Tag Archives: society

Grief: Deraniyagala, Barnes, Johnson, Oates, Didion

There’s a book out called “Wave”, by Sri Lankan writer Sonali Deraniyagala. When the tsunami struck, on Boxing Day 2004, she lost her husband, her two sons and her parents. “Wave” is her memoir – there’s an fascinating review of it here in the New York Times.

The review also has the following quote, from Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, talking about grief and the attendant feelings and sensations that come with it:

“And you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.”

He paints a powerful picture. It’s a particularly visceral allegory. So I did a little digging to see what else Barnes has said on the subject – he’s a fantastic writer – and scraped together some extracts from a piece he did in The New York Review of Books. It’s a long comparison/review of two different books – A Widow’s Story, by Joyce Carol Oates, and The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Here’s an edit:

In his essay “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow,” Dr. Johnson identifies the dreadful uniqueness of grief among the human passions. Ordinary desires, virtuous or vicious, contain within them the theoretical possibility of their satisfaction:

The miser always imagines that there is a certain sum that will fill his heart to the brim; and every ambitious man, like King Pyrrhus, has an acquisition in his thoughts that is to terminate his labours, after which he shall pass the rest of his life in ease or gaity, in repose or devotion.

But grief, or “sorrow,” is different in kind. Even with painful passions—fear, jealousy, anger—nature always suggests to us a solution, and with it an end to that oppressive feeling:

But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.

Unless we have a religious belief that envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millenium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we—we in the secularizing West, at least—have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences. Of course, at one level we know that we shall all die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists—a matter for the professionals. But afterward we, the amateurs, the grief-struck, are left to deal with it—this unique, banal thing—as best we can. And there are now fewer social forms to surround and support the grief-bearer.

Very little is handed down from one generation to the next about what it is like. We are expected to suffer it in comparative silence; being “strong” is the template; wailing and weeping a sign of “giving in to grief,” which is held to be a bad way of “dealing with it.” Of course, there is the love of family and friends to fall back on, but they may know less than we do, and their concerned phrases— “It does get better”; “Two years is what they say”; “You are looking more yourself”—are often based on uncertain authority and general hopefulness. Death sorts people out: both the grief-bearers and those around them. As the survivor’s life is forcibly recalibrated, friendships are often tested; some pass, some fail. Co-grievers may indulge in the phenomenon of competitive mourning: I loved him/her more, and with these tears of mine I prove it. As for the sorrowing relicts—widow, widower, or unwed partner—they can become morbidly sensitive, easily moved to anger by both too much intrusiveness and too much distance-keeping. They may even experience a strange competitiveness of their own: an irrational need to prove (to whom?) that their grief is the larger, the heavier, the purer (than whose?).

A friend of mine, widowed in his sixties, told me, “This is a crappy age for it to happen.” Meaning, I think, that if the catastrophe had happened in his seventies, he could have settled in and waited for death; whereas if it had happened in his fifties, he might have been able to restart his life. But every age is a crappy age for it to happen, and there is no correct answer in that game of would-you-rather. How do you compare the grief of a young parent left with small children to that of an aged person amputated from his or her partner of fifty or sixty years? There is no hierarchy to grief, except in the matter of feeling. Another friend of mine, widowed in a moment after fifty years of marriage—the knot of people by a baggage carousel in the arrivals hall turned out to be surrounding her suddenly dead husband—wrote to me: “Nature is very exact in the matter. It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Joan Didion had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years when he died in mid-sentence while on his second pre-dinner whisky in December 2003. Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith had been together for “forty-seven years and twenty-five days” when Smith, in hospital but apparently recovering well from pneumonia, was swept away by a secondary infection in February 2008. Both literary couples were intensely close yet noncompetitive, often working in the same space and rarely apart: in the case of Didion-Dunne, for a “week or two or three here and there when one of us was doing a piece”; in the case of Oates-Smith, no more than a day or two.

The similarities continue: in each marriage the woman was the star; each of the dead husbands had been a lapsed Catholic; neither wife seems to have imagined in advance her transformation into widow; and each left her husband’s voice on the answering machine for some while after his death. Further, each survivor decided to chronicle her first year of widowhood, and each of their books was completed within those twelve months.

