Dewey knew that democracies can’t function if their citizens don’t have conviction — an apathetic electorate is no electorate at all. But our democracy also can’t function if we don’t seek, at least some of the time, to inhabit a common space where we can listen to each other and trade reasons back and forth. And that’s one reason that teaching our students the value of empathy, of reasons and dialogue, and the value and nature of evidence itself, is crucial — in fact, now more than ever. Encouraging evidential epistemologies helps combat intellectual arrogance.
The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us.
Tossed into the world, I have been subjected to its laws and its contingencies, ruled by wills other than my own, by circumstance and by history: it is therefore reasonable for me to feel that I am myself contingent. What staggers me is that at the same time I am not contingent. If I had not been born no question would have arisen: I have to take the fact that I do exist as my starting point. To be sure, the future of the woman I have been may turn me into someone other than myself. But in that case it would be this other woman who would be asking herself who she was. For the person who says “Here am I” there is no other coexisting possibility. Yet this necessary coincidence of the subject and his history is not enough to do away with my perplexity. My life: it is both intimately known and remote; it defines me and yet I stand outside it.
It is impossible to grasp and define a life as one can grasp and define a thing, since a life is “an unsummed whole,” as Sartre puts it, a detotalized totality, and therefore it has no being. But one can ask certain questions about it.
We, all of us, men and women, encode masculinity and femininity in implicit metaphorical schemas that divide the world in half. Science and mathematics are hard, rational, real, serious, and masculine. Literature and art are soft, emotional, unreal, frivolous, and feminine.
Fighting about ideas is fun, and if you really know your stuff, instant respect may be granted and offers to share papers and perhaps engage in an email dialogue soon follow. Knowledge and thinking well with that knowledge have power. Implicit schemas and prejudice are not eradicated… but in the right circumstances, a brilliant, scintillating paper or lecture can break through the schemas and become a gorilla pounding on the window.
Every human being is capable of being wounded. If the feelings that result from the inevitable cuts and scrapes every person accumulates in the course of a lifetime are understood as “feminine,” then it seems to me we have all become terribly confused. The difference between male and female vulnerability may be that in a woman this quality fits into our perceptual schema more easily than it does in a man. But humiliations are regularly visited upon women because they are not regarded as competition and are treated as ghosts in the room.
Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead. Prospection enables us to become wise not just from our own experiences but also by learning from others. We are social animals like no others, living and working in very large groups of strangers, because we have jointly constructed the future. Human culture — our language, our division of labor, our knowledge, our laws and technology — is possible only because we can anticipate what fellow humans will do in the distant future. We make sacrifices today to earn rewards tomorrow, whether in this life or in the afterlife promised by so many religions.
Of course, the culture of the West remains the primary object of study in humanities departments. However, the purpose is not to instill that culture but to repudiate it—to examine it for all the ways in which it sins against the egalitarian worldview. The Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendent of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth…
In this way the whole idea of our inherited culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge, and one that it requires learning, scholarship, and immersion to enhance and retain, is cast to the winds. The university, instead of transmitting culture, exists to deconstruct it, to remove its “aura,” and to leave the student, after four years of intellectual dissipation, with the view that anything goes and nothing matters.
As religions show us, the virtual reality need not be encased inside an isolated box. Rather, it can be superimposed on the physical reality. In the past this was done with the human imagination and with sacred books, and in the 21st century it can be done with smartphones. Does it matter whether the neurons are stimulated by observing pixels on a computer screen, by looking outside the windows of a Caribbean resort, or by seeing heaven in our mind’s eyes? In all cases, the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. It is not really “out there”. To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.
Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world. Maybe these virtual realities will be generated inside computers. Maybe they will be generated outside computers, in the shape of new religions and ideologies. Maybe it will be a combination of the two. The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep plays will engage us in 2050. In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles.
The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment. In fact, the opposite happened: Faced with the written page, the reader’s brain develops new capacities. We may not keep the Iliad in our heads any longer, but we’re exquisitely capable of reflecting on it, comparing it to other stories we know, and forming conclusions about human beings ancient and modern. The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along.
Movements thrive on the destruction of reality. Because the real world confronts us with challenges and obstructions, reality is uncertain, messy, and unsettling. Movements work to create alternate realities that offer adherents a stable and empowering place in the world. Amid economic dislocation and the loss of stable identities, the Nazis’ promise of Aryan superiority is stabilizing. Stalin understood that people would easily overlook lies and mass murder if it were in their interest to do so. Above all, movements promise consistency. Movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”
Simone Weil wrote that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” The modern condition of rootlessness is a foundational experience of totalitarianism; totalitarian movements succeed when they offer rootless people what they most crave: an ideologically consistent world aiming at grand narratives that give meaning to their lives. By consistently repeating a few key ideas, a manipulative leader provides a sense of rootedness grounded upon a coherent fiction that is “consistent, comprehensible, and predictable.”
Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared… being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t… The key point here is not that people are irrational; it’s that this irrationality comes from a very rational place. People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.
The rootless fluidity of globalisation so recently celebrated by many young, educated urbanites feeds a new division between those who want the cosmopolitan city and those who prefer the settled provincial life; between those who think airports are part of daily life and those who go there only for their holidays; those that like the provisional, digital, networked economy and those who want the certainty of living in the same place, with the same people and following the same routines.
We aren’t on this Earth to improve endlessly, forever approaching infinite perfection but never quite getting there. We are here to notice the enormity and beauty of everything around us, and to notice each other – to notice how flawed we all are, and feel connected anyway.
Education should not be driven by a dogmatically-held set of eternal verities, but by a clear-sighted look at what the demands, uncertainties, risks and opportunities of the future will be. Merely to assert the value of Latin translation or the Periodic Table, in the face of these challenges, is a cop-out. It is a refusal to do the intellectual, moral and imaginative work that is needed.
