Monday to Friday With My Reckless Amygdala

Image from Shutterstock

Every morning, somewhere between the hours of 5 and 6 a.m., my melatonin levels have decreased enough to alert my body to wake up. I open a cautious eye and recall the day of the week. If it’s the weekend, I feel a sense of peace, tinged with an impulse to get up and seize the day with dog walks, books, documentaries, and boxing. It’s almost a feeling of excitement, which sounds weird because I tend to do the same things every weekend, I just really enjoy doing them.

Things are different if it’s a weekday. I open a cautious eye, recall the day of the week, and am disappointed to learn that an 8-hour workday is ahead in which I have to produce thousands of well-researched, well-written, and somewhat entertaining words for my employer. This isn’t a strong feeling. I don’t wrench myself out of bed, hug my schnauzer a little too tight and then weep uncontrollably in the shower. I’m just slightly ruffled by the magnitude of my responsibilities as an employee, which creates a vivid contrast with my weekend mood and nags at me like a hellish mother-in-law.

The problem is confidence, which is weird because I’m good at my job. I know it’s arrogant to say so, but there’s no denying the consistent nods of approval from my boss, which I bathe in like an unapologetic wage whore. But deep in my soul a battle is being fought—an eternal tug-of-war where confidence is pitted against doubt, with my consciousness somewhere in the middle. Troves of spoken or unspoken compliments cannot energise my confidence enough to tug the rope to a decisive and permanent win. My doubt always has just enough energy to stay in the game, and when I’m faced with a challenging piece of work, it looms before me like a fire-breathing Titan, threatening to scorch me with trepidation. So despite proving my abilities before every setting sun, a torrent of verbs, nouns, and adjectives in my wake, I’m doomed to feel slightly apprehensive the next work day, like a perpetual slave to my personality or brain chemistry or whatever the hell it is that constitutes me.

This battle between confidence and doubt appears to be an eternal face-off between two very different portions of my brain: the prefrontal cortex—which makes rational arguments and is about the size of a tennis ball—and the amygdala—which makes me fearful and anxious, and is about 200 times smaller. The prefrontal cortex is like a wise and rickety anthropologist who likes to watch what’s happening and then describe it in the most accurate and rational way possible. It witnesses my achievements and calmly tells me about them, which gives me confidence. The amygdala is like Joseph Stalin on a bad day. It sees danger everywhere, and so when I’m faced with a project that stretches my abilities, accompanied by the scant possibility that I might balls it up beyond reckoning, it releases such a torrent of neurochemicals that my confidence is temporarily battered, and I find myself gnawing at my nails like a troubled beaver. I try to tell myself that I’ve accomplished similar jobs in the past, but there’s no longer any place for rationality; no voice for my prefrontal cortex. It’s been silenced by its nemesis the amygdala, which heaves it into a gulag and spends the next fifteen minutes admiring its moustache.

This cerebrum war has been going on since I was about ten years old, and I assume it won’t cease until I croak, or find some hairbrained solution to the problem. Maybe Buddhist enlightenment is the answer—how do the saffron-clad Tibetan baldies earn their keep? It’s clear how I’m creating value for my employer, but I struggle to understand how a hall filled with silent monks results in vegetables, meats, and repaired roof tiles. I doubt they’re vexed by the idea of fucking up so badly that they’re defrocked and tipped over the mountain. Or maybe they’re just like the rest of us? This trifling anxiety is probably more normal than I realise, and most people are a bit worried they’ll arrive at the office to find their abilities stolen overnight, damned to a month of calamitous cockups that lead to the dole queue—a place where you’re forever tarnished, like you’ve been dipped in the Bog of Eternal Stench.

My fragile confidence could also be a light case of imposter syndrome, where I tell myself that I’m competent but don’t really believe it, and even single-handedly reaching the moon wouldn’t wrench me out of the illusion. But I don’t feel like an intellectual phony, and am well aware that my achievements are a result of hard work, until my erratic amygdala gets going, when every confidence-boosting belief goes up in smoke. Once that happens, no amount of logic can set my head straight, and there’s only one thing for it: put my head down and tackle the challenge head on, in spite of my dismay.

