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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 internet has allowed anyone with a computer to publish their ideas online, many lacking the expertise, research skills, or objectivity to produce quality information. The result is a deluge of blogs, “news,” social posts, videos, and podcasts, impeccably designed and posted on authoritative-looking websites, tricking us into believing that the ideas are credible.
Knowing how to validate the reliability and accuracy of information has never been so important. The rise of dangerous ideas such as climate change denial, anti-vaxxing, and the authenticity of COVID-19 are a result of people believing misinformation, and as it becomes harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, it also becomes harder to make decisions that save lives. As an anti-vaxxer tries to protect her son against autism, he dies of measles. As people gather to protest against the conspiracy of COVID-19, they indirectly kill. As narcissistic world leaders dismantle fossil fuel regulation,1 the temperature moves closer to the tipping point that drastically alters the earth’s climate,2 putting millions of people at risk.
Good information gives us a more accurate understanding of reality, allowing us to navigate the world effectively. We can make decisions that allow us, the people around us, and the rest of our species to flourish. Quality of information is critical for the wellbeing of humanity, and being able to identify whether a news article, blog, or video is credible can help you to make good decisions.
We can’t see through the fog of information pollution unless we know how to identify it, and in this article, we’ll explain how.
Why is there so much misinformation?
The web isn’t regulated
Content posted on the web isn’t regulated. This gives people the freedom to post whatever they want, but lacks the principles and rules to ensure that the content is accurate.
While the web itself isn’t regulated, some reputable media companies have validation processes to ensure their information is as accurate as possible, for example The New York Times, the BBC, or the Wall Street Journal.
The more people who view a piece of content, the more money the creator will be able to make from advertising, paid reviews, paid subscriptions, public speaking, and other business opportunities. It’s in a content creator’s best interests to generate popular content, which isn’t necessarily the most accurate content. When faced with a choice between accuracy and profitability, it can be difficult to do the right thing.
Insufficient research, and no expert review
The world is a complex place, and many ideas are determined and affected by a large number of factors. For a piece of content to be credible, it must be rigorously researched, and if necessary, reviewed by experts. Many content creators don’t know this, and regardless of their good intentions, they end up publishing misinformation that can warp a person’s understanding of reality, leading them to harmful beliefs, and bad decisions.
Disclaimer: this article has been rigorously researched, but hasn’t been reviewed by experts.
With so much content and such little time, we’ve become skimming experts. We want the specific information that we’re seeking, and we want it ASAP. So when we’re faced with a 5,000 word monster of an article that provides an excellent overview of a topic, we’ll probably close it down and find something shorter, even though the shorter article lacks the depth needed for deep understanding.
Content creators understand this, and the length of their work is shortened to suit. This can narrow the subject’s scope at the expense of explaining it effectively.
To use an example from boxing, a video editor can put together a 10-minute compilation of David Tua’s most powerful left hooks, under the title “David Tua—the best left hook in boxing.” Unless you’ve seen every one of that boxer’s fights, and watched enough boxing to get an understanding of the frequency and power of a typical left hook, you’ll be inclined to believe that David Tua has the best left hook in the sport. This is a trivial example, and it won’t affect your ability to make good decisions, but it’s something that content creators do constantly to grab your attention and get you to click on their content. It doesn’t matter if the video is accurate. What matters is that you click.
The information that we consume shapes our beliefs and behaviours. We can be fed information from nefarious governments, companies, groups, and individuals, who bombard us with disinformation as a way to influence our beliefs and encourage action. One of the most damaging examples of this is Russia’s supposed interference in the 2016 US election, where they bombarded American citizens with emotive social media memes, helping Trump to win the presidency.4
Companies and individuals whose income is based on content are under pressure to create. In theory, the less content they create, the less money they make. This creates incentive to produce as much content as possible as quickly as possible, at the expense of thorough research and peer reviews.
As social animals, being accepted by others is important for our mental health. An effective way to be accepted and respected by others is to create content that seems smart, well-informed, and useful. To the content creator seeking social approval, it doesn’t matter that their information is dumb, shallow, and harmful. They still get the kudos.