Dealing with the real uncertainties of modern life, and developing one’s own passionate interests and avocations, are usually not at all like school. The carefully planned, predigested, sequenced and graded kinds of bite-size learning in which conventional schooling trades are not the kinds of learning for which young people need to be prepared. An apprenticeship in passing exams leaves even the most successful with a skill for which there is little call once they have left university. Few job adverts specify that applicants ‘must be able to sit still, copy down notes, and regurgitate disembedded chunks of information under pressure.’
The crucial point Fromm was trying to get across is that personal freedom may not be enjoyable or even desirable to the individual if it also leaves him or her feeling isolated and powerless, or without any kind of meaning or purpose in life. Like Karl Marx, Fromm believed that capitalism had turned human beings into cogs in a machine, sapping them of their individuality and creativity, and leaving them alienated and susceptible to authoritarian forces.
Fromm distinguished between negative freedom, or the “freedom from” traditional authorities and cultural/social restraints, and the positive “freedom to” live authentically and realize one’s true individual self. If one is granted negative freedom without positive freedom, and thus left uncertain, alone and powerless, he or she may be inclined to escape from freedom and submit to a higher authority. An analogy would be the urge that many adults have felt at least once in their life to return to their mother’s womb, where one is deprived of freedom, but safe from the dangerous and chaotic outside world.
A crucial issue for cognitive efficiency for humans then is to decide which of all the information that is competing for your attentional resources, both from the environment and from your memory, should be prioritized. Which background information should be brought to bear on which new information in order to get the most efficient processing for information?
We developed what we called relevance theory, arguing that human cognition is geared towards the maximizing of relevance of the input that it processes. This, we argued, has a consequence for communication. When we communicate intentionally—I’m talking to you, requesting your attention—your attention spontaneously goes to what’s relevant to you, more relevant than the competition at this moment. When I try to get your attention through communication, I’m conveying that I assume that what I’m trying to communicate is worth your attention and is more relevant than anything else you could attend to at this very minute. And this, we argued, determines how you interpret in context what is meant by the words that are being used. So the right interpretation is the interpretation that will tend to confirm this expectation of relevance that every utterance raises about itself.
Let’s set aside the goal of unifying all knowledge. How are we doing in the millennia-long quest for absolute and objective truth? Not so well, it seems, and that is largely because of the devastating contributions of a few philosophers and logicians, particularly David Hume, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel.
In the 18th century, Hume formulated what is now known as the problem of induction. He noted that both in science and everyday experience we use a type of reasoning that philosophers call induction, which consists in generalising from examples. Hume also pointed out that we do not seem to have a logical justification for the inductive process itself. Why then do we believe that inductive reasoning is reliable? The answer is that it has worked so far. Ah, but to say so is to deploy inductive reasoning to justify inductive reasoning, which seems circular. Plenty of philosophers have tried to solve the problem of induction without success: we do not have an independent, rational justification for the most common type of reasoning employed by laypeople and professional scientists. Hume didn’t say that we should therefore all quit and go home in desperation. Indeed, we don’t have an alternative but to keep using induction. But it ought to be a sobering thought that our empirical knowledge is based on no solid foundation other than that ‘it works’.
The real trick to understanding our world is to see it with both eyes at once. The world now is a thoroughly awful place — compared with what it should be. But not compared with what it was. Keeping both eyes open gives depth to our perception of our own time in history, and makes us better able to see where paths to more progress may be open.
There is no denying that as social beings, humans have a natural yearning for community and a desire to attach themselves to some form of a collective. But those who desire to rule over others do not want people to attach themselves to any such collective, rather they want people to elevate to the position of superiority a specific collective… indoctrinating people to worship the collective of one’s nation is extremely valuable for politicians, as they are viewed as the leaders of these collectives – and thus the more people who identify with the nation state, the more minds those in power have under their control.
We can get along if we become convinced that it’s in our self-interest, and we can learn to do so under the civilizing influence of the city, where it’s pretty obvious that we need to depend on one another for the sake of our own flourishing. But cooperation doesn’t come naturally to us, according to Plato, and, given the slightest strain, there’s that nastiness again. Stupid and nasty is our default. Plato is looking for something powerful to shift our default. He’s looking for us to fall in love with something greater than ourselves.
If you are thoroughly committed to an idea, are you compelled to kill for it? What price for justice? What price for freedom?
At the core of all human behavior, our needs are more or less similar. Positive experience is easy to handle. It’s negative experience that we all, by definition, struggle with. Therefore, what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings. People want an amazing physique. But you don’t end up with one unless you legitimately appreciate the pain and physical stress that comes with living inside a gym for hour upon hour, unless you love calculating and calibrating the food you eat, planning your life out in tiny plate-sized portions.
Reflecting on the history of logic forces us to reflect on what it means to be a reasonable cognitive agent, to think properly. Is it to engage in discussions with others? Is it to think for ourselves? Is it to perform calculations?… The history of logic also leads us to question the overly individualistic conception of knowledge and of our cognitive lives that we inherited from Descartes and others, and perhaps to move towards a greater appreciation for the essentially social nature of human cognition.
Increasingly, the real benefit that money buys is the time, freedom and power to act creatively… The growth that comes from progress through the stages of any artistic discipline provides a backbone for our intellectual and emotional development as human beings. And it is as a framework for growth that our creative endeavours should be judged… Much about the way we have chosen to organise our lives, often with the goal of maximising material comfort, is bad for creativity. These problems are most pronounced for the bulk of the population who work inside the structures that support the creativity of others: the factories, offices, shops and other parts of the system of consumer capitalism.
We lose decades of our lives chasing money to buy luxury goods and climbing through artificial hierarchies in the workplace. We struggle with the health problems caused by high-calorie, high-fat diets. We become caught in webs of addiction, trying to distract our minds from the emptiness left by our lost creativity. Our longings shape our lives and they shape the world around us. But it is our longing to create that is our deepest drive, and the one that makes us the most human. We ignore it at our own cost.
Right now our approach to death, as a culture, is utterly insane: We just pretend it doesn’t exist. Any mention of mortality in casual conversation is greeted with awkwardness and a subject change… Maybe it’s because a more honest relationship with death would mean a more honest reckoning with our lives, calling into question the choices we’ve made and the ways we’ve chosen to live. And damn if that isn’t uncomfortable.
