On time being out of joint

The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen has written about the importance of a cohesive story of the self. “To be a self”, he says, “is to be able to give an account of a self through a narrative of who one has been, who one will become and who one is now”. In other words, our sense of selfhood requires us to be able to gather into a unity our past, present and future, or rather, I suggest, a ‘healthy’ selfhood requires this. I’ve been thinking about this creation of a unity of the self through the use of narrative quite a bit recently, but in the last few days, in relation to the current coronavirus emergency, it seems particularly relevant. To what extent has this emergency, and the strange situation we find ourselves in, disrupted our personal narrative? To what extent has this disruption of a personal narrative interfered with our sense of unity? And, perhaps more importantly, how does this make us feel?

Speaking personally, whilst I am obviously still able to provide a narrative account of the relationship between ‘who I have been’ and ‘who I am now’, the sense of unity I feel between these two tenses seems somewhat fractured, or, to paraphrase Hamlet, my “time is out of joint”. Just a few weeks ago my diary was nearly full. I was often attending several meetings a day, I was engaging with many people each day, and (perhaps most significantly) I was going to the gym most days. Now my diary has been stripped of meetings, and the only people I’m really engaging with are those who I am ‘staying at home’ with. Whilst this could change in the coming weeks as virtual meetings are gradually arranged, the sudden difference between now and then seems strange, perhaps even unsettling. And most unsettling of all – the enforced change to my exercise regime. Whilst walking my partner’s dog is most enjoyable – it doesn’t provide the same ‘buzz’ as a good workout in the gym!

And the relationship between ‘who I am now’ and ‘who I will become’ is equally ‘out of joint’. At the most extreme level, whilst I have no underlying health conditions and therefore should not expect a serious threat to my future existence should I contract the virus, it’s difficult to entirely dismiss the increase in threat level. But even at a less dramatic level my timeline is somewhat fractured. All short term plans have been cancelled. And whilst it’s still reasonable to make loose medium term plans (i.e. plans not tied to specific dates and places), because of the vagueness of these plans they fail to provide the same sense of direction that planning for the future usually does. I feel like a bird who has lost a wing and can only fly in circles. Alright, I’m not sure this last analogy works – I’m not sure that a single winged bird can fly at all – but you get the image! My point is simply that without something tangible to work towards we / I lose momentum. My fear is stagnation.

So the question is: How do I overcome this disruption to my time line? How do I avoid stagnating in a pool of psychological / social / physical inactivity? Well, my suspicion is that just being conscious of the need for a narrative, and actively talking or writing about it, actually restores it to some degree; that talking or writing about the past, present and future puts ‘my time back into joint’. The danger, in contradiction to the advice of ‘mindfulness’ or many meditation manuals, is to focus too much on the here and now. Concentrating too much on the present literally fractures my personal sense of unity; I surrender my sense of becoming to being trapped in the present. So thank you for listening. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t exist, it doesn’t matter if no one out there reads this. Just sitting down and writing this restores my sense of time, unifies my sense of self. I feel better already.

A cocktail of Stoicism, community spirit and red wine

What I was dreading the most has happened. They have closed gyms! I now, somehow, have to survive without my daily workouts – workouts that (I have convinced myself) help to keep me sane. We are all going to be tested during this time of crisis, and I totally accept that this imposed sacrifice is really quite trivial in the scheme of things, but it’s very much been a part of my life now for several years, and will be hard to live without. However, as there is nothing I can do about the closure, my only recourse is to meet this, and all the other tests that COVID19 will present, head on. Now, to help meet these tests I have elsewhere recommended a cocktail of Stoicism, community spirit, and red wine. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced of the efficacy of my advice.

I wrote a little about Stoicism a couple of weeks ago. Then I talked about acquiring the strength to change those things in life that can be changed, the resilience to accept those things that cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. I would now like to add an Aristotelian spin to this by suggesting that the path to achieving this is through the development of certain character traits. Now the obvious character traits requiring development here are psychological strength, emotional resilience, and good old fashioned wisdom, though, given the space would, I would make the case for several others. But let’s stick with these for now. The point I want to make is not so much what these character traits are, but how they are developed. For Aristotle they are developed through sheer hard work – through practice and repetition, through developing the right habits. In other words, it’s not a matter of just thinking about it, of saying to yourself “right, that’s it, from now on I’m going to be…”, but of trying to display these character traits at every opportunity, of accepting that sometimes (most times) we will fall short of who we are trying to become, but that success comes from constant repetition, from constant application.

To my thinking, the development of community spirit is more fundamental than most people acknowledge. It’s more, much more than that added sense of group endeavour achieved when individuals decide, in times of trouble or strife, to come together for the good of everyone. For me it’s more fundamental than our own individuality. We are, at our very core, part of a community. We can only develop a sense of individuality through interactions with others; it’s only by way of interactions with others that our sense of self develops in the first place. One of my biggest criticisms of capitalism, particularly its modern incarnation of neo-liberalism, is the centrality of the individual – the core belief in rational self-interest. Yes, we can be competitive and self-interested, but in evolutionary terms we were cooperative and group-interested first, and for a much longer period. We tend to forget this, and focus solely on our individuality. Even when we talk of community spirit we tend to think it in terms of individuals coming together rather than acknowledging how communities give rise to individuals in the first place. I think it would be of great benefit to us to acknowledge the primacy of the community.

