No matter how free and disinhibited we feel, our behavior deals with expectations of society and others upon us, as well as old atavisms our species has mastered in deriving from culture, family, and the conventions of “our time.”
This zeitgeist of sorts we receive a la carte and have to confront all our lives shapes the way we are and behave and constraints our potential. Authors have mentioned it across history, from Diogenes aka “the dog,” the cynic from Ancient Greece, to Nietzsche and Foucault, all of whom expressed in their own terms how our existence is “tunneled” through a path of expectations and conventions.
Whether we call this reality tunneling “biopolitics” (a term coined by Michel Foucault) or mere dependence on the circumstances we face (since we are socially and historically situated and that fact affects us, as José Ortega y Gasset explained), there’s so much we can do to refuse the wearing of such a customary mental straitjacket.
The unbearable shortness of the time present
For one, our perception of reality lives on the narrow window of the “now,” no matter how much we learn to stretch and maximize the slippery present tense by engaging in a rich game of cross-referencing what we are at one precise moment with memories and references (from time past, or a fraction part of the time we can’t change) and reflecting on the future (the part of our biography we can affect and transform).
Adapting Robert Frost’s poem to our very own “paths not taken,” it’s up to us to feel the route taken in the past as some unbearable burden or, on the contrary, to imagine our biography (both individual and collective) as a set of circumstances and choices now closed to us, for we cannot “edit” events from the past despite efforts from authoritarian regimes such as Stalin’s to “rewrite” history by fabricating images and texts that erase the very existence of those who fell out of favor, becoming uncomfortable for the official memory to recognize their very existence.
Today, right now, our collective and individual lives confront a complex, often apparently “determined” (or, at least, heavily conditioned) set of choices we can graphically represent as an arboreal structure resembling the fractal roots of a plant or the rhizomatic extensions of the mycelia that establish a symbiotic relationship with them.
These options open to us that we call “the future” also recall Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s ink drawings of nervous cells: as much as we cannot modify the direction of the arrow of time (closing any physically possible window to tinker with events already materialized in space-time), the paths of the future we face are open to us since those events did not happen yet.
Fatality versus “amor fati”
We can decide how we approach the moment of inevitability when our attitude and circumstances will help determine where, how, and with whom we will be sharing our days in the immediate future and beyond. Religion and philosophy have approached the fatality of aging and the cultural dynamics of determinism versus free will in different ways.
Whether or not we think we are “condemned to be free” and therefore choose our future paths with agency and on our own (as Jean-Paul Sartre expressed in a lecture from 1946, one year after the carnage and existential crisis of humanity, with the lost innocence represented by the Shoah and nuclear bombs against the population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), we decide how our biography is going to be from now on.
Sometimes, we will face the choice of the paths that we will take in the future with joy (as Nietzsche’s life-affirmation through “love to fate” and little moments of greatness); sometimes, we will feel angst (from the skepticism towards existence of ancient philosophers and Spanish Siglo de Oro’s Baltasar Gracián to Pascal’s mysticism, Schopenhauer’s nihilism); sometimes we will even be able to overcome the paralysis of skepticism and angst by ways similar to Kierkegaard’s mysticism (or “leap of faith“) by believing that something beyond reason gives meaning to existence).
One thing is certain, however: our call will make a difference, if tiny, in every little moment. Sometimes, we will feel we are called into action, while some other times the real bravery and difficulty will consist in putting aside all the little nozzles that ask for our attention to command a well-deserved moment of necessary idleness and contemplation, for —if we consider the advice of sound “old friends” such as Baltasar Gracián or Michel de Montaigne, attentive readers and commenters of old classics— introspection can nurture our ability to rely on prudence when needed.
Practical wisdom to face the unknown
To Aristotle, prudence equaled practical wisdom, a virtue beyond the sometimes-unattainable solace that some people can find in theoretical speculation (such as a life consecrated to mysticism or to literature, theoretical mathematics, art, etc.). From Aristotle’s four defined virtues, prudence is the one that most influenced philosophies of life such as stoicism, as well as the thought of religious thinkers such as Andalusian polymath Averroes and the scholastics he influenced through his commentaries of Aristotle’s texts (like Thomas Aquinas, whose ethics come from Aristotle through Averroes’ filter).
When facing the choice of the paths not yet taken of the big unknown we call the future, we should not mistake prudence (or the ability to govern oneself by reasoning) with determinism.
