World War II submarine base where you could see up to eight vessels and hundreds of fresh-faced submariners⁶. Today, Teneriffe is one of the most desirable places to live in Brisbane, and as we saunter past triple-story red brick buildings, their huge facades filled with white-framed windows underneath looping arches, amidst lushious verdant gardens filled with prodigious Moreton Bay fig trees, it’s easy to see why.
A motley of humans roam the pathway—young families with wandering toddlers and little dogs with protruding teeth; glistening mums and dads jogging with prams; gym junkies with swollen limbs, squeezed into too-little fabric—coveting lungfuls of crisp winter air, the soft swishing of overhead leaves, and the post-dusk warbles of tropical birds. The Teneriffe riverside is a popular sleeping spot for pigeons, who tuck their feet into their bodies, nestle their heads into their chests, and pay no mind to the snuffles of passing dogs.
Soon we reach the suburb of New Farm, the battered facade of the Powerhouse rising in the distance. The Powerhouse is a decommissioned electricity station that provided power for Brisbane’s obsolete tram network, and at the turn of the millennium, was transformed into an arts and music centre for exhibitions, comedy, concerts, and more. The main entrance faces away from the river—a 10-metre tall glass box, striped with chrome, incongruous against its wall of crumbling bricks and blocks of white paint, as though the refurbers decided to leave this side unfinished for effect. Before reaching the momentous building, we feast our eyes on the bedlam of the New Farm dog park, with its schnauzers, collies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, labs, shepherds, snags, and every other dog you can think of, all mixed together in a frenzy of tails and paws, lolloping about and shouting at each other.
In a few moments we’re stepping onto the green of New Farm Park—an open stretch of grass scattered with trees and rose bushes that sits on the edge of the New Farm peninsula. The park is one of the few outdoor places in Brisbane where you can drink alcohol without punishment, so it’s common to see people picnicking and sipping beers under the shade of its trees. It’s also weirdly common to see cats on leads, who seem confused about the constraining ropes around their necks, and anxious to get out of them as quickly as possible.
The riverside path temporarily stops at the end of New Farm Park and Brunswick Street, forcing a little street walking. We pass a house that usually has two chocolate labradors resting against its gated entrance, and when we stop to say hello, they wiggle their butts and stick their pink noses through the bars. I’m disappointed if they’re not there.
We rejoin the riverside path at the edge of Merthyr Park, a belt of green edged by apartment blocks, and a quieter alternative for New Farmers to wile away the hours. At the eastern edge of the park stand six tall sentinels of dark timber, positioned a few metres away from each other, and containing little abstract paintings framed in silver. The path ends at a deserted ferry stop, requiring another few minutes of street walking before descending back to the riverside.
The Banana Bread Walk is as much about the delights of Brisbane as the delights of walking. The amount of physical and mental effort needed for walking is a perfect balance of focus and effort, raising our energy enough to release endorphins, and making us more alert, perceptive, agreeable, and open to the world. My inhibition tends to melt away, leaving a confidence to broach all manner of topics; to explore ideas that broaden our minds; to natter about anything and everything that fascinates us. We oscillate between being lost in our own little world and being enveloped by the sun-soaked sky. The doors of the world are thrown open, my anger at the current state of the world forgotten, the helplessness all but vanished; hypnotised by the never-ending delights of the city, and the company of my wonderful fiance, whose love seems more assured. My enslaving phone is forgotten during the Banana Bread Walk, no need to check messages, social media, the news, or weather radar. At that moment, the world is wider and more real and more fascinating than anything that could be offered by the measley LED display of my mobile. My partner and I are at our most open and accepting; loose-lipped and crinkle-eyed as the Banana Bread Walk leads us on yet another magnificent adventure.
The return to the river is the most spectacular part of the Banana Bread Walk. As we turn the corner of Merthyr Road and rejoin the path, where the river loops around to the city, the shimmering skyscrapers of the Brisbane CBD engulf the horizon, nestled behind the criss-cross steel of the Story Bridge. The entirety of the city is in full scope, to be appreciated all at once, set against the tree-lined bank of Kangaroo point, and the swirling brown of the Brisbane river. Being aware of the magnificence of this perspective, the city’s engineers created a floating boardwalk that hugged the western edge of New Farm (called New Farm Walkway), only to be swept away by the torrents of the 2011 flood, large chunks of which were rescued by tugboat captain Peter Denton, and repurposed as a pontoon outside of Brisbane². The boardwalk was replaced in 2014 by a solid, 840-metre structure of asphalt and steel, grounded in the bedrock of the river. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and dotted with shaded areas and drinking fountains, offering respite from the ferocious Queensland sun.
