How much do warnings help?

Is my skin becoming too thick? Too insensitive to those things I want to feel? Need to feel? Or has it merely developed callus over areas too frequently assailed?

These are questions that I’m beginning to ask as I notice the burgeoning warnings on virtually every television channel that whatever follows may not be suitable for all audiences, or that parental discretion is advised. Curious as to what offence is about to be committed, I find myself more engaged in searching for possible misdemeanours than attending to the substance of the program -a minor diversion, to be sure, but nonetheless a distraction from the evaluating the presentation of the subject matter.

I suppose these warnings are the polite thing to do, although they are certainly missing from the business of everyday life. Still, if there are people out there who feel compelled to guard themselves or their children from strong language, or upsetting scenes of violence, I do not begrudge them that -although I do wonder how they manage it elsewhere in their day.

And I certainly don’t want to see gratuitous savagery in a program purporting to educate me about poverty and how different jurisdictions are managing it. We all have our boundaries, and individual thresholds are sometimes hard to gauge, but perhaps our sights are set rather low on programs whose subject matter should be obvious from their titles. If I choose to watch a crime drama, or a documentary on the ravages of war, I would likely have factored in the probable contents before I tuned in. And if I’m being warned about the content of language I might hear, well, good luck walking past a school at recess, or even along the average city street.

At any rate, I’m beginning to question the motivation for these warnings. Does everything require a warning, or are they mainly hedges against possible lawsuits, or something? And perhaps more importantly, do the warnings actually work? Are there such things as ‘triggers’ whose very presence could cause serious injury unless stringently avoided? And what if I warn, but you do not heed? Would I then be at fault -or would it be you, for not listening…? I wrote about this subject a few years ago: (https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/07/06/the-trigger-warning/) but I’m wondering how much we have learned about these triggers in the intervening years.

More recently, I came across an essay in Aeon that I hoped might shed some new light on the issue. https://aeon.co/ideas/trigger-warnings-dont-help-people-cope-with-distressing-material It was written by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist and a senior editor at Aeon. He too, it seemed, was conflicted about trigger warnings: ‘the use of trigger warnings has since spread… to educational institutions around the world, and further: into theatres, festivals and even news stories. The warnings have become another battlefield in the culture wars, with many seeing them as threatening free speech and the latest sign of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.’

And yet, ‘Ideology aside, one could make a basic ethical case for giving warnings in the sense that it’s the considerate thing to do.’ But is there any proof that a warning is helpful in avoiding psychological damage in people with a history of trauma, or painful memories similar to what is being warned about?

Jarrett cites some evidence that, far from helping those sensitive to the issues because of past traumas, ‘trigger warnings enable survivors of trauma to avoid re-experiencing the negative associated emotions, [and] critics argue that the avoidance of potentially upsetting material is actually a counterproductive approach because it offers no chance to learn to manage one’s emotional reactions. As a result, fears deepen and catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged.’

I don’t think Jarrett is totally convinced of the evidence -much more study is required- but at least there are competing considerations in the management of so-called triggers. In fact, ‘On the question of whether trigger warnings give people the chance to brace themselves emotionally, a spate of recent studies suggest that this simply isn’t how the mind works.’

Fair enough, I guess -although I personally wouldn’t want to upset someone by mistake. However, he goes on to mention the concept of ‘coddling’ -as developed in a book by ‘ the attorney Greg Lukianoff and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, authors of the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) – namely, that these warnings encourage a belief in the vulnerability of people with a history of trauma and, in fact, in people’s vulnerability in general. For instance… Harvard research found that the use of trigger warnings increased participants’ belief in the vulnerability of people with post-traumatic stress disorder – an unwelcome effect that the researchers described as a form of ‘soft stigma’.’ In other words, not being able to talk through issues for fear of upsetting the other person -avoiding the subject altogether, and hence, treating the person ‘differently’.

But, as Jarrett reiterates, much more study is required to determine the benefits of ‘trigger warnings’. ‘Yet already the results are surprisingly consistent in undermining the specific claim that trigger warnings allow people to marshal some kind of mental defence mechanism. There is also a solid evidence base that avoidance is a harmful coping strategy for people recovering from trauma or dealing with anxiety. The clear message from psychology then is that trigger warnings should come with their own warning – they won’t achieve much, except encourage maladaptive coping and the belief that folk are sensitive and need protecting.’

As my previous essay hinted, I am still undecided about the value of these warnings. I would not knowingly wish to offend anybody, nor traumatize them by something I say, but it can be devilishly difficult to know what might need to be avoided. Every topic is a potential minefield, and yet surely part of the onus is on the recipient to choose -and therefore avoid, or at least warn the offending party- what they find problematic. To be sure, sometimes the extent of effect on them is unpredictable, or a surprise -for both sides- and yet if the subject is presented in a sensitive manner, one would expect much of the damage could be mitigated.

Communication, after all, is the exchange of information, but as much as we might try to soften the blow, it will not always pleasant; to pretend that it will be, is disingenuous, at the very least.

Do you understand why I am confused…?

Like madness, is the glory of this life

My grandmother was old when she died -very old, in fact: she died on the morning after her 100th birthday party. Her congratulatory letter from the Queen -or at least someone official claiming to speak for her highness- came the day before. I’m not so sure it was congratulations, really -more a recognition that a member of the United Kingdom, albethey an émigré, had still remained loyal to her majesty and her dominions for a century.

My grandmother seemed to enjoy the party we held for her -she was all smiles and although she also seemed a bit confused by it all, she was delighted by the letter. It spoke to her of another life, I think -one that whispered the secrets of a little girl growing up in a seaside town with a shingled beach and an amusement pier that offered tempting glimpses of a world across the sea -a world she couldn’t know would become her own for most of her life.

We all have lives like that -the present we currently occupy pales in depth, in colour, and even in meaning to the worlds we have tasted in our incomparably longer past. It only seems appropriate that when our brains tire of sorting through the tyrannies of the moment, we default to the myriad memories of what we lived. The past can be a comfortable place to rest -familiar, at the very least.

I loved visiting my aging granny -even in the hospital where she spent her final days she was always full of stories, full of wisdom, and full of wonder. And although often confused about current events, or what she’d had for breakfast that morning, her eyes would light up when I asked her to tell me about, say, her train journey across the country when she and grampa first arrived in the boat from across the sea from England.

