Last year, the pandemic was more ‘annoying’ to me and my family than damaging to our health or finances. So, if there’s one thing that 2020 showed me, it was my privilege.
I turned 40 in December, which means I’m now inescapably middle-aged. I’m also a straight, white, male. Thankfully, somewhat unrelated to the pandemic, I also spent 2020 learning a bunch of things about myself and how I relate to others. This happened primarily through CBT, research and learning around the Black Lives Matter movement, and doing some work around Nonviolent Communication.
My two biggest takeaways from the above were:
I don’t need to have an opinion about everything. As Marcus Aurelius said, “We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.”
I should stick to only discussing my own experiences and context. I have no idea of the internal world of others, and how things which seem major/minor to me might be minor/major to them.
I guess this is a lo-fi version of Hume’s fork. In other words, there are statements that can be made about ideas (which are either true or false by definition) and statements that can be made about the world (which are true or false based on experience).
Over the last six months, I feel that there’s been a shift in my writing here since starting the #100DaysToOffload challenge. This has been incredibly useful in weaning me off assertions meant to provoke a response from others towards more introspection and self-documentation.
For me, the road to some form of ‘enlightenment’ here involves holding simultaneously two contradictory thoughts:
There is no objective reality
There is no ‘view from nowhere’
The first of these is straightforward: whether we’re talking about perception, belief systems, or mental models, there is no single one objective reality.
The second is more nuanced. Simply put, we still have to make a choice: we can’t fail to have perception, a belief system, or employ mental models. (Even ‘not believing’ is a belief system.)
The best approach I’ve come across to reconcile these two positions comes from Pragmatism.
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words and thought as tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action, and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes.
William James, for example, talked about the “cash value” of truth which was a shorthand way of explaining that terms like real or true have no meaning outside of a specific environment.
One thing that makes me both roll my eyes and throw my hands up in despair is when I see people talking about their experience in a very narrow context, and try to use it as an appeal to some kind of transcendental ‘truth’.
What we all need to realise is that (i) our environment encourages us to see the world a particular way, (ii) we have to take a position in order to give us agency, but (iii) this does not give us any insight outside of our environment.
So perhaps Wittgenstein was right:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
When something dies and is reborn, the usual symbol for this in Western literature is the phoenix. As a result, everything from football teams to companies are named after this mythical bird rising from the flames.
My favourite example of death and rebirth, though, is the Ouroboros:
The ouroboros… is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition and was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism and Hermeticism and most notably in alchemy…. The ouroboros is often interpreted as a symbol for eternal cyclic renewal or a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The skin-sloughing process of snakes symbolizes the transmigration of souls, the snake biting its own tail is a fertility symbol.
What I like about using the ouroboros as a metaphor is that it explicitly recognises individual or organisational self-cannibalisation as a positive thing. Just as the snake needs to shed its skin to remain agile, so we need to renew ourselves, often through ‘digesting’ our ideas and experience and then taking them in new directions.