And red wine? Well part of me thinks that any need to justify the drinking of this essential tonic suggests a problem, so let’s just accept its importance and move on. But as such an approach ruins my rhetorical use of a three part list let me simply refer to the 2019 album by the folk singer Kate Rusby – Philosophers, Poets and Kings. How literally should we take the lyrics of the title track that say that “if it wasn’t for red wine, we would not have philosophers, poets and kings”? Well I’m pretty sure that despite the examples she cites, particularly from amongst the ancients, by no meals all philosophers and poets have relied on the restorative and creative powers of red wine to produce their work. And becoming a king has far more to do with being born to ‘the right parents’ than it does to their consumption of their favourite bottle. But the other way to take this claim is at the personal level, that Kate Rusby would not have written the album “if it wasn’t for red wine” – and I’m pretty sure that she’s a fellow fan of the drink. And it’s a great album. So let’s raise a glass to creativity, and to a little something to take the edge of a hard day!

My ‘keeping sane in a crisis’ action plan

We are living in strange times. To be honest, I, along (I should imagine) with many other people, feel unsettled – perhaps unheimlich? Unheimlich literally translates from the German as uncanny, and was a term used by Freud to describe the psychological experience of something being strangely familiar. Familiar? Yes, familiar! At this point I’m beginning to think that I’ve read too many science fiction books, and watched too many science fiction films. I’m starting to imagine a scenario whereby a previously unknown virus breaks out and within a short period of time is causing fear, panic and economic collapse; a situation that so rapidly deteriorates that the pubic demand firm and decisive action from their governments. These governments first respond with calls for the public to stay at home and stay calm, but when food shortages cause riots to break out martial law is declared, troops appear on the streets and those deemed ‘trouble makers’ are shot on site. An imagined scenario of course. It could never really happen – could it?

The trouble is that all of a sudden I’ve got time on my hands. Time to think. Time to imagine. A couple of weeks ago I was complaining about how busy my diary was. Now, within a matter of days, my diary is pretty much clear for the foreseeable future. Just about all meetings and events have been cancelled. So, if I’m not going to let my imagination have free reign to fantasize and construct all types of apocalyptical futures I need to use my time constructively. I need a plan. I can feel that dormant careers adviser lurking within telling me that I need an action plan. And he’s probably right. So, in the short term at least, I have three projects to occupy my time.

First, 5G. Bridport Town Council’s Environment and Social Wellbeing Committee has received two public expressions of concern regarding the potential roll-out of 5G technology in recent months. My usual, rather glib response when the issue of 5G is raised is to comment that I would be grateful for a regular 3G service. But this is obviously an issue that many people are concerned about, it’s also an issue that I really don’t understand. I don’t fully understand what the technology is, what it will be used for, why we need it, and what the concerns are. So that’s my first piece of research.

Second, planning. I sit on both the Area Planning Committee of Dorset Council and my Town Council’s Planning Committee, and it’s my biggest frustration. I have a pretty good idea of what we should be doing, what we should be approving or rejecting, what we should be requiring in all new developments, but I feel constrained by our out-dated local plan and the National Planning Policy Framework – both of which are heavily on the side of developers, and neither of which fully acknowledge our climate emergency. Not only do I need to understand both of these documents in more detail than I currently do, I need to understand where they could be interpreted in ways that better reflect our climate emergency.

Third, ICT. For some reason that I have not yet worked out I have managed to become a member of a team of ICT mentors for my fellow Dorset Councillors. My ICT skills are not bad, but they are no where near developed enough for me to feel comfortable in this role. There is a wide range of applications that I have never used, and of those that I have used I am uncertain of many of their capabilities. So I need to view the many online instruction videos that are available, and try out their full range of uses. These then form the projects of my ‘keeping sane in a crisis’ action plan. I will keep you informed of progress.

A touch of eco-stoicism

A couple of incidents during the last week have made me think of stoicism. I’ve no intention of going into the detail of this ancient philosophy that flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds up until the 3rd century AD, and which has had several revivals over the years (including quite recently), but I would like to comment on a ‘prayer’ that for me sums up the stoic approach to life. This is to achieve:
The strength to change those things in life that I can change
The resilience to accept those things in life that I can’t change
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Whilst the exact wording of the above was never uttered (as far as I know) by an actual stoic philosopher, and whilst in modern times it has found form as the Christian ‘serenity prayer’, I think it exactly encapsulates the stoic approach to life. Taken as a statement of intent, of personal development, rather than as a request to a non-existent deity, I think that it provides us with a valuable guide to living – even the saving of humanity.