What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance. Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.
By “self” I just mean what we generally mean by that word: the expansive answer to the questions “Who am I?” and “Who is Lowry Pressly?” given by me and others respectively. At some level we all know that who we are is not completely up to us; it’s why we keep most of what we think to ourselves, and it’s why we wear one face at work and another within the confines of our homes. The person I think I am is quite different from the person (or persons) the world thinks I am, and the gap between the two matters to me—which significance would be a kind of psychopathology if how others knew us had no effect on who we know ourselves to be.
This is not a new thought, of course. Philosophers from Hegel to Adam Smith to Charles Taylor have recognized that who I am is not entirely up to me. So too Sartre—“When I am alone, I can not realize my ‘being-seated’; at most it can be said that I simultaneously both am it and am not it. But in order for me to be what I am, it suffices merely that the Other look at me.” So too Yeats, though in the lines quoted above the poet does better than these philosophers at evoking the sheer coercive force that one’s social self can exert on one’s personal conception of who one is.
Sigmund Freud said a lot of crazy things, but one of his most compelling insights was that the mind is like the city of Rome. Each age has its own architecture, its own monuments, built on top of those from the previous ages. But instead of knocking down those monuments to an older time and replacing them, the mind preserves each landmark. Some, like the Colosseum, are more obvious, while others are hidden in the shadows of Palatine Hill. Even more completely than Rome, each adult keeps the landscape of her childhood intact. If you want to understand that childhood landscape, the foundations on which a person’s life is built, ask her what her favourite books were as a child.
Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this… Death might be one’s own most possibility, but so is experience. Plumbing the depths of experience allows one to own up to life — to say this life was, for better and for worse, “my own. The ancient philosophical imperative to “know thyself” would be impossible to satisfy without keying into experience.
It must be part of our jobs, as college teachers, to launch our students on the search for something larger than their immediate concerns, to confront them with the challenges that are presented by such intractable questions as the meaning of suffering, life, and death.
The human imagination, one of our great gifts as a species, relies on the default mode network—daydreaming. Technology lets us wander, but in someone else’s world, through an often confused and seemingly random collection of hyperlinks, advertisements disguised as content, content disguised as journalism.
The cultivation of imagination relies on boredom. We need moments of space, of absence, to free up the overwhelming deluge of information assaulting our nervous system every moment of every day. When any opportunity becomes a chance to like and connect and delete—sipping coffee, at a red light, in line—we lose the value of boredom. Over time that loss will prove to be one of the most valuable skills we have forgotten.
All of this raises an obvious question: Why do anything? Why multiply the cosmic failure, the “infamy of creation”? Idleness, as we know, has a bad rap in Western culture, but it can be a philosophical experience in its own right. Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay in praise of it, and Oscar Wilde thought that “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world” as well as the most intellectual. The great, consummate idlers of literature are figures of metaphysical quest: They exemplify ways of being human with unusual complexity… In our idleness we intuit a cosmic meaninglessness, which comes along with the realization that, with every action, we get only more entangled in the universal farce.
While some philosophies obviously conduce toward peace more than others, while some philosophers (Marcus Aurelius) seem kinder than others (Nietzsche), the open-minded study of different philosophies at least opens one up to the possibility that one is wrong. One realizes, like Socrates did, that knowledge is anything but certain, that true wisdom lies in realizing how much one does not know, in understanding that our knowledge of the universe (and therefore of earthly things like politics) is utterly inadequate, perhaps comparable to the area of a pin’s tip against a table. This realization makes one less angry when confronted with opposing views, replacing counterproductive anger with productive curiosity.
What about all the commenting and conversations that happen online? Well, your capacity to learn from them depends on your attitudes to other people. Intellectually humble people don’t repress, hide or ignore their vulnerabilities, like so many trolls. In fact, they see their weaknesses as sources of personal development, and use arguments as an opportunity to refine their views. People who are humble by nature tend to be more open-minded and quicker to resolve disputes, since they recognise that their own opinions might not be valid.
Intellectual humility relies on the ability to prefer truth over social status. It is marked primarily by a commitment to seeking answers, and a willingness to accept new ideas – even if they contradict our views. In listening to others, we run the risk of discovering that they know more than we do. But humble people see personal growth as a goal in itself, rather than as a means of moving up the social ladder. We miss out on a lot of available information if we focus only on ourselves and on our place in the world.
First, there is the extension of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” — almost the only agreed-upon moral principle in our society today — from its original context of physical endangerment to far broader forms of “harm,” including simple emotional or intellectual discomfort. Even the inducement, in class discussions, of uncertainty can be perceived as a form of harm.
Second, we have what sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have described as “the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.” Such a culture is one “in which individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”
All of life is a dispute over taste.What does not, on some level, involve taste? Most of a day’s idle conversation is a sequence of thumbs-up, thumbs-down assertions expressed with varying degrees of sincerity and conviction. Everything we experience gets an emoji… If tastes were not easily changeable, if people could like only what they have always liked and could never develop a taste for something different, the species would have trouble surviving.
Taste is just a way of filtering the world, of ordering information… As with a foreign language the more we hear something, the more we begin to know what to listen for, the more familiar it becomes, the more we actually begin to like it. The less it sounds like pure noise. The argument is that what we’re really doing is beginning to become fluent [in understanding that thing]. We feel good about our fluency and we almost transfer some of that good feeling onto the thing itself… This really is the ultimate elusiveness of taste, I think. If it were purely subjective, we could never agree about anything. And if were purely objective, we wouldn’t need human interaction.
We live in a succession of ‘Nows’. We have the strong impression that things are there in definite positions relative to each other, but there are Nows, nothing more, nothing less… But how can we make sense of a world where time doesn’t exist? And what does it tell us about death?… It turns out that everything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head. We are not just objects embedded in some external matrix ticking away ‘out there’. Rather, space and time are the tools our mind uses to put it all together… The words ‘past’ and ‘future’ are just ideas relative to each individual observer.