I’ve slowly learned how to handle my nervous side, but it doesn’t stop me from envying carefree people who seem unburdened from worry and charge about like fearless heroes. Then I consider the other end of the scale—the people who need trained animals to stop them bashing their own heads—and realise that being somewhere in the middle isn’t so bad. Perspective has a way of washing the shit out of your eyes. At least I have a functioning amygdala, even if it’s slightly overzealous. My shaky confidence is a quirk of my personality—a neurotic kink that I’ll likely never iron out, which like every other negative thing in my life, would have a lot less sting if it was embraced with open arms (even reluctant ones). Striving for the “perfect” emotional life is starting to feel awfully dull, like scrolling through Netflix for half an hour and still not being able to find anything to watch. The dents and scrapes and kinks are here to stay, snagging my confidence from time to time, but never enough to prevent a quick recovery. I say yes to the whole lot.

Radical Acceptance | The Power Of Welcoming Pain

radical acceptance
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Many of us feel we’re not good enough. We suffer from a pervasive sense of inadequacy that compels us to chase after glittering goods, shiny platinum cards, and nods of respect, to dampen the voice that repeatedly declares our deficiency.

It doesn’t work, of course. The unworthiness that we feel is in our bones, and no amount of fame or fortune can expel it. On the contrary, we can spend a lifetime slipping and straining for greatness, and when we examine our soul after finally achieving the thing that should have rocketed us to bliss, are horrified to discover that we feel exactly the same as before. Unworthiness is nourishment for our inner demons. It’s their primary food source, and as they gorge themselves again and again, their bellies expand and their voices rise to a deafening pitch, blocking out all else.

In Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, she offers us a solution. Tara is a lifelong Buddhist and therapist, and in her sweeping experience of Buddhism and psychology, believes that the only way for us to escape the “trance of unworthiness” is with a pure and thorough acceptance of our experience—what she calls radical acceptance. For Tara, our emotional pain cannot be healed by striving for more. It’s healed by an unadulterated acceptance of our moment to moment experience.

The idea is rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Sankhara-dukkha is the “basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence,” with a sense that things never measure up to our expectations.1 The problem is caused by our desire for something better than our current experience, and this addictive striving for the remarkable blinds us to the incredible richness of the present moment. When we’re able to accept each moment exactly as it is, no matter how painful it may be, we relieve ourselves of unnecessary suffering and become participants in our own lives. We’re no longer frustrated spectators existing solely in our own heads. Or as D.H Lawrence put it, we’ve gone from great uprooted trees with our roots in the air, to planting ourselves in the universe again. In Dante’s Inferno, he expressed the idea in a different way, with the way out of hell lying at its very center. Henry Thoreau wrote “dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” and The Beatles wrote “when you find yourself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” They’re all saying the same thing: embrace every experience with acceptance, and you’ll be free from suffering.

“Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening, or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.”

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Fighting painful emotions is like fighting rain clouds—sometimes the sky darkens, and there’s nothing you can about it. Pain isn’t wrong, and reacting to it in this way strengthens our sense of unworthiness, and keeps our life small. As Buddhist Haruki Murakami once said, “pain is inevitable, but suffering optional.”

“Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness—broken, messy, mysterious, and vibrantly alive. By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead, we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive.”

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s philosophy will recognise this. It echoes his concept of amor fati—the idea that you should love your fate, whatever it throws at you.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals / Ecce Homo

The concept of radical acceptance can be found in Stoic philosophy too:

“Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny.
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch; and still must follow.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

You cannot avoid all pain, and by trying to, you’re creating more pain for yourself. This idea has echoed throughout history, with the Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jainists, existentialists, stoics, and god knows how many other thinkers coming to the same conclusion. Tara is just one of many proponents, but has written her book with such skill and clarity that it deserves to sit on the same shelf as the greats. And while the point did feel a little laboured by the end of the book, the importance of the message crushes any small criticisms that I have.