That both Didion and Oates limit their books to the first year of their widowhoods is logical. Long-married couples develop a certain rhythm, gravity, and coloration to the annual cycle, and so those first twelve months of widowhood propose at every turn a terrible choice: between doing the same as last year, only this time by yourself, or deliberately not doing the same as last year, and thereby perhaps feeling even more by yourself. That first year contains many stations of the cross. For instance, learning to return to a silent, empty house. Learning to avoid what Oates calls “sinkholes”—those “places fraught with visceral memory.” Learning how to balance necessary solitude and necessary gregariousness. Learning how to react to friends who mystifyingly decline to mention the name of the lost partner; or colleagues who fail to find the right words, like the “Princeton acquaintance” who greeted Oates “with an air of hearty reproach” and the line, “Writing up a storm, eh, Joyce?” Or like the woman friend who offers her the consolation that grief “is neurological. Eventually the neurons are ‘re-circuited.’ I would think that, if this is so, you could speed up the process by just knowing.

The intention is kindly; the effect, patronizing. Oh, so it’s just a question of waiting for those neurons to settle? Then there are practical problems: for instance, the garden your husband lovingly tended, but in which you are less interested; you may enjoy the results, but rarely joined him in visits to the garden center. So do you faithfully replicate the same work, or do you unfaithfully let the garden look after itself? Here, Oates finds a wise third way: where Smith planted only annuals, she replants with nothing but perennials, asking the nurseryman for “anything that requires a minimum of work and is guaranteed to survive.”

Which is the problem confronting the widow: how to survive that first year, how to turn into a perennial. This involves surmounting fears and anxieties for which there is no training. Previously, Oates rated as “the most exquisite of intimacies” the ability to occupy the same space as Ray for hours, without the need to speak; now, there is a quite different order of silence. “What I am,” Oates writes, “begins to be revealed now that I am alone. In such revelation is terror.”

Oates excellently conveys the disconnect between the inwardly chaotic self and the outwardly functioning person (and she is functioning again with remarkable rapidity—correcting proofs and working on a story within a week of Smith’s death, back on the literary road within three). She is certainly less in control than she seems to outsiders, but probably more in control than she feels to herself.

Smith’s opinions on the relationship between the sexes are somewhat unusual:

To a woman, the quintessential male is unknowable, elusive.

In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious—unless it was unavoidable.

Women are inclined to console men, all women, all men, in all circumstances without discretion.

The ideal marriage is of a writer and her/his editor.

A wife must respect her husband’s family even when—as it sometimes happens—her husband does not entirely respect them.

A wife must respect the otherness of her husband—she must accept it, she will never know him fully.

This sounds like shyness raised to marital principle; and it brings with it the danger that when the wife becomes a widow and goes through her husband’s papers, she will find out things she barely suspected. In Ray Smith’s case: a nervous breakdown, a love affair at a sanatarium, a psychiatrist’s description of him as “love-starved,” and further evidence of a difficult, distant relationship with his father. “For all that I knew Ray so well,” she concludes, “I didn’t know hisimagination.” Nor, perhaps, did he know hers, given that he rarely read her fiction. But he was “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man.”

In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria. The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief. Phrases like “Friends have been wonderful inviting me to their homes” are platitudes; but grief is filled with platitudes. The chapter headed “Fury!” begins:

Then suddenly, I am so angry.
I am so very very angry, I am furious.
I am sick with fury, like a wounded animal.

If a creative writing student turned this in as part of a story, the professor might reach for her red pencil; but if that same professor is writing a stream-of-consciousness diary about grief, the paragraph becomes strangely validated. This is how it feels, and what is grief at times but a car crash of cliché?

Grief dislocates both space and time. The grief-struck find themselves in a new geography, where other people’s maps are only ever approximate. Time also ceases to be reliable. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, describes the effect on him of his wife’s death:

Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.

And this unreliability of time adds to the confusion in the sorrower’s mind as to whether grief is a state or a process. This is far from a theoretical matter. It is at the heart of the question: Will it always be like this? Will things get better? Why should they? And if so, how will I tell? Lewis admits that when he started writing his book,

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.

Probably, it needs both at the same time. We might try to pin it down by saying that grief is the state and mourning the process; yet to the person enduring one or both, things are rarely clear, and the “process” is one that involves much slipping back into the paralysis of the “state.” There are various markers: the point at which tears—regular, daily tears—stop; the point when the brain returns to normal functioning; the point when possessions are disposed of; the point when memory of the lost one begins to return. But there can be no general rules, nor standard time-scale. Those pesky neurons just can’t be relied upon.