As we amble along the twisting walkway, on our right, the expensive riverside houses and apartment blocks gradually rise with the ascending New Farm cliffs, their ever-extending pontoons reaching out to connect with the boardwalk, until finally, the gradient of the weather-stained cliff defeats them. The Story Bridge—originally built in 1940 to reduce traffic congestion in the CBD, and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia—looms larger with every step, its two supporting structures rising into the sky, and dotted with tourists undertaking the “Story Bridge Climb.” 4 people died during the construction of the bridge, and many more have thrown themselves from its girders into the brown snake of Brisbane, resulting in the erection of curved fences along its perimeter, and telephones linked to suicide hotlines. At night, the Story Bridge is speckled with fluorescent colour which alternates to celebrate Australian events⁵, like maroon during State of Origin, pink during Brisbane Festival, and red and green during Christmas, which makes it look like a gigantic toppled Christmas tree. The Story Bridge marks the halfway mark of the Banana Bread Walk—roughly 6.5km.
As we align with the Story Bridge’s southern point, the boardwalk veers right and rejoins solid ground, an important area of land called Howard Smith Wharves that provided additional shipping resources for early 20th-century Brisbane, but fell into disuse a few decades later. The area underwent major redevelopment last year, and is now one of Brisbane’s most popular merrymaking spots, with a large brewery, a handful of bars and restaurants, a 5-star hotel, a selection of hireable venue halls for events such as weddings, and what seems like a million people eating, drinking, laughing and gesticulating their lives away in a frenzy of food and booze. Many of the buildings use timber from the original wharves, lending great character to the architecture. There’s stretches of immaculate grass, and a battered old trawler boat alongside Felons Brewing Co to commemorate the journey of the four felons—runaway prisoners who sailed from Sydney to discover the Brisbane River. Thousands of weekend beers are unknowingly tipped in their favour.
The Wharves are quieter in the morning, peppered with couples and families sipping lattes as they take in the views. As we pass under the gigantic cross-stitched underbelly of the Story Bridge, approaching the sprawling base of the first city skyscraper, we take a sharp left onto the City Reach boardwalk, which runs about a kilometre south along the eastern edge of the city, constructed of solid wood, polished chrome railings and torpedo-like concrete posts with little lights that illuminate the walkway at night. Across the river to the left is the lanky peninsula of Kangaroo Point and the Story Bridge, and to the right are the skyscrapers of the city, towering over waterfront bars, cafes, and restaurants. After five minutes we reach the majestic Customs House, a heritage-listed, classical style building with rows of Doric Greek columns set against a sprawling two-story colonnade, cream-coloured sandstone facade, and a lime-green umbrella dome that makes it one of Brisbane’s most handsome buildings, particularly at night when flood lamps repaint it an ivory gradient. The building opened in 1889, having originally been built for the collection of customs payments, and now a function venue and restaurant. When it was constructed, the building was an object of public pride³, becoming one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Even when overshadowed by skyscrapers seven times its size, Customs House wrenches your gaze and begs to be admired.
As we continue south along the boardwalk, the garbled murmur of tourists fills the air, as they recharge themselves in the slew of riverside restaurants and cafes. This is a popular area known as Eagle Street Pier, originally a gateway for visiting ships, now a gateway for visiting tourists. At night this area buzzes with locals who guzzle booze in its riverside bars and glance at the tumbled Christmas tree overhanging the river. The area is also home to the Kookaburra Queens II cruise boat—a 30-metre long, 3-story paddle wheeler, which would look more at home on the Mississippi than the Brisbane river. With its distinctive white beech posts and red cedar design, it looks like somebody has plonked a Queenslander house on the river and asked it to float. The vessel was named in honour of the bird that is “never seen to be drinking water,” in the hope that it’ll inherit the same future.