She would chuckle when she told me of the pioneer stoves they used to cook their food enroute, and how each time the locomotive stopped to fill the water in its tank, everybody would make a mad dash from the railway coaches to find wood and occasional supplies from the little stations along the way. Her eyes would twinkle as she relived the flavours of whatever food they’d had, and she would laugh at the difficulty of cooking on the ever-moving stoves. She had no trouble remembering how everybody helped each other -she even remembered some of their names after more than eighty years.

So whenever she seemed confused at my visits or flustered by my questions about her health, I would smile and settle in a chair beside her and ask her what she remembered about ‘the old days’ as she decided to call them. After all, I think she lived there most of the time -it seemed a place where she was happy, for the most part. At any rate, it seemed to calm her, and allow her to speak to me as if she were still in the summer garden she’d loved to show me on my visits years ago to the house she and her husband had built near Vancouver. There seemed to be no disorder in the garden, no anxious  search for a constantly fading identity, nothing forgotten there -just flowers all around us, and birds singing in the bower of trees she’d planted so long ago.

She loved to speak from there, and even now -especially now- I was happy to sit there with her in her past. I lived happily in the two worlds, and she enjoyed meeting me there; like lovers we would float from dream to dream, escaping from the bewildering clatter of a crowded hospital ward. Who would not prefer her floral ‘then’ to her sterile ‘here-and-now’?

The staff told me of the problems with her confusion, and how she would sometimes wander off looking, as she told one of them, ‘for the garden’. And all the while around us, there were often moans and shouts, and irritable reactions to attempts to tame the ward. Sanity lay somewhere in the past -their patients’ past- but the department seemed hastily conceived as a holding area until beds became available in community nursing homes. Hospital was perhaps the wrong place for most of the elders -they were not sick except, perhaps, for home… or for something that reminded them of home, at any rate.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to come across an essay on retrieving the autobiographical memory of demented seniors in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-self-in-dementia-is-not-lost-and-can-be-reached-with-care

It was written by Muireann Irish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney. ‘Our autobiographical memory… seems crucial to weaving a life story that bridges past and present, and permits us to extrapolate how the future might unfold, all within a meaningful and coherent narrative. So what happens when the tapestry of memory begins to fray, and we lose access to defining memories from the past?’

There are many types of neurodegenerative loss -Alzheimer’s among them, of course- and it is progressive. ‘Gradually, as the disease spreads, more distant memories are affected, leading to patchy recall of self-defining events, such as one’s wedding day or the birth of one’s children.’ And without our memories, who are we…? ‘There remains a recalcitrant perception that in parallel with the progressive pathological onslaught in the brain is the inevitable demise of personhood, akin to a ‘living death’.’

But, viewing dementia like that is not only depressing, but incomplete, according to the author. ‘While the illness is devastating, not all memories are obliterated by Alzheimer’s, and much of the person’s general knowledge and recollection of the distant past is retained. There remains a vast repository of life experiences, personal history, stories and fables that endures, even late into the illness. At moderate to severe stages of dementia, activities such as art, dance and music therapy provide important nonverbal means of communicating and fostering social interaction even when, on the surface, many core capabilities might seem to be lost… As the disease progresses and their self-concept becomes more rooted in their past, people with dementia can feel increasingly divorced from their current surroundings, which no longer make sense or feel familiar. This is the catalyst for behaviours that are commonly couched as ‘challenging’, such as agitation, wandering, attempts to leave a care facility to ‘go home’.’

Irish suggests that instead of confronting the dementia with an enforced ‘now’, ‘a positive approach could be to create a ‘memory box’ in anticipation of the days to come. This could form a repository of photographs, keepsakes, newspaper clippings, objects with personal meaning, even fabrics and smells, that resonate with the person and provide an external memory store. Conversations regarding music and songs from the person’s formative years, and the memories that these tunes evoke, could inspire personalised playlists that foster social interaction and the springboard for reminiscence. For care staff, a memory store of this nature would be as important as taking a detailed medical history.’

As for my grandmother, I was happy to sit with her in her garden while she happily regaled me with stories of her past. And I’d like to think that after she received that letter from her queen, she retreated to the garden to read it again and again as her life washed over her like a cooling summer breeze, and the flowers whispered sweet nothings in her ear.

More sinned against than sinning

I’ve already written about the problem of creepiness and fear in another essay,  citing the 2016 study from Knox College in Illinois by the psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke (Can We Forget the Taste of Fear?) but there is another form of creepy that is less -what?- entertaining: when we judge people (usually men) as creepy. What I’m interested in is how that might make us (well, usually women) react. In other words, is it a useful judgement, or merely an impression garnered from the creepy person’s appearance, or social status? Does it help the judger survive, and prosper, or merely prejudice the object of their concerns –‘More sinned against than sinning’ as Shakespeare’s King Lear moans having been thrown out by his own daughters.

First reactions can be mistaken and even harmful, especially if they are misplaced. Not everybody conforms to our expectations of comportment; there are many we may encounter who, through no fault of their own, are dirty, or poorly dressed -people who are beset by mental challenges, or are themselves bereft of social skills.

I came across a helpful essay in Aeon by Heidi Matthews, an assistant professor of law at Osgoode Hall in York University, Toronto. https://aeon.co/ideas/what-is-to-be-done-about-the-problem-of-creepy-men

‘Disgust assists us in policing the line between inside and outside our bodies, but also to create and maintain interpersonal and social borders. Physical reactions – such as the shudder response, nausea, and exclamations of ‘ew’, ‘icky’ and ‘gross’ – can be important ways of producing and transmitting commitments to social norms. Signalling disgust helps society maintain the integrity of taboos around sexuality, including paedophilia and incest.’

‘Creepiness is different from disgust in that it refers to a feeling of unease in the face of social liminality… We become uncomfortable when events don’t easily fit our expectations or transgress social rules… Feeling ‘creeped out’ justifies our decision to shut down, rather than undertake the task of analysing ambiguously threatening situations. It is a form of cognitive paralysis indicating that we are unsure how to proceed… Judgments of creepiness, however, are not necessarily reliable. Conventional wisdom tells us to ‘trust our gut’, but researchers say that our gut is concerned more with regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.’

‘In a 2017 Canadian study, female undergraduates were shown images of Caucasian male faces from three groups: emotionally neutral faces taken from an image bank; images judged ‘creepy’ in a pilot study; and images of criminals from America’s Most Wanted. They were then asked to rate the faces according to creepiness, trustworthiness and attractiveness… Participants made their creepiness assessments in seconds, and reported high degrees of confidence in their judgments.’ Unfortunately they were often wildly mistaken in their judgments.