We read alone, our received story goes, in order to conjure up what others are like and to soothe our isolation. But if we are not isolated? If we are now relentlessly connected, every marginal identity gaining collective recognition, becoming assimilated, ever more rapidly? If that is where we stand, then something like a stubbornly solitary voice may be welcome, even necessary, telling us that what it means to be human—and what may keep us human—is to feel alone in a strange room, with our seclusion the thing that defines and can save us.
Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside.
“Life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort.”
Fiction, speaking very generally, is about the individual in society, about the expectations and conflicts that color a life when an obdurate reality stands in the way of one’s self-image or desires. Novels don’t have to be overtly political, but they do, in one guise or another, reflect the civilization that helped shape them, and, as Orwell liked to say, “Inequality [is] the price of civilization.” The invisible centerpiece of every great novel is the protagonist’s rebellion or coming to terms with his or her place in the scheme of things.
Novels, of course, communicate a lot more in carrying out their design, but what seems to me beyond dispute is that literature, when undertaken seriously, is a celebration not of life but of awareness, an awareness of the human condition, which is both communal and individual and inevitably strikes a balance, palpable or barely perceptible, between the two. Each of us, then, is a fulcrum where the private and the public meet, where inner and other-directed yearnings sometimes clash. Literature gets written because of this, and what we understand and love in it, as Erich Auerbach wrote, “is a human existence, a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves.”
It seems that this is what loneliness is designed to do: to provoke the restoration of social bonds. Like pain itself, it exists to alert the organism to a state of untenability, to prompt a change in circumstance. We are social animals, the theory goes, and so isolation is – or was, at some unspecified point in our evolutionary journey – unsafe for us. This theory neatly explains the physical consequences of loneliness, which ally to a heightened sense of threat…
Loneliness might raise one’s blood pressure and fill one with paranoia, but it also offers compensations: a depth of vision, a hungry kind of acuity. When I think of it now, I think of it as a place not dissimilar to the old Hudson river piers: a landscape of danger and potential, inhabited by the shadowy presences of fellow travellers, where one sometimes rounds a corner to see lines of glowing colour drawn on dirty walls.
Indeed, scientists who study the mechanics of curiosity are finding that it is, at its core, a kind of probability algorithm—our brain’s continuous calculation of which path or action is likely to gain us the most knowledge in the least amount of time. Like the links on a Wikipedia page, curiosity builds upon itself, every question leading to the next. And as with a journey down the Wikipedia wormhole, where you start dictates where you might end up. That’s the funny thing about curiosity: It’s less about what you don’t know than about what you already do.
The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed that life’s chief task is “subsisting at all,” followed directly by “warding off boredom, which, like a bird of prey, hovers over us, ready to fall whenever it sees a life secure from need.” To be content is to be bored, and curiosity is our ticket out. The anthropologist Ralph Linton went even further. “It seems probable that the human capacity for being bored, rather than man’s social or natural needs, lies at the root of man’s cultural advance,” he wrote in 1936. Humans, in other words, have managed to amass immeasurable knowledge—language, the Taj Mahal, the Snuggie—because we loathe monotony.
We often think of words as capturing universal human experiences, but this is hardly the case. Not only does every word mean something different to every person (one person’s “depression” could be worlds apart from another’s), but words also simplify and reduce complex sensations, allowing the mind to process them. So to classify our feelings might be to diminish them—to pigeonhole them within a preconceived system that does not adequately describe them.
So, again, be with your feelings while knowing that they are never final. If you take the Taoist’s view that I keep advocating, you can perceive your feelings in terms of a cycle that is not to be resisted. The waves will keep on coming (the troughs allow us to experience the crests, and vice versa), and the only way to coast is to accept whatever wave arises—to embrace whatever we’re experiencing, to not attach ourselves to delusions of permanence, and to have few expectations.
The short of it is simple: challenge my beliefs, and instead of thinking critically about your challenge, I’ll sit around thinking how right I am and how stupid you are. When we’re shown something that undermines what we believe, we get confused, maybe even angry, but we rarely change our minds. This happens independent of the tone of an article. People may argue that if a belief is challenged in a more neutral manner, it leads to better discourse, but that’s never the case. The more neutral an argument is, the easier it is to dismiss (or just flip it to your side).
This probably comes as no surprise, but we pay more attention to the issues that affect us directly and sideline the ones that don’t. Because of that, we’re arguably more close-minded about an issue that doesn’t directly impact us. This happens with a lot of issues, especially with class, race, gender, and sexuality, but money is one of the easiest examples from an instructive point.
The fact is, when we talk about issues that directly effect us we often have a self-serving outlook. None of that’s to say one point is more valid than another, but it does mean it’s extremely hard to remain open-minded about policies when they directly affect you. It’s difficult to take yourself out of the equation and think about the greater good. Putting yourself in another’s shoes is one of those silly recommendations that always come along with open-mindedness, but it’s probably the only approach that’ll help change your views.
We’ve said before that if you want to open your mind, read opposing views from various outlets, sit around ruminating about each argument, and then form your own opinion. Let’s be honest for a second: Most of us don’t ever actually do that.
If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, you won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?… From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.”… The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.
Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.
There is no such thing as free-floating, untethered “creative thinking.” All creativity, like all athletics, exists only in context. You can teach someone tennis. You can teach them basketball. You cannot teach them athletics. Likewise, you cannot teach creative thinking (whatever that means) but only creative approaches to certain subjects… Creative genius is a social verdict, a natural outcome of where we direct our energies and our attention. We get the geniuses who we want and who we deserve.
The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life. As human beings, we are vulnerable to each other’s moods, proclivities, ideologies, perceptions, knowledge and ignorance. We are vulnerable to our society’s conventions, policies and hierarchies. We need other people’s blessing and often their help in order to get resources. When we’re young and when we’re old, we are vulnerable enough that our lives are happy only if other people choose to care about us… Real, relentless isolation is not at all romantic. Indeed, it is far worse than the stress of social life… The strongest person in the world is she who is most connected.