It becomes quieter again as we distance ourselves from Eagle Street Pier, save for the occasional thrashing of a cyclist, and the alarming rattle of wooden beams as they whoosh past in a flurry of colorful lycra. The boardwalk ends at the northeastern corner of the City Botanic Gardens, a voluminous 200,000m² of grassy splendour, filled with cycads, palms, figs, bamboo, mahogany, macadamias, jacarandas and dragon trees, with placards to identify and explain each, and sprawling frog-filled lagoons accosted by ducks, red-nosed Moorhen, lapwings with blades on their wings, cormorants, skittle-coloured lorikeet, damselflies, water dragons and beaky bin chickens taking a well deserved break from garbage rustling. The wonderful diversity of the gardens come from the actions of curator Walter Hill, whose experimental planting program in 1885 led to the creation of the botanical paradise that you see today. The site is considered so beautiful, and so culturally important, that the Queensland Heritage Register describes it as the “most significant non-Aborginal cultural landscape in Queensland.” It’s a cornucopia of flora and fauna—another priceless Brisbane gem that makes the Banana Break Walk such a joy.
As we enter the gardens from the northeast entrance, we join a shaded path that hugs the perimeter, just a little elevated from the river. In this corner of the park you can usually find an older Asian lady in an airy blouse of flowery chintz, wearing jet black sunglasses, taking slow and deliberate steps in what I assume to be some kind of meditative walk (possibly Tai Chi). Despite the flurries of people whirling past, jabbering, giggling, and Instagramming, the lady’s face is a picture of serenity. I like to think that any time we visit that northeastern corner of the park, she’ll be there—the Oriental spirit of the Botanic Gardens, demonstrating our beautiful capacity for peace. In sharp contrast on our left is a Scottish cannon sitting on the crest of the bank, shipped to Brisbane in the 17th century to defend the new colony of Queensland⁴, and somehow making the meditating lady seem even more honourable.
We continue on the path, the occasional beam breaking through the whispering canopy, creating dances of light on the criss-crossed pavement. Across the river on our left, the golden cliffs of Kangaroo Point rise up like a formidable defense, its volcanic rock dotted with fluorescent early morning climbers determined to overcome its craggy face, barely perceptible through the haze of the morning sun. We loop right with the formation of the river, skirting the southern end of the peninsula, until a lofty brick stage appears—Riverstage, a 9500-capacity venue that opened in 1989, and plays host to some of the world’s best musical talent. Riverstage’s sloped, amphitheatre-style layout allows even the shortest of hobbits to get a decent view—a symphonic feast for Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike—with the crest of its hill only 50 metres from the stage. It somehow achieves the task of feeling intimate while also holding ten thousand people. We’ve enjoyed some serious musical debauchery at this venue, and will continue to do so until our backs and knees can no longer support us.
With Riverstage behind us, we exit the gardens under the sprawling branches of a Banyan Fig Tree, which in its thirst for ever-more water, grows mutant-like vertical roots from the upper-ends of its branches that stretch down to the ground, and to continue with the Tolkien metaphors, looks like an Ent from outer space. When my folks were visiting from the UK a couple of years back, my mum was amazed by the weirdness of its vertical roots (branches in England usually grow upwards).
The path splits into a few directions at this point—right and up towards the Queensland University of Technology, its glass and silver campus shimmering in the morning sun; straight ahead towards the western flank of the city, or left over the Goodwill Bridge, which is where we head. A green canopy of branches stretches over the start of this footbridge, which at night, twinkles with fairy lights, delighting party goers as they leave Riverstage. I was once scolded by a policeman on this bridge for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and forced to walk the bike home because he said I “couldn’t risk it,” as if I were riding a Vincent Black Shadow. This is one of Australia’s many nanny state laws—infringements on personal freedom, based on the assumption that the average person is an idiot who must be protected from himself. The list of bicycle-related fines in Queensland reveals the absurdity of it all. Some of my favourites include:
Riding a bicycle while not astride the rider’s seat facing forwards ($133)
Leading an animal while riding a bicycle ($133)
Riding a bicycle within 2m of the rear of a moving motor vehicle for more than 200m ($133)
You can even be breathalysed on a bicycle, and get penalty points on your driving license. This wonderful convict-descended nation seems determined to expel the once-cherished larrikin, to become a nation of—what? Docile law-abiding subservients, who’d sooner thrash their own mothers than slam their foot on the accelerator? Spineless toadies whose lungs would never feel the pungence of a mammoth choof hit? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of people in Australia who realise that nanny state laws are to be broken, and fuck the fines.
As we descend towards South Bank the Queensland Maritime Museum appears, which my dad insists we visit whenever he’s over, spending hours wandering around the decommissioned frigate that sits in the dry dock, and chatting to the rickety sailor who once served on it. Our path loops back towards the river, emerging onto the southern tip of the South Bank Parklands, where more tourists are satiating themselves with breakfast and magnificent views of the city. To our right is the River Quay Green—a semi-circle patch of grass on the riverbank that hosts free live music on Sundays, where you can sip booze and listen to the trilling of a twenty-something singer.