What happens next, when the state and the process are, if by no means complete, at least established and recognizable? What happens to our heart? Again, there are those confident surrounding voices (from “How could he/she ever marry again after living with her/him?” to “They say the happily married tend to remarry quickly, often within six months”). A friend whose long-term lover had died of AIDS told me, “There’s only one upside to this thing: you can do what you fucking well like.” The trouble is that when you are in sorrow, most notions of “what you like” will contain the presence of your lost love and the impossible demand that the laws of the universe be repealed. And so: a hunkering-down, a closing-off, a retreat into the posthumous faithfulness of memory? Raymond Smith didn’t much like Dr. Johnson, finding him too didactic, and preferring the Doctor of Boswell’s account to that of his own writings. But on sorrow, Johnson is not so much didactic as wise, clear, and decisive:

An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference, is unreasonable and vain. If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention; but since however we may debar our lives from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets, and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.

So what constitutes “success” in mourning? The ability to return to concentration and work; the ability to rediscover interest in life, and take pleasure in it, while recognizing that present pleasure is far from past joy. The ability to hold the lost love successfully in mind, remembering without distorting. The ability to continue living as he or she would have wanted you to do (though this is a tricky area, where the sorrowful can often end up giving themselves a free pass). And then what? Some form of self-sufficiency that avoids neutrality and indifference? Or a new relationship that will either supplant the lost one or, perhaps, draw strength from it?

 

When Dr. Johnson wrote “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow” he was not yet widowed. That event was to occur two years later, when he was forty-three. Twenty-eight years afterward, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Lawrence, whose wife had recently died, Johnson wrote:

He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.

First-world problems and the common or garden connoisseur

Great piece by J Peder Zane in The New York Times. Wish I’d thought of it:

In Pursuit of Taste, en Masse

AMERICANS didn’t always ask so many questions or expect so much in their quest for enjoyment. It was enough for them simply to savor a good cigar, a nice bottle of wine or a tasty morsel of cheese.

Not anymore. Driven by a relentless quest for “the best,” we increasingly see every item we place in our grocery basket or Internet shopping cart as a reflection of our discrimination and taste. We are not consumers. We have a higher calling. We are connoisseurs.

Connoisseurship has never been more popular. Long confined to the serious appreciation of high art and classical music, it is now applied to an endless cascade of pursuits. Leading publications, including The New York Times, routinely discuss the connoisseurship of coffee, cupcakes and craft beers; of cars, watches, fountain pens, lunchboxes, stereo systems and computers; of tacos, pizza, pickles, chocolate, mayonnaise, cutlery and light (yes, light, which is not to be confused with the specialized connoisseurship of lighting). And the Grateful Dead, of course.

This democratization of connoisseurship is somewhat surprising since as recently as the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s connoisseurship was a “dirty word” — considered “elitist, artificial, subjective and mostly imaginary,” said Laurence B. Kanter, chief curator of the Yale University Art Gallery. Today, it is a vital expression of how many of us we want to see, and distinguish, ourselves.

As its wide embrace opens a window onto the culture and psychology of contemporary America, it raises an intriguing question: If almost anything can be an object of connoisseurship — and if, by implication, almost anyone can be a connoisseur — does the concept still suggest the fine and rare qualities that make it so appealing?

There were probably Neanderthals who tried to distinguish themselves through their exquisite taste in cave drawings. But the word connoisseur was not coined until the 18th century — in France, of course, as a symbol of the Enlightenment’s increasingly scientific approach to knowledge.

At a time when precious little was known about the provenance of many works of art, early connoisseurs developed evaluative tools — for example, identifying an artist’s typical subject matter, use of color and use of light — to authenticate works by revered masters and to debunk pretenders to the pedestal.

“Works of art do not carry a guarantee,” said Dr. Kanter. “It has always been the job of the connoisseur to question, investigate, refine the received wisdom of earlier generations.”

As the aristocracy declined and the bourgeoisie enjoyed new wealth, especially after the Napoleonic upheavals, the number of people who could afford art expanded, as did the types of art they were interested in. Connoisseurship grew in response to the need for authoritative guidance in a changing world. In the 19th century, connoisseurs helped reassess the works of forgotten artists, like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Botticelli, who are now considered canonical. They studied and appraised ignored forms like German woodcuts, French porcelain and English statuary.

