An Age of Wonder

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc on tardigrades by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little $15 microscope.

You probably wouldn’t know it from the dark tenor of my recent posts, but despite everything — despite economic and ecological collapse, despite getting CoVid-19 and other discouraging health issues, despite the endless war-mongering and hate-mongering, despite rampant inflation and money worries, and despite my predilection for fearfulness and anxiety — I have never been happier.

I have been trying to figure out why that is so. Part of it is retirement, relief from the anguish of getting up too early to do work that I knew, most of the time, was meaningless, unnecessary and of no use to anyone, but which was compulsory nevertheless.

Part of it is the realization, which is still being internalized in this body and brain that ‘I’ presume to inhabit, that I have no free will, no control or responsibility over anything that this body thinks, believes, feels or does. That’s immensely liberating, even though I still (instinctively or by conditioning) feel responsible, obligated, ashamed, guilty, furious, fearful, sad, resentful, impatient, intolerant, annoyed, and/or anxious much of the time. These feelings just have much less hold over me than they used to, largely because I appreciate that they’re not really ‘mine’, and not of any useful value to me or anyone.

Another part of it is, I suppose, age. I have less left to prove and less time left to prove anything to anyone or to myself, so I’m much less hard on myself and others than I used to be, and others now expect less of me as well. There were times, believe it or not, when I didn’t think the title of this blog was entirely tongue-in-cheek.

But a significant part of this strange new happiness is, I think, a slowly growing capacity to pay attention, to notice. Life is always wondrous, but these times are especially so. There is so much happening — amazing, terrible, astonishing, horrific, unimaginable things that I see and learn about every day, at a pace that has never before been possible, and will soon be impossible again.

Here are some of the things I am witnessing, trying my best not to judge, but just to accept — things that these strange, wondrous, breakneck, every-kind-of-superlative times have to show me:

  1. The very discovery that time and space and the self are illusory, that our entire ‘reality’ is a representation, a model, entirely conjured up in our heads. That’s not to say that there is nothing outside that model, but rather that our brains, our ‘selves’ are simply incapable of comprehending in the slightest what is actually real and actually happening.
  2. The mind-boggling willingness of human beings to believe obvious, insane falsehoods, and to cling to them with a ferocity that produces endless wars, violence and hatred, and threatens, every bit as much as ecological collapse, to bring about the end of our species.
  3. The pictures from the Webb and Hubble telescopes, and the astounding model of the universe they are creating for us, especially juxtaposed with the realization that they are as much unreal as they are wondrous.
  4. The fact that despite all we have learned about how “we are what we eat”, and how ghastly our modern industrial diets are for our health and for the wellbeing of the creatures that we confine and torture for our food and drink, the less inclined we seem to be to act on that knowledge and eat healthily, or even to acknowledge the inconvenient truths about what our diets are doing to us and to the planet.
  5. The ability to travel anywhere in the world in hours, when even just a century ago it would have taken weeks, months or years. And the impact that ability has had on the homogenization of the world’s cultures and on the planet’s health.
  6. The fact that our single little species, an unremarkable small branch on the evolutionary tree of life, has unleashed the sixth (or eighth, or 42nd, we don’t know for sure) great extinction of life on the planet, without meaning to, and despite knowing we have done so, we are still denying having done so and continuing to act collectively as if we had not.
  7. The discovery that all life on our planet has a common origin, and that the planet’s atmosphere, environments and life forms have co-evolved to produce not only the staggering complexity we see today, but previous almost unimaginable evolutions that, just to give a couple of examples, created a 60M year-long ‘snowball earth’ through bacterial overproduction of oxygen, and which adapted to a 6M year-long supernova radiation bombardment that ended just 2M years ago and obliterated our ancestors’ tropical forest homes, reducing their numbers to just a few thousand.
  8. What we call “fossil fuels” are the remains of algae, bacteria, and plants, mostly dating back more than 350M years; they’re not from animals. And lots more amazing things science has only recently learned.
  9. The astonishing diversity and superhuman (and mostly unknown and unfathomable) qualities of life all around us, including seeds, sharks, bats, tardigrades, and jellyfish.
  10. Some of the amazing inventions and evolutions of life, such as:
    • exaptation (the fact wings evolved for temperature control, and were only later used to fly),
    • languages in all their mind-blowing variety,
    • the way perceptions work (there is no such ‘thing’ as a colour; most of what we ‘see’ is actually predicted fill-ins rather than actual perception),
    • the way memory works (and doesn’t),
    • how most human invention is actually biomimicry,
    • how all imagination is a combination of metaphor and randomness,
    • the infinitely many ways music can be produced and why we love some music and loathe other music,
    • the fact that human art has been around three times longer than abstract human language,
    • how our language affects how we ‘make sense’ of the world,
    • why humans hate complexity,
    • how we learn from ‘play’ and not from schooling,
    • and a million other things.

With all of this to wonder about, and observe, and listen to, and read, and learn about, and discover, and explore, and write about and talk about — and sufficient time and space and resources to do so — how could I be unhappy?

Of course I am uniquely privileged. Most of the world’s people live incredibly difficult lives, and their unhappiness is entirely understandable. But I have always been privileged, and much of my life I was unhappy (and for much of it I was seriously depressed), and I know lots of other privileged people who have never been happy.

So what was up with me, and what’s up with them?