Information quality attributes | How to spot information pollution
Information quality is a term usually associated with the quality of information in a system (typically a computer), but we can use some of its metrics to determine if a piece of content is credible. We can also use elements from academia’s CRAAP test5 (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose). The guidelines below are a mix of these methods, with some additional checks thrown in.
When a content creator has the expertise and experience to explain a subject accurately, they’re an authority. This is one of the most important indicators for information quality.
Authority can be assessed for a piece of content in two ways: the individual who created it, and the organisation who published it.
Authority of the person
A person’s authority can be determined by their credentials and experience, usually outlined in their profile. Do they match the topic they have covered? An electrical engineer shouldn’t be telling people how to manage their diabetes.
If a content creator hasn’t listed their credentials, or if they’ve listed credentials from an unrecognised educational institution, they may not have the skills or experience needed to explain a topic accurately. People can still educate themselves and draw on their life experiences, and there’s plenty of subjects that the average Joe can elucidate, but if something complex is being explained—medicine, physics, economics, psychology, etc.—you’ll probably get more accurate information from somebody who has studied and practised it.
Of course, it’s easy for a content creator to lie about their credentials. Other information quality attributes should be checked before choosing to believe their content.
Authority of the organisation
Organisations create content for one reason: to attract an audience. Whether a newspaper, blogger, YouTube channel, or business, they’re all creating content as a way to attract or keep “customers,” and make money. Unfortunately, when money is the main reason for doing something, morals are often abandoned, and quality of information neglected. It no longer matters that content is accurate and well-researched; all that matters is that people view and share it.
The organisations with the best standards are established newspapers and media companies, whose purpose is to produce content. They usually adhere to the five principles of ethical journalism—truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability6—which allow them to create accurate, relevant, and authoritative content. There are plenty of exceptions—most content produced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is trash, including Fox News, Sky News, The Sun, and The New York Post.7 Every media company is also politically biased to some degree,8 which must be recognised when viewing their content. Finally, there’s the troubling theory of every media company acting as a propaganda tool for their corporate overlords, as outlined by Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomksy in their meticulous book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. But this book doesn’t question the accuracy of the media’s reporting, just the political purpose of the stories they cover, and how they might influence you in ways that benefit the powerful. You can still get facts from a reputable paper like the New York Times, but you should ask yourself why they’re choosing to report those particular facts.
Reputation is the best indicator of an organisation’s authority. Some have built their businesses on accuracy—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Al Jazeera—but others are more difficult to identify. There’s websites such as Media Bias Fact Check,9 but their analysis has been called unscientific,10 so should be viewed with skepticism. Some organisations such as Nestle, Amazon, Coca Cola, and Disney are infamous for their sins, and their lack of integrity often leads to a lack of standards, extending to any “informative” content they produce. If you’re unsure whether a company has a reputation for producing accurate information, try Googling their reputation and credibility, and reading what others have to say.
Another way to determine authority is by comparing the subject of the content with the organisation’s purpose. If you’re reading a climate change article from Scientific American, it’s clear that the topic matches their area of knowledge, and there’s a greater chance that the article will be accurate. Authority is boosted further if the organisation has been producing this kind of content for a long time (although there are exceptions to this rule).
Content is usually created for a purpose, and identifying this purpose can help to determine whether the information is trustworthy. What is the content creator trying to achieve with their content? Are they trying to entertain you, educate you, influence you, or mislead you? Are they trying to sell you a product or service?
Fox News promotes itself as a serious news organisation, and has the trust of roughly one in four Americans.11 But the purpose of its stories are entertainment first, and information second—a more accurate name for the corporation would be “Fox Infotainment.” There’s nothing wrong with watching Fox for amusement, but watching it for educational purposes is like asking a Nazi to teach you about Jewish history. You’ll end up with a warped sense of reality.
Content that is created primarily to educate is the most trustworthy, especially when created by somebody with authority. Discerning the purpose of a piece of content can help you to decide whether it should be believed.