Contemporary efforts to apply connoisseurship to a host of far-flung fields are consistent with this history. “Our definition of quality continues to expand and mature,” Dr. Kanter said, “so it makes sense that we can talk now about connoisseurs not just of art but also of rap music, comic books and Scotch. Connoisseurship is not about objects; it’s a process of thinking about and making distinctions among things.”

True connoisseurs — and this is what makes the label so appealing — do not merely possess knowledge, like scholars. They possess a sixth sense called taste. They are renowned for the unerring judgment of their discerning eye. They are celebrated because of their rare talent — their gift — for identifying and appreciating subtle, often hidden, qualities.

Despite its expanded applications, connoisseurship still revolves around art, if we define art broadly as things that are more than the sum of their parts because they offer the possibility of transcendence. We do not speak of connoisseurs of nature (which can transport us) or diapers (which are simply useful). But no one blinks when we apply the term to wine, food or literary forms like comic books, because these are believed to offer deeper experiences to those who can gain access to them. Generally speaking, almost anyone can become an expert, but connoisseurship means we’re special.

If connoisseurship is a way of thinking, its rising popularity reflects the fact that people have so many more things to think about. ` Robert H. Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell whose books include “Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess,” noted that the British economist John Maynard Keynes worried during the 1920s and ’30s that rising productivity would lead people to work less as it became easier to satisfy their basic needs.

“It’s funny,” Dr. Frank said, “that someone as smart as he was didn’t realize that we would invent a million new things to spend our money on and create higher and higher standards of quality for those products that would cost more and more.”

Hence the $5 cup of coffee and the $8 pickle.

In the dark ages before arugula, most supermarkets seemed to carry only one type of lettuce, iceberg, and apples were either green or red. In 1945, the average grocer carried about 5,000 products; today, that number is more than 40,000, according to Paul B. Ellickson, a professor of economics and marketing at the University of Rochester.

In addition, the Internet has made millions of other options just a mouse click away. Easy access to higher-quality products opens new avenues of connoisseurship — gorau glas cheese is more interesting, more provocative, than Velveeta. But it also presents us with a mind-numbing series of choices. In this context, connoisseurship is a coping strategy. When we say we want “the best,” we winnow our options, focusing our attention on a small sample of highly regarded items.

Put another way, rising connoisseurship is a response to life in an age of information shaped by consumerism. As ideas increasingly become the coin of the realm, people distinguish themselves by what they know. An important way to demonstrate this is through what they buy.

It is a form of conspicuous consumption that puts less emphasis on an item’s price tag — craft beers aren’t that expensive — than on its perceived cachet. In hoisting a Tripel brewed by Belgian monks, the drinker is telling the world: I know which ale to quaff. As, in all fairness, he enjoys a very tasty beverage.

Ironically, many items celebrated as examples of connoisseurship — handcrafted, small-batch, artisanal products — are themselves a reaction against the mass production trends of the global consumer society that shapes us. Just as art connoisseurs authenticate paintings, others seek wines and cheese and cupcakes that seem mystically authentic.

“A lot of what gets called connoisseurship is really just snobbery,” said Thomas Frank, who has dissected modern consumer culture in books like “Commodify Your Dissent,” which he edited with Matt Weiland, and “The Conquest of Cool.” “It’s not about the search for quality, but buying things that make you feel good about yourself. It’s about standing apart from the crowd, demonstrating knowledge, hipness.”

The rub is that, as access to knowledge through a Google search has become synonymous with possessing knowledge, fewer and fewer people seem to have the inclination or patience to become true connoisseurs. How many people, after all, have the time to make oodles of money and master the worlds of craft beer, cheese, wines and everything else people in the know must know?

In response, most people outsource connoisseurship, turning to actual connoisseurs for guidance. “Many people want the patina of connoisseurship on the cheap,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College. “So they contract out the decision-making process. My guess is that a tiny fraction of people who are true connoisseurs of wine — and there are some — don’t make enough money to buy a $500 bottle of wine.”

As Steven Jenkins, an expert on cheese and other products at Fairway Market in New York, recently told a reporter for The New York Times: “The customer has no idea what he or she wants. The customer is dying to be told what they want.”

People have always relied on connoisseurs for guidance. What is different today is the idea — suggested by journalists and marketers intent on flattering their customers — that people can become paragons of taste simply by taking someone else’s advice.