Now, do I think that wellbeing is a higher value than truth? No. I hope I would never cling to something because it made me happy, if I suspected it wasn’t true. Philosophy involves a restless search for the truth, an unceasing examination of one’s assumptions… ‘Love is wise, hatred is foolish.’ We have to learn to put up with the fact that people will say things that we don’t like, detest even. To live together, we need to be able to speak freely, and tolerate others who do that too. Like you, I obviously fail to live up to these values much of the time, but these are good principles, nevertheless.
So, how do writers examine geopolitics through fiction and help readers do the same? Some write about what they know. Some educate themselves about what they don’t. They place their prose in a well-researched time and place. They create a painstakingly studied context for their creations. And then they hold themselves to the same standards as any other literary author: They create stories and fill them with characters with whom readers can live and feel, if only for a little while.
Because, in the end, if writers are able to render fiction useful in exploring geopolitics, it is because geopolitics is ultimately made up of humans, and fiction is a uniquely effective platform for exploring humanity. It doesn’t turn the personal into the geopolitical, but it can move the political back into the pathos of the personal.
The real beauty and miracle of fiction is that it lets us walk in someone else’s shoes. It drops us through the Earth and next to people I would never otherwise meet. I read the newspaper and read about numbers. How many people were killed here, how many people were displaced there? It’s hard to feel much for a number. But you can feel an enormous amount for people, for individuals, when you hear their stories. There’s no form of creating, nurturing, fostering that sort of care for strangers quite like a novel as a vehicle for empathy. It’s unparalleled.
There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.
Wolf points out that when it comes to reading, what we get out is largely what we put in. “The reading brain circuit reflects the affordances of what it reads,” she notes: affordances being the built-in opportunities for interaction. The more we skim, the more we’re likely to keep skimming; on the other hand, the more we plunge into a text, the more we’re likely to keep plunging. “We’re in a digital culture,” Wolf says. “It’s not a question of making peace. We have to be discerning, vigilant, developmentally savvy.” And of course we have to be surprised, delighted, puzzled, even disturbed. We have to enjoy ourselves. If we can do that, digital reading will expand the already vast interior space of our humanity.
Both historically and today, therefore, the real issue confronting society is how to give meaning to information—in other words, how to use information to create knowledge. The phrase “too much information” is directly related to the question of distinguishing between what is essential and what is of minimal importance, a task that, alas, does not come easily to everyone. It is through the process of selection and of interpretation that that any given quantity of information ceases to be experienced as a burden and can be transformed into authoritative and meaningful knowledge… the problem facing society is not the quantity of information but the conceptual tools and paradigms with which to “filter, prioritise, structure and make sense of information.” Unfortunately, without a paradigm, the meaning of human experience becomes elusive to the point that the worship of Big Data displaces the quest for Big Ideas.
If there is a genre — fiction or nonfiction — called the Ordeal, my hand leaps to that shelf. But the writing must be brilliant and well informed. If there is a genre labeled the Good Life, count me out.
We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare... I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?
‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’
Accordingly, if you are a fanatic, you will never appreciate literature. And if you appreciate literature you will never be a fanatic. Fanaticism is about black and white: People are either good or bad. People are either with us or against us. On the other side, literature is absolutely the contrary. Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings.
When we think of silence, because we yearn for it perhaps, or because we’re scared of it — or both — we’re forced to recognise that what we’re talking about is actually a mental state, a question of consciousness. Though the external world no doubt exists, our perception of it is always very much our perception, and tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the world. There are times when a noise out there is truly irritating and has us yearning for peace. Yet there are times when we don’t notice it at all. When a book is good, the drone of a distant lawnmower is just not there. When the book is bad but we must read it for an exam, or a review, the sound assaults us ferociously.
Silence, then, is always relative. Our experience of it is more interesting than the acoustic effect itself. And the most interesting kind of silence is that of a mind free of words, free of thoughts, free of language, a mental silence — the state of mind my character Cleaver failed to achieve despite his flight to the mountains. Arguably, when we have a perception of being tormented by noise, a lot of that noise is actually in our heads — the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue that for much of the time constitutes our consciousness. And it’s a noise in constant interaction with modern methods of so-called communication: the internet, the mobile phone, Google glasses. Our objection to noise in the outer world, very often, is that it makes it harder to focus on the buzz we produce for ourselves in our inner world.
For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.”
… cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?…
Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important… Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence. If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.
If the sensation of pain is (most often) an indication of harm, then the sensation of boredom is an indication that we are engaged in something that is incongruous with our projects. Furthermore, if the sensation of pain is meant (most often) to motivate us to change our behaviour in order to protect ourselves, then likewise the sensation of boredom is meant to motivate us to find something else to do, something that is not boring. Boredom motivates us to do something else, without necessarily telling us what to do. It can transport us from one psychological place to another. Boredom isn’t quite the white-sailed vessel that Madame Bovary so eagerly awaited. Yet it might be the next best thing.
So, the next time boredom overcomes you, it might be best not to ignore it. It might be best not to cover it up with your smartphone. Boredom might be trying to tell you something. After all, how often do you ignore pain? How often do you treat it with your phone?
To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you. When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds. Fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading…
The genre thrives because its deceptions are liberating. The thrill of reading fiction is intimately connected with the awareness that fiction constitutes an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered. The excitement comes when, as readers, we’re allowed to participate in this freedom and experience the fiction imaginatively, without being required to believe that it is true.
Great writers extend our capacity for “serious noticing”. We learn to look more closely at our world by reading artful descriptions of fictional worlds. Literature provides a crucial education…
The problem isn’t telling kids you can be anything, it’s our narrow idea of what ‘anything’ is. ‘We’re equating it with prestige, power, title, money, certain sectors. If we could shift, over the next decade, toward high achievement being the equivalent of knowing your skills and your values and your passion, and living accordingly, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.’
