Our Future Is Endangered. And Not Due to #Coronapocalypse

Image credit: “We will never leave here”: oil painting by Borda via DeviantArt


As you’re reading this, the world isn’t just fighting a pandemic of COVID-19, already labeled #coronapocalypse — a tiny biological organism that in the nearest months will more or less affect most of us in a social, economic, or healthcare way and teach us how fragile a society we are.

As you’re reading this, the world is also fighting an invisible, stifled, secretive pandemic — and more than one. So much more that neither the planet nor we can really handle the burden, a burden that would demand a second mother Earth to provide for our gargantuan appetites in just a few dozen years. But even if we did have the option of second Earth, it seems our subconscious knows better than to believe in a happily-ever-after outcome for colonizing Mars.

As of 2020, suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death in the United States with 10x more people annually taking their life in the U.S. than the current global coronavirus death toll; depression rates among college-age adults are spilling over into a national mental-health issue of psychologically unstable future parents, workers, employers; and “the loneliness epidemic” has a health toll analogous to 15 cigarettes a day — with no ban from the CDC over Facebook coming soon. All this while we’re trying to convince ourselves that dodging coronavirus, having more sex, and once upon a time booking a seat on a Space X rocketship can save the world’s future.

As of now, we aren’t just stacking up on beans, cans, and toilet paper for the coronavirus outbreak. Nothing deeply wrong with that. But every single year, we’re collectively dumping 420+ million tons of waste on mother Earth, turning what was once rain forest, wildlife refuge, town, someone’s neighborhood into a dump stinking with gone-out-of-fashion smartphone models, cars, appliances, and crumpled soda bottles. As our supermarkets throw out 43 billion pounds of food every year, we’re simultaneously running out of food resources and “unable” to feed the 12% of the global population still suffering from hunger — in the year 2020, after 59 years of flying regularly to space.

As we dig and dig for resources, with over 17 billion extracted globally this year; as we need more and more power for having those anticipated tech releases on schedule — we force masks upon the population catering to our technological and manufacturing whims long before those masks are in need for the coronavirus. Just take a look at the pollution maps from before and during the coronavirus outbreak in China — how drastically the skies have cleared since manufacturing slowed down. The downside? We’ll ship iPhone 9 a few months later.

Pollution levels in China before (left) and during (right) the coronavirus outbreak. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using modified Copernicus Sentinel 5P data processed by the European Space Agency. Screenshot via The Verge.

 

If there’s anything COVID-19 can teach us, it is the extreme fragility of our society. A society that’s so interconnected and interdependent that a tiny microorganism can wreak tremendous havoc within it.

And if so, now may be a good time to ask ourselves — what kind of panic will we be in when the risk to our population isn’t the 2%-5% of the coronavirus, but the 90% threat of draining all the major resources of our planet by the time it takes our grandchildren to go to college.

For a moment, think of that and how those stats compare to the coronavirus epidemic we’re all on our toes about. And yet, world governments aren’t taking unprecedented measures, aren’t proclaiming cautionary guidelines, aren’t pushing for drastic bills to cure our environment, society, and the planet.

Instead, we’ve fled to our psychological “isolation pods” and shut them tight. People like Elon Musk tell us — if worst comes to worst, how about exporting those pods straight to Mars on a Space X mission? But even if the idea fools some, it does not fool our young generation — including the 123 people per day in the USA alone who’re taking their own life because the world they see is not the world they can believe in.

Today, as we fight a challenge posed to us by coronavirus — a challenge that will strain our everyday life, society, and economy, but will pass, let us consider the challenge that we’ll never gain immunity to: that of our decaying environment and suffering young generation. These two challenges, two ‘pandemics’ in their own right, that in essence, are closely linked.

Today, let us start thinking as earnestly about the environmental threats as about the epidemiological threats, and give the generation that’s unconsciously giving up on their future, a chance to blossom on Earth.

Otherwise, when we’re all gone, all that will remain of us is a junk pile of outdated smartphones.

 — Angela Yurchenko, March 2020

c.s. lewis need love gift love. c.s. lewis the four loves. image shows cupid and psyche painting by burne jones

C.S. Lewis on the Need and Gift of Love

If ever scientists have the irrational idea to come up with a branch of knowledge studying love, it would be a doomed affair. Fortunately, the closest we’ve come to the study of love is the study of its physical aspects in a science called erotology.  Fortunately, I say, because while it is possible to investigate bodily and chemical reactions, desire, and other elements of the sexual periodic table, studying the mentality of love and its spiritual phenomena is a task for psychologists at best and philosophers in essence.

One such philosopher who boldly ventured into the delicate topic was the great writer C.S.Lewis. In 1960, the famed author of the Chronicles of Narnia wrote a 160-page book called The Four Loves, a throwback to the ancient Greeks’ inquisitive segmentation of our oft-abused word ‘love’ into four words in their own right: ‘Storge’, ‘Philios’, ‘Eros’, and ‘Agape’ — as ‘Familial love’, ‘Friendship love’, ‘Romantic/Erotic love’, and ‘Unconditional Divine love’, respectively.

It is within the boundaries of romantic love that most of us feel troubled by the question of balancing the ‘needs’ and ‘gifts’ of love most poignantly.

The interesting part is that within each ‘type’ of love, Lewis also defined a sub-division, if so it can be called: ‘Need-love’ and ‘Gift-love’. While he highlighted the particularities of this duality especially in the familial bond or ‘affection’ love (i.e. a child’s acute need of its mother’s affection, and the mother’s unconditional Gift-love), it is within the boundaries of romantic love that most of us feel troubled by the question of balancing the ‘needs’ and ‘gifts’ of love most poignantly.

For women, ‘Need-love’ is something that comes almost inherently, having been instilled in us for what looks like millennia past. Part of our emotional makeup that tends to give women the right of way in Need-love and allot to men the feats of Gift-love, Need-love is also the souvenir from the times when women had no place in respected society outside of the men they accompanied. The times when women socially depended on their fathers, husbands or any masculine family available to them. In both cases, Need-love is something we’re still learning to untangle today.

When we zoom in on the question, most of the challenges modern women face can be traced back to the habit of Need-love. Every time society convinces us that ‘single’ isn’t normal and persuades a woman to find someone just not to be alone for the evening or the season, every billboard or TV ad marketing beauty products— all of that is constantly pressing on women’s inherent instinct to need and be needed.

Gift-love is the more resilient form of love, the feeling of the Divine towards the human, the mother towards the child, the stronger towards the weaker.

As women, we’ve accomplished intellectual and social independence some time ago, but we’re still working on emotional independence or the freedom from codependency, a form of emotional addiction. The freedom that teaches us to drop the fake glitter and understand the simple philosophy: we cannot attach our whole human ‘need’ for love to a single human being, however much we love them. We cannot idolize Need-love, for as Lewis reminds us — any love that is made a god becomes a demon.