“The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”

Tara Brach,  Radical Acceptance

So how do we practice radical acceptance? There’s two parts—mindfulness, and compassion. We need mindfulness to pause and recognise what we’re feeling from moment to moment, and we need compassion to sympathise with it. It sounds simple, and while most of us want a fix quick for our emotional pain, radical acceptance isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes years of practice through meditation, reflection, and the techniques outlined in the book, which include pausing, naming and saying “yes” to our emotions, listening to our bodies, leaning into fear, widening the lens, offering forgiveness, and having the courage to be vulnerable. But if we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to these practices, the result is a profound sense of peace, contentment, and love.

I’ll admit, I usually find this type of thing a little nauseating. Radical Acceptance was a book filled with this kind of spiritual talk, but because I agree with the author’s message, and the Buddhist philosophy from which it springs, I believed every mushy word. Maybe it’s time we stop listening to the relentless hostility of our internal critic, and start believing that we really are worthy, lovable, and deserving? Maybe it’s time to be brave and face our suffering head on, turn our attention to the vice around our heart, the swell of our throat, and the stiffness in our shoulders. Has ignoring them ever worked? By practising mindfulness and compassion, we learn to recognise and experience everything that arises within us, and rather than labelling them good or bad, we approach them with compassionate friendliness, and allow them to be exactly as they are. It seems a powerful practice with the potential to change our lives dramatically, which sound like the hollow words of a self-improvement guru, but in this instance, might actually work. It offers the prospect of changing from a “bundle of tense muscles defending our existence,” to being able to “walk on, one step at a time,” with a “freedom and peace beyond all imagining.”

“You nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
Inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself,
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain,
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
To see if they have an end. Though they are really
Seasons of us, our winter…”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus

Each chapter of Radical Acceptance ends with one or more guided meditations, which help to practice the techniques suggested throughout the book. Many of them are long and contain multiple instructions, so I found them difficult to follow, but Tara has hundreds of free meditations that can be accessed through her website, or the handy Insight Timer app. I found these to be much more valuable.

“We may spend our lives seeking something that is actually right inside us, and could be found if we would only stop and deepen our attention.”

Tara Brach,  Radical Acceptance

In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach explores an ancient and powerful idea, expressed by numerous people throughout history—we can forgo suffering, if we accept our moment to moment experience. The book was easy to read, contained priceless practical advice, stories that will probably make you cry, and satisfaction beyond measure.

“Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breath
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.”

David Whyte, The Well of Grief

References

  1. Duḥkha, Wikipedia

My Impotent Online Brain

Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash

While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.

I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.

Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.

But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.

First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.

“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”

Natalie Wexler

Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.

Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.

For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.

What a tragic waste of time.

How To Empathise With Violent Trump Supporters

Image by Tibor Janosi Mozes from Pixabay

In the aftermath of the Capitol Building being stormed by fanatical, violent Trump supporters—an act not seen since the British breach over 200 years ago—empathising with them seems impossible. How can a sane, ethical person put themselves in the shoes of someone so batty and immoral; so dangerously flammable; so maddeningly illogical? And should we even bother?

America has never been so divided. Before the internet, extreme political views were spread through pamphlets, newspapers, radio and television shows, and the occasional book. Today, we can access them wherever we go. They’re the subtle lie in a humorous meme, shared by your racist cousin on Facebook; the insidious idea whispered into a podcast microphone by a radical influencer; the two-minute video that uses a simple data trick to convince people that global warming is a natural phenomenon. Before the internet, someone with these ideas needed to invest time and money to make themselves heard. Today, they can create a YouTube account in 30 seconds and step up to the tallest soapbox in history. The result is fanatical partisanship, political polarisation, and the election of someone clearly unfit for the job.

