More like a dead leaf

For much of my life I have liked to think of myself as a Shockwave Rider, surfing the waves of change, exhilarated by the ride. Though my reality has been generally very different and not nearly so boldly confident. (If I remember correctly John Brunner’s central character in the novel of that name got pretty weary with dealing with change himself at various points in the book.)
I have often contrasted what I portray as a very positive image of the Shockwave Rider with another Brunner quote, “It is one thing to talk glibly about the determinism of history but quite another thing altogether to find oneself caught up in historical forces like dead leaf on the gale.”. That dead leaf seems pretty familiar too and is, perhaps, a more accurate description of my trajectory over the years.
So in this period of turbulence and uncertainty, lets have a little sympathy for the dead leaves among us and hope that at least some of us can be blown into more congenial places.

Another kind of blasphemy

Floundering around in a smoke-free daze, I realise that stopping smoking is a massive system intervention. For those of you who have never smoked and just imagine it to be a self indulgent addiction, the best analogy I can think of for what it is like to stop is is when you lose internet connectivity for some time or when your computer collapses. It is that sense of interruption to normal functioning. That “I’ll check it on google, oh no I can’t.” That sense of the balance of your world being disturbed. That feeling of not quite knowing how to proceed now the prop of that technology is no longer there to augment your functioning.
There is also something quite appalling about this kind of being lost and the busy attempts to divert oneself from the feelings that accompany it and the the wishing away of time in a kind of mindless yearning, which is a kind of blasphemy.
I was reminded of this everyday kind of blasphemy, reading Bryan Appleyard’s review of Lewis Wolpert’s “How We Live and Why We Die: the Secret Lives of Cells” in the New Statesman today. This was the key paragraph:

“Wolpert also goes into the many ways in which this machinery can go wrong. This makes life seem even more miraculous. Not only are cells improbably complex, they are also fragile and subject to catastrophic failure. Our existence depends on the ability of trillions of molecules to line themselves up in perfect order following billions of instructions, any one of which can be wrong or misread; and our ability to ponder that fact is dependent on a few custard-like pounds, lodged in an all-too-feeble dome of bone. Being alive and aware is, indeed, a miracle, whatever meaning you attach to that word.”
Reading that passage reminded me of watching a video of a lecture by Woldpert describing our development from a single cell some weeks ago. Now I find something about Woldpert very unsympathetic, so it wasn’t his charisma that awoke a profound sense of wonder and mystery in me. It was just the facts he presented that, in Appleyard’s words, revealed the sense of, “Being alive and aware is, indeed, a miracle, whatever meaning you attach to that word.”
I had a similar feeling reading Jonah Lehrer’s account of the role of dopamine in some of our most important, but non-conscious learning in his book “The Decisive Moment”.
These glimpses of wonder and mystery are something that should be central to our sense of well being, but too often get lost lost in the busy nothingness that can fill our days. This seems to be something I need to remind myself of, because it is something I too easily forget. Looking for another quote in a similar vein I found a piece I wrote a little over two years ago, “Mystery, Wonder and the Mystical”, where I concluded:
“It seems to me that if we are to lead full lives as human beings a sense of mystery, wonder and even the mystical are an important part of that life. This does not mean positing supernatural entities, indeed I would go further and say that positing supernatural entities diminishes our sense of of mystery, wonder and the mystical and somehow makes them too mundane and in a curious way touches on the blasphemous.”
The current economic and financial turmoil inevitably leads to a sense of anxiety as well as an opportunity to rethink. It’s a bit like giving up smoking or losing internet connectivity – a system disruption. Disruptive states are probably not the best places to be to cultivate a sense of wonder and mystery. But if we are to stumble through our individual and collective concerns and anxieties I think we do to find a way of doing so. As I have written before :
“One of the the things that make it so hard to see what is going on now is that we are living through two crises. The first is the chickens coming home to roost of a thirty year old experiment in implementing somewhat naive free market phantasies. The second is the flock of giant canaries that are telling us that our two hundred year old experiment in carbon fuelled industrialisation may be drawing to an uncomfortable close. The paradox is that maybe the solution to the short term crisis lies in setting out to solve the long term one.”
And, as Chris Corrigan writes in a long and thoughtful piece:
“Reverence has been a capacity of human life that has kept us accountable to each other and to our environments for hundreds of thousands of years. Many of us have shed that reverence and have dulled our sense to the awe that is inspired by a deep connection to the earth, to each other and to ourselves. Reverence is our operating system, and connection is our practice.”
So, let’s make reverence our operating system, cultivate a sense of wonder and mystery, celebrate the everyday miracle of being alive and find the sources of our well-being through purposive drift.

Freedom is the recognition of contingency

Jonah Lehrer, the author of my current favourite book, “The Decisive Moment” (“How We Decide” in the USA), also has an excellent blog, “The Frontal Cortext”. In a recent post on business books he concludes with a point that regular readers of Purposive Drift will recognise as theme dear to my heart:
“The larger point, of course, is that humans are terrible at acknowledging the (omni)presence of contingency and chance. We like explanations that cut across situations and aren’t subject to randomness, and so we psychoanalyze personalities and come up with elaborate theories of personality. Alas, these explanations often get the causality of behavior exactly backwards – who we are and what we’re like often depends on where we are and what we are doing. I’ve always loved this short quote from Richard Rorty: ‘Freedom is the recognition of contingency.'”

Adrift in a smoke-free zone

Nearly three weeks ago I decided to try an experiment. I stopped smoking. So far this has largely been a negative experience. When I say a negative experience I mean that it feels as if my primary activity during this time has been not smoking. Now this is bizarre. How can not doing something be an activity? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that being conscious of not smoking has been the primary focus of my attention over the past couple of weeks. But even that is not quite true. What has been going on is my awareness that the variety of discomforts and disabilities i have been experiencing could have been fixed or dealt with by lighting up again and the fact that I haven’t.
The curious thing is that the not smoking bit has been easy. I just haven’t. What has been more surprising to me is how hard it is to function effectively without smoking. So here I am adrift in a smoke-free zone, lost in a space I don’t understand and don’t much like. Let’s hope normal service will be returned soon.