A Sense of Survivor’s Guilt

It always feels weird to share my thoughts, news, and even silly memes about life-shattering events happening worldwide. Folks who are alive and real as me or my loved ones are suffering to a degree I literally can’t imagine, simply because I won the birth lottery. I have the luxury of casually discussing and debating the cold hard historical and geopolitical facts behind events that kill, or have killed, millions. It is a weird feeling.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of these global tragedies, which are so far removed from us both politically and geographically—after all, we could barely stop our own government from its deadly adventurism abroad, much less autocrats around the world like Putin. All I can do is laugh, learn, and spread the word, I suppose.

So, to some extent, I think it’s a coping mechanism: Many times, I find myself being weighed down by the state of the world or my society. All of a sudden, the reality of the human condition will seize me, and I’ll start to feel bad about both the suffering itself and my powerless to do anything about it.

Yet, years of consuming so much history and news has left me with some level cognitive dissonance towards the pain and suffering that are the norm for the vast majority of humans who ever lived. I read about wars, genocides, and brave but doomed rebellions—past and present—with detachment: I know these things happened—and continue to happen—to real people, but it feels more like I am reading a story rather than events that happened to people like me.

What was very real to the soldiers sent off to die for their leaders’ wars, and for the civilians caught in the middle, is just interesting bedtime reading or a quick and easy social media post. It’s all in some sense unreal, whether it’s acute crises like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (to name just a few), or banal day-to-day tragedies like thousands of kids dying from a first-world inconvenience like diarrhea.

To some extent this can’t be helped: Psychological phenomena like “psychic numbing” and the “identifiable victim effect” make us more inclined to care about people who look like us, are related to us, or form part of a small community. This makes sense given that we’ve been tens of thousands of years living in small, interrelated clans, on which we depended to survive.

By contrast, feeling an emotional connection and moral obligation to an ever-larger, more diverse set of strangers—from tribe to city to country and now the world—happened gradually over just the last few centuries (and accelerated only two hundred years ago), which is a blip in our 200,000-year history.

The idea that I should feel sad for millions of Americans I know thing about—let alone Yemenis, Afghans, Ukrainians, etc.—would have been alien not that long ago. Who are these people to me? Why should their suffering matter? It’s a mark of progress in our species that more and more people take into account the wellbeing of total strangers they will never meet or know (though we clearly still have a long way to go).

I think feeling disconnected from a world of billions of strangers remains a reasonable survival mechanism: Imagine what it would be like to truly feel the pain and sadness of billions of people as saliently as we do our own or our loved ones. How would we function in the face of nonstop exposure to human suffering and tragedy, which has never been more frequent, tangible, and personal, thanks to social media, smartphones, and widespread Internet access? (And to think the world is actually less violent than at any point in human history—imagine social media in the Middle Ages or World War II?

Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith posed an illustrative example of this phenomenon: If someone in his native Britain learned that a world away, millions of Chinese died from an earthquake, their response would be something like, “Wow, that’s awful” and then go about their day; if that same person learned their pinky was going to be amputated, it would haunt them for the rest of the day and well after.

Smith’s point is more salient than ever. Throughout any given day, I’ll get news notifications about all sorts of horrible things happening around the world, and I’ll recognize it for what it is—tragic and awful—but immediately move on with my life, and even laugh at the funny meme or text message that follows. It speaks to my sheer good luck that I am that small fraction of humanity for which this level of suffering is merely a meme, notification, or interesting historical reading.

I guess all we can do is try and make more and more people be as lucky as we are to not know starvation, war, abject poverty, and oppression. I don’t know how we do that; but expanding our circle of moral concern and compassion is definitely a start.

Remember Death

Jumping off my post some days ago about the Stoic “premeditation of evils“: Virtually every society since ancient times understood that we should always be aware of death.

Socrates said that good philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as “remember death”, which became the mantra of medieval Christian societies following the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Some adherents of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad himself had once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, already so well known for their obsession with death, had a custom of bringing out a skeleton during festivities and cheer, “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Mexico’s globally iconic Day of the Dead fuses both the Catholic and indigenous fascination with death, putting a more optimistic spin on our ability to remain connected to departed loved ones while appreciative of our time on Earth.

Still Life with a Skull, by Philippe de Champaigne, which depicts the three essentials of existence: life (the tulip), death (the skull), and the time (the hourglass). The original painting is part of a 17th century artistic genre called Vanitas, which encouraged reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

Perhaps the most famous proponents of this idea were the Stoics I quoted last time, who emerged in the Roman Empire the third century B.C.E. In his private journal known as the Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Roman statesman and orator Seneca advised that we go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we:

…prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live and would probably paralyze us with fear (take it from someone with chronic anxiety). But as another famous Stoic, the slave Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terribly doing so, you’ll never have a base thought, nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers cut us off on the road or in line will die; that every time we say goodbye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again. Again, the point is not to be depressed, clingy, or nihilistic, but to help put things in perspective and value each finite second we have.

The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness. Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s every culture and society has been trying to refine this advise for as long as our species has been aware of its own mortality.

Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

Another Ebola Outbreak Speaks to the Cruel Randomness of Birth

An Ebola outbreak has reported in the Congo, and may be spreading to larger cities where it will become more virulent. The horrific disease, which is sometimes known as the death of a thousand cuts, is endemic to the region; only a few years ago, a similar outbreak, this time in West Africa, claims tens of thousands of lives in across three of some of the world’s poorest countries.