The formidable canyon between left and right must be narrowed, and it cannot be achieved with hostility, no matter how good it may feel. While we may never agree with a Trump fanatic, we can at least recognise the reasons why they’ve formed their political views, most of which are outside their control. This simple act of empathy can help to soften our animosity towards them, make conversation easier, and help to dilute the toxic polarisation that is poisoning the country.

It’s impossible to map the entire evolution of a Trump fanatic’s political views, but we can identify the strongest influences. The main determiners of personality, character, and behaviour are our genes, and the environment that we grow up in, i.e. our nature and nurture.

First, let’s talk about nature. Every single person receives 50% of their genes from each parent, which defines their susceptibility to disease, their physical characteristics, and most of their personality.1 We may inherit genes that bless us with a svelte outline, a sharp brain, and an inclination to hug everyone that we meet, or we may inherit genes that curse us with a turkey neck, a gullible mind, and an appetite for throwing molotovs at our political adversaries. Either way, we don’t get to choose, which means we can’t be held entirely accountable for our personality. Some people are just made from a blueprint with “Arsehole” stamped across the top.

Next, there’s nurture. As babies and children, we’re the most helpless species on the planet, counting on our parents to protect us, shelter us, feed us, and educate us. Some parents do wonderful jobs that help to create happy, confident children. Some do the best they can, creating children a little more cautious and anxious. Others are unfit to be parents, botching the job so badly that their kids turn into frightened, confused, and hopelessly angry adults. Again, a child doesn’t get to choose its parents, so can’t be held accountable for the quality of its upbringing. Some children are just raised by arseholes.

We also encounter thousands of people in our childhood, each one with the power to improve or subvert our character. There’s the uncle who shoots pool like a god; the smooth schoolyard friend who teaches us how to talk to girls, and the teacher whose explanation of black holes inspires us to become physicists. There’s also the brother who got a little too handsy; the hungover dentist who bungled a tooth extraction, and the local gang who hardened us with collective strength. Every experience helps to shape our personality in one way or another, and we cannot dictate how they’ll go.

Then there’s the cultural aspect of nurture—a powerful force that forges our most potent beliefs, including momentous forces such as religion, media, local customs, and the ideas of the community. Pluck a baby from Florida’s Big Bend and place it in the care of Californian parents, and it probably won’t end up as a Trump fanatic. It’s unlikely to give two figs about guns, same-sex marriage, or the rights of foetuses. Such beliefs are absorbed from our local culture, and when that culture changes, so do we. Again, something that we have no say over. Combine a horrible environment with genes that favour neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low openness, and you have the perfect storm for a Trump fanatic. 

Everyone chooses their actions. The violent Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building are fully accountable for what they did, but not for the powerful causes that shoved them in that direction—their nature and nurture.

With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have draped yourself in the colours of the confederacy, placed a MAGA hat atop your head, and stormed the country’s most sacred democratic building. With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have turned out the same.

References

  1. Andrew Anthony, 2018, So is it nature not nurture after all?, The Guardian

The Wisdom Of Insecurity Book Review | The Futility Of Living For The Future

The Wisdom of Insecurity
Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

When you’re listening to a song, do you skip the middle part because you’re desperate to hear the end? Or when you’re eating a meal, do you wolf it down because you can’t wait to reach the final bite?

Me neither. It’s sacrificing the joy of the experience. Living with the end in mind. But according to British philosopher Alan Watts, this is exactly how many of us live.

In 1951, while Watts was teaching comparative philosophy and psychology in San Francisco, he published a short 150 page book called The Wisdom of Insecurity, which was a distillation of his philosophical views up until that point. As a lifelong lover of Eastern philosophy, Watts’s views are heavily influenced by Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which he eventually helped to popularise in the west, and which form the essence of his wonderful little book.