We continue through the shaded parklands, passing a little man-made stream lined with stones, leading to a shallow and colourful pool area where toddlers dart and delight in the jets of water shooting from the ground. Soon enough we reach the main lagoon of the parklands—a 100-metre stretch of water elevated from the riverside promenade, making it feel like an infinity pool, and skirted by a small man-made beach. 11 million people visit this area every year—they say you should keep your mouth closed if going for a swim.
Our twisting bougainvillea-clad path takes us past the South Bank Piazza—a 2000-seat amphitheatre that never seems to host any events. In the seven years I’ve been in Brisbane, I haven’t seen a single person in there, or anything being advertised, which is odd considering its prime location. You could put a wind-up monkey on its stage and people would probably sit there and watch it.
We exit the park into Brisbane’s cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—something for everyone when a summer storm comes rumbling. We once saw Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi at QPAC, whose achingly beautiful performance sent scores of people to sleep, jolting awake to realise they’d spent $100 for an uncomfortable nap.
We cut left through the middle of the cultural precinct onto Melbourne St, finally turning away from the river, and after thirty or so minutes of streetwalking, with legs and minds aching from the effort, we arrive back at our apartment on Montague Road, gratified and charmed with all that the wonderful Banana Bread Walk has given us, and feeling lucky to call Brisbane home.
My fiancé and I went to the Hunter Valley last weekend, one of Australia’s original wine regions in New South Wales, rich in volcanic soil from eruptions that took place 300 million years ago. When in wine country, it’s necessary to go on a tour to learn about the uniqueness of every winery, and taste the deliciousness on offer.
Our tour was on a Sunday, and as luck would have it, we were the only people, which meant we had the tour guide and cellar hosts to ourselves—a private tour but without the $600 price tag. Given that we had the full attention of our hosts, and as polite humans who always want to make the best possible impression, we felt obliged to offer our full attention in return. Our previous wine tours had always been in groups, with the hosts attention divided among many of us, granting us pause to daydream, pass the odd comment to each other, or play with our phones—something impossible on a private tour without being rude. Whenever I find myself thrust into a one-on-one position such as this, I seem to make a lot more effort than usual, so rather than the cellar door host giving their usual demonstration of their wine, which always seemed a little mechanical during group tours, it felt more like a personal conversation between the three of us. We concentrated on what they were saying, asked questions about the little things that interested us, and found ourselves engaged in rapt conversation like a group of old friends. Aside from learning about their wine-making process and the unique flavours, we learned about how climate change and the bushfires had affected their businesses, how they got into the wine-growing game, what they did as their younger selves, whether they expect their children to follow in their footsteps, what their favourite wines were, and more. When leaving each winery, I felt liked and appreciated, as though we’d made an excellent impression on our host, who had enjoyed our company as much as we’d enjoyed theirs.
My fiancé and I have the kind of disposition where we want people to like us, even need people to like us. It reveals our insecurity, but there’s a strange beauty behind it, because it causes us to make a great deal of effort with people, which leads to fulfilling conversations, confidence, and on the odd occasion, friendships. I hate the idea of being disliked by anyone, and so when I find myself in a situation where full engagement seems courteous, I find myself asking questions about the person’s life, which often progresses to a pleasant conversation that we both enjoy. My desire to be liked and appreciated compels me to behave in ways that make me liked and appreciated, and given that human relationships are one of our most fulfilling endeavours, I realise that my insecurity isn’t so bad after all. Or I’m misreading my social life, and people think I’m an annoying twat.
I finished the wine tour in a state of blissful confidence, somewhat due to my blood/alcohol level, but mostly due to the connections that my fiancé and I had made with the cellar hosts. Whenever I find myself in this mood, and attribute it to my concerted effort over the course of the day, a contrast is revealed between the amount of effort I make to impress strangers, and the amount of effort I make to impress the person I love the most: my fiancé. Strangers mean little to me, and my fiancé everything, so why do I behave in such an illogical way? This is not to say that I mistreat my fiancé—I strive to make her happy because I love and need her—but I don’t put in the same amount of concentration and effort as when I’m sat at the bar of a unknown winery owner, which is madness! The very fact that she’s my fiancé makes her seem secured, as though she’s forever mine, assuming that when my complacency becomes an issue, I’ll always be forgiven, but unaware that every act of forgiveness takes an indistinguishable chunk out of our relationship, carving out a horrific hole that becomes impossible to fill. It’s bizarre that the comfort and security of a devoted relationship causes you to lessen your effort, when you need even more effort to keep it alive. Marriage, a dog, and kids can add excitement, but if the complacency isn’t dealt with, if we can’t forgo our laziness and muster the same level of effort as for a stranger, or the effort from our first date, isn’t the relationship doomed? If we’re so damn motivated to create a bond with strangers, we should be motivated to create a stronger bond with the person who we love more than anyone else. Instead, we assume that the bond is unbreakable—that we’ll never love anyone else as much as we love each other, and we end up relaxed to the point of being in a coma. The fact that my fiancé loves me doesn’t mean that she’ll always love me.