Data analysis and the scientific method allow us to understand the world more accurately than ever before. If somebody makes an unfamiliar assertion that cannot be known without data, scientific analysis, or another type of real-world evidence, they need to provide a credible reference to back up their claim. This includes climate change denial, proof of conspiracy theories, political scandals, character assassinations, or anything else requiring hard evidence to be correct.
If a content creator can’t provide you with credible evidence for their claim (which is often the case), their content shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Scope, comprehensiveness, and completeness
“The world is too complex for simple answers, and we don’t want to be the ones giving them.”
Kurzgesagt, Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos? 3
Even the most seemingly simple of subjects are complex, with an intricate web of relationships. Few topics can be properly explored in a few thousand words, let alone a few hundred. To explore an idea, a content creator must understand the level of scope needed to portray it effectively. If important details are missed, the viewer may end up with biased or incomplete knowledge.
For example, to understand the dictatorial motives of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s useful to know about his allegations of political corruption. Even if the scope of the article is small, it’s important to include further reading on the topic to offer the reader supporting background knowledge. The BBC are forerunners for this, providing supporting links throughout most of their news articles, allowing you to better understand the story by broadening your scope of knowledge.
Many content creators are unable to determine scope and comprehensiveness because they lack the knowledge and experience to write about a topic, which is why authority is such an important measure of quality.
As humans with values and opinions, we naturally introduce bias into content that we create. It can’t be eliminated, but it can be controlled by giving equal voice to different sides of an argument, encouraging the viewer to choose their preferred position. With people becoming more politically polarized over the last few years, content creators are moving further down the political spectrum, and as their ideas become more extreme, so does their content. This makes balance more important than ever. The more polarized we become, the harder it is to empathise with each other, and the less chance we have of cooperating. We become enemies, not friends.
If a piece of content requires both sides to be heard—for example political issues, social commentary, education—and the creator provides a one-sided argument, you may want to find something more balanced. Otherwise, you could come away with a biased opinion.
For content to be objective, the creator must provide you with the facts, and let you interpret them on your own. Much of the web’s content is based on opinion, which is fine when the topic is trivial, but when it’s something important that requires hard facts, the creator should try to be as objective as possible, and allow you to make up your own mind. Objectivity is a core principle for journalists.
Timeliness (also known as currency or relevancy)
Research that was considered credible in its heyday can still be found, despite it being long disproven. Francis Galton’s eugenics, aspects of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviourism, and many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas gained a great deal of academic support at the time, but have since been obliterated or replaced by better ideas.
Progress is fast in the modern world, so keeping an eye on the publication date for a piece of content is important, to avoid consuming out of date information. Many older ideas still hold their ground, but it’s usually worth checking for something fresher.
Composition and organisation
As a content creator, presenting an idea in a coherent, logical way is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s critical to getting the message across. It often requires diligent editing and re-editing, ensuring that each sentence, scene, or section follows logically from its predecessor, providing the viewer with the best chance of understanding the argument.
If a piece of content seems scattered and fuzzy, and you’re struggling to follow the argument, the creator may not have the skill to explain it effectively.
Who is the target audience?
Some content creators are trying to achieve a specific goal for a specific audience. Conservative tabloids such as the New York Post write stories with an anti immigration sentiment, which increases sales, and helps to push their conversative agenda. At the opposite end of the political scale, CNN is extremely liberal, and never has a good word to say about Trump (something that is difficult, admittedly).
Identifying the target audience for a piece of content allows you to uncover potential motives, and better understand why certain facts are being reported, and certain language is being used.
Few ideas are original. The ideas that run through most of the web’s content come from another source, and are being expressed in a new way. Even journalists rely on news agencies for much of their information (Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, and Agencia EFE), which they expand on and add their perspective to.
A piece of content doesn’t have to be unique for it to be valuable, but if the idea comes from another source, it can be worthwhile checking out what was originally said.
In scientific studies, if a method is reproducible, it produces the same result when applied to different data of the same type. The scientific community recently went through a reproducibility crisis (or replication crisis),12 when they found that many scientific studies were difficult or impossible to reproduce, making their claims much less convincing.