Cleantis says the issues must be reframed: our dreams are more often about what we hope to feel than what we want to do. ‘There’s a kind of unspoken narrative: if I become this, if I do this, if I achieve this, then I will be loved, I will have self-acceptance,’ she says. By deconstructing what we hope to achieve emotionally, ‘it’s possible to find other ways of achieving that.’
… we have got the passion/purpose equation backwards. ‘It misrepresents how people actually end up passionate about their work.’ ‘It assumes that people must have a pre-existing passion, and the only challenge is identifying it and raising the courage to pursue it. But this is nonsense.’ Passion doesn’t lead to purpose but rather, the other way around. People who get really good at something that’s useful and that the world values become passionate about what they’re doing. Finding a great career is a matter of picking something that feels useful and interesting. Not only will you find great meaning in the honing of the craft itself, but having a hard-won skill puts you in a position to dictate how your professional life unfolds.
The popular mantra comes from the actor Will Smith, who said: ‘Being realistic is the most commonly travelled road to mediocrity.’ But ‘mediocrity’ is a loaded term. Who, after all, wants to be ‘mediocre’ or ordinary? And yet, save for a few, aren’t we all? By implying that the only options are superstardom or mediocrity, we ignore where most of us ultimately land – that huge middle ground between anything and nothing much at all.
In infancy we mindlessly believe whatever we are told, and in adolescence we just as mindlessly reject everything we are told. Finally we learn to think for ourselves and develop judgment, whereupon the ability to reason comes of age and we along with it. The catch is that learning to think for oneself is not a given; it is an ideal, one achieved only with immense effort. We resist making the effort as it involves damned hard work.
We choose immaturity, because we are lazy and scared: how much more comfortable it is to let someone else make your decisions. Thus, although born with the capacity to become grown-up persons of reason—and so possessed of true inner freedom—our own worst instincts insure that we will remain uninformed, unthinking creatures… freedom … involves self-control, the sort of control that includes the will to take responsibility for one’s own actions … until humanity, individually and as a whole, develops the desire to take that responsibility, we go on living in a state of self-induced blindness that ends, inevitably and for each of us, with life coming to seem emptier and emptier the longer we live.
While in no way denying that human beings are pieces of biological protoplasm subject to the same laws of nature and evolution as all other living entities, we also argue that, by virtue of self-awareness and the capacity to anticipate the future as well as ponder the past, we are aware of our finitude and our vulnerability to death. We argue that this is the psychological impetus for the formation and maintenance of culture as a way to minimise death anxiety by giving us opportunities to think that we’re individuals of value in a world of meaning. So yes, we do emphasise that humans are fundamentally cultural animals. But we see no antagonism between that perspective and an evolutionary view of humankind. We see them as compatible.
When a child becomes explicitly aware that someday he or she will die—and usually that’s at the same time that he or she realises his or her parents are finite and fallible—what happens is he or she become just as concerned with how he or she is viewed by the culture at large. And this is what we refer to “self-esteem”: the belief that you’re a person of value in a world of meaning. That starts with thinking that you’re a good person in the eyes of your parents, but the awareness of death sparks a transition to embracing the culture.
In Ernest Becker’s first book, The Birth and Death of Meaning, he argues that self-esteem is the dominant human motive. He takes that idea from William James, for whom self-esteem was so important that he put it up right up there with basic biological emotions like fear and anger. What Becker said is that because we are symbolic animals, because our view of the world is suffused with symbols, we don’t see the world directly. And so in order to be able to get up in the morning and to function, we need a blueprint for reality with associated standards of appropriate conduct. Otherwise, we’d be paralysed by indecision. That’s what culture is—a symbol system that provides opportunities for, in James’s words, each of us to feel like we’re “heroic”. Becker wanted to explain why self-esteem is so important. That’s when he starts to move towards the position that we adopt, which is that self-esteem is a culturally constructed psychological mechanism that mitigates death anxiety by giving us a sense that life is meaningful and that we have value.
Every tribe has a hierarchy, and that’s what taste is: it’s an unconscious display of who you are, and where you want to be.
There’s a desperation in middle-class people to try to be individual. I think it’s an illusion on the whole, because curiously they all end up being an individual in the same way. Because not many people are creative, really. They’re kind of individualistic but within a very narrow bandwidth of what is acceptable at the time in fashion, or what they’ve seen in magazines.
Self-consciousness, I’m very interested in that. To be creative, you need to be unselfconscious. It’s like the sound barrier when you’re an art student. You have to reach the terminal velocity where you go through the sound barrier of self-consciousness, and then pop out the other side where you’re confident enough to handle it. A lot of people never make it through and that’s a real block to being creative. You’ve got to not give a shit.
We can then say that it is a complete statistical improbability that any single person can be an extraordinary performer in all areas of their life, or even many areas of their life. Bruce Wayne does not exist. It just doesn’t happen. Brilliant businessmen are often fuck ups in their personal lives. Extraordinary athletes are often shallow and as dumb as a lobotomized rock. Most celebrities are probably just as clueless about life as the people who gawk at them and follow their every move.
We’re all, for the most part, pretty average people. It’s the extremes that get all of the publicity. We all kind of intuitively know this, but we rarely think and/or talk about it. The vast majority of us will never be truly exceptional at, well, anything. And that’s OK. Few of us get this. And fewer of us accept it. Because problems arise — serious, “My God, what’s the point of living” type problems — when we expect to be extraordinary. Or worse, we feel entitled to be extraordinary. When in reality, it’s just not viable or likely.
Guilt is often defined as an internal conversation between you and your own conscience, whereas shame is the threat of social exposure—it affects your interpersonal relationships. What’s really interesting, though, is that some cultures don’t even have a word for guilt. Why is that? I speculate that these are cultures in which you don’t spend very much time alone—and without that, it’s hard to distinguish between your own internal conscience and the broader sentiments of the group.
There’s also psychological research on how we hold individuals more responsible than we do groups, which allows groups to behave worse than individuals can. And, of course, the other thing that corporations do is wait it out—just let it blow over.
In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.
