Heated epistemic and scientific endeavor will never evaporate human foibles. Our evolved nature is too powerful and thrives within a long, random, fractal chain of failures, errors, mistakes and calamities. We must learn to benefit from our mistakes and the mistakes of others if we are going to last and thrive.
No one gives me the right to wander, the right to fail, the wondrous right to get lost. I learned long ago that many of the most important things in life you don’t have to ask for. It’s like the T-shirt – “Just Did It”. You expect things to go wrong, and they do, and you are thankful for the chance to learn from the random and often cruel blows of experience.
It took me many decades to find out how devastating comfort can be to the soul, the mind and the body. Those of us who are lucky enough to live comfortable, predictable lives will confront that truth whether we realize it or not. If you don’t actively seek challenges, if you don’t venture out into uneven ground, you will find out, at long last, that the meaning of life is summed up quite simply in a few fateful words: you’re busy and then you’re dead. What kind of life can flash through your consciousness at the moment of death when you have already spend years in the process of dying and you didn't even notice.
The marathon of fighting modern urban diseases with therapies that often contain side effects that can be worse than symptoms you have learned to live with grinds your soul down to a dull edge. It’s a kind of zombification that ultimately leaves you powerless and only able to live with yourself because you're living for others.
We all thrive on a certain amount of stress. The body and mind need it to find its balance, and more importantly, you need to be constantly healing to be healthy. When you hit the weights at the gym, or go for a 17K hike, your mind and body are learning that they have to be ready for an even greater challenge next time. The feedback loops in your system automatically prepare for greater stresses. There are many good resources out there in the technical literature of psychology, sports medicine, and other domains further removed from the human body/mind that delve into this fact.
Brain plasticity allows us to “rewire” our brain by learning new things. It’s well known now that multilingualism provides benefits that can help one to avoid Alzheimer’s in old age. The greater the challenge the more benefits one can reap. Luminosity is a brain training website that purports to proffer these kinds of benefits through online brain games. The jury is still out as to how much this really helps, but most scientists believe it helps to a certain degree at least, and can’t really hurt (unless you trade a long walk in the hills to a seat in front of a screen). If you compare activities like learning differential equations at sixty and becoming conversant in French with brain games on a website, I think the consensus would say that the latter course might be more beneficial. Real challenges in the real world are what are needed: relevant activity that holds your focus, your interest and moves you towards a better condition.
Each era holds its challenges; each era is marked by certain trends and changes.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tse
We can imagine many pathways that we might not want to be on, but we walk the well-worn path through the jungle, because we know what to expect – berries; game; water; safety; friends. There are good reasons why the path is well worn. But we shouldn't think that sticking to the usual path is going to be beneficial to us. A well-worn path is an easy place for ambushes, and a good way to sleep through life until the well-fed Turkey becomes dinner.
Our centers in the brain’s limbic system overestimate rewards while our fear networks hyper-focus on threats. We overestimate short-term pleasures and overgeneralize past bad experiences. Our urbanized, WEIRD, world blast us with messages about millions of unneeded products and services, and bombards us with media images of unlikely dangers.
The wise man says, “don't focus on the similarities, but rather pay close attention to the differences.”
Hong Kong is not the same as Mainland China. Singapore is different in important ways from Indonesia. North American is not South America. One can discuss and debate the positives and negatives of the Anglosphere throughout the last few centuries and still not break the code of what mechanisms produce the benefits inherent in certain culture-spheres; the ever illusive value matrix that produce value.
I have labored exhaustively to explain to my Japanese friends the benefits of a highly competitive, argumentative and adversarial cultures: the kind of cultures that depend on common and civil law, separation of powers, innovation, technology and science. I try to make it clear that any statement, with the possible exception of global scientific consensus and established scientific theory, will never be ultimately definitive and constant. Even scientific theories continue to refine themselves as our tools, techniques and knowledge evolves. An optimal system is in a state of constant struggle within itself and its larger environment. Some must lose; some must fail so that the overall ecosystem can improve. The tragic loss of passengers on a ferry or a plane will save many more lives in the future if we remain diligent in our quest for truth. The harm comes in following the story on TV while ignoring the sunrise.
To technocrats a litigious system can appear to be highly inefficient. “If I were the boss and everyone did things my way, the right way, everyone would finally be happy.” This is an example Voltaire’s best of all possible worlds illusion.
The reality is however, that a system with strong adversaries, vigorous competition, disagreement, struggle and conflict will have the right dynamics to produce greater value for more people and across a greater span of time. If labor is strong, business is strong, research and development is strong, the government is strong, the military is strong, the judicial branch is strong, society is strong, education is ubiquitous etc. – if all constituencies can struggle within a system that enjoys stasis as a result of said struggle – then a State can enjoy a healthy ongoing development and its citizens can thrive. But if only a few of these adversaries are strong, the system becomes corrupted and out of balance leading to brittleness and breakdown. It happens to States all the time. Read some history, or a news paper. It also happens to individuals who avoid getting knocked down.