If you’re reading a scientific study that hasn’t been reproduced, you can’t be sure that the conclusions of the study are accurate.
Spelling and grammar
If a piece of content is filled with spelling and grammar errors, as harsh as it sounds, the creator may not have the knowledge, skill, or intelligence to explain the topic effectively.
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
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Dave never much liked philosophy. Hated it, in fact. So when the first philosopher showed up and whispered an aphorism into his ear, he didn’t know what to make of it.
He was lunching at the time, ogling the little butts of the Chinese waitresses who flitted in and out of the kitchen, and gorging on dumplings that singed the roof of his mouth. The Great Wall restaurant had a sign at the entrance saying “wok this way,” which he always grinned at. For Dave, nestling into the cramped wooden chairs with an ice-covered Tsingtao and a plate full of dumplings and a dance of hypnotic rears was pure magic—a stark contrast to the drudgery of everything else in his life.
As he dunked his final dumpling in soy, splattering its periphery with brown, the clinking and shuffling and murmuring of the restaurant was interrupted by a soft but clear Chinese voice, which said “a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
Dave jolted and the dumpling flew from his chopsticks into his lap, soiling his respectability. He snatched it from his lap and turned to the source of the noise—an ancient and wispy Oriental, who grinned at him with earwax-coloured teeth; teeth that were too close to his face.
He jiggled his chair backward, as much confused by the interruption as by the man’s words and antiquated appearance.
“Excuse me?” Dave said, “do you work here?” The man’s smile dropped, and his eyes bore into Dave’s.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished” the little man said with a yellow flash of teeth. In the distance, a dish of beef exploded into a cacophony of sizzle, creating flurries of garlic-infused smoke as it’s carried past the man to its delighted recipients. The wisps cling to the man’s willowy beard, making it look like the onset of a turbulent fire.
Dave asked the man if he worked at the restaurant, knowing full well that he didn’t, but not sure what else to do about the situation.
“The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white,” the man said, “neither need you do anything but be yourself.”
“What’s that about a goose?” Dave replied, losing his patience. He called a waitress over, and asked her if she knew who the man was.
“No, we don’t all know each other” she scoffed.
“He’s talking to me about all kinds of nonsense—travelling geese and whatnot. Can you ask him to leave me alone?”
“Some food, sir?” the waitress asked the old man, motioning to a distant table, “we don’t have goose, but we have duck.”
He refused, bowed to them both, and with a swish of his tunic, left the restaurant. Dave stared at his last dumpling, as if it might be able to explain what had just happened.
The next afternoon, Dave rode his bike along the Brisbane river, delighted by the great swathes of sparkles that lay across the river like blankets of fairies, birthed by the setting sun. Jacarandas peppered the bike track, wearing luscious coats of luminous purple, rising up like noble Australian kings. Dave had forgotten the oddity of yesterday, closing in on the city and working up a good sweat, which always made him self-conscious since that little bitch Gretchen Greenwood from grade fourteen had called him “Heatwave Dave” on account of his sweat patches.
He’d just passed the German Bierhaus, of which he was a fuzzy-headed patron, when another cyclist rode up next to him, so close that the rubber handles of their bikes almost touched. As cyclists feel obligated to correct every infraction that they witness, no matter how trivial, Dave assumed that he was about to be told off, but in fact, found himself side-by-side with a serious man in a serious grey suit, who had the most magnificent moustache he’d ever seen, blasting out of his face like the beginnings of a volcanic eruption. The man paid no attention to what was in front of him, as other cyclists hurtled past. He preferred to stare at Dave.
After a few seconds, over the pitchy whistle of the wind and in a thick German accent, he said “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
Dave squeezed his brakes, and the German catapulted into the distance. Cyclists with throbbing veins shot past him and swore, the flash of their lycra blinding him, but not enough to stop him witnessing the ominous man circling around to return. He watched with dread as he approached, catching every word of the new maxim that was being yelled at him.