The instinctual addictiveness of Need-love makes it incredibly hard to get right. In fact, these days it also makes Need-love increasingly stigmatized as the devil of relationships, making us question the righteousness of the sentiment just as the question deeply struck Lewis. If so many problems arise from the sentiment of ‘I need you’ and its sibling ‘I can’t live without you’, perhaps it’s best to eliminate the feeling altogether? Perhaps it’s best to cultivate only the noble Gift-love that feels not inhibited by distance, jealousy, etc. and exists as a gift to itself and the other without the unhealthy attachment and ‘greed’?

Surely, Gift-love is the more resilient form of love, the feeling of the Divine towards the human, the mother towards the child, the stronger towards the weaker. That is why in past centuries when women were considered the weaker sex, Gift-love was the epitome of the knight’s love towards his damsel, while Need-love was considered the feminine sentiment. It is Gift love, after all, that’s the subject of all fairy-tale princely feats and Need-love that is their recipient.

Today, as our society is striving to erase the fine yet existent line between men and women to become simply ‘Humans’ walking this incredible planet side by side, so too, the concept of Need-love and Gift-love ought to become an evolved, matured concept.

“We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.” — C.S. Lewis

To eliminate Need-love altogether as something pathetically addictive and consider only Gift-love as worthy of our time wouldn’t be fair or truthful to the humans that we are. For since our first breath of life, it is Need-love that proves how vulnerable — how human — we are. It is Need-love that makes us survive.

As Lewis writes,

“Where Need-love is felt there may be reasons for denying or totally mortifying it; but not to feel it is, in general, the mark of the cold egoist. Since we do in reality need one another, (“it is not good for man to be alone”), then the failure of this need to appear as Need-love in consciousness — in other words, the illusory feeling that it is good for us to be alone — is a bad spiritual symptom; just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because men do really need food.”

Whether men or women, we do need to acknowledge our need for each other, without ever becoming codependent. In a healthy way, we do need each other, for we are small parts of this gigantic universe. The universe that has created us both as a gift and as a need — to itself and to each other.

I suppose we will never fathom the exact ‘science’ of love, or even the depths of those four ancient words defining it: ‘Storge’, ‘Philios’, ‘Eros’, and ‘Agape’. But endeavoring to explore both the Need and Gift of love while placing those we love at what Rainer Maria Rilke (that other great philosopher of love) called the “gate of one’s solitude”, is what makes the frightening addiction of Need-love vanish and be transformed into the humble acceptance of human vulnerability and a promise to safe-keep one another.

To acknowledge the feeling means to control it, which in turn, means to better understand human nature and find the strength to fight our weaknesses, including the part that’s at risk for addiction. As Lewis concludes, “We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.” We must let go of addiction. But to pretend that we don’t need attachment would paralyze us from being human.

Find the Four Loves by C.S. Lewis on Project Gutenburg

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Cupid Finding Psyche’ via WikiArt

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Caspar David Friedrich: The Landscape Within

I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions.  I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.

— Caspar David Friedrich

Some of the most beautiful art is art breathed — gently, impulsively, persistently, tenderly — from the depths of the creator into the medium one is using to mold the said art. And through that medium, that tool — to us, its century-old onlookers.

In outstanding paintings the element of breath is always evident, always brushing between the colors, the brushstrokes, the characters, always giving a fresh gust of air to each faculty and sense.

If God once breathed life into Adam, then each creator (artist, musician, writer) reproduces but forms and shapes and syllables unless bestowing that final breath — both to their work and through it, reviving each of us with the original breath of creation.

Caspar David Friedrich is the artist of breath, breadth, and expanse. His works must be seen living or, at the very least — in widescreen format, much better –in a big, glossy book that smells of dry paint.

The latter is how I, personally, made the acquaintance of C.D. Friedrich. As a teenager, I loved two types of books: memoirs and art collections. My favorite holiday gifts were a heap of both that I would enjoy, happily tucked into my private world that involved lots of music, reading, and paintings to freely dive my soul into.

When I traveled across the world for a permanent change of habitat, unable to bring my 100+ lb collection of books along, I chose about a dozen that I loved most dearly. The choice was cruel, moreover since the person who was supposed to mail the others never did so… and yet, among others, today I still have my huge and vibrantly colorful album of Caspar David Friedrich paintings on the bookshelf, knowing that it will travel with me wherever I do.

Caspar David Friedrich Paintings, Life & Quotes

“Caspar David Friedrich (5 September 1774 – 7 May 1840) was a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important German artist of his generation […] His primary interest was the contemplation of nature, and his often symbolic and anti-classical work seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world […] Contemporaries such as the French sculptor David d’Angers spoke of him as a man who had discovered ‘the tragedy of landscape'”. –Biographical excerpt from Wikipedia

caspar david friedrich the monk by the sea
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘The Monk by the Sea’ (Der Mönch am Meer). Oil on canvas. Painted between 1808 and 1810 in Dresden.

Caspar David Friedrich did not simply paint Romanticized landscapes, as may come across at first glance. His was a world reimagined and relived from within, a landscape of within. Such is the famous “Monk by the Sea” in its poignant sense of the sea as a metaphor of the anguish of soul, perhaps even the well-known spiritual ‘dark night of the soul’, but also the majestic and overwhelming prowess of God and the universe, the prowess that upholds man on the small stretch of land resembling the palm of an Almighty Hand much closer than a stretch of sand.

The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.

— Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Easter_Morning_
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Easter Morning’. Oil on canvas. Painted between 1828-1835.

In most of C.D. Friedrich’s paintings, even the ones that portray people, the main character is undeniably nature — the nature that Friedrich refused to squish into a smaller or tighter angle, as, to his indignation, did his contemporaries:

“What the newer landscape artists see in a circle of a hundred degrees in Nature they press together unmercifully into an angle of vision of only forty-five degrees. And furthermore, what is in Nature separated by large spaces, is compressed into a cramped space and overfills and oversatiates the eye, creating an unfavorable and disquieting effect on the viewer.”

Caspar David Friedrich

caspar david friedrich morning-in-the-sudeten-mountains
Caspar David Fridrich, ‘Morning in the Sudeten Mountains’ c. 1810

Contrary to just ‘staying true’ to nature, what Friedrich did was overflow to the brim with its might and completely surrender to its awe. It was the same sense of overflowing that led him to a solitary lifestyle with his wife and a very close circle of friends where his own prosperity slowly but surely dwindled, yet the true riches he was leaving behind were never placed into doubt.

“I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature.”
Caspar David Friedrich

800px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_018.jpg
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Woman at a Window’. (The artists’ wife, Caroline Friedrich, in his studio in Dresden) Oil on canvas. 1822

Despite enjoying renown early on in his career, Caspar David Friedrich and his family were fully dependent on the charity of friends by the 1830s when the painter became increasingly ill, and his earlier works refused to sell as they ‘went out of fashion’ — the ‘fashion’ that never guided his creative ideals springing solely from within.