Judging someone as ‘creepy’ often is caused by social difference –‘otherness’. I mean, how could anybody reliably assess the risk posed, with only a glance at a face? Just ‘a feeling’ unsubstantiated by any other evidence? As Matthews suggests, ‘When we judge a situation or person creepy, we participate in shunning and social ostracism.’

She goes on to elaborate some of the unfortunate consequences of this faulty assessment, and then writes that ‘what most people intuit to be creepy aligns closely with the attributes of individuals and populations already on or beyond the boundaries of social acceptance. The mentally ill and disabled, the physically deformed, those with ticks or other abnormal movements or facial features, the impoverished and the homeless are all more likely to be judged creepy… [and] the homeless and mentally ill are far more vulnerable to acts of violence than they are threatening to the rest of us. In short, ‘we’ are far more likely to hurt the ‘creepy’ than they us.’

We have to be on our guard, to be sure, but mostly I think, to be open to ‘responding to the odd, the new or the peculiar with curiosity, interest and generosity of spirit.’ This can be hard indeed.

I was sitting on a park bench that, despite its view of the sea, was quite isolated. The solitude had attracted me, but its silence even more. It was almost hidden in a heavily treed area in Vancouver’s Stanley Park -well away from vehicle traffic, and yet perched on a hill overlooking English Bay. Only a single, narrow path led to the bench, so its very existence seemed odd. There were no signs advertising its location, nor any indication that the trail led anywhere but to the cliff edge. I’d discovered it largely by accident. Serendipity…

At any rate, I settled down on it determined to read the book I’d stuffed in my pocket, but I think I must have dozed off in the warmth of the slowly sinking sun. When I opened my eyes again, it was because I had the distinct sense of being observed. I jerked my head off my chest and glanced nervously around at the trees that, only a few minutes ago, had guaranteed me privacy. I thought there was movement somewhere inside the dense collection of trunks and evergreen needles, but the wind was picking up, and I couldn’t be sure. There are deer in Stanley Park, I told myself –and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The sun was close to setting and shadows were starting their slow stretch for the evening.

It’s hard to read when every sound, arouses suspicion, but I did manage a few pages until the sensation overwhelmed me and I turned around to examine the trees again. I nearly missed him -the shadow standing as still as the tree it was leaning against.

He was a tall, powerfully-built man, dressed in a dirty pair of brown, ill-fitting pants, scuffed dark boots with no laces, and a ragged black suit-jacket; he didn’t move when our eyes met. He only frowned -or scowled, it was hard to tell. His hair was messy, but it seemed he had made an effort to tame it with his hand, because it didn’t fly up in the wind.

Uncertain how to react, I smiled, but the gesture may have been misinterpreted because I could see his eyes narrow, and his hands tense where he was grasping the tree. For a while, it seemed a standoff for both of us. He was near enough to the trail that he could easily block my way if I decided to run.

My heart began to pound as I considered my options -I didn’t really have many… any, actually. So I did the only thing I could think of – I said hello.

It seemed to surprise him, because his expression softened and he made a tentative move away from the tree.

I’d heard of a community of men living somewhere in the middle of the park, so I asked him if he lived around here.

He nodded and took a step towards me, his eyes locked on mine, and I could see wariness in them -or was it fear?

He stopped a few feet from the bench and shrugged.

I could see his lips beginning to move, as if they were looking for the right words. “I…” He hesitated and then, as softly as the breeze rustling through the trees, he continued. “That’s where I usually sleep until it gets too cold,” I think I heard.

It was my turn to speak. “I… I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered, embarrassed that he’d had to confess his situation to me. “I didn’t realize…” I continued, awkwardly.

Suddenly he smiled. “You couldn’t know, mister,” he said, slowly, but still softly -as if he was unused to conversations.

He stepped aside as I stood up and headed for the trail. But then I stopped and turned around to face him. I reached in my pocket and found the twenty dollar bill I always carry for emergencies. “Here,” I said, handing him the bill and smiling at him. “In case you need to buy a blanket, or something…” I felt uneasy with my words, but I didn’t know what else to say.

But he accepted my unexpected gift with dignity, and when he touched the back of my hand in thanks, my discomfort vanished. Sometimes, we all need to reach out to one another…

Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.

‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ was what Henry II of England reputedly said of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket back in the 12th century. It could be said with equal conviction in the 21st, but this time referring to a different problem, an unusual priest: gender.

Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the analogy a little too far, and yet the concept of gender has been an increasingly uncomfortable thorn in modern societies for a while now -both in its attribution, and in its consequences. Suffice it to say, it has also fostered a common essayistic theme for me over the years.

Sometimes, it’s easier to spot those anomalous things that assume innate differences more dependent on size than sex -pants spring to mind. Maybe shirts (sorry, blouses) as well. But even color has been gendered, although the silliness of the assumption is fortunately being recognized as more of a sales  pitch nowadays.

Some things slip by unnoticed, though -things that are clearly gender-assigned- but since they seem always to have been the way they are, remain unremarked. We habituate to differences if we see them often enough -they normalize through constant repetition, and become invisible. Until they don’t, that is… In fact, I suspect that’s what fashion is all about: it’s the novelty of change that makes us notice. It’s also what makes us buy new things -what makes us think we need them, especially if they seem to fulfil a niche role. A gendered role. Still, it makes me think of that wonderful story by Hans Christian Andersen: the Emperor’s New Clothes.

An essay in the Conversation, by Samantha Brennan, Professor and Dean of the College of Arts at the University of Guelph, helped me to see what only the child in the story could admit: https://theconversation.com/lady-backpacks-and-manly-beeSamanthar-the-folly-of-gendered-products-125373

‘As women started counting steps and walking to work wearing running shoes and fitness trackers, there was one work-related item that had to change: the briefcase. It’s not suited to walking fast and gets in the way of drinking coffee en route to the office. Enter the working women’s backpack. It’s a trend… The sale of women’s backpacks is up by more than 20 per cent in the past year, but the sale of men’s backpacks has flat-lined… The Atlantic headlined their story  “The Rise of the Lady Backpack.” Of course they did, because women can’t just use backpacks. We have to use “lady backpacks.”’