The timid lose everything eventually.
If people are too comfortable and too well entertained they no longer feel the need to struggle within their communities and society becomes ripe for crisis and long-term breakdown. It is no longer challenged enough to prepare itself for greater stresses.
Each of us has to draw the line somewhere and decide what’s worth fighting for. We can discuss the difference between liberty, license and freedom for the next five hundred years and the conversation will only get better as long as we are engaged. We should never outsource our right to fight for what we believe in. No one needs to give you that right. When your freedom is taken from you a-la Dostoevsky, kidnapped by FARC, confined without due process in a Black Site, or bound up in culture and tradition (how can a traditional society emancipate women?), you have always your mind as a gateway to freedom and the best means of creating the resistance needed to be ever robust.
“I do not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire
Wherever conditions are right freedom will take hold. Some relative differences between systems really do matter. Never fall into the trap set on the well-worn path, or in the best of all possible worlds. As we train ourselves to learn better, as our knowledge improves, as experience leads us towards wisdom, the constant, painful, small fractures of life will make us more resilient and better human beings. Slavery; Suffer Jets; Property Rights; Modern Transportation; International Trade and so many other things we take for granted required legions of committed people to pay the ultimate price in suffering and blood before we could join a path to a slightly better world; a world that could be lost in a whimper if we stop paying attention to our state of existence - if we get too comfortable.
If you want to remember how things were, go back to the headlines of 1970 or 1909, listen to the voices from the past, go to the source, not to the memory. Memories are fallible, but the past can be accessed right now and give us hope that we are indeed moving forward towards something slightly better. Avoid hindsight bias, and be born again ceaselessly into the present – look forward Gatsby.
All systems must change and will change.
There is a propensity for anyone or any organization with a surplus of power to want to rig the system. It is up to each of us to hold people and organizations accountable. If we slack off for too long it’s too late, weakness makes it impossible to influence events anymore. A malnourished body can't fight disease or sail a boat.
Many of us drink too much, smoke too much and watch screens for too many hours in a day. We depend too much on others while not being interdependent in a way that makes us stronger through the conflict inherent in a healthy community. We know we are getting weaker and we seek only pillows and dreams. The poetry within us slowly fades from a hot ember to a gray husk of ash. We surrender to lifestyles that require a constant battle aided by pharmaceuticals and high tech machines; we call that living longer, I call that dying longer.
Eventually we’ll have exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs wired into our nervous system, all kinds of brain enhancements, printable organs to replace our wrecked kidneys and livers, and performance enhancing drugs and brain implants that will help us merrily conform to the latest artificial forms of marketed needs and fashion. Even though many of these things may improve our quality of life we must be careful. We may become uniform and invulnerable, bored, stagnant and empty. And even at age one hundred and twenty what good will our lovely bodies and powerful limbs be to us if our minds are not agile, vital, free and wise? We are humans, we are but humans, and the desire to be something else could mean the end of humanity. The hidden risks are often the most profound and deadly.
If we can only muster one last breath of courage, seek uneven ground, walk over boulders, get lost in dense unfamiliar streets, push back against the weight of life in new ways, have an argument that matters, feel the loss, feel the pain, push harder and further, your body and mind will tell you what it needs. You have only to embrace a novel challenge. Be silent for a moment and listen and you will forge a new path, a path to the place you really want to be, a path to continued progress through the stresses of existence that constitute vitality and love. What is killing you doesn't make you stronger. What doesn't kill you doesn't make you stronger. To live is a struggle against death itself and the poetic feeling of immortality dispersed in one fine moment.
Vanity, if it makes you antifragile, will always trump arrogance, pomposity, overconfidence, and complacency.
‘March Days Return With Their Covert Light’
March days return with their covert light,
and huge fish swim through the sky,
vague earthly vapors progress in secret,
things slip to silence one by one.
Through fortuity, at this crisis of errant skies,
you reunite the lives of the sea to that of fire,
grey lurchings of the ship of winter
to the form that love carved in the guitar.
O love, O rose soaked by mermaids and spume,
dancing flame that climbs the invisible stairway,
to waken the blood in insomnia’s labyrinth,
so that the waves can complete themselves in the sky,
the sea forget its cargoes and rages,
and the world fall into darkness’s nets.
What is romance if not the greatest expression of human life? Yes, I didn't say romanticism.
The conflict imbedded in loving, when embraced, heals the heart forever.