After Caspar David Friedrich’s own death in 1840 and those of his close circle in the coming decades, his works fell into oblivion as a new school of realism discovered its greatest evils in the romantic idealism of its predecessors.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_The_Abbey_in_the_Oakwood_-_WGA08240.jpg
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’. Oil on canvas. c.1809

Friedrich was first rediscovered in the 1920s, his work exerting considerable influence over artists of the Symbolist and Abstract Expressionist movement such as Mark Rothko. Yet it was not until the 1970s, one hundred and thirty years after his death, that Caspar David Friedrich became known as one of the greatest German painters of all time and the leader of the German Romantics — the name that now seems a mere tag for the breath and breadth of spirit struggling to find space in an artist for whom every canvas was too small for the vastness of the landscape within.

Discover more of C.D.Friedrich’s paintings in the public domain on WikiArt.        

 

girl with baloon wall art. stop the war. pacifist movement

We’re Not Enemies, Whatever Politics Say

By a random slip of fate, I grew up between two countries that are at silent war. The war started a long time ago, and even when it wasn’t a ‘cold one’, and things were going normal, there was no real sense of normalcy — there would be little jokes and pinpricks and suspicious kinds of looks and social downplay.

Being unconsciously stuck in a cultural ‘cold war’, I tried to mix in as well as I could. The word ‘mix in’ sounds neutral enough. In reality, this means I tried to melt in, disown my culture, assimilate, so no one would notice where I came from. In fact, I didn’t want to come from anywhere. I, like most kids, wanted to be normal — and that meant ‘same’.

I understand now and understood just a short while later, that same isn’t possible, and same isn’t normal. Special thanks to my 3rd-grade teacher in a small NJ town who, without even knowing she was doing something I’ll always remember, taught us how to be proud and not disowning of our heritage. Her one project and one lesson meant a lot for one nine-year-old, confused child whom she’ll never see again.

 


I grew up between two countries at silent war, but politics have never been my cup of tea. I always thought that if those running for office fulfilled even a quarter of their campaign promises, we’d be living in paradise by now and wondered — how is it possible to believe anyone who actually talks for a living? But whatever my personal views, 2019 isn’t a time to be politically mute. Too much is at stake in the world. Frankly, our world itself is.

Every day, as I turn on the television, I see a comedy of errors play out. Since that first lesson that taught me cultural independence, I’ve come a long geographical way — back to the country that birthed me biologically and culturally — yet incredibly richer with the experience of half my life lived on the other side of the world (geographically and mentality-wise).

This very day, as I watch the nasty politics unfold between our countries, it hurts me deeply that political conditioning is powerful and successful as ever. It hurts that a world which can live at peace chooses to create war — even if not a war of bombs but “only” a war of blasphemy and mutual accusations. It hurts me that an overwhelming amount of mass media is a marketing tool, not a documentary one. And that in the age of instant access to information, we have so much information that we don’t trust any — anything can be faked, and any of us can be duped.

It hurts me that we believe in fake news and never see the real suffering and death caused by the actions of those in power because we’re taught aggression is “justified” when it’s a means to a patriotic end. It hurts that some people still think a bloody means can lead to anything but a bloody end or that “democracy” covers stains of blood. Most of all, it hurts when the people I grew up with hold such views, people who aren’t strangers, even if I don’t know them personally.

 


I grew up in the USA of the daily “War on Iraq” footage in the aftermath of September 11th. I never held anything against patriotism. Pledges of allegiance, the national hymn every morning at school — that was serious stuff. So were the lockdown drills we had every month following the attacks, sitting lined up against a wall with strictly closed shades and mouths. Exactly like that, thirty years earlier, my parents sat under their school desks in their country across the world. Perhaps that’s why our countries are constantly at ‘cold’ or ‘hot’ war — we’re alike in quite a few ways.

Courtesy of my stepfather, we had a bundle of the latest newspapers in the house daily — all of them with front-page ‘war’ news, a war everybody hated but no one actually saw. So much the easier it was to hate. So much the easier it was to accept graphic execution images of this or that Middle East tyrant. We, as the world’s leading nation, were never physically involved in war but were always right about war — there was no question the country knew what it was doing.

It was only years later, that a senior friend confided to me her apprehension about the national policy on war in the Middle East. It was only when things started to get out of control and information started leaking about the bloody realities of the war no one ever saw through an unconditioned lens. It was only then that people started talking in hushed voices whether they were blindfolded and manipulated into encouraging war all this time…and they were really scared. It was scary to think, even for a moment, that all you were taught to believe over years and years was the projection of a purposefully disfigured lens.

 


Today, both the USA and Europe are standing on the verge of what may become a substantial test for our humanity — and of our humaneness. A test of what we’re capable of deciphering and believing and whether we choose to trust what we research for ourselves, or the stuff we’re spoon-fed by those in power.

Today, we’re no longer silent. But we’re still questioning. We’re still doubtful. We’re once again being taught hatred rather than patience and dialogue, and we stand on the verge of giving in to hatred, personal dissatisfaction, and our differences. We stand on the verge of becoming tools and pawns in the hands of those who have just about the same respect for our lives as they do for those whom they freely kill to justify their politics.

And yet, we have a choice. We have more — we have immense power to start thinking by ourselves. We have the power to never allow anyone to condition us again — culturally, politically, socially. That power is what those in power fear most about us. That power may also hurt — because to move forward, the world has yet to admit: there is no “world leader” and there is no “best country”.

Unless we let go of that conditioning for good, we stand at risk of being manipulated by it again and again — as the world has been by tyrants and Fascists in decades past, every one of whom propagated to its nation the promise of becoming ‘best’ at the “small expense” of someone ‘worse’ becoming extinct.

Our real strength, unity, and power lie in acknowledging:

None of us is ‘best’.

None of us is ‘same’.

We’re all in this (world) together.

And we can all strive to become more united and understanding of one another every day, as long as we don’t give in to becoming enemies — like our real enemies want us to be.

 

 

 

reads for spiritual journey

5 Reads to Light Up Your Spiritual Journey

I can still remember my first dedicated effort at reading a piece of ‘serious’ literature. It was Jane Austen’s Emma which I kept stuffed in my school desk and would read in-between breaks in fourth grade. The Victorian English wasn’t an easy read for a ten-year-old. It was a few months before I mustered the strength to get through the whole book, yet I was relentless in the pursuit.

By the end of the small feat, I was proud of myself and could officially count myself in to read ‘grown-up’ literature. But it wasn’t till a couple of years later, that, as a teenager with a mind full of existential thoughts did I start to pile up my own kind of library.

In that library, there was a strong shift towards spiritual and philosophic writing, personal experiences (memoirs) and biographies. While I did read fiction (a lot of the classics), it was reserved a more humble portion of the bookshelf in comparison.