According to Watts, many of us fail to live in the present moment. We’re constantly focusing on future goals or ruminating about the past, at the expense of the only thing that actually exists—this moment, right now. When we forgo the present moment to brood on a long-dead past, or an ethereal future that doesn’t yet exist, we miss the splendour of the world in front of us. We live with our eyes closed, our ears and noses blocked, our touch numbed, and our taste dulled. The plans that we obsessively make for ourselves are useless, because when they finally arrive, we’re not experiencing them because we’re busy making new plans. As long as we continue to live inside our own heads, always planning and hoping for something better, we’re mere spectators; sitting in the bleachers while our life is played out in front of us, lacking the courage to join the game.

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”

Alan Watts

Humanity’s obsession with forward-thinking has cheapened the present moment—the only thing that actually exists. To use another of Watts’s genius analogies: it’s like eating the menu instead of the meal. We obsess over concepts, ideas, and plans that we think will make us happy, while forgoing the very thing that will make us happy: the real world.

“If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”

Alan Watts

For Watts, our obsession with the future comes from our sense of insecurity. We know that the universe constantly changes; that nothing lasts forever, including ourselves. And it terrifies us. So to gain a morsel of control, and to make our future feel a little more secure, we plan, plan, plan, desperately trying to stifle a truth that we cannot bear to hear: you have little control, and one day, you’re going to die.

It’s futile, of course. And as with many of life’s troubles, the answer is devilishly simple yet difficult in practice—acceptance. You cannot make yourself secure in a world that is based on insecurity and change. So there’s nothing for you to do but accept your inevitable death, and then start paying attention.

“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

Alan Watts

At its core, The Wisdom of Insecurity is a book about mindfulness, which is a dime a dozen these days. But Watts is a wordsmith of such exceptional class, that when I chance on such a writer, the ubiquity of the subject no longer bores me into a lull, but instead hypnotises me, having been explained with captivating vigour and lucidity. This is the only book that I’ve finished and then restarted immediately. It was that good. 

Watts teaches us about mindfulness in a way that few other people can, and the result is 150-pages of fascinating, funny, and enriching philosophy.

The Dirty Trick Of Hope, And How The Existentialists Saw Through It

Boy looks through gap
Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

A man is wrongfully imprisoned for murder, and as he descends into his cot for the first time, with the clang of steel echoing in his ears, he hopes.

He hopes that his lawyer will be able to get a retrial. He hopes that his wife will remain faithful to him, and that his daughter will forgive him for leaving. He hopes that he won’t get shanked in the prison yard. Closed in by walls on every side, hope becomes his guiding light—his escape from the horror of a new and unjust reality. But does it do him good? 

Camus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer didn’t think so. For them, hope is a pair of rose-tinted glasses that warp reality into something pleasant, robbing us of the chance to confront our situation honestly. It’s choosing comfortable delusion over agonising truth, with no valuable lessons unearthed; no wisdom gained. It’s a rejection of the present, and because the present is inescapable, with the past and future nothing but concepts in our heads, it’s nothing less than the rejection of life itself.

For Camus, hope is an evasion of the present moment—a powerful desire for a life that we don’t have, but feel entitled to.

“The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion…is hope. Hope of another life one must ‘deserve’ or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.”

Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus

Living in hope is living in illusion. We’re choosing far-fetched fantasy over reality, crippling our ability to appreciate the beauty of the present moment, infinite in richness. Even an innocent man lurking in prison can appreciate the beauty of his experience, choosing not to dampen his senses in favour of a better reality, but accepting his situation with courage. Abandoning hope makes it redundant, replaced by a recognition and appreciation of the only thing that can ever exist—this moment, right now.

For Schopenhauer, hope is not only a rejection of life, but also a failure of prediction. We hope for something grander and finer, but like pitiful dopamine-chasing gamblers, fail to grasp the likelihood of it arriving. We roll the dice again and again, chips diminishing, frown lines forming, and optimism vanished.

“Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

As a former life-term prisoner, Erwin James also saw the futility of hope. In the midst of his prison sentence in the UK, when his minimum term was increased to 25 years, his sense of hope was annihilated. But eventually, he saw it with open eyes.