Coercion—the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance—is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling, and parenting. However, coercion results in fear and resentment, which are fuels for miserable marriages, unhappy families, and what we today call mental illness.
In all societies, there are coercions to behave in culturally agreed-upon ways. For example, in many indigenous cultures, there is peer pressure to be courageous and honest. However, in modernity, we have institutional coercions that compel us to behave in ways that we do not respect or value. Parents, afraid their children will lack credentials necessary for employment, routinely coerce their children to comply with coercive schooling that was unpleasant for these parents as children. And though 70% of us hate or are disengaged from our jobs, we are coerced by the fear of poverty and homelessness to seek and maintain employment.
We value our own story and what it entails. But we can’t become hostages to the romantic notion that the past is always a better country… Getting better is getting better. Improvement is improving. There will, of course, always be people who feel alienated by a new thing and there might be a compelling argument to suggest all this availability is merely a high-speed way of filling a spiritual gap in our lives. Yet I can assure you there was no lack of spiritual gap in the lives of people living in small towns in 1982. It was just a lot harder to bridge that gap.
Physical loneliness can still exist, of course, but you’re never friendless online. Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun. Technology is not doing what the sci-fi writers warned it might — it is not turning us into digits or blank consumers, into people who hate community. Instead, there is evidence that the improvements are making us more democratic, more aware of the planet, more interested in the experience of people who aren’t us, more connected to the mysteries of privacy and surveillance.
For me, life did not become more complex with technology, it’s became more amenable, and what a supreme luxury it is, being able to experience nowadays your own reach in the world, knowing that there truly is no backwater, except the one you happily remember from the simple life of yore.
Death doesn’t go away just because we hide it. Hiding life’s truths doesn’t mean they disappear. It means they are forced into darker parts of our consciousness … Death is the most natural thing in the world, and treating it as deviant isn’t doing our culture any favors … We don’t control nature. We aren’t higher-ranking than nature.
Everybody always says life is too short, but it’s really long. It’s really, really long.
Regret isn’t just seen as antithetical to reason, it’s spiritually transgressive as well. Sayings such as ‘Everything happens for a reason’ inherently condemn the sort of nihilist relativism that might experience regret as proof of the random meaninglessness of life. Regret is sinful, a direct rebuke to the existence of a God that knows what he’s doing, and cares.
The idea that maybe nothing happens for a reason is deeply unsettling to many people. For the rationalist, regretting past events or actions is tantamount to admitting to the terrifying possibility that failing is as easy as knocking over a glass. Goal-based decision-making gives structure to what would otherwise be a series of random events, and accomplishing those goals gives the illusion of meaning. The idea that it’s always preferable to keep your eyes trained on the future, to look on the bright side, and to let go and let God take over is deeply ingrained in both rational and religious world views.
Our discomfort with regret reflects an ‘existential discomfort with the limits of our personal control’.
The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.”
A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is “weak,” “sinful” and anxious for a “good time.” Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.”
Take stock of those around you and you will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true; he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality. —JOSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET (From the book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker)
The scenario of self-value is not an idle film hobby. The basic question the person wants to ask and answer is “Who am I?” “What is the meaning of my life?” “What value does it have?” And we can only get answers to these questions by reviewing our relationships to others, what we do to others and for others, and what kind of response we get from them. Self-esteem depends on our social role, and our inner-newsreel is always packed with faces—it is rarely a nature documentary. That is why everyone is always bothering everyone else for a recognition of their basic value: “See how great I am, how important, how unique, how good—you see, you notice it, you admit it?” (From the book Birth and Death of Meaning by Ernest Becker)
Unlike the baboon who gluts himself only on food, man nourishes himself mostly on self-esteem. (From the book Birth and Death of Meaning by Ernest Becker)
Very few of us ever find our authentic talent—usually it is found for us, as we stumble into a way of life that society rewards us for… The result is that most of our life is in large part a rationalization of our failure to find out who we really are, what our basic strength is, what thing it is that we were meant to work upon the world. (From the book Birth and Death of Meaning by Ernest Becker)
What I’m sure of is that you can’t be happy without money. That’s all. I don’t like superficiality and I don’t like romanticism. I like to be conscious. And what I’ve noticed is that there’s a kind of spiritual snobbism in certain ‘superior beings’ who think that money isn’t necessary for happiness. Which is stupid, which is false, and to a certain degree cowardly…. For a man who is well born, being happy is never complicated. It’s enough to take up the general fate, only not with the will for renunciation like so many fake great men, but with the will for happiness. Only it takes time to be happy. A lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using our money to gain time. That’s the only problem that’s ever interested me…. To have money is to have time. That’s my main point. Time can be bought. Everything can be bought. To be or to become rich is to have time to be happy, if you deserve it…. Everything for happiness, against the world which surrounds us with its violence and its stupidity…. All the cruelty of our civilization can be measured by this one axiom: happy nations have no history.― Albert Camus
“Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions…Confirmation bias is a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations. It causes you to think selectively, but the real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.”Confirmation Bias
Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. [Research shows] that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities…At one end is a black swamp of unrealistic negative opinions about life and your place in it. At the other end is an overexposed candy-cane forest of unrealistic positive opinions about how other people see you and your own competence. Right below the midpoint of this spectrum is a place where people see themselves in a harsh yellow light of objectivity. Positive illusions evaporate there, and the family of perceptions mutating off the self-serving bias cannot take root. About 20 percent of all people live in that spot, and psychologists call the state of mind generated by those people depressive realism*. If your explanatory style rests in that area of the spectrum, you tend to experience a moderate level of depression more often than not because you are cursed to see the world as a place worthy neither of great dread nor of bounding delight, but just a place. You have a strange superpower — the ability to see the world closer to what it really is. Your more accurate representations of social reality make you feel bad and weird mainly because most people have a reality-distortion module implanted in their heads; sadly, yours is either missing or malfunctioning.You don’t have to be a mathematician to see a major problem here. Every person’s assumptions about being above average can’t be true. There can’t be an average unless some people sit in the middle of a bell curve and others fall to either side. Statistically speaking, if you had a perfect measure of your abilities you would see that you fall into the average category for most things, but you have a very hard time believing this is true.How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias
Educating attention is a core feature of controlling one’s mind. If we can effectively control our attention, many other aspects of mental control will follow. We can view the control of attention as a core foundation upon which other aspects of mental control are based, such as the control of emotions.Can You Learn to Control Your Mind?