The real life-changing thoughts came to me from the spiritual and philosophical reads. They were also what kept me sane during the periods of life when giving in seemed so much easier than holding up.

Extracted from years of reading, here are the 5 pieces of writing that have lit up my own spiritual journey with their wisdom and universal truth. I’ll try to keep the chronological order in which I discovered them.


1. “The Interior Castle” by St. Theresa of Avila

“I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.”

One of the first purely spiritual books to fall on my bookshelf at the age of 15, St. Theresa’s Interior Castle is a powerful metaphorical insight into the inner labyrinth of spirituality.

In words that resonate as strongly 400+ years after they were first written, St. Theresa goes on to explain her metaphor of the seven interior mansions as the seven spiritual degrees of being. For example, people who enter the First Mansions are those who feel a deeper call to change their life but do not yet understand how to go about it. St.Theresa advises people at this stage to walk the path of humble meditation and prayer to understand how to proceed deeper within themselves and enter the Second Mansions which represent the conscious struggle of the mind and soul towards spiritual grace.

While it seems superhuman to reach the spiritual freedom described in the latter half of the book, “The Interior Castle [public domain]” is an astonishing read that first taught me the importance of facing and assessing the veiled intentions behind actions.


2. “My Young Years” and “My Many Years” by Arthur Rubinstein

“This “rebirth” [i.e. surviving attempted suicide at 21] created a revolution in my whole psychic system. I suddenly started to think. The life I had been leading consisted of a series of events for which I had no responsibility; I acted entirely by instinct, following blindly the road drawn out to me by circumstances.”

Even in the darkest of times, Arthur Rubinstein shows that the way out is always through a smile — even if that smile shines through tears.

Known for his infallible joie de vivre, Rubinstein was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century who lived out his personal credo of “love life for better or worse” till his 95th birthday. He was also a suicide survivor, war refugee, adventurous lover and lover of adventure who wrote two NY Times bestseller volumes of memoirs.

Both books (but my favorite is the first, “My Young Years”) are amazing reads which will light up your face with a smile and your heart with proof that life never abandons those who love it unconditionally — from a person who’s drunk the bitter cup and barely survived to tell us the story.


3. “On Grief and Reason and Other Essays” by Joseph Brodsky

“Neurosis and depression will enter your lexicon; pills, your medical cabinet…Basically, there is nothing wrong about turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leap-frogging jobs, spouses, sorroundings, etc […]The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.”

Brodsky is one author who descended on me at exactly the right time. The time when my life couldn’t have been a bigger mess. Personal life? Career? A comforting shoulder? Forget all that. I was happy just to make it to the next day — emotionally and physically.

It was then that I lazily grabbed a book given to me as a birthday present 4+ years ago. It was a collection of poetry by 1987 Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky. As soon as I swallowed and digested the poetry book, rereading it numerous times, I moved on to anything else to be found by Brodsky.

I chanced upon a collection of essays, including the commencement speech “In Praise of Boredom”. A poignant read for a young person struggling to face the painful but necessary lessons of a life that seems “frozen”, this essay is not an inspirational mantra. Go for it if you’re ready for surgically concise (but always sincere and warm) wisdom from a person who’s suffered through hell of a lot before getting to that Nobel prize.


4. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche

“Hast thou ever known, my brother, the word “disdain”? And the anguish of thy justice in being just to those that disdain thee? [..] Injustice and filth cast they at the lonesome one: but, my brother, if thou wouldst be a star, thou must shine for them none the less on that account!”

A book that sparkles with wisdom like a mountain strewn with a myriad of jewels — from little crystals to diamonds, Zarathustra is the acme of philosophy as a parable.

Starting with one of the best metaphorical representations of the human’s spiritual journey (The Three Metamorphosis of the Spirit [public domain]), Nietzsche balances deep philosophical insights with his inimitable, precise wit and a child’s raveling in overturning conventions to get to the ‘other side of the moon’.

Enlightening in tough times and life-affirming in joyful ones, leafing through just a few pages of Zarathustra is enough to provide an avalanche of thought for anyone seeking the truth on the inside.


5. “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

“As a doctor, I had had some sense of what patients with life-changing illnesses faced — and it was exactly these moments I had wanted to explore with them. Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? […] But I’d had no idea how hard it would be, how much terrain I would have to explore, map, settle.”

When Breath Becomes Air” is a memoir that shines with life at the doorstep of bidding it farewell.

Cultivating his passion for the human mind with a Master of Arts in English Literature and a deep insight into the human body with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology from Stanford (before going on to Cambridge and, ultimately, the Yale School of Medicine) neurosurgeon-to-be Paul Kalanithi was always fascinated with the question of human life, and its ultimate riddle — the crossing of life and death.

In a heartbreaking turn of fate, he was destined to stare into and write about that abyss himself as on the verge of a brilliant neurosurgical career, Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Standing at that abyss, Kalanithi also held his newborn daughter, writing and dedicating to her what was to become a unique apotheosis of a life dedicated to discovering the mysteries of both the human mind and spirit, from a perspective so close, it’s both fascinating and terrifying.

Prior to his memoirs, Paul Kalinithi also wrote “How Long Have I Got Left?” for the NY Times, among other essays.


So different yet palpitating with the secret of life, each of these reads reminded me at a poignant moment: there’s no such thing as “no way out”. Even when the exit resembles a fearful unknown and the world momentarily stops rotating under our feet, we exist as long as we leave footprints in the eternally living, throbbing energy field that is our endless universe.

And in this quest, we’re never alone.

joys of hygge season. image shows cup of tea with lemon and book

Try These 8 Joys of Hygge Season Tonight

Since making it to the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year shortlist in 2016, the Danish “hygge” [ hue-guh] lifestyle struck a more global impact than it had over the past two hundred years.

Every year, new “hygge” books spring up on bookshelves and fresh translations try to convey its magic air to non-Danish ears.

With definitions ranging from the dry-cut academic “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being” to the enticing “cultural concept and value of warm, happy coziness and togetherness”, the hygge lifestyle is like a breath of fresh air in the digital age where “warmth, coziness, and togetherness” are precisely what we’re missing (out on) most.

Let’s start appreciating days like these. Photo by Viacheslav Bida on Unsplash

Come to think of it, there are few countries in the world with a longer, colder and darker fall/winter season than the Scandinavian countries, including Denmark.

Yet, unhindered by the supposedly endorphin-flushing Vitamin D deficiency, year after year the Danes score top spots in the World Happiness Report (yes, there is such a thing and it’s quite serious).

Sure, some of it has to do with the great economics and the fact that they don’t have scandalous impeachments or Brexits on their hands. Most of it though has to do with the culture and lifestyle. But then, who knows, perhaps happiness reaches into all corners of the Danish land, like the fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen?

For the rest of us, loving the dark and rainy days of fall-winter doesn’t mean shutting ourselves up in a dungeon (or an office in lieu of such). It does mean creating (and actually scheduling) some endearing rituals for your friends, family, or just yourself (this is perfectly hygge too).