I cannot help but contemplate the sheer randomness of the human condition. By a mere accident of birth, millions of people are at risk of dying in one of the most awful ways imaginable. Hundreds of millions more find themselves born in places rife with disease, natural disasters, poverty, and/or political repression.  Continue reading

How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life. Continue reading

The Meditative Quality of Art

From early childhood up until my early twenties, I was an artist. Not in any particularly prolific or professional sense; just someone who liked to sketch, doodle, and draw fairly regularly. I cannot recall when or why I stopped exactly, but I have been meaning to get back into it, and on occasion I do manage to pull of a crude sketch or two.

A recent article in the Washington Post is giving me yet another reason to get back into the habit. As so many artists throughout history have attested, there is evidence that creative activity is good for the mind, as well as the body, being utilized to great effect in therapy. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder and even cancer (namely symptoms like fatigue and pain) is mitigated through the creative process.

Whatever the exact mechanics of it, there is just something about making art that helps us feel better, both emotionally and physically. Here are four evidence-backed reasons, courtesy of WaPo  and Fulfillment Daily,  why letting loose with one’s inner creativity, regardless of skill level, is well worth trying. Continue reading

The Health Benefits of Watching Fish

IFLS reports on the first known study to research the psychological effect of observing marine life. It might seem like an oddly specific thing to look into, but given the long history of aquarium-keeping across civilizations, it makes sense to consider what value humans derive from the practice

Sure enough, British researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, in collboration with the National Marine Aquarium, found measurable benefits in physical and mental well being among test subjects following a bit of aquarium-gazing.  Continue reading

Article of Interest: The Cost of Paying Attention

From the New York Times comes a highly relevant reflection on something that bedevils most people in the modern world: the constant bombardment of distractions and stimuli that make it harder and harder for us to focus on any one thing.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.

Bayanihan

Bayanihan is a concept in the Philippines that refers to a spirit of communal unity and cooperation, usually centered on members coming together to help one of their own. It has its origins in rural towns, where members help a family move to a new place by volunteering to physically transport the entire house to a specific location. This is usually followed by a celebration to express gratitude to the volunteers.

Bayanihan practiced in its original form. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Bayanihan persists to this day in both rural and urban communities, especially in slums. Examples include raising money to help one member pay for medical treatment, helping new arrivals get situated, and rebuilding any homes lost to natural disaster. Even the poorest citizens manage to pool their resources and capital together to ensure one of their own is looked after.

In its most dramatic manifestation, bayanihan was utilized in the capital city of Manila to form a successful grassroots movement, which influenced the government to help establish better housing and infrastructure for poorer residents.

The Joys of the Ordinary

The key to happiness — to a life that is not only comfortable, but fulfilling — is one of those loaded concepts that elicits a wide variety of answers and musings. But one consensus that seems to emerge among people of all ages and experiences is the notion that we must appreciate the simple pleasures of everyday life — the little gifts that we take for granted yet would be much more miserable without.

The New York Times published a piece some time ago that explored this notion, citing some interesting research which, among other things, showed that the older one got, the more joy was derived from ordinary experiences. It seems that with time and experience, one learns to appreciate anything that our often difficult lives have to offer.

This is especially salient in a time of socioeconomic crisis, when people of all ages and backgrounds — but especially the younger and less wealthier — are finding their optimism and enthusiasm tested. Declining political and economic fortunes, combined with an uncertain future, would make happiness seem more elusive than ever, especially when compared to the more prosperous circumstances in which many older Americans came of age.

Amid the subsequently rising rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness, perhaps the age-old lesson of counting one’s blessings (in either the secular or religious sense) is as apt as ever. As the Times article noted, even in the best of times, let alone nowadays, the average person simply lacks the resources to enjoy an extraordinary life full of untold luxury, adventure, and other fulfilling activities — but nor should they require such approaches to be happy.

…plenty of people won’t have the money to go to faraway places or pay to jump out of airplanes. Low-cost extraordinary experiences may well be nearby, but there ought to be much comfort in the evidence that everyday things that cost little or nothing can deliver the same amount of joy. A garden. The elaborate meal that emerges from it and the spare time to invent the recipes. A return to a neglected musical instrument. All-you-can-consume subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify, with watchlists and playlists that stretch on for years.

This is not to say that we should give up on aiming for better lives; it goes without saying that, traveling the world, seeking a well-paying profession, and pursuing other life-affirming endeavors are still great goals (at least for some people). Nor should we simply accept the systemic sociopolitical and economic issues that have made it harder for most of us to reach our highest potential. But regardless of one’s circumstances, now and in the future, it seems sensible to make the most of what we can while we can, even if it is only in the process of realizing higher aspirations.

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to the value of this attitude. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from regular bouts of depression and anxiety; it has only been in recent years, as I approach my thirties, that I have mitigated these conditions by, among other things, deriving as much value from ordinary experiences as possible. Reading my books, listening to my favorite songs, tending to my garden, enjoying a hot cup of tea, sleeping in my warm bed — these are the little things in which I look forward to day-by-day.

These are the seemingly mundane activities and indulgences that are easy to take for granted, but are luxuries to so many other humans. While I nonetheless have aspirations for greater things — not least of which is traveling the world — in the meantime I am content enjoying the everyday pleasures that come with my good fortune to be alive and healthy.