Good for Brennan! I also felt the need to rail against the princessy-stuff in an essay a few years ago:                                                                                                  ( https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/12/06/nature-versus-princess-nurture/ ) but clearly there was more. As Brennan says, ‘There are lists of needlessly gendered products ranging from girly pink pens to manly blue Q-tips. Such products reinforce the idea that gender is significant in areas where it’s not, they reinforce the gender binary, and they leave out people who don’t fit in either the male or the female category.’ Oh, and forget about the size-thing, too: women have different requirements than men- they’re often smaller than men for a start. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if backpacks came in sizes to match differently sized people?’

And then there is the issue of bicycles. I had similar experiences to Brennan when I was a child that I took for granted. As she explains, ‘When I was a kid the difference between a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike was the top tube. The one on a girl’s bike slanted down to allow modest access to the bike and ease of riding in skirts.’ I suppose it made sense -all the girls wore skirts or dresses to school then. Mind you, they never seemed  to ride their bikes to school like the boys did -but maybe that was just Winnipeg in the 1950ies. Hip dysplasia hadn’t been invented yet -well, at least not for 12 year olds- so there was obviously no need to market that kind of bike to men.

Age, and Time change things, however: neither our perspectives nor the Zeitgeist are immutable. Men are no longer the default -or shouldn’t be, at any rate. And, with the probable exception  of sundry health and sanitary items, as Brennan writes, ‘a women-specific anything is likely just a bad idea. Humans come in lots of different shapes and sizes. A second, better approach includes a range of shapes and sizes and lets individuals choose.’ Amen.

*

I seldom stand in lines in stores -at least not when there are self-checkout machines available. I suppose I like to pretend I’m on the progressive side of digitality despite the years that have managed to plaque themselves onto my neurons. Sometimes, however, a message gets through to a clear channel, and allows me to bypass habit and embrace the lineup as the quicker route to the door.

I had made a quick and needful trip to one of those all-purpose stores that purport to serve any and all needs that their seductive signs might engender, when I found myself in line behind a father and his young son. I’m not very astute at guessing ages, but he couldn’t have been much more than five or six years of age. He was old enough to have very firm ideas about what he wanted, though. And what he wanted, it seemed, was a pink tee shirt which, when he held it up to show his father- had a series of bright, sparkling blue hearts on it.

“Are you sure you like those colours, Jeffey?” the father whispered to him, embarrassed for some reason.

Jeffey nodded proudly. “You said I could choose, daddy.”

An uneasy smile appeared on his father’s lips. “But, don’t you think pink is a bit….?” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he was clearly uncomfortable with the choice.

Jeffey looked up at his dad, with a genuine smile. “I like the hearts, though, don’t you? They’re blue…” he added, sensing the ambivalence in his father’s face.

His father nodded in obvious agreement, but chanced a sheepish glance at me, so close behind them in the line. “But the hearts have sparkles on them…”

Jeffey’s smile grew even more bigger, and he nodded his head excitedly. “That’s why it’s such a good shirt!”

“You like the pink?”

Jeffey nodded again. “It makes the hearts even brighter, daddy,” he added loudly, as if he was boasting.

His father looked distinctly uncomfortable at the choice, and risked a longer look at me. “What do you think your friends will say?”

Jeffey looked up at his father with all the innocence of youth. “They’ll love it!”

The line seemed to be moving slowly forward -too slowly, I thought, and when I noticed a just-vacated self-checkout machine, I headed over to it. But, as I proceeded to scan my purchase, I glanced quickly at the father, and our eyes met briefly. It was difficult to tell at a distance, but I could swear he was blushing.

We all move through the world at our own speed, though; we can’t all embrace the same Weltanschauung, I suppose.

My crown is called content

Okay, time to come clean: despite my usually smiling face, I’m not happy all the time. Merely satisfied with my lot, I’m content that, among other things, I am not going bald, or plagued with excessive weight. And, on a day-to-day basis, I have to confess that I am rather at peace with the universe. But maybe most of us are like that, eh? Without a contrast, too frequent happiness would just be background -like white noise: hardly noticeable. Nothing special.

Now that I have earned my years, I think that I am entitled to wear the full regalia of emotions that I have been awarded. And yet, it seems obvious that the worth of some things can be measured in the difficulty of their pursuit, in their resistance to capture, and ultimately in the impossibility of their imprisonment. Happiness is one of those fleeting things; I think that is why it is so valuable. It is not a state of mind, but rather a condition of the moment: the twinkle in an old man’s eye, the giggle of a child with a puppy, or that initial rapture on first seeing your baby, newly born.

So, through the years, I have been content, as well, with the evanescence of happiness, treasuring its arrival, and sighing, not with displeasure but resignation, at its disappearance.

And yet, an essay I came across in Aeon made me wonder if, after all these years, I had misjudged the value of its ephemerality.

There are times when I wonder if the true value of philosophy is not so much in finding truth, but more in the pleasures of pursuit -much like, as with so many  journeys, it’s not as much the destination as the adventures that happen en route. Of course, to admit this outright might encourage a lax methodology and toleration of blurring the objective -of glancing outside the window as you reason your way along the road.

And, as I discovered in a rather lengthy essay by the philosopher Catherine Wilson in Aeon, there is a school of philosophy that actually tolerates stopping and smelling the flowers on the way home: Epicureanism. https://aeon.co/essays/forget-plato-aristotle-and-the-stoics-try-being-epicurean

The Epicureans have acquired a bad rap over the years, it seems: profligate pleasure-seeking. But as Wilson points out, ‘Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of choice and avoidance… One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout.’

The morality of Epicureanism has also been a sticking point for some – ‘if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas… why be moral?’ Wilson thinks that the Epicureans had two answers to that dilemma: ‘One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain… The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends.’

Wilson also thought that in a society that is success-driven, power-hungry and consumerist, being an Epicurean had a distinct advantage because, ‘Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded… the pleasure of being recognised, appreciated and rewarded… is different from the truly intoxicating moments of happiness in which we feel in tune with another individual or become totally absorbed in something outside the self… Real enjoyment arises from activities that activate concentration, that require practice and skill, and that deliver sensory enjoyment… Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction.’

The Epicureans have a cure for excessive consumerism, too: ‘[the] strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached.’

*

Sometimes children are surprising philosophers who have some things to teach those of us who managed to make it out of our teens unscathed.

“What do you think about Santa Clause, Grampa?” my little grandson once asked me as we plodded along a trail in the woods through the first substantial snowfall of the year.

I assumed he was already thinking about what he wanted for a gift, although Christmas was still over a month away. “You mean, how does he know what presents to bring?” I answered carefully, hoping he didn’t want an explanation of how Santa managed to squiggle down a non-existent chimney.