I think that there is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning those things in life we can change and those we cannot. Take the meaning and purpose we ascribe to life for example. For so many of us this is provided by our blind acceptance of the belief that we are naturally competitive creatures whose raison d’etre is to accumulate as many goods and as much wealth as possible, and that our success in life is measured by the amount of these we have accumulated. Such an attitude is largely believed to be set in stone as part of human nature, and that therefore we should just accept the fact and continue accumulating more and more stuff, even if this accumulation strips the planet of resources and poisons it with our waste.

However, we could, if we wanted, if we could find the strength, provide our selves with an alternative: we could appreciate that for over 90% of our evolution co-operation has been more important than competition and that its development will provide us with the best chance of dealing with most of the big issues that we face; we could see our raison d’etre as that of flourishing as part of a highly inter-dependent global eco-system. Yes, we could if we wanted. This last bit though, this seeing ourselves as plain members of the land community (as Aldo Leopold put it) rather than conquerors of it, is simply the acknowledgment of the truth, and can’t be changed – no matter how much we may wish it otherwise. This acceptance of the fact that we humans are just part of the Earth’s ecosystem, not masters of it, not exterior to it, and that we could easily become extinct if we disturb our relationship with our ecosystem to a much greater extent than we have so far, will require a fair amount of human resilience because it flies in the face of our over inflated sense of importance.

Yes, we humans really need to develop our wisdom. We need to learn to be able to differentiate between those things in life that can be changed and those that can’t. For so many aspects of our existence on this planet we have got it arse about face, believing that much of what we could change if we could find the strength is, instead, a fixed part of human nature, whilst simultaneously failing to see that much of what we are trying to change is in fact inalterable outside of a small degree of variability. If we fail to develop this wisdom soon our future existence has a great big question mark hanging over it.

Something slightly more philosophical

I’m not quite sure why, but I don’t think that I’ve often, if at all, mentioned the Philosophy in Pubs group that I run in either this blog, or on Twitter. I think that whilst political opinions are openly and robustly discussed at the Philosophy group, I have probably tried to keep this group at a little distance from my overtly party political activities and comments. It may also be that I don’t wish to give the group any more publicity than it already receives – a monthly column in the Bridport Times magazine. Largely as a result of this monthly column, attendance at the monthly discussions has been, well, shall we say, very healthy, sometimes bordering being a bit too healthy. Once you start getting more than 20 people together to discuss an issue it becomes difficult to control and ensure that everyone has a chance to engage.

So, why am I writing about it now? Well, quite simply, because, following last week’s meeting, it is dominating my thoughts. For two reasons: what we discussed at this meeting, and what we agreed to discuss at next month’s meeting. The question chewed over last week was: Can or should technology be ethically neutral? I will avoid summarising a direct answer to this question here (if you want one, see the April edition of Bridport Times) and instead focus on some thoughts that came to me as a result of our discussion.

These concern the extent to which technologies like social media have the power to change social norms and embody new norms; the degree to which these technologies can directly influence our perception or understanding of the world. I’m thinking particularly of how easy it is to use abusive or threatening language against someone who you have never, and are unlikely to ever meet; how our language to others can be normalised without the opportunity of direct social engagement. Or how teenagers learn about sexual norms from pornography rather than the fumbling embarrassments of direct sexual experiment. Up until very recently new norms have developed slowly. They have evolved. Those that have proved useful have been retained, those that have not have been lost. And the test has always been direct social feedback, feedback that has been nuanced by other body language and social context – feedback that now comes in the form of a simple, context-free ‘like’.

At the next meeting we agreed to discuss fashion. Yes, fashion…the philosophy of fashion. This has come about because of my association with Transition Town Bridport. Every year TTB run ‘Green Fortnight’ – a series of events around the town aimed at raising public awareness of a particular aspect of developing and living a sustainable way of life. As this year’s event is focussing on fashion I rather casually suggested to the person leading on the event that we devote a PiP session to discussing its philosophical aspects. Now I had completely forgot about this when I received an email from the organiser asking if this was actually happening. Fortunately this arrived the day before our PiP meeting, and when I suggested it to the group the idea was very favourably received – especially as I offered to introduce the topic myself. So my project for the coming week will be to do some research and thinking into fashion from a philosophical perspective, something that will be completely new to me, but something that I’m actually quite looking forward to. I will report back in a subsequent post.

Another area of research that has been dominating my thoughts for the last couple of years concerns the role that stories and narratives play in our lives; the extent to which we use them to structure and give our lives meaning and purpose. More particularly, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which meta-narratives, those over-arching narratives such as supplied by religion, or more recently supplied by our dominant economic model, supply what we take to be common sense. I’ve been following this line of thinking because I suspect that one of the main reasons why so many of us accept, at one level, that our climate is starting to breakdown and become a problem for human societies, but at another level refrain from taking the necessary action, is because it will retard economic growth or development – and this feels like it is contravening good old common sense. Fortunately I have been invited to talk at a number of local climate related events in the next couple of months, so will have an opportunity to test my thinking in live debate – always the best test!