Here are eight “rainy-day” rituals to give yourself a boost in endorphins at any given moment:

  1. Design/update a favorite reading nook. Nothing expensive — the only pre-requisite is a fresh dose of coziness. A new woolen throw or a few fluffy pillows to deliberately over-stuff your couch, plus scented tea-lights on the table (candles are a hygge must-have) are all you need to start appreciating the warmth of a fall evening when time blissfully stands still.
  2. Mix a new hot drink. I recently made fantastic and super-simple Pumpkin Spice Latte minus the pumpkin (didn’t have that at home). The aroma of milk boiled with spices like cinnamon sticks, clove, ginger, and nutmeg and then mixed into the espresso was invigorating enough to spend the darkest of winters at home and totally good enough to skip Starbucks.
  3. Do a get-together with friends in an atmospheric cafe you’d always wanted to go to (not Starbucks). Invite just the girls/guys for an evening devoted to warm conversation or get together with the friends who you’ve dreamed of catching up with outside Facebook.
  4. Do a fairy-tale night with your kids. Hans Christian Andersen’s tales are the timeless classic, incredibly touching reading for the kids and philosophical for the adults. So is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery.
  5. Buy a whole new recipe book. Take a break off social media and cook up a very special something from a very real cookbook. My latest favorite was Alsatian Apple Pie with a personal twist (sliced almonds on top).
  6. Order the books you’ve been meaning to read since your 2019 New Year’s resolutions. Cuddle with them in that pillowed nook, steaming spiced latte in hand. My own latest choice fell on the heartbreaking story of young neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, in his poignant story of the beauty of fleeting life, When Breath Becomes Air.
  7. Research a vacation destination for your next trip, solo or with family. Make the research and prep a really exciting process. The trip can be as close as 50 miles out of town or as far as 5000 miles away from home. Get happy about seeing more of your state, country, or world — right this evening.
  8. Follow a real, actionable strategy for whatever it is you always wanted to do but never found the time for. Make writing a daily habit, enroll in a free online course from a school like Yale, think about a career shift, or get inspired to start a healthy lifestyle!

Perfect hygge-style reading nook. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Final word

In the times when slowing down is becoming so out of reach and the digital hype can swallow us up unless we really go out and schedule our deepest, most humane needs, it’s hardly surprising how viral of a concept hygge has become.

With all that, it’s important to remember — hygge isn’t about what we do, but how we do it.

Lighting a candle and cuddling in a throw is great, but if you’re still thinking about that annoying co-worker, a stuck project, or sticking your tongue out at your boss (figuratively speaking), you won’t get much hygge out of that. Let go of all that for the time you devote to your happiness.

Hygge is a lifestyle culture that shows us just how important together time with loved ones, family, and our own selves are, and how little (in material terms) it takes to start nurturing and protecting it.

However we define this tricky-to-pronounce word, the best thing about hygge is its reminder that happiness is something money can never buy — or take from us.

To Be or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

The science of absolutism

The behavioral impulses described above are part of the same ‘fight or flight’ response that has been inherent to humans for ages. Known in psychology as absolutist thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, the ‘to be or not to be’ paradigm dominates our life in many shapes. The common denominators are the struggles between extreme emotions and the accompanying verbal expressions (catching yourself not just verbalizing but really existing in terms of totally, completely, never, always, etc.).

Any destination is better than meaningless existence in that grey fog of the mind that’s most feared by our intuition and unknowingly supported by instinct.


The best way out is through

When we think of it, the natural ‘fight or flight’ or ‘ostrich vs martial arts’ response is so instinctive because it’s kind of effortless. It’s much more effortless and thus convenient to the body than gathering an understanding of its own and others’ functioning and piecing it all together — slowly, patiently.

[Read on Medium: Polymathy is Curiosity, Not Science]

Whenever you get stuck in “to be or not to be”, imagine the person you’d like to be, the person outside your own box (and outside everyone else’s). Learn, research, and discover all you need to get there, starting now.

First published on Medium

The Unsettling Mission of a Masterpiece

Art, creation, creativity: however we name the human will and capacity to extract, metamorphosize and immortalize the fleeting vapors of the imagination, intellect, senses and emotions, the enigmatic process seems to place recurring question marks after every implied full stop of rationalization.

Whence did Art as such come into being in the human soul? Why does civilization thrive on expression? Who is the addressee of Art in a century unspeakably more keen on probing outer space than inner self? What can present-day thinkers, writers, musicians, artists, add to the millennia of wisdom in our already bursting public domain library?

Far from rhetoric, the questions are part of an obsessive search for ultimate meaning for anyone employed in the pursuit of leaving a trace, a footprint, a speck of memory on our Pale Blue Dot, the one captured from 3.7 billion miles away in one of the most poignant valentines from the Universe itself.

Earth (the tiny bluish dot in the ray of brown light on the right) from 3.7 billion miles away. As photographed by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. 

Art is only possible where there is mortality to begin with. Art is the encapsulating of mortality into eternity.

Faust: “Stay awhile, you’re so beautiful!”

The XXI century is an unprecedented time of total availability — and a scarecrow for curiosity driven by rarity, uniqueness, and the act of overcoming vital to human development, thought, and intellectual survival.

To quote the socially-satiric 2018 comeback of the 90s television series X-Files, “Your time is past. We’re now living in a post-cover up, post-conspiracy age.” The post-conspiracy age, that is, where there’s no need to conceal any kind of truth. Everything is public domain; nothing is trusted. Including Art.

An artist living and creating in 2019 has a towering mission set out before him: endeavor to shift the reality of an audience more used to passively repeating schematic emotions in tune to the swiftly-flashing scenes produced by experts at marketing to our slipping attention spans, than giving time to the marvels of meditation, philosophy, and unsolicited thought. For the first time in history, it’s not unavailability that hinders the progress of enlightenment, but apathy.

In contrast to the dumbing-down of reality, the artist’s mission is to shift reality away from the passivity of existence and into the singularity of extending fleeting moments of existence. Art isn’t for sociopaths, out-of-this-world geniuses, or monks. In fact, Art is only possible where there is mortality to begin with. In itself, art is the encapsulating of mortality into eternity

This process of encapsulating the fleeting into the eternal may be the only righteous answer to Faust’s forbidden plaint, as immortally expressed by Goethe, “Stay awhile [oh moment], you are so beautiful!”, referring to the ultimate catch of Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles. As we may recall, the devil was to assist Doctor Faust in his wishes (including the return to youth) on one condition: as long as the latter never found a moment of life so beautiful as to wish to make it linger. If it so happened, the devil would have Faust’s soul. In a (deeper) sense, the devil was willing to grant every wish of Faust, except for the wish to create Art.