He glanced up at me for a moment as we walked, and shook his head. “No, I figure he talks to you about that…”

I chuckled, uncertain about whether to set him straight about Santa, or wait for a few more Christmases -he was only six years old, after all. “I…”

But he interrupted before I could organize any words. “I mean, how’s he going to manage with all the climate change that’s coming…?”

“You mean if there’s no snow for his sleigh?”

He actually rolled his eyes -I didn’t think little kids could do that.’ “No, silly -he’ll go electric or something. I mean with all the plastic most of his presents are wrapped in.”

Wow! Grade 1 had really moved on from my day. I was momentarily speechless.

He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and a face that was mature beyond his years. ‘Will you let him know just to use recycled paper for wrapping and not to give any more plastic to the elves?” Then he smiled and kicked at the snow in a tiny snowdrift on the trail. “Miss Morrow said we should bring the gift paper to school in the New Year so we can make up stories about what it might have been used for the first time.” He looked up at me, his cheeks rosy in the cool wind that was starting to make its way through the trees. “Don’t you think that’d be fun, Grampa?”

Actually, I wondered if his teacher subscribed to Aeon, too…

In scorn of Nature, Art gave lifeless life

Age is an artist that continues to paint experience after experience over the worn and tattered scenes that are no more. For most of us, however, the pentimento is obvious, and never quite disappears beneath the crust of what we insist on adding. And yet, we continue to paint in hopes we’ve got it right at last: that what we are now portraying is what we should have seen those many years ago. All the while, of course, the colours thicken on what we layered on before, adding nothing to our knowledge, only curtains that cast shadows on the canvas -the past no more than tricks of light.

And yet I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to Art than the depiction of long forgotten histories in words or canvas -far more, in fact. Art is the plaque in the cornerstone that reminds us of how things were, the figure-ground that taunts our hallowed view of present days -the stories that we have come to revere.

But we are, all of us, Art; we are the stories that we tell, and the ones that we have heard. We are what we have seen, however vaguely remembered, and parts of us are shadows that follow us around like memories.

So, it occurred to me that Art could function as a synergist: its effect is greater than might be expected from what it depicts. If nothing else, a painting -like an old photograph, perhaps- allows us to see what was and compare it with what is. Some difference is usually to be expected, I suppose, but if the change is sufficiently irreconcilable to our expectations, it may speak to those little ears within that are alert to dissonance. In other words, it may spur us to a conclusion, an action, that we may not have felt was either necessary or justified before: the past ‘screwing our courage to the sticking place’, to slightly paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

I hasten to admit that my epiphany is far from original, but I was pleased to find a thorough examination of it in an essay in BBC Future written by Ella Saltmarshe and Beatrice Pembroke, the founders of the Long Time Project which ‘champions art and culture as a route to helping people think and act more long-term.’ https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190521-how-art-and-culture-can-help-us-rethink-time

‘For most of human history we haven’t needed to think long-term,’ they write. ‘” As futurist Jamais Casio puts it, “In a world of constant, imminent existential threats, the ability to recognise subtle, long-term processes and multi-generational changes wasn’t a particularly important adaptive advantage.” Yet today, the nature of risk has changed. We no longer live in a world of clear, local cause and effect, and the greatest threats to civilisation are happening on the timescale of decades or centuries.’ And yet, ‘While our minds might be not be wired to deal with long-term threats and priorities in the abstract, they are wired for two things that we can control: story and emotion… Art can stretch our time frames, helping us develop what geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls “timefulness”: the ability to locate ourselves within eras and aeons, rather than weeks and months.’

The authors go on to document the ‘growing body of deep time work that locates us in the epic geological history of the Universe, evoking awe and wonder.’ And it seems to me that such an approach may help to bridge the ever-widening gap between indifference and despair: the unwillingness to confront the existential threats that seem to be confronting us at every turn -from the paucity new antibiotics able to deal with increasing microbial resistance, the growing mistrust of vaccines in the face of overwhelming evidence for their efficacy, to the elephant looming in the dark, stuffy room of climate change. We are often so frightened by these, and other things, that we turn our heads away, and like children hiding under a blanket, think we have found a refuge from the elephant and his kin. But somewhere inside, we know we have solved nothing, and if we turn again to look, we find that it is staring at us still.

Sometimes, when things seem too remote for action, too unlikely to affect us, or worse, too horrible to contemplate, we benefit from intermediaries we trust to explain what we have failed to understand and to guide us through the fear. Change is normal, but only when it doesn’t colour outside the expected boundaries -then it turns to chaos. In the words of Shakespeare again -this time King Lear- that way madness lies; let me shun that. So, as the authors write: ‘If we can work with art and culture to stretch our time frames so that we care about the long-term future, then hopefully as a species, we will have a future in the long term.’

And sometimes, it is also the little things changing that we’re reluctant to face.

“Is that where you used to live, Grampa?” My 4 year old grandson stared at the picture I had shown him with a doubtful expression on his face. “Can we go and see it…?”

I could only smile at his enthusiasm. I was a child myself when I’d lived there and my parents had long since sold the house to developers, but at the time it was on a quiet, unsidewalked street lined with trees. Now, years later, it was lined with multi-storied apartment blocks and parked cars.

“It’s changed since then, Cas,” I explained. “And our house isn’t there anymore…”

“Where’d it go?” he asked, his face now puzzled.

My answer was a little shrug. In truth, I missed the house with its wide wooden steps and covered porch. It had trees in the front and back, and a garden where my mother used to grow vegetables that she’d preserve for the long, protracted winter season. I’d told Cas about it many times, but had only just found the grainy photograph for him to see.

“Is the street like our street now?” He ran to the front window of the little apartment his mother and my son were renting while they worked their way up their respective corporate ladders. I had agreed to babysit for the afternoon.

I walked over to the window and looked out with him; I had to nod my head. “Yes Cas, very much like this street.”

He stared out the window for a while, and as I started to walk away, he turned to me. “Why did you let them do it, Grampa?”

The question caught me by surprise. “Do what, Cas?”

“Tear down your beautiful house and take away the trees?”

I had to sigh. “I suppose my mommy and daddy were getting old and needed to move to some place smaller that was easier to take care of…” In fact, they were both gone now.

He thought about it for a moment. “Did their new house have trees and a garden, too?”

Cas seemed so earnest that I didn’t want to disappoint him. He’d never met his great-grandparents; he’d never had to endure their gradual decay in the extended care home in which they  ended up. So I nodded. “Yes, they moved to a place with trees and a little flower garden.”