As for determinism, we can throw our hands like a Franz Kafka character defeated by the self-accomplished prophecy of a monstrously repressive, faceless world…
Or, instead of letting the world surrounding us dictate our path and fate through the bland passivity towards life that Jean-Paul Sartre denounces as “bad faith” (and that other philosopher of his time, Martin Heidegger, will call “inauthenticity”), we can behave and project our action towards the future like William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus‘ famous last two verses. We can act as the masters of our fate, like the captains of our soul (even when painfully sick like Henley himself, even when jailed like Nelson Mandela, who confessed reciting it in silence to regain strength in the direst circumstances).
The Boy Who Cried Wolf (seen from space)
The Boy Who Cried Wolf is one of Aesop’s best-known and most quoted fables for some reason. Dating from Ancient Greece, these educational oral stories circulated across the Greek cultural domains in the Mediterranean, where they sometimes evolved and even merged with other similar stories.
Born a slave, storyteller Aesop compiled the most celebrated among such stories, including the tale of the boy who falsely claimed to his neighbors about a wolf attacking him, so when he was really attacked by one the villagers did not believe him. When we exaggerate threats (they can be both personal, as a group, or even as a species or civilization), we somehow lose the ability to recognize real urgencies when they happen, hence heading for unwanted events as irreversible as the arrow of time.
On December 24, 1968, astronaut William Anders from NASA’s Apollo 8 mission took a picture of the Earth from the moon, maybe thinking he had taken an action as inconsequential as clicking the shutter button of a Hasselblad camera. Bill Anders picture soon became the symbol of a new perspective: our extraordinary and fragile planet as seen from the surface of another stellar body, if only its proportionally big moon.
Known as the Earthrise photo, it triggered a new call to action to come to understand and protect what from space was clearly a unique body in that proximity, a complex biosphere that hosted quite an unexpected event: life. To Whole Earth Catalog founder and editor Stewart Brand, “part of what made the “Earthrise” photo so powerful was the tilted horizon–reflecting a human behind the camera shooting urgently.”
With a camera in his hands, a member of our species (one of the 3.533 billion living in 1968 compared with the 7.3 billion today, one of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived) showed graphically (and beautifully) for the first time that we are onto something together (a powerful perspective in the midst of the Cold War).
Old and new operating manuals
Also in 1968, and influenced as well by the picture, Buckminster Fuller published Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, where he encouraged anybody on Earth to acknowledge a shared responsibility. Soon enough, he thought, it would be clear that everyone living on Earth at a given time, as a representative of generations past and those to come, acted as the crew of a spaceship floating in the void that, in order to thrive long term, would need to work toward a greater good.
From then on, we have come to deepen our interdependence and the world’s fragility, though we have yet to find a way to explain how our individual and collective action is not detached from the world as of now, especially since there’s no other human civilization outside Earth despite plans to do so in the moon and Mars.
Mass media and cybernetics have not helped so far in building news formats and storytelling capable of explaining how our impact can be different depending on the decisions we take from every moment on, for the future is yet to happen, and we can affect the odds of events happening at the macro-level (collectively) and a small scale. Our actions, attitude, and decisions —especially those we take in aggregate— condition, proactively and reactively, events that did not happen yet.
Culturally wired for self-fulfilling prophecies that account for collective versions of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, public discourse around common threats and challenges has barely matured since Bill Anders took the Earthrise iconic picture, from negationism and mockery during the era of mass media to cynicism, self-destructive fatalism, and conspirationism in the cybernetics era.
What we can choose
Sometimes indistinguishable from religious millenarianism, public discourse around the big issues affecting our civilization have lazily relied on exaggeration, alarmism, and childish catastrophism.
French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy argues (Pour un catastrophism éclairé, 2004) that obsession with the dangers the world is facing has created a new philosophical category attracting those who claim the collapse is near and inevitable in too many ways. Collapsology is one of such success stories.
Crying wolf one time and another has a similar effect collectively, decreasing awareness and making a case for cynicism. Such a destructive catastrophism could be counteracted by a more constructive (or “enlightened,” says Dupuy) version, one that would not make us think our worst collective fate will become a self-fulfilled prophecy, but would, on the contrary, make us react and build ways to explain how we can revert some dangers. Then, some of these proactive changes can account for a bigger impact on aggregate.
Rather than paralyzing with the act of crying wolf with the inevitability of one catastrophe or another, we can affect our decisions from now on, individually and in aggregate. Catastrophism should not feed fatalism.
Our drive for invention should make us wary of the fundamental flaw of old fables: we only seem to learn from them by mistaking their resemblance to reality with reality itself.
Our mindset influences the outcome. Or, as Nietzsche expressed in section 276 of The Gay Science:
“For the new year.— I still live, I still think: I still have to live, for I still have to think. Sum, ergo cogito; cogito, ergo sum. Today everybody permits himself the expression of his wish and his dearest thought; hence I, too, shall say what it is that I wish from myself today, and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year —what thought shall be for me the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”