Dr. Schwartz said this could be a wise strategy. Consumers may not get the pleasures of deep knowledge, but they also avoid the angst. “You get the benefits of discernment without paying the psychological price” of having to make difficult choices and distinctions, he said. “You’re happy because you’ve been told what to get and don’t know any better.”

This psychological dimension is essential to understanding connoisseurship, said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University whose books include “Predictably Irrational.” While recognizing that a small handful of people are true connoisseurs, he said his experiments with people interested in wine revealed a startling lack of discernment.

In one experiment, Dr. Ariely asked people to taste and write descriptions of four wines. He waited 10 minutes and then gave them a blind taste test, asking them to match the wines to their descriptions. For the most part, they couldn’t.

In another experiment, he used food coloring to make white wine appear red. The participants, he said, “rated it highly in terms of tannins, complexity” and other general characteristics of red wine.

Dr. Ariely’s work dovetails with other experiments that have found, for instance, that many people cannot tell the difference between foie gras and dog food in blind taste tests.

Even connoisseurs have a hard time getting it right. Echoing a famous blind taste test of wines from California and France in 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris, nine wine experts gathered at Princeton University in 2012 to compare revered wines from France with wines from New Jersey that cost, on average, about 5 percent as much. Not only did the experts give vastly different scores for many of the wines, but they rated the Garden State wines on a par with their costly French counterparts.

Dr. Ariely said these results did not necessarily debunk the notion of connoisseurship. “Whether we can actually tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine may be less important than whether we think that we can,” he said. “We might actually experience more pleasure when drinking an expensive wine, enjoy it more, because we’re slowing down, savoring it, paying more attention to its qualities.”

Which, as it turns out, is a hallmark of connoisseurship.

What *should* we be worried about?

This year’s question to Edge is “what should we be worried about?” Here are some of the best answers:

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We Don’t Do Politics
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Coldplay, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

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I’ve Given Up Asking Questions
Acreenwriter, Film director, Animator, Actor; Member, Monty Python Comedy Troupe; Director, Brazil; Fear And Loathing In Las Vega

 

I’ve given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.

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The Loss Of Death
Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Head, Dept. of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College, London

 

Every generation our species distils the best of itself, packages it up and passes it on, shedding the dross and creating a fresher, newer, shinier generation. We have been doing this now for four billion years, and in doing so have transmogrified from unicellular microorganisms that do little more than cling to rocks and photosynthesize, to creatures of boundless energy and imagination who write poetry, make music, love each other and work hard to decipher the secrets of themselves and their universe.

And then they die.

Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place. Put more simply, death stops a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well.

Now, all this may be coming to an end, for one of the things we humans, with our evolved intelligence, are working hard at is trying to eradicate death. This is an understandable enterprise, for nobody wants to die—genes for wanting to die rarely last long in a species. For millennia, human thinkers have dreamed of conquering old age and death: the fight against it permeates our art and culture, and much of our science. We personify death as a spectre and loathe it, fear it and associate it with all that is bad in the world. If we could conquer it, how much better life would become.

Half a century ago that millennia-old dream began to take form, for we humans discovered genes, and within the genes we discovered that there are mechanisms for regulating aging and death, and we also discovered that we can engineer these genes—make them do things differently. We can add them, subtract them, alter their function, swap them between species—the possibilities are exciting and boundless. Having discovered the molecular mechanisms that regulate senescence and lifespan, we have begun to contemplate the possibility that we can alter the life course itself. We may be able to extend life, and possibly quite soon—it has recently been estimated that due to medical and technical advances, the first person to reach 150 years has already been born. Once we have eradicated cancer, heart disease, and dementia, our biggest killers, we can turn next to the body clock—the mechanism for winding-up operations that limits our lifespans—and alter that too. Why stop at 150? If a person is kept disease-free and the aging clock is halted, why could a person not reach 200? 300? 500?

What a wonderful idea. Few people seem to doubt that this is a wonderful idea and so research into aging and lifespan is a funding priority in every wealthy, technologically advanced society. Termed “healthy aging”, this research really means prolonging life, for aging is by definition progressive time-dependent loss of health and function, and if we prevent that, we prevent death itself. Who wouldn’t want to live to 500? To live a life free of decrepitude and pain, to be able to spend so much more time enjoying favourite activities, achieving so much, wringing every drop from mysterious but wonderful existence, seeing the growing up not just of one’s children and grandchildren but also their children and grandchildren. Oh, yes please!