A big smile suddenly appeared on his face and his eyes twinkled with pleasure. “That’s good,” he said, with a sudden adult expression on his little face. “My daddy says we’re going to move to a place with trees…” He glanced out of the window again. “Trees are important when you get old, aren’t they Grampa?”

They certainly are Cas, I thought and nodded with a sigh. Trees will always be important.

Errare humanum est

After so many years distant from my university Philosophy courses, I have to admit that I’d come to believe that rationality is a process designed for avoiding mistakes. That to err is to have made a miscalculation in its undertaking. And given that we humans are prone to frequent miscalculations -or, to adopt the aphorism of our time, fall prey to unintended consequences- what does that say about our acumen, let alone our wisdom? Does our seemingly inherent ability to take the wrong path or deviate from the planned course of action, mean that we are too easily distracted? Too readily deceived? Or that we weren’t designed to act rationally?

These failures suggest that, far from being rational, we are at best, credulous about our abilities… or does it? To be able to be deceived, it is necessary to have arrived at some sort of  expectation of what is correct or appropriate in the first place. One cannot be fooled, if one doesn’t understand anything about what is happening. In a way, then, the ability to err, suggests that one has already developed a theory about how it should be -that the failure was not meaningless, in other words. Reasoning that comes to a different conclusion than one that has been widely accepted may still be reasoning.

In a democracy, there are usually several options from which to choose, but the outcome of a vote does not mean the other choices were wrong. It does not invalidate them, nor imply that they were irrational -it merely postpones their serious consideration to another time. That things change over the years does not negate the past; it does not suggest that those living in those benighted years were unable to think properly.

Many of these thoughts were highlighted in a somewhat obtuse essay I came across in Aeon written by Daniel Ward, a lawyer and PhD candidate in Cambridge University: https://aeon.co/essays/i-think-therefore-i-make-mistakes-and-change-my-mind

He writes of a dog watching a card trick being performed. ‘It will just ignore what it perceives as meaningless markings on bits of cardboard. Hence it is immune to deception.’ It has no idea what to expect, because it has no idea what is going on. There is no error in the dog’s mind, presumably, because ‘Susceptibility to error validates rather than detracts from rationality.’

For example, ‘Those who study the human visual system also draw a link between the capacity for error and the capacity for thought.’ But, the ability to be fooled by an optical illusion ‘demonstrates the success rather than the failure of the visual system. That your brain occasionally makes this kind of mistake is testament to the fact that it is doing complex, intelligent things that go beyond merely absorbing incoming sensory data. The antithesis of the view that normal, intelligent people are susceptible to error is a view that treats people as infallible.’ And we certainly aren’t that: ‘incapable of error in a wide range of matters, ranging from day-to-day decisions about how we spend our money to ideological commitments… Treating an individual’s attitudes and preferences as givens – as matters beyond debate or criticism – might seem to promote human dignity by forcing us to treat all views as equally worthy of respect. But such an outlook is likely, if anything, to have the opposite effect. This is because taking seriously a person’s capacity to make mistakes is critical to taking seriously their capacity for rationality. Only by recognising that people are capable of error can we properly value anyone’s goals or engage in rational debate.’

After all, if we had to assume that a rational person with whom we disagreed could not have made a mistake in their reasoning, then we could not depend on an intelligent debate to resolve the issue -only force. No, rationality does not preclude error in and of itself… And that’s okay.

“You do realize that I’ve put my shopping bag on there, don’t you…?” The elderly lady glared at me, and made no effort to move the bag from what I could see was the only empty seat on the bus.

Her statement was obviously correct and I had neither desire nor rhetorical skills, to contradict her assertion. I did, however, want to sit down. It had been a long day, and an even longer wait for the already crowded bus.

I decided to meet her challenging expression with a smile and a shrug, but to show her I hadn’t really given up, I continued to stand beside the almost-empty seat and waited for guilt to wreak its havoc on her conscience. Unfortunately she retrieved her eyes and sent them to scout the scenery outside her window. I was just another tree in a forest she did not deign to enter.

I sighed and was about to resign myself to a journey spent swaying on my feet, when I suddenly remembered something, and decided to try my luck again. “I imagine your bag is quite heavy,” I started, pretending I just wanted to engage her in idle conversation. Actually, I was hoping to cash in on a program about logical argumentation in a podcast I’d downloaded from the BBC.

She dragged her eyes back from the window and plonked them on one of my ears. Her lips said nothing, but her face told me to mind my own business.

“My backpack is also heavy,” I continued, hoping I could build on the premise. “And,” I added, trying to twinkle my eyes, “there’s a bit of room left on the seat…” I cleverly added the ellipsis to show there was a conclusion inherent in my prologue.

Her eyes continued to grill me, but her forehead was beginning to wrinkle -so were her lips, for that matter. “And you think that I will be convinced by a faulty syllogism?”

“Which premise was faulty?” I suddenly realized that my memory of the podcast was sketchy at best, so I hoped I had understood the thrust of her rebuttal.

A tiny smile appeared on her face. “It was more the assumption that my bag was heavy, than that because there was room left on the seat, your also-heavy backpack deserved a place beside it.”

I thought about that for a moment. Did I flaw the first chance I’d had for engaging in a public rhetorical challenge? Did I waste the podcast?

I must have looked perplexed because her smile suddenly blossomed and she feathered her shopping bag onto her lap as if it were almost empty. “You passed the test,” she said and chuckled.

“Test…?”

Her eyes tapped briefly on my face and then flew off to other perches on the outside of the window. I wondered if she’d read the same article in Aeon.

Truth hath a quiet breast

What makes something ‘real’? For that matter, what does that even mean? Is a character in one of my favourite books any less real than what I remember of an uncle my family used to visit when I was a child? I used to wonder about that until I was old enough to be able to transition from pretending the space underneath the bed was a fort, to the understanding that it was somehow actually -and ‘really’- just a bed.

But imagination -so important to a child at play- assumes a different purpose as we age. It continues to offer an escape from the world around us perhaps, but in the cognitively unimpaired, begins to wear the patina of context -its potential seldom all-consuming, its boundaries identifiable.

And yet, for an adult living in a different perceptual Magisterium, the innocence of a child’s beliefs and the questions arising from them can be difficult to answer in kind. Once the heavy obligations of maturation have hardened the boundaries, even words may require translation, and unintended metaphors may have consequences.