Who if not Goethe knew the depth of the forbidden fruit and its deepest value? Only through Art are humans — both the initiators and the initiated— allowed to whisper to a moment of time, “stay awhile, you are so beautiful!” It is this “eternalizing of beauty” that is supposed to be extremely precious to a human being — precious enough for the devil to vouch that such a desire is impossible to resist!

 

Disruptive art

I think it would be rather narrow — and moralistic — to say that poetry must comfort us and point to what is good. I don’t think that is the function of art, though sometimes it is a happy result. […] I don’t want the reader to experience comfort — I want the opposite.”

So said American poet Henri Cole in an interview to the Paris Review. His words echo the submerged, ‘unsocial’ essence of art — and the reason for its lack of mass rapture. Add to that writer Susan Sontag’s, “true art makes us uncomfortable” or the composer Karol Szymanowski’s, “The only ground on which true art can grow is the deepest and most mysterious panicky human feeling concerning the fact of existence.”

These creators knew — there’s nothing “pretty” about the truth they were creating. Their mission was not to leave us with a Disney-ish happy ending or transform truth into something that goes down better with popcorn.

Art doesn’t empathize with ‘normality’. Like a force of nature, Art is disruptive in essence.

Art has always been, in its essence, the two-edged sword that would separate human life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’, or at least endeavor to do so for the hour or so that we allotted to that play, novel, story, symphony, etc. It may even be the five minutes we dedicated to a poem or a short personal essay that washed us over with a wave of thought. Whatever form it takes, creative art always shouts out to us — linger a little longer! Don’t forget me in the whirlwind of your chores. Encapsulate me in that secret part of your mind and pay a visit once in a while — or create something personal from what I’ve given you. Take me for your own and continue the pattern.

The great problem with that plea—it demands time for itself. Not only the time of the giver, but the time of the receiver. And time is like the elusive rainbow that we chase with all sorts of mediums only to see the rainbow smile at us from the same insurmountable distance. We have a concept that if we stop for a moment and say, “stay awhile” to a thought, an idea, a beautiful moment, like Faust we may just be damned. For this reason, we convince ourselves that we don’t have the luxury of time (how often adults repeat that to children!) but in reality, we are terrified of letting go of boundaries for a time, the boundaries that exist only in our head.

For a post-modern person, even the imaginary idea of a temporary release of boundaries is unnerving: it’s like peeking under the lid of a Pandora’s box. Whether we want it or not, each day we wake up and begin to mend all the “imagination” gaps in our solid brick “interfaces”, lest they interfere with our normal lives. To jump out of that paradigm is an unsettling experience — a bit like the soul jumping out of the body for a time. The painful part isn’t the ‘ launch’ into the unknown— it’s the return to the known with new eyes. It’s the getting out-of-focus with the ‘real’ world after immersing in a world of unbounded possibilities that art gives us. It’s also the child’s vulnerability of dealing with resulting pain and frustrations without the protective barrier we’ve built up and cemented over the years.

But no matter how unsettling the function of art may be, that is the whole point: Art doesn’t empathize with ‘normality’. Like a force of nature, Art is disruptive and unsettling in its deepest essence.

Art as being

Art is various degrees of immersion into the being of the very universe.

How then, do we accept the unsettling part of any art form in our lives? Even with the best intentions, where are we to place it into our loaded everyday lives, so full of time-managing devices and so consistently lacking in time?

In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag writes, “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. […] The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.” If we take the idea further, we will arrive at the original, archaic English meaning of the word art: to be [e.g. Thou art=You are]. That will reveal to us that the question of art arose in our civilization as soon as it went from a state of being to an imitation of being.

Presumably, at some point in our development, this little ‘glitch’ occurred. But wait… doesn’t every child still think of imagination as a state of being? Isn’t it adults who think of child’s play as an “imitation of [imaginary] being” while the child never doubts the reality of his play? Is it also accidental that we call some of the oldest forms of art ‘play’ — such as a theater play and playing an instrument?

While it is an extremely rare gift to create works that will be left in centuries, an important part of human life for each one of us is being present in the state of art. This doesn’t imply that we will go on to write nine symphonies like Beethoven, a volume of In Search of Lost Time like Proust, or share our inner perception of the Night Sky as awesomely as Van Gogh. Neither is that the goal.

Art is not for the chosen few, but it is what connects us to each other and to a state of being most natural to us. Art can be described as various degrees of immersion into the being of the universe. It is footprints scattered in the universe — footprints that we both trace, follow, and leave in our lifetime. It is this eternal artmaking initiated by the Universe itself that makes us alive and incredibly full of curiosity.

The questions it serves up may be disturbing, unnerving, even painful. But if art is just a phenomenon of the imagination not worth unsettling our daily lives for, how about the view of the Pale Blue Dot from 3.7 billion miles away — a view as disruptive of our everyday chores and struggles as all the symphonies and philosophy treatises put together?

 

 

Two Great Minds on the Dark Night of Existence

In various periods of my life, I occasionally found myself plunged into the dark void of existence — one where silence pressed heavily against my mind. The resulting beating of butterfly wings in what seemed like utmost darkness seemed ready to spark electricity in its restlessness to break free. I still wonder how it all didn’t end in combustion.

It was then that I turned to the writings of two cultural giants on the fragile universal topic which raises many a young brow: the unconditional love of life.

Artur Rubinstein — one of the XX century’s great musicians— even in the non-musical crowd was known for his joie de vivre all the way until his passing at nearly 96 years of age.

The Nobel-Prize laureate, poet Joseph Brodsky — in the West was best known for his fight against human injustice, one that cost him confinement and a heart attack before the age of thirty.

Both of these flash biographies, however, tell us nothing of the people behind them. One was once the exuberant young man whom no friend came to save as, broke and homeless, he was about to let go of life in a Berlin hotel room. The other — a self-sculpted philosopher who, through all endured hardship, still argued that happiness can turn out even better humans than suffering.

Is it surprising that both took time to explore the worth of existence? Paradoxically, both even used one and the same metaphor: that of confinement.


Joseph Brodsky: in praise of boredom

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

“The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor. It is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. — In Praise of Boredom, Joseph Brodsky

Imagine, for a moment, being placed within four walls where life stands completely still. Nothing is happening either inside or outside. You have all you need inside— there are no physical limitations on food, entertainment, etc. You feel no physical discomfort either. You press a button, and whatever you request for pops out of the wall. Yet you may not leave this confinement, ever. You must make do with what you have — and psychologically, that means your own self.

Most people with no history of claustrophobia would cringe at the description of a 5-star madhouse. But from this absurd, exaggerated point of view emerges a clear picture of the vain helplessness of even the most luxurious stuff against the seemingly immaterial pressure of our own selves.

Surely, we know that “everything is in our head”. But so are we. So is our self-consciousness, memory, intellect, emotions — within the 15 cm of a brain which can give us greatest pleasure or become a mass of chaos.And yet, whatever we do, we are restricted to bearing this very brain for life.