But wait. Our lifespan is our lifespan for a reason. Lifespans vary enormously in the biological world, from barely a day in the mayfly to more than 100 years in the Galapagos tortoise and an estimated 1500 years in the Antarctic sponge. These spans have been imprinted by natural selection because they are those that serve the species best—that maximise the trade-off between caring for and competing with one’s offspring.

Most of us love our parents but imagine a world inhabited not only by your own parents but also everyone else’s, and also your and their grandparents, and your and their great-grandparents… a society run by people whose ideas and attitudes date back four centuries. Imagine a world in which your boss might be in the post you covet for the next 100 years. Truly, would the generations be competing with each other: for food, housing, jobs, space. As it is, the young complain about how their elders, with their already rapidly increasing lifespans, are driving up house prices by refusing to downsize in middle age, and driving up unemployment by refusing to retire. Imagine four centuries of people ahead of you in the housing and job queues.

The prolonging of the human lifespan is often lauded in the media but it is almost never questioned. Nobody seems to doubt that we should push forward with aging research, identify those genes, tinker with them, make them work for us. For nobody wants to die, and so we all want this research to succeed. We want it for ourselves, and our families. We want ourselves and our loved ones to live as long as possible—forever, if we can.

But is it the best thing for our species? Have four billion years of evolution been wrong? We are not Antarctic sponges or blue-green algae—we die for a reason. We die so that our youth—those better versions of ourselves—can flourish. We should worry about the loss of death.

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etc…

(click here for the full list, it’s worth it)

Why “super” is getting ordinary

Found a nice summary on Kottke of an article of how ‘the improbable is the new normal':

Kevin Kelly notes that the internet — and in particular, YouTube — is exposing us to massive quantities of things that are impossible and amazing and muses about how that might be affecting our culture.

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online – which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don’t want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.

We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache — the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare — by definition — but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.

Read the full piece here.

The truth about dishonesty? It’s all about rationalisation

Are you more honest than a banker? Under what circumstances would you lie, or cheat, and what effect does your deception have on society at large? Dan Ariely, one of the world’s leading voices on human motivation and behaviour is the latest big thinker to get the RSA Animate treatment.

Taken from a lecture given at the RSA in July 2012 . Watch the longer talk here.

Selflessness gone awry: giving until it hurts

Edited from a piece by Natalie Angier in the NY Times. Click here to read the whole thing (I chopped out the intro for length, but read it if you can).

“If you’re supremely confident of your skills, and if you’re certain that what you’re doing is for the good of your patients,” says Dr. Robert A. Burton, “it can be very difficult to know on your own when you’re veering into dangerous territory.”

The author of “On Being Certain” and the coming “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind,” Dr. Burton is a contributor to a scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume called “Pathological Altruism,” to be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

As the new book makes clear, pathological altruism is not limited to showcase acts of self-sacrifice, like donating a kidney or a part of one’s liver to a total stranger. The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous “how can I help you?” behaviour is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodised, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.

Selflessness gone awry may play a role in a broad variety of disorders, including anorexia and animal hoarding, women who put up with abusive partners and men who abide alcoholic ones.

Because a certain degree of selfless behaviour is essential to the smooth performance of any human group, selflessness run amok can crop up in political contexts. It fosters the exhilarating sensation of righteous indignation, the belief in the purity of your team and your cause and the perfidiousness of all competing teams and causes.

David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilising. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. “It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current ‘culture war.’ ” Not to mention an epidemic of blogorrhea, newspaper-induced hypertension and the use of a hot, steeped beverage as one’s political mascot.

Barbara Oakley, an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan and an editor of the new volume, said in an interview that when she first began talking about its theme at medical or social science conferences, “people looked at me as though I’d just grown goat horns. They said, ‘But altruism by definition can never be pathological.’ ”

To Dr. Oakley, the resistance was telling. “It epitomised the idea ‘I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological,’ ” she said.

Indeed, the study of altruism, generosity and other affiliative behaviours has lately been quite fashionable in academia, partly as a counterweight to the harsher, selfish-gene renderings of Darwinism, and partly on the financing bounty of organisations like the John Templeton Foundation. Many researchers point out that human beings are a spectacularly cooperative species, far surpassing other animals in the willingness to work closely and amicably with non-kin. Our altruistic impulse, they say, is no mere crown jewel of humanity; it is the bedrock on which we stand.

Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. “I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,” she said. “I’m looking at it as an engineer.”

And by the first rule of engineering, she said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.” If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.

Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that the transfer of energy will itself exact a tax, which means that the overall disorder churned up by the transaction will be slightly greater than the new orderliness created. None of which is to argue against good deeds, Dr. Oakley said, but rather to adopt a bit of an engineer’s mind-set, and be prepared for energy losses and your own limitations.

Train nurses to be highly empathetic and, yes, their patients will love them. But studies show that empathetic nurses burn out and leave the profession more quickly than do their peers who remain aloof. Give generously to Child A, and Child B will immediately howl foul, while quiet Child C will grow up and write nasty novels about you. “Pathologies of altruism,” as Dr. Oakley put it, “are bound to arise.”

Rachel Bachner-Melman, a clinical psychologist at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem who specialises in eating disorders, has seen the impact of extreme selflessness on the anorexic young women who populate her ward.

“They are terribly sensitive to the needs of those around them,” she said in an interview. “They know who needs to be pushed in a wheelchair, who needs a word of encouragement, who needs to be fed.”

Yet the spectral empaths will express no desires of their own. “They try to hide their needs or deny their needs or pretend their needs don’t exist,” Dr. Bachner-Melman went on. “They barely feel they have the right to exist themselves.” They apologize for themselves, for the hated, hollow self, by giving, ceaselessly giving.

In therapy they are reminded that to give requires that first one must have. “It’s like in an airplane,” Dr. Bachner-Melman said. “The parents must put on the oxygen mask first, not because they’re more important, but if the parents can’t breathe, they can’t help the child.”

Denial and mental compartmentalisation also characterise people who stay in abusive relationships, who persuade themselves that with enough self-sacrifice and fluttering indulgence their beloved batterer or drunken spouse will reform. Extreme sensory denial defines the practice of animal hoarding, in which people keep far more pets than they can care for — dozens, scores, hundreds of cats, rodents, ferrets, turtles.

The hoarders may otherwise be high-functioning individuals, says Dr. Gary J. Patronek, a clinical assistant professor at the veterinary school of Tufts University and founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. “We’ve seen teachers, nurses, public officials, even veterinarians,” he said in an interview. “They live a double life.”

At work, they behave responsibly and know the importance of good hygiene. They go home and enter another world, one of squalor and chaos, of overwhelming stench and undernourished animals, of pets that have died for lack of care.

Yet the hoarders notice none of this. “You walk in, you can’t breathe, there are dead and dying animals present, but the person is unable to see it,” Dr. Patronek said. Cat carcasses may alternate with food in the refrigerator, “but in the person’s mind it’s happy and wonderful, it’s a peaceable kingdom.”

Hoarders may think of themselves as animal saviours, rescuing pets from the jaws of the pound; yet they are not remotely capable of caring for the animal throngs, and they soon give up trying. “It’s a very focal, delusional behaviour,” Dr. Patronek said. And it can be all the more difficult to treat for wearing the trappings of selflessness and love.

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(the comments are all here)

ill Manors, Plan B and demonisation of the youth

Watch this video, Plan B’s directorial debut. Angry and passionate, mixed up and furious. Lots of hate pouring off the screen and out of the speakers – I mean, listen to the chorus! But then, once you’ve let it settle and you feel you have a handle on it, allow it context beyond your initial reaction. Context such as below, an extract from his TEDx speech (and the full speech itself).

I’m working really hard at the minute trying to finish my directorial debut,Ill Manors, which is a hip-hop-based film. When people ask me what the film is about, I say it’s about all the things we read in the newspaper; the despicable things that I don’t think many of us agree with when we read them. The papers tell us that they happen but they never tell us why they happen. So Ill Manors is trying to get to the bottom of why we have these problems in society with our youth, why we constantly keep on reading negative things about our youth.

The reason I’ve done this is because I got kicked out of school in year 10 and no other schools would take me. I had to go to a pupil referral unit called the Tunmarsh Centre in Plaistow. I was there with other kids from a lot more dysfunctional families than me. They’d been through a lot more than me. And one thing we shared is we didn’t have any respect for authority, whether it be teachers or police.

I think the reason why we didn’t have respect for authority was that we felt that we were ignored by society, that we didn’t belong to it. And so we wouldn’t listen to anyone apart from our favourite rappers. We would let this music raise us and, though most of will never meet those artists in our lives, their words are what guided us.