I came across an interesting essay on this in Aeon in which a philosopher from Florida State University, Nathanael Stein, was wondering how to answer his young son’s queries about reality: https://aeon.co/essays/can-a-philosopher-explain-reality-and-make-believe-to-a-child

The difficulty seemed to be in deciding just what his son wanted to know. Was it simply a variation of the universal ‘Why?’ question, or something more deeply probing about reality itself?  As he notes, ‘there are surprisingly many ways of distinguishing what’s real from what isn’t. One of the most familiar contrasts we draw is between reality and appearance… reality is sometimes contrasted with what we might call mere appearance, like the motion we create on screens: pixels are turning on and off, and changing colour, so there’s change going on, but nothing that seems to be moving really is. This is different again from the kind of illusion of motion we get from certain patterns.’

We also distinguish ‘what’s real from what’s merely imagined or dreamt… what has existed at least at some time from what never has. Dinosaurs and ancestors are real in this last sense, but unicorns aren’t.’ His young son, though, was perhaps only trying to differentiate between what was ‘really’ real and what was only pretend-real, or make-believe.

Stein then goes on at length on discussing which of the several reality varieties his child was probably puzzled about, but ends up wondering if philosophy could ever solve the riddle for a non-adult. In fact, his concluding sentence seems to concede this point: ‘My son is only four, and by the time he’s able to explain what he means by Why?, he’ll have forgotten what puzzled him – if he hasn’t already.’

Stein’s difficulty in understanding the Lebenswelt of his son reminded me of a lengthy discussion I had many years ago with my similarly aged daughter.

“Daddy, what’s a ‘stralyer’?”

My daughter had a habit of coming up with sounds, part-words, and checking them out on me.

“You mean trailer, don’t you sweetheart? It’s a thing on wheels that you pull behind you…”

I could see a sly look come over her face as she prepared to correct me. “That’s a wagn, silly.”

Pronunciation was never a strong point with my children. “I asked you about a ‘stralyer’…”

Catherine was only about three feet tall then, so it was hard to look her in the eye without considerable effort. She also insisted on wearing at least one of her golden curls on her face -to hide behind if necessary. She wasn’t hiding, however, so I crouched down as best I could and tried to read her expression. Actually, I was trying to read her lips. She repeated the word with me about six inches away and nose level, but it didn’t help much.

“Where did you hear the word, Cath?” Sometimes you can trace these things.

“From Michael.”

I waited for an explanation, but Godot would have arrived before she caught on. “And what was Michael talking about?” I finally asked.  Michael is my son, and he was terribly precocious for nine, I think. His questions were worse, though, because I understood them.

Catherine looked at me as if I were inordinately dense. “About a ‘stralyer’, of course.”  Sometimes I saw too much of her mother in her, with her hands on her hips, one foot tapping impatiently, and an expression of utter condescension nailed to her forehead. Only with Catherine, it looked benign -comical, almost. They lived with their mother then, so I supposed neither of them would adopt any of my mannerisms.

Children are tautological creatures; they have the good sense to stick to their guns when all else -adults, by and large- fail them. “Ahh, you don’t happen to know what else Michael said, do you?”

She nodded her head vehemently, convinced she was getting somewhere at last.

“Well..?”

She just looked at me. Sometimes I wondered if she was really four, or whether she had forgotten something somewhere around two and a half.

Finally, she got the idea. “He said it was under something.”

That’s what I like about Catherine: just like her mother, she remembered only things that stick out: a flower outside a thousand year old French cathedral, the smell of Machu Pichu, the colour of the mud in Manaus… Context, for her, was merely the background against which the really important things were displayed.

“I don’t suppose he happened to mention what it was under, did he?”

She was silent for a moment -no mean feat for Catherine- and then a smile lit up her face and her eyes grew large. “Under the water, I think…”

There are only so many things that sound like trailer and are under stuff -especially water. I took a stab at it. “Australia?” I said in my best adult voice.

“That’s it, Daddy… What is it?”

“Well,” I said, not entirely sure how much she wanted to know, “it’s a country.”

“But we live in a country…”

“Yes.” I also nodded, to give it added strength.

I could see her playing with it for a while before leaving it on whatever shelf she filed such things -Catherine’s face was a movie screen sometimes. But after a minute between shows, I could see a new thought growing. “How many countries are there, Daddy?”

That’s a good question, actually. Does anybody know? I was so relieved that she hadn’t asked me what a country was that I offered to look it up. “Have you ever seen an atlas, Cath?”

A new word! She perked up immediately. “Anatlus? Nope… Is it what reindeer wear, Daddy?”

Where do kids get their ideas nowadays?  “Antlers are what reindeer have, Cath. Atlas is what I’m going to use to count the number of countries,” I said, but I don’t think it stuck. I think she liked the idea of finding countries on reindeer heads.

“But don’t the reindeer have to know where they’re going?”

“Huh?”

“You know. On Christmas eve.”

Actually the thought had never occurred to me. I guess I just figured they did it by the stars, or that Santa kind of navigated by instinct, or something. Kids aren’t satisfied with the old stories anymore. “Ahh, well maybe if you looked at the atlas you’d understand what I mean.”

Her eyes positively sparkled. “You mean you have some reindeer here?” She looked wide-eyed around the room, expecting to see a nose pop out of a closet any moment, I’m sure.

“Cath, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Just wait here, okay?” I went into the den and rummaged around for the atlas. It was an old Reader’s Digest variety -you know, solar system in the front few pages, then what each country does for a living and how many did it, at least in 1969. The rest was a smorgasbord of colors and names that brought back painful recollections of Miss Pleasance in Grade 4 or 5 and having to pronounce them in front of the whole class by memory. I could never say ‘Afghanistan’ and everybody would wait for it and laugh. Not Miss Pleasance, though. It’d just get me another turn the next day. I hated geography.

When I returned, Catherine was prowling through the cupboards and sniffing. I didn’t ask why. “This is an atlas, Cath,” I said proudly, holding it in front of me like a jewel.

She took one look at it and her face lost interest. “That’s just another book, Daddy,” she said, her voice pleading with me to say I was kidding.

“Just another book?” I pretended to be hurt. “Catherine, this is a genuine, nothing-else-is-remotely-like-it Reader’s Digest version of the world.”

Her eyes resumed their dinner-plate imitations and her mouth fell open. “The world! In there?” I had the sinking feeling that I’d lost again. “Lemme see,” she said grabbing the book firmly, but reverently from my hands.