“The truth is that hope for a lifer is exhausting. It stops you sleeping and can drive you insane—much safer to expect nothing and never to be disappointed. You know your crimes, the grief you have caused, the shame and the guilt you live with—and the amends you can never make.”1

Erwin James

That’s where hope often leads: disappointment, followed by disenchantment, bitterness, and a feeling of rancorous injustice, where we’ve been hard done by and want to stamp our feet and scream about how unfair it is. It’s the inevitable downfall of a perspective based on delusion. Like a needle of Afghanistan’s finest brown sugar, it’s lovely at first, but horrible later.

When Zeus took vengeance on Epimetheus by presenting him with Pandora, and she promptly opened the box that unleashed torrents of evil upon the world, one thing remained inside—hope. For this reason, hope was treasured and considered man’s greatest good. But for Nietzsche, this was Zeus’s most abhorrent act, because no matter how much the other evils would torture us, hope is the thing that “prolongs man’s torment,” as we continue hoping for a better future that will never arrive; for an ultimate reward that doesn’t exist. Nietzsche described hope as a “rainbow over the cascading stream of life,” which we’ll ascend happily until the moment it disappears beneath our feet, like an illusory bridge whose passage was never secured.

Nietzsche was a life-affirming pessimist—he had a hopeless world view, but despite this, he urged us to say “yes” to our lives. Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis also encourages us to forsake hope, and practice this kind of pessimism:

“We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better…in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble.”

Nikos Nazantzakis

Maybe Red was right all along—hope is a dangerous thing; a precarious rose-tinted path liable to vanish from beneath our feet, leaving us plummeting back to reality. With hope forsaken, our fallacious notions can be swapped for something authentic, which exists not only of peaches and cream and fluffy animals and rainbows, but also sexual rejection, stepping barefoot on lego, and a bank account usually in the red. 

When we muster the courage to leave hope at the door, we step into the role of the hero, and can embrace our immediate experience in all its glory.

References

  1. Erwin James, 2013, Hope for a prison lifer is exhausting, The Guardian

Montaigne: Sometimes, Your Penis Will Let You Down

Montaigne
Image from The School of Life

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?”

How to Scrutinise Your Habits, and Be Happier

Black art
Photo by Viktor Nikolaienko on Unsplash

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

William Durant

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 determine. 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:

  1. I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
  2. I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence.
  3. It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
  4. I love stories and narrative-style writing.
  5. I enjoy the English language.
  6. 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

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 know 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.

The Rotten Habit of Black and White Thinking

Donkey
Black and white thinking makes asses of us. Image by 1691628 from Pixabay

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.

Shaky confidence

“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.

References

  1. EU Referendum Results,” BBC News

Idle Curiosity — Are You An Information Junkie?

Peeking through blinds
Man peeking through blinds with idle curiosity
Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels

If I catch sight of a dark cloud, I usually check the weather radar for incoming rain. I’m rarely going anywhere—umbrellas and waterproof jackets aren’t a concern, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict. Such is the strength of my idle curiosity, and 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’m compelled to consume, despite it having no apparent value.

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, salamanders, 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 top of the food chain.

As a Westerner 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. My species evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, so I want as much certainty as I can get.

Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information made 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 90s, 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 views information in the same way it views money and food:3 valuable, and worth seeking. Information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), so we’re given a squirt of dopamine to propel us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.

“Just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.”

Professor Ming Hsu, neuroscientist

Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. After god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. Our consciousness 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 your dopaminergic reward system is luring you into the boundless novelty of the Web, trying to make you “safer,” but making you more anxious.

I look up a ton of information to satisfy my idle curiosity. It isn’t difficult to identify—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. 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, driving us towards as much information as possible so that we become masters of our environment. But with boundless curiosities at our fingertips, we instead become senseless slaves whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless, unaware that our freedom has been taken from us.

There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals 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.

For a lifejacket, we need only to log off.

References