Sometimes it can seem easier to talk to a stranger than your long-term partner, given that you know nothing about the stranger, and a lot about your partner. Unless you want to irritate them with repetition, the hundreds of questions you can ask a stranger aren’t available to your partner. But even those who have celebrated golden wedding anniversaries don’t know everything about each other. We develop and mature over time, and possess a rich and fascinating internal life, which remains hidden unless asked about. And this is the stuff we want to talk about more than anything else—conversations that conjure a wonderful sense of meaning, masking the unforgiving meaninglessness of our existence, and bonding us to each other like glue. The reason that we talk about the weather is because talking about the weather might lead to us talking about the stirrings of our souls, and when we’re in a loving relationship, we can skip the weather and jump straight into the good stuff. We won’t have meaningful conversations with our partners all the time, but unless we recognise that our complacency isn’t forever tolerable, and that we must make the same effort with our partners as we do with strangers, those conversations will be forever lost.
If our partner has enough emotional intelligence not to make us feel like idiots (most of the time), we should be comfortable and motivated enough to broach our most desired topics. There’s plenty of questions to ask a stranger, but they aren’t the kind of deep questions you can ask your partner. I can have a conversation with a stranger that makes me feel liked and respected, but it’s difficult to have a conversation with them that makes me feel loved, desired, and needed. That conversation is reserved for the person we adore. We end up taking one of the most precious and wonderful things in the world for granted: a soul-stirring conversation with the guardians of our hearts, that makes us cherish each other all the more, and only to be had through concerted effort—the kind of effort that we put into making strangers like us, but leading to something much more beautiful.
There are many statues and images of the Supreme Leaders in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, and as a visitor, you must abide by some rules. Breaking these rules will result in life imprisonment, followed by the one-by-one removal of your toes.
As a dissentious foreigner, you’ll want to know why. These are the reasons that you cannot fold an image of a Supreme Leader:
A Supreme Leader’s body is tougher than all of the bodies of the world combined. Folding their image would be disregarding this fact.
A Supreme Leader’s face was chiseled by angels and is sublime. Folding a Supreme Leader’s face would be like folding your Mona Lisa, even though we know that your Mona Lisa is worthless when compared to a picture of a Supreme Leader.
Supreme Leaders are tall and powerful and must not be made shorter by folding their legs.
Every image of a Supreme Leader’s face is a wondrous miracle. Why would you fold a miracle?
Folding the Supreme Leader’s face in unusual ways is a desecration to his peerless beauty. The impudent dog responsible for this image was hunted down and forced to eat his own intestines.
Note: we will take your passport for safe-keeping when you arrive in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, and fold it however we like.
Consider the girl who, no matter how determined her efforts, or how much she tries to motivate herself to complete the urgent task in front of her, opens up Instagram instead. Such a dire lack of willpower is recognisable by all. I dread to think how much time I’ve wasted on insipid bullshit instead of doing something difficult and valuable. When a challenging task is before me, and I’m taut with anxious doubt, it isn’t a lack of willpower that makes me open Instagram, but my inability to deal with the anxiety. I’d do anything not to feel that emotion, and I have the most distracting and entertaining thing imaginable at my fingertips: the internet.
We don’t procrastinate because we lack self-control, but because we’re in the grip of an unpleasant emotion, and don’t know how to handle it. This is called emotion regulation—the ability to respond to negative emotion in a way that is mentally healthy, and socially acceptable. Instead of having the fortitude to wade through the unpleasant emotion, we reach for the nearest comfort instead—social media, television, drugs, or whatever is easiest. Without the ability to regulate our emotions, we can become depressed, anxious, develop eating disorders, and abuse substances1. We might also have fewer and shallower personal relationships.