“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”
Dave took off in the opposite direction. He pedalled as though the German had produced a hatchet rather than a philosophical tenet, rocketing along the jade surface with the air roaring in his ears, muscles burning from the desperation of his escape. After a minute, he looked back over his shoulder, and saw the man’s Krakatoa moustache emerge from a just-passed curve in the track. The gap narrowed with every rotation of the German’s pedals—he had the legs and lungs of an Übermensch!
He arrived at Dave’s side, who tried to kick him off his bike. The German dodged the attack with ease, grinned, and shouted “beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
“What do you mean?!” Dave screeched, but the man was already braking, having said what he came to say. He rode back in the direction of the bierhaus.
Dave pulled over to collect himself. Though the quotes were undoubtedly wise, and the benevolent men who imparted them well-qualified (and well-fit), he’d had quite enough of monsters and chaos and dancing stars. He wanted comfort—a return to miserable normality, where most things made sense.
He went home, showered, and went to his favourite local bar—Stazione di Birra—run by a fat little Roman called Guiseppe who always nudged him and asked him how his mother was. Stazione di Birra was always bright and crammed with people and had more wooden furniture than it needed, which had to be shifted to get anywhere, filling the place with the scraping of wood-on-wood.
Dave drowned himself in beer, thinking that it might tease some sense out of the absurdity of this philosophical assault, or at the very least, suffocate his memory with an impenetrable fog.
As he drained his ninth glass and motioned to Guiseppe for another, a figure appeared in his periphery—a regal man in a white tunic, whose head and face were garnished with a sea of looping curls. Dave’s heart sank.
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
Dave’s spirit was very much troubled.
“Who are you people?” he demanded, “and what the hell do you want with me?”
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”
Guiseppe was alerted by Dave’s raised voice, and walked over to them. “Everything alright?” he asked, confused by the man’s tunic and luscious curls. “Drink?”
The regal man gave Guiseppe a sharp look. A passing drunkard bumped into his back, spilling some Guinness, but not making an impression. His eyes returned to Dave.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
He smiled, touched Dave on the shoulder, and left.
Guiseppe asked what was going on. A flabbergasted Dave recounted his last 24 hours to Guiseppe, who chuckled and combed his moustache as it was told.
“It sounds like they’re trying to teach you something” Guiseppe said.
“Teach me what?”
“Maybe that you’re too stressed?”
Eventually, Dave found their quotes online, bought all of their books, and transformed himself into a cool-headed philosophical superstar. But though he was desperate to thank them personally, they never appeared again.
In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.
He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.
A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.
“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”
I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.
In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.
Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.
The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.
Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.
The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.
Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.
Imagine a world without death, in which departure is refused, and so everything remains eternal, with nothing fresh permitted to emerge. The living have absolute control over the entry gates of existence, resolutely shut under lock and key, to prevent something new coming along to displace them, or eat them, or whatever it is that the unpredictable unborn might do. The jostle for existence has been halted; the dance of life arrested, its tune silenced so that the living can exist in perpetuity, bereft of competition, having made themselves elves on earth.
The streets are filled with the same old faces, same old names, same old fancies. When the light departs they sip single-malt whiskey with bartenders named Walt or Joey or Jim, who don’t have children. Nobody has children. There’s no brightly-painted playgrounds or baby blue cots; no toddlers on bikes or awkward fumbling teenagers. The creatures on earth have existed since time immemorial, like a captured snapshot, or a stagnant, tepid pool, never at risk of being refreshed by a generation new.
“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.”
Such a world would be tragically dull. Even the most lustrous songbird, warbling its beautiful tune on a crisp Sunday morning, becomes boring after a while. For life to create something new and unique, death must first clear the way. Paradoxically, to refuse death is to refuse life. Change is a requirement of an exciting universe.
“Death is the dropping of the flower, that the fruit may swell.”
Henry Ward Beecher
Death is not a problem to be solved, but a driving force of dynamicity, unreservedly and unapologetically cranking the wheel of change, making way for a delicate yellow-spotted butterfly, a row of scarlett-tipped roses, or a soaring snow-capped mountain. Such beauty wouldn’t exist without the destructive force of death.