Joseph Brodsky delved into exactly such questions (and metaphors) in his play Marbles and commencement speech (later turned essay) “In Praise of Boredom”.

Both are two works that exerted great influence on my view of life — of the frozen, immobile kind of life, still being able to love — or at least respect — which is one of the great challenges for humans, especially twenty-something humans.

Today I am certain that if one doesn’t learn to deal with this kind of bleak, unattractive life early on (it’s no coincidence that Brodsky addresses 22 year-old college graduates), expecting to have the problem resolved “naturally” sometime later may be the greatest mistake we make.

However long we choose to wait to tackle it, the question will come chasing at our heels sooner or later — that much, I’m certain of. And the longer we avoid it, the more painful the running becomes.

Whether at sunset of the day, or at the sunset of life, it is vital to approach the question each of us faces throughout existence: how do we survive a still life — one where all we have is the bare being we are, and more importantly, the one we haven’t yet become?

The metaphor of confinement (or still life) is exceptionally suitable to tackle the worth of existence. But there’s another way— the one children use unknowingly every day and the one Artur Rubinstein encountered on the unhappiest day of his life.


Artur Rubinstein: the unconditional love of life

Photo by Luke Pamer on Unsplash

“On that night, my brain was full of philosophical thoughts[…]What gave birth to the universe? What is the reason for existence? Let me only say that in this chaos of thoughts I discovered the secret of happiness and still cherish it: Love life for better or worse, without conditions.” —My Young Years, Artur Rubinstein

Several decades after his attempted suicide at age 21, Artur Rubinstein described that day in My Young Years, his autobiography which became a New York Times bestseller:

“I had reached the bottom. There was nothing left for me[…] On that sad afternoon, I prepared for the finish. I took out the belt from my old worn-out robe, secured the belt on the hook, and put it around my neck. As I pushed away the chair with my foot, the belt tore apart and I fell to the floor with a crash.

In my role as the living hero of this tragicomedy, my first reaction was a severe nervous shock — I cried bitterly, disconsolately, for a long time, lying where I had fallen. Then, half-consciously, I staggered to the piano and cried myself out in music.

[This] “rebirth” created a revolution in my whole psychic system. I suddenly started to think. The life I had been leading consisted of a series of events for which I had no responsibility; I acted entirely by instinct, following blindly the road drawn out to me by circumstances.

That night, my brain was full of philosophical thoughts and it resulted in a new conception of life, a new criterion of values, all for my private use. The eternal question — what gave birth to the universe? What is the reason for existence — would involve a long dissertation. Let me only say that in this chaos of thoughts I discovered the secret of happiness and still cherish it: Love life for better or worse, without conditions.

[…] Life seems beautiful and worth living, even in prison or in a hospital, as long as you look at it that way.


Writers know: to get down to what we really wish to convey, it’s often necessary to replace a word not with a synonym but an antonym. As opposite ends of a line connect into a single point when bent in a circle, so do seemingly opposing words, metaphors, and life experiences.

Thus, it is no surprise that to examine ultimate freedom, one must examine confinement — be it spiritual or even physical.

Dark night of the soul

In Christian literature and philosophy, the spiritual confinement was called a “dark night of the soul” and was thought of as a necessary precedent to spiritual freedom, a sure sign that the latter was on the way. It had nothing to do with depression.

Quite reasonably, the search for freedom always begins with some sort of confinement — even a newborn child is born out of the “confinement” of a womb which it must break through to come to light. To think that there’s nothing more to life than the womb would be an immense mistake.

So the next time we’re led into an involuntary psychological cell, a world where everything seems frozen or completely wrong, let us stop running along the “path set out by circumstances” — our own emotions and the expectations of society included.

Let us notice the “dust falling” in the sun’s illumined ray, let us ponder Time and our own existence within it and then set out to create our very own life with no fear of failure — falling in love with it unconditionally every step of the way.

The Sad Truth Behind the Goldfish Attention Span Myth

To give people a real jolt, a few bizarre things had to come together. Things like goldfish and neuropsychology. Or goldfish and social media. Or goldfish and Microsoft. Honestly, goldfish sound bizarre enough in any combination.

However much we humorize the “goldfish myth” though (in case you haven’t heard, read on), sustained attention spans are a matter of real problem in the age of social media and flashing information.

It’s not that human capacity to concentrate in a prolonged way has gone down and affected our productivity— it’s our will to fully concentrate that’s endangered, amidst growing distractions.

This fact is no bundle of laughs and deserves to be acknowledged and even scientifically scrutinized … while it’s (still) fixable.

The goldfish attention span experiment

According to the Sohlberg and Mateer Hierarchial Model, people have several distinct ways of concentrating including sustainedselective, and alternating attention.

At the outset, I must note: all the thoughts in this article relate specifically to sustained attention or the amount of time a person can have prolonged focus on a single task. While many people argue that the internet has given us an ability to multi-task more successfully, it is precisely the sustained concentration effort that’s evidently decreasing.

It’s also sustained attention/concentration that’s responsible for productivity in nearly every field of work imaginable, and that’s so invaluable for creatives.

 

In2015, Microsoft published a famous report on attention spans. Amidst many interesting findings, the takeaway fact has become that human attention spans are down to 8 seconds — or less than those of goldfish, estimated at 9 seconds.

Just fifteen years earlier, in 2000 (or the pre-smartphone era), those same human attention spans were estimated at 12 seconds — so apparently, things are going better for goldfish than humans.

Since then, the so-called “goldfish myth” has been busted, at least on paper: no one has been able to prove the research attributed to Statistic Brain or scientifically compare the human attention span (involving multiple models) to that of goldfish — which, by the way, scientists consider a fish species with considerable memory capacity. Goldfish-based research is used to model and study memory formation.

What Microsoft’s report does note (and what is backed scientifically) is this: the human brain may be influenced throughout our entire life span — not just in childhood or youth, as thought previously (although those years are the most flexible).

This ‘brain flexibility’ is called neuroplasticity and means that a daily activity, emotion, learning process etc. can “shape” our brain whatever stage of life we are in. Naturally, sturdy habits affect our brains more than things we do for a few moments once in a lifetime.

That’s why, in order to understand the way the modern brain processes information, it makes sense to see what influences it most on a daily basis.


Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

What is changing is the amount of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now.

Human attention spans are getting flimsy, regardless of the goldfish myth

It’s estimated that an average American adult checks their smartphone about 52 times a day and spends about 2 hours on social media. While that may not seem like the skyrocketing teen statistics of 9 hours per day, even 2 hours amounts to over 7 years of your whole life devoted to social media.

Which brings us back to neuroplasticity. It’s not just that we’re spending an average marriage span on these platforms, it’s that the habit of receiving “flashing” information actually affects our capability to make slower, rational deductions and assess the true value of things.

We subconsciously think that if we can “evaluate” a photo on Instagram in a second, the same goes for a real-life product or situation. Naturally, that’s used against us every day.