Ivan Ilych’s death provides the lesson that we all deceive ourselves when we forget about death, and only death gives us true insight into the meaning, or want of meaning, in our lives…Not always but often the people who most fear death are those who feel they have never begun living. These tend to be people who have not got much joy from work or who have little if anything invested in family life.Death Takes No Holiday
We feel alienated from the cosmos because we struggle to integrate the truths of science with our everyday desires and emotions. Proselytizers for science like Richard Dawkins often miss this point. In 2009 Dawkins wrote an essay promoting science entitled “There is grandeur in this view of life.” But we already know that science discloses grand, even sublime truths. The problem is that this grandeur has proven difficult to connect with purpose, intimacy, emotion—the stuff that matters most in people’s everyday lives.
This, for Eagleton, is where Christianity excels. The Christian worldview was structured around a narrative that began with Creation and ended with Heaven/Hell. In such a world, humans found themselves in the midst of a quest, and we could choose to act accordingly. Before science discredited it, religion had what Eagleton calls “the power to motivate”; science, he says, lacks this.
Narrative becomes all the more precious in the face of earthly sorrows. For Nietzsche, the point of the story of the Fall and the coming redemption is to justify suffering and to offer hope to those who have least: the meek shall inherit the earth. But this story dies with God. “What actually arouses indignation over suffering is not the suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering,” wrote Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality. He concludes that the “herd” can never do without a grand narrative.
This, for Nietzsche, explains why although science and reason have killed God, we’ve failed to bury him. Eagleton describes the ways in which humans have tried—but failed—to replace God with concepts such as “Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation.” Theological concepts such as inspiration, unity, autonomy, epiphany and so on have also been imported into our talk about art.
It seems that we routinely overestimate what we know. We fail to predict what we will want in the future. We are inconsistent about our preferences. We value the objects we possess over the ones we lack in ways that don’t make any objective sense. And having better or more extensive information does not necessarily improve matters. That’s because when making choices, we also tend to ignore facts that do not jibe with the outcome we desire; we focus on information that is irrelevant, or see patterns where they do not exist, or get distracted by our fleeting emotions. Then, if the possibilities are presented differently, our choices will shift accordingly, suggesting that on top of it all, we are easily manipulated by those in the business of manufacturing situations bloated with options. By and large, when it comes time to choose, the impulsive, unreflective parts of the brain dominate the analytic parts. Or to put it differently, adults are a lot more like children than we might care to admit.
A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.
And you can say that maybe life today is in some ways worse than in 1700, because we have lost much of the connection to the community around us … it’s a big argument … but it happened. People today actually manage to live, many people, as isolated, alienated individuals. In the most advanced societies, people live as alienated individuals, with no community to speak about, with a very small family. It’s no longer the big extended family. It’s now a very small family, maybe just a spouse, maybe one or two children, and even they, they might live in a different city, in a different country, and you see them maybe once in every few months, and that’s it. And the amazing thing is that people live with that. And that’s just 200 years.
What might happen in the next hundred years on that level of daily life, of intimate relationships? Anything is possible. You look at Japan today, and Japan is maybe 20 years ahead of the world in everything. And you see these new social phenomena of people having relationships with virtual spouses. And you have people who never leave the house and just live through computers. And I don’t know, maybe it’s the future, maybe it isn’t, but for me, the amazing thing is that you’d have thought, given the biological background of humankind, that this is impossible, yet we see that it is possible. Apparently, Homo Sapiens is even more malleable than we tend to think.
To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.
Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous… Work’s assumed virtue has always been about more than its utility or market value. George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, provided a clue in the frame of “work as obedience”. The first virtue we learn as children is obeying our parents, particularly in performing tasks we don’t enjoy. Later, as adults, we’re paid to obey our employers – it’s called work. Work and virtue are thus connected in our neurology in terms of obedience to authority. That’s not the only cognitive frame we have for the virtue of work, but it’s the one that is constantly reinforced by what Lakoff calls the “strict father” conservative moral system.
This “strictness” moral framing is implicit, for example, in the current welfare system. An increasingly punitive approach is adopted towards those who don’t follow the prescribed “job-seeking” regimen – a trend that most political parties seem to approve of. Politicians boast of getting “tough on dependency culture”, and when they talk of “clamping down” on the “hardcore unemployed”, you’d think they were referring to criminals. Emphasis on punishment is the sign of an obedience frame. Work itself has a long history as punishment for disobedience…
“The trouble with the world,” Bertrand Russell quipped, “is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
“In many areas of life,” Dunning writes, “incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are.”
We tend to resist recognizing when we have a vacuum of knowledge. We think we know a lot more than we do. And we make stuff up, often without realizing it, just to assure our egos that we are good enough and smart enough.
“It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known, but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
Couple that idea with the concept of Socratic wisdom — the Athenian philosopher’s announcement that his wisdom consists in the fact that he knows that he knows nothing — and you have something of a recipe for confronting, if not overcoming, Dunning’s conundrum.
No, the solution to the confidence conundrum is not to feel as though you lack nothing and delude yourself into believing you already possess everything you could ever dream. The solution is to simply become comfortable with what you potentially lack. The big charade with confidence is that it has nothing to do with the comfort of what we achieve and everything to do with the comfort of what we don’t achieve.
People who are confident in business are confident because they’re comfortable with failure. People who are confident in their social lives are confident because they’re comfortable with rejection. People who are confident in their relationships are confident because they’re comfortable with getting hurt. The truth is that the route to the positive runs through the negative. Those among us who are the most comfortable with negative experiences are those who reap the most benefits.