“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”
Our awareness of the delicate evanescence of life makes us grateful for it. To know that soon enough, every living thing that you encounter will be dead, is to make them all the more precious and special, to be revered with shining eyes. Loss is a lens that relieves our shortsightedness, and brings into sharp focus every transitory little thing that begs to be appreciated, before it’s too late. Everything exists just once in a lifetime, never to be witnessed again, its beauty derived from its impermanence. Death is the old friend who taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that soon enough, everything before you will be annihilated, while wearing a t-shirt with the words “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
“Mostly it is loss that teaches us about the worth of things”
“By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.”
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
Edgar Allan Poe
Without contrast, we cannot appreciate. One can only imagine the joy a Norwegian living in Svalbard might feel when witnessing the sun peek over the glistening mountains for the first time in six months, or the lip-smacking splendour of an ice-cold beer after completing Dry July. Much that we favour is only possible through the unfavourable. By stamping out death, we must also stamp out life.
“What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”
Breaking us down to our constituent parts, those less-than-specklike atoms that constantly come and go, it becomes clear that our physical essence is transitory, and that the notion of being the same as we were yesterday is nothing but the inability to feel our atoms departing. Who knows where they’ll end up? The toenail of a mischievous spidermonkey, leaping through the Brazilian Amazon; the lungs of the mighty blue whale, cruising through the chilly depths of the Atlantic; or perhaps in the fist of an enraged white nationalist, who plunges it into the cheek of a penniless immigrant. You have no say in the matter. Your atoms connect you to the entire universe, and guarantee your eternity whether you like it or not—atomically subordinate to the never ending cycle of life and death.
“You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”
“I shall not wholly die, and a great part of me will escape the grave.”
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
What is death but a return to the state of pre-birth? A time without pain, botherance, or exertion; when your atoms were splayed across the far reaches of the universe, not yet you, but destined to be so. Though we may picture non-existence as an interminable, torturous blackness, perhaps akin to being buried alive for eternity, we can never comprehend its genuine experience, because one experiences something by being consciously alive. The dead cannot comment on being dead, having been deprived of the ability at the moment of their demise. The sense of dread that we may feel in relation to death is vanquished, made null and void by the nature of our changing universe, as it fashions something fresh and remarkable to take our place. Death is the easiest thing that we’ll ever have to do—it’s all taken care of, after all.
Not a person on earth can teach you how to die, because no-one who died ever lived to tell the tale.
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
“Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”
“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.”
“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”
The most biting tragedy of all is allowing death to dull our spark; to restrain us with a short leash, trapping us in a life of grey mediocrity—safe, but colourless, like the frightened young mother who locks her son inside and smothers him with love, cutting off his oxygen, and ensuring a life of retardation. Courage and risk are ingredients of a well-lived life: to put one’s best foot forward with a spirit of adventure, despite the danger. When these things are absent, we exist as frightened spectres, lacking in true substance and already half-dead. Every waking moment carries a choice: affirmation of life, filled with courageous deeds of dedicated participation, or negation, whereby we recoil into our cowardly shells, barely able to peek out at the madness of our unforgiving universe, lest it tramples us into oblivion.
“Death is nothing, but to live defeated is to die every day.”
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.”
“I don’t want to die without any scars.”
“Whatever you want to do, do it now. There are only so many tomorrows.”
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Though we spend much of our lives jostling for position, mercilessly chained to our desks in an attempt to climb the ladder of recognition, Death sweeps away the hustle and grind as if it were just another dusty doorstep to be cleaned—as inconsequential as a grain of sand, worn down from the body of a miniscule sea creature. Status isn’t in Death’s vocabulary. Why must it be in ours?
“Death makes equal the high and low.”
“You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.”
“Everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”
“The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”
Above all else, death can help us to illuminate the one thing that we all desperately crave and need, something that motivates us beyond measure, pushing us onwards despite the reality of our nihilistic universe: meaning. The ultimate gift from Death, purchased, packaged, and decorated with a silk ribbon, is to encourage us to find something to live for. When we figure out what’s personally meaningful to us, we discover the very reason that we’re alive.
“No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”