The same Microsoft report specifically instructs how to use its studies on various types of attention spans inherent to various people for … strategic advertising and marketing.

 

Tom Vanderbilt of the Nautilus magazine, in his article The Pleasure and Pain of Speed, explores the topic of modern speed and its connection to our inherent psychology.

“The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa,” Vanderbilt writes, “catalogues the increases in speed in his recent book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In absolute terms, the speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100. […But] As life has sped up, we humans have not, at least in our core functioning: Your reaction to stimuli is no faster than your great-grandfather’s. What is changing is the number of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now.”

Thanks to the flexible nature of our brains, we may register and evaluate visual stimuli extremely fast (and are used to doing that on social media), but we’re still not able to make more complex, rational decisions about contentand trustworthiness based on instant impressions. Even neuroplasticity has genetic limits.

And that’s because, for the human brain, visual perception is only the first (and necessary) step towards sustained concentration which should last up to 2 hours uninterrupted. We’re incredibly fast at processing visual information — 50 milliseconds is all it takes to assess visual appeal. That’s 30 times faster than you can blink an eye. The problem is that in the age of flashing information and distractions, that first step frequently becomes the final, and we’re forever stuck in a chain of ‘first steps’.

Marketing and sales companies love this fact.

Research says that just 6% of people who were asked to evaluate the trustworthiness of health sites based their assessment on content. 96% admitted they trusted the site (or not) based on visual impressions.

With the aid of attractive visual stimuli and haste, sales teams push consumers into instant decisions at every step. “Hot” deals, one-day sales, and promo codes for instant buyers all tempt people to buy faster and more. Behind that lies a simple trick: the less time you take to think (concentrate), the easier it is to influence your decisions.

 

Is Hollywood responsible for shortening attention spans?

Goldfish myth’ busters write off the whole ‘attention span’ deficit as a figment of the imagination (supposedly of the same fish). As an argument, they say that were attention spans really that bad, we wouldn’t be able to pay attention to things like movies and other long-winded entertainment.

And yet, Hollywood blockbusters have no lack of fans these days. Sounds like there’s no argument left…or is there?

In fact, Hollywood has been one of the first to adapt to weakened sustained concentration spans. Average shot lengths of Hollywood films have come down from an average of 12 seconds during the “classic Hollywood age” to 1.7 seconds in action films such as Quantum of Solace (2008). Some film critics even wonder how less-than-second cuts don’t make us physically sick.

Anyone may conduct a personal experiment — take an old, classic film and put it on for a Generation Z-er. The younger the viewer, the more “bored” they shall feel with the “slow-motion” action of the older films, as well as unable to concentrate on 20th-century classics by directors such as Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, not to mention Ingmar Bergman and Andrey Tarkovsky.

The conscious verdict, though, won’t be a personal ‘lack of attention’— it will be ‘boredom’.

SourceVashiVisuals

As Vanderbilt continues, “Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin has suggested that film (among other things) does reveal a love of faster cognitive processing — in other words, that thinking faster is correlated with ‘positive effect.’ […]

‘Intensified continuity’ is film theorist David Bordwell’s phrase for this heightened experience, which includes not only shorter cuts but, among other things, more frequent close-ups. ‘Techniques that 1940s directors reserved for moments of shock and suspense,’ Bordwell observes, ‘are the stuff of normal scenes today.’ ”

Hollywood only does its best to sell. Thus the “attention span’’ issue evident in our perception of classic vs. modern films is only a result and not the cause of the modern issue. Hollywood adapts to, not influences, the length of our sustained attention span.

And while it may not be like that of goldfish (no offense to the latter), our attention is definitely slipping into oblivion as life becomes faster.

 

Time management isn’t always attention management

Anyone who’s seen the number of “time-management” tools, apps, etc. on the internet has to admit that the world is much more conscious of its sustained attention span problem than it would like us to think. As they say, “there’s no smoke without fire”. If people all over the world are googling “best apps for time/attention management”, it must be a problem.

Whilst some of those time-management apps are fun and some can be helpful, the most important thing all of us need to understand is: Concentration management and time management apps are just another game marketers are playing with us.

Unless we focus on developing the faculty of concentration, no app will do the job.

Effective time management is only a result of good sustained attention, never vice-versa.

Scientifically speaking, people can concentrate well for up to 2 hours, after which the brain needs a break to recharge. However, even when we’re fully focused and immersed in a task, whenever a distraction occurs, it can take up to 25 min following an interruption to get back the full concentration.

While we cannot avoid external stimuli (for example, in an office environment), research by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, shows that in circa 44% of cases, we interrupt ourselves. The culprits include multi-tasking, social media notifications, and plain loss of attention.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” — Steve Jobs

Unlike time-management apps that have you ticking off things (and again, distracting your attention), classic concentration techniques are based on the idea of conserving focus and don’t rely on the internet.

Among them, the most famous is the Pomodoro technique. As many people find it difficult to focus undivided attention for 2 hours, the Pomodoro technique separates those 2 hours into 20 minute intervals with 5 min breaks.

Source: Natural Factors

While it is incredibly far from being a panacea, the Pomodoro technique can help some people focus on focusing. It is a strategy that demands real input from the individual to work but makes the effort psychologically easier. in fact, it is simply a strategy that makes sense.

The most important (and big) one, though, is the personal will to change something in our lives. To make those lives fuller with meaning and less prone to distractions and the resulting conditioning.

Any path to recovery starts with an acknowledgment of the problem. That is why I find it so important to stop avoiding the issue of attention spans and start addressing the modern attention deficit before it turns into a genetic disorder.

Final word

The ability to concentrate well is too priceless a faculty to just joke over and rejoice if we’re (still) better off than goldfish. This faculty facilitates not just our jobs and creative success but also has a tremendous impact on personal, daily lives, the things we are barely conscious of but should be.

  • The ability to pay attention = listening to the world around us and not rushing important decisions
  • The ability to pay attention = listening to our partners, family members, giving ourselves time to understand them when an impulsive reaction would have it otherwise
  • The ability to pay attention = understanding yourself, analyzing your actions, motives, and goals on a deep (even philosophical) level

No wonder that meditation and mindfulness are popular concepts in the age of rush. Meditation is simply sustained concentration applied to life. It shows that prolonged attention doesn’t have to be nerve-racking but instead can be collected and peaceful. It’s attention that’s available to us each moment of our lives, as long as we just give ourselves the time to listen.

Goldfish may have nothing to do with it, but we, as humans, would do better to stop flashing empty information before our eyes and start consciously focusing on the things and people that will bring us not only sustained attention and sustained success but some real sustained joy.

There’s no special trick to paying lasting attention — each of us has the inherent willpower to do so right now.

Otherwise, we may find ourselves going in the merry go round of sales and entertainment tricks, brainwashing, and much worse, lost time to never be regained.