Unfortunately, some of those words are negative. Within hip-hop there’s some that romanticises street life and being a gangster and selling drugs. But there’s also conscious hip-hop. I was a fan of conscious hip-hop. I was a fan of the hip-hop that was like poetry. It was like reading a book and it changed your life. Just one sentence could change your life. I realised that this was a powerful tool and I wanted to change things; I wanted to change the stuff that I read in the paper or the stuff that I came in direct contact with which I didn’t agree with.

Damilola Taylor was 10 years old when he lost his life. He was stabbed by a kid who was maybe only five or six years older than him. This is a child killing another child. I didn’t agree with that. I didn’t agree with the mentality that a lot of these kids were going round with, but I understood why they were going round with it. I understood that they were from broken families. They had parents who were probably alcoholics, drug addicts, dysfunctional, who raised them up to believe they could never make anything of themselves because they as parents never made anything of themselves.

The great thing about Tunmarsh was it was a place where these kids could go and, for the first time in their life, be shown encouragement and motivation and be told that they can make something of their lives. They can come from a negative family environment [but] they only have to bump into one person that can plant one positive seed in their head and in their heart and it can change their life. Tunmarsh was full of these positive teachers. When I left there I went on this journey through hip-hop music and I decided to write an album that tried to reach out to these kids and I tried in some ways, I guess, to be a father figure to these kids because they were parentless.

What does the word chav mean? The term may have its origins in the Romany word “chavi”, meaning child. My godfather used to call me chav, but it was affectionate. I used to enjoy it. So what does that word mean now? I believe it stands for “council house and violent”. It’s a word that is used to ridicule and label people who come from a less educated background than the rest of society. For me, it’s no different from similar words used to be prejudiced towards race or sex. The difference is, in this country we openly say the word chav. The papers openly ridicule the poor and less unfortunate. If you did the same thing with race or sex, there’d be public uproar and rightly so. But why is it different with this word?

I believe that there is a demonisation of the youth throughout the media. And people are falling for it, because if you’d had no direct contact with the kids that I’m talking about how the hell can you judge them? Because you’re only judging them based on something you read in a newspaper, aren’t you?

See, this fuels the fire. If you call kids words that are derogatory to them just because they are unlucky enough to be born into a family that couldn’t afford to give them the education that you had, they’re going to hate you. Of course they’re going to hate you and you’re going to hate them because of their actions. And it’s this vicious circle that goes round. By calling these kids these words you push them out of your society and they don’t feel part of it. You beat them into apathy and in the end they just say: “Cool, I don’t care. I don’t want to be part of your society.”

And then the riots happen, right? We’ve got a generation of youths out there on the streets. The weather is hot, it’s nice. They ain’t got nothing to do because all the community centres have been shut down. And all the money that was put into summer projects to keep these kids monitored and occupied [has gone]. Their parents ain’t going to take them out of the country on holiday. You’ve got a whole generation of kids that do not feel that they’re part of this society and they start rioting and looting. And taking the things that society has made them feel are the most important things. Sheldon Thomas [former gang member and mentor] said: “If you ask how we became a society where young peoplethink it’s OK to rob and loot, I respond how did we get to a society that cares more about shops and businesses than lives of young people.” That’s some strong words right there.

This guy, he’s from Forest Gate, comes from a dysfunctional family background like myself, had a bad attitude but [he’s] very talented. And I took him on the road with me and I showed him the opportunities that were out there for him. Andrew Curtis was trained by Vidal Sassoon. He was offered a very high-paying job. He said: “No, I don’t want to take your job. I won’t take your money.” He said: “I want to go and start an academy where we teach underprivileged kids how to cut hair.”

And so he did. Him and his girlfriend got this building and they set up this salon. They’re living there and they’re putting their hands in their pockets to pay for the things that these kids need in order to be trained. Because no one is giving them any funding. So he’s got kids who without this would have criminal records, who would go to prison. They’d be going down that path. No one is funding him, no one is backing him to do this. He’s doing this off his own back, just out of love.

Everyone knows one person out there they can help who’s less fortunate than them. And I’m not talking about help financially. I’m talking about knowledge. Plant that seed. Find out what these kids are good at, or what they care about or what they like, and try and draw it out of them because it will change their lives.

There’s a song by Jacob Miller called “Each One Teach One”. It’s a reggae song. You should listen to that song because that’s all we’ve got to do.