I can’t be sure, and I may be wrong, but the best answer I can come up with is: mental illness. The anxiety of fighting your way up the corporate ladder, being kept off-kilter by your boss and everyone else in your life trying to take advantage of you or keep you on the defensive, and the enormous burden of self-imposed responsibility and blame for everything that’s not going quite as well as you, and everyone around you, expected, can be debilitating. To be in the midst of the game of civilization and playing your heart out every day at it is exhausting and will eventually and inevitably, I think, make you ill. All these years later, I’m still recovering. Thinking back makes me shudder, even though for most of those years I acted as if (pretended, even to myself?) I was happy (after all, I was a success, why wouldn’t I be)? I think this culture takes its emotional and psychological toll on all of us, and most of us, as I wrote last time out, pretend (to ourselves and others) we’re OK. Because people are depending on us, expecting us to be OK.

Flatcaps and Fatalism, a blog from Yorkshire, recently wrote a post about joy and laughter, describing activities of current human hubris such as the absurd techno-utopian Saudi mega-project THE LINE. He wrote:

It is trendy and inhuman, implausible and real. It is also the very latest version of a very old joke, the one about the prideful fool who thinks he is king. The money will be spent and something will be built, but it will not be the dystopian utopia of THE LINE videos. The project cannot keep staff, no-one knows the underlying geology well enough to estimate costs, and the transport plans are patently impossible. The gap between pride and reality is complete and absurd. There is a sacred duty to laugh at these effervescences of the time. It is only laughter, not concern or righteous anger, which reveals that the king was a fool all along. They think they are building heaven, some fear that they are building hell, but they are only building a ruin. The Machine, the great beast of progress, is the same. The ruin it brings will ruin it too. It merits derisive laughter, not trembling fear.

When I was younger I could not laugh at such hubris. I would be angry, as I often was in those days. I was intolerant of what seemed almost deliberate stupidity (a very hard thing to give up, and I still catch myself struggling with it). We’re all doing our best. Granted, that’s not saying much, but still.

So I’m wondering if, for some of us at least:

(1) At some point in our lives, when we are young, our perceptions, conceptions, and conditioning about what is going on in the world, and especially what is going on for us personally, shift to allow despair to vanquish wonder; and then

(2) At some much later point in our lives (at least if we are privileged), we develop a sense of equanimity, acceptance, and even humour about what is going on in the world, and for ourselves personally, that allows wonder to again vanquish despair.

For me, that first point came in my first few school years, and the second came just over a decade ago. So the happiest times of my life were my youngest and my latest. The years from about age 6 to about age 60 were what I am starting to call my wasted years, not that there is anything I or anyone could have done to make them turn out differently.

I doubt that this shift applies to most people; after all, we all handle the strange complexity of modern, nearly global, civilization culture differently.

But I have started to notice now — as I learn to notice aphids’ remarkable intelligence, and how light affects my emotions, and the difference between ironic laughter and laughter born of delight and wonder — the faces of the people I meet. The faces of most young children and some of the faces of my own age cohort seem to reflect a very different, more joyous, enchanted way of being in the world. And the faces of most of those of ages in-between seem to reflect the bewilderment, wariness, and trauma that we seem to unwittingly instil in each other as we try to do our best in this wonderful, terrible world.

And each face I see, I ache for them to be free of this Civilization Disease — to never get afflicted with it, or to heal as quickly as possible from it.

Perhaps this is why I welcome rather than fear the end of this civilization, despite the suffering and hardship it is already starting to unleash.  As Indrajit puts it: “Om namah shivaya. Shiva is dancing up a storm.”

After the fall, we may never again have to learn “the terrible knowledge of cities”.

One day, I think, wonderfully and once again, everything will be free.

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2 Responses to An Age of Wonder

  1. Paul Downey says:

    By the age of 28, I had worked for 5 years and made enough money to retire, so I did. That was in 1975. I had worked in long-range planning for HMG and everybody in the office thought it would all be over by 2010 (who would have thought it would be possible to run the whole Ponzi scheme for another decade on a tsunami of fiat currency)

    Try and be kind to yourself Dave, you only followed the herd and did what you were told to do (and thought what you were told to think), same as 99.999% of folk. In my world of public policy planning, we were always looking at least 40 years ahead so you can be sure that they have had decades to plan the last couple of years. Anyone who has relied on the herd/media for their worldview must be having a hard time at the moment. It might amuse you to realise just how little work you actually did when you had a job. 50 years ago I calculated that for each Joule of work I did in the office I needed another 10,000,000 Joules of work from the wider economy to support my lifestyle. Do the calculations and you might find that, like me, you have never really done a day’s work in your life. I find a little schoolboy Physics provides a great vantage point from which to watch the herd thunder by.

  2. Paul Downey says:

    By around 1972 it was so obvious that Western Civ. would all be over within 50 years ( to this young engineer at least) that I felt I needed to let the world know. At the time self-immolation was really quite fashionable- the Vietnam war, and I gave serious thought to taking that path with a gallon of 4-star in Parliament Square, but with no friends or family the media would have written me off as just another sad nutter. Over the course of a few months that sort of “work” led me to the realisation that the self is nothing more than a social construct (a media-generated “sad nutter”) and did not in fact exist, I had always known that space and time were only concepts that were agreed upon by society and nothing more but it had never occurred to me that the self was exactly the same. I immediately realised that “I” was never born and therefore will never die OMG!! and incidentally that Western Civ. would end within 50 years and that there was bugger all I could do about it!

    I have a background in Maths and have long thought that in the beginning was Mathematics but that in this part of the world you were told in the beginning was the Word. And that is why you all talk so much.
    An age of wonder indeed.

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