The stoics were masters of emotion regulation, which is one of the reasons that their philosophy endured, and continues to grow in popularity. Though the concept of emotion regulation wasn’t clarified until the 20th century, the stoics appeared to practice a method that is now called reappraisal, which is interpreting an event in a way that will reduce its emotional impact. The following example might have been lifted from the journal of a Roman stoic:
“Somebody stole my sandals from outside my door. I needed those sandals to walk across the city for an important meeting at the Senate, which I now won’t be able to attend. At this point, the theft is already done, and there’s nothing I can do to change what has happened, so the only thing to do is carry on with my day.”
A well-practised stoic is able to reappraise the situation and lessen its power, suppressing any negative emotion that might compromise his virtue. Consider the moment that Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by the Roman emperor Nero, who suspected Seneca of being a conspirator in an assassination plot against him. This is the ultimate test of emotion regulation. Upon hearing the news, Seneca made out his will, asked his wife not to grieve, and then opened his veins without fuss. He was so well-practised in reappraisal, so at peace with his lack of control and the fate that had been written for him, that he was able to face his death with courageous equanimity.
How did he do it? The stoics have a few reappraisal theories and techniques that they use to regulate their emotions.
Dichotomy of control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
The dichotomy of control tells us that some things are in our control, and some things aren’t. This idea is key to a stoic’s ability to regulate his emotions. The vast majority of what happens to us is outside of our control, and when something “bad” happens—a car accident, your mother’s death, buying an all-yellow bag of Starburst—a stoic knows the futility of getting upset. He’s wise enough to make a good calculation of the matter, by understanding the difference between what is controllable, and what is not. For a stoic such as Seneca, this understanding was visceral. He knew that the will of the emperor was beyond his control, and running away wasn’t an option. In such a situation, getting upset is illogical, leaving acceptance as the only remaining answer.
Genuine acceptance of your fate cannot produce emotional turmoil, even for something as drastic as your death. Stoics such as Seneca understood the dichotomy of control so viscerally that they were able to use it to regulate their emotions, by reappraising the situation from something awful, to something uncontrollable, and therefore to be accepted.
Our transitory nature
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Everything in our universe obeys an ironclad rule: things must change. The stoics recognised that everything preferable in their lives (what they referred to as “preferred indifferents”) could be taken away from them in an instant, whether it was their children, their home, or their own lives. In the tender moments that you’re kissing your wife, Epictetus advises you to tell yourself that you’re kissing a mortal, as a reminder of their impermanence. By constantly reminding yourself of the transience of people you adore, even going so far as to meditate on their death, you’re practicing for the possibility of their actual death, which you’ll be able to reappraise and remain calm if the moment occurs. This technique is called negative visualisation, and is a form of adversity training; a toughening against the harsh realities of the world. It also makes us more grateful for what we have—a powerful perspective that has proven to make us happier2.
Understanding the changing nature of the universe helps a stoic to remain emotionally stalwart in the face of adversity. Seneca knew that just like every other organic thing in the universe, his mind and body would eventually change into something else. Nero just happened to speed it up.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Stoics recognise that the harm of an insult isn’t from the words themselves, as though the breath of another person carries a debilitating poison, but from our impression of the words. Like everything else in the universe, words don’t have objective meaning. Our species has given them meaning as a way to survive and procreate. If somebody tells you that your nose looks like a pickle that’s been rejected by the local supermarket, you can judge the words to have value, or you can identify them as the bleatings of a man without virtue.
We’re bombarded with impressions and judgments every day, and while we can’t control an initial impression, we can use reason to evaluate its benefit, and change it if necessary. A stoic has the capacity to reappraise her initial impressions of the world, changing the detrimental into the beneficial—a more fitting impression for a judicious philosopher.
Courage is a chief virtue for the stoics, defined as the ability to face misfortune with bravery; in recognising the mental turmoil that an event such as your death can create, and facing it with equanimity because you know it’s outside your control. The courageous man experiences just as much fear as everyone else, but acts in spite of it.
The stoics realised a fundamental truth: life is suffering, and if we want to be happy, we must be courageous enough to face our problems head on. An obstacle isn’t something to be feared, but an opportunity to practice reappraisal; a moment that demands our courage, followed by the use of reason to reappraise the situation into something favourable.
Being able to regulate our emotions is critical for our well-being1. The reappraisal technique reduces physiological, subjective, and neural emotional responses. That sentence remains true when swapping the words “reappraisal technique” for “stoic philosophy.” The wonderful philosophy of Stoicism can make us masters of emotion regulation, allowing us to reappraise negative impressions, and transform them into emotions that contribute to our happiness.