I was pleased to see that she at least started from the front, but she whipped through the solar system at a breakneck pace and was half way through the gross national product of the Netherlands before she slowed down. “Awhh…” She leafed through a couple of pages of countries outlined in their pale reds and yellows, crammed with lines and unreadable letters and put the book down gently on the table. She looked at me -sadly, I thought- and shook her head. “Daddy,” she said slowly, and carefully, sounding for all the world like she was choosing her words carefully so as not to offend me. “Daddy, did you pay a lot for the anatlus?”

“Atlas,” I corrected as gently as I could. “No, not a whole lot. Why?”

“Well… I think you got gypped.”

“Huh?”

She stared at me and sighed with a little shake of her head -just like her mother used to do. “I saw the world on T.V. and it’s different.”

She was right, you know. And I’ll bet they pronounced Afghanistan correctly, too.

Wearing Life but as the fashion of a hat

Every once in a while I find that I am confronted by an idea which, even were I to have thought of it first, I would have put aside as of little relevance -or worse, of little consequence.

Clothing, has always been one of those for me: it’s something you wear, not something you are. And despite the desperate claims by Fashionistas that it reflects an inner self -or at least would, if you let it- I’ve always found the argument largely specious, and to reword Samuel Johnson’s quip about marriage, is a triumph of hope over expenditure.

And yet, I was drawn into an essay about clothes -albeit reluctantly- written by Shahida Bari, a lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London, for Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/why-does-philosophy-hold-clothes-in-such-low-regard?

I have to admit the article was not at all what I expected: I was neither deluged with praise for couture, nor subjected to shaming for my sartorial insouciance. At first, I was merely confused by her fascinating ruminations about clothes: ‘Ideas, we languidly suppose, are to be found in books and poems, visualised in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. They are taught in classrooms; expressed in language, number and diagram. Much trickier to accept is that clothes might also be understood as forms of thought, reflections and meditations as articulate as any poem or equation. What if the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries disentangling like a frayed hemline?’ What an utterly fascinating thought that what we wear is not merely a passive display, but has a voice of its own.

‘What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways that human beings have lived: a material record of our experiences and an expression of our ambition? What if we could understand the world in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?’

Do you see why I kept reading? The very idea that clothes have agency in and of themselves is powerful. She goes on to observe that ‘clothes are freighted with memory and meaning… In clothes, we are connected to other people and other places in complicated, powerful and unyielding ways, expressed in an idiom that is found everywhere, if only we care to read it.’

Bari seems to understand that ‘for all the abstract and elevated formulations of selfhood and the soul, our interior life is so often clothed… The garments we wear bear our secrets and betray us at every turn, revealing more than we can know or intend.’

But we cannot hide in clothes -as the poet Kahlil Gibran observes, ‘Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful’. And Bari goes on to suggest that ‘to entrust to clothes the keeping of our secrets is a seduction in itself.’ I would have thought that this alone would have been fodder for the Philosophers, but as she goes on to explain, ‘the discipline of philosophy has rarely deigned to notice the knowledge to which dress makes claim, preferring instead to dwell on its associations with disguise and concealment.’

She seems to think that Plato had something to do with Philosophy’s aversion to treating clothes as a worthy adversary. ‘Haunted by Plato’s anxiety over how to distinguish truth from its ‘appearance’, and niggled by his injunction to see beyond an illusory ‘cave of shadows’ to a reality to which our back is turned, philosophy’s concept of truth is intractably aligned to ideas of light, revelation and disclosure.’

Still, in fairness, she turns her spotlight on various other philosophers and notes that although appearance has always been a fair topic for discussion, it has rarely concerned itself about physical appearance or dress. And yet, after a tedious, albeit poetically expressed, litany of the views on clothes of characters, both fictional and academic, she concludes with a one sentence précis that I think might have made her point much sooner: ‘Philosophy might have forgotten dress, but all that language cannot articulate – the life of the mind, the vagaries of the body – is there, ready to be read, waiting to be worn.’

I did enjoy her metaphors and evocative language, and I have to admit that, until the latter half of the journey, I was swept along quite contentedly in the current of her thoughts. It reminded me of a recent conversation of two women, both laden with large cloth bags who plonked themselves down beside me on a couch that break-watered the teeming throng of shoppers in a downtown mall. Both were middle-aged, and both spread themselves out as if I wasn’t there.

I’m not keen on being jostled on a seat, and was about to launch myself into the chaotic tide of passing elbows when I saw the woman next to me pull some garish fabric partly out of her bag to show it to her friend.

“What d’ya think Jesse?” she asked, stuffing whatever it was back in her bag once Jesse had seen it.

Jesse looked frazzled by the crowds, and her once-coiffed, greying hair floated in little strands from her head while her eyes stayed anchored on her face. “Colour’s interesting, Paula…” she said, after a noticeable pause.

“It’s a statement, Jess…” She relaxed her buxom frame further into the couch and settled an elbow into my rib without seeming to notice the infringement. “I think it’s time people noticed me.”

Jesse blinked and a weak smile surfaced on her lips for a moment. “I don’t think you need the hat, dear,” she added, as tactfully as the situation allowed.

I could see Paula’s eyes harden, and then the pressure on my rib cage lessened briefly as her hand searched for a pocket in her incredibly wrinkled ankle length coat for a Kleenex. She blew her nose untidily and then tried to stuff what was left of the tissue back in the coat somewhere, and her elbow back into my side. “What are you saying, mirror-child?” she shot back. Clearly they were both tired, but I was beginning to enjoy the exchange.

“Just that you don’t have to wear a sign to attract attention…”

Paula’s face somehow retracted further into itself and her eyes peered out through the bars of their lashes like caged animals. And then, just as suddenly, her expression softened, and she shifted the position of her elbow again. “Oh, you mean that blouse, I bought…?” A smile darted onto her lips and stayed there like a runner that had made it safely to second base. “It’s really more me, isn’t it?”

Jesse’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she nodded. “But I don’t think you should wear them together, do you…?”

I could feel, as well as see Paula sigh. “You’re right, dear,” she said, as they both struggled to their feet. “I’m someone else with the hat on, aren’t I?” Another smile surfaced briefly, like a seal. “But it’s always nice to have a choice, Jess,” Paula added, hefting her bag onto her shoulder. Then pulling her friend with her free hand, they both stepped into the ever-passing flood like branches falling together in a river and were swept away.

I think you learn a lot about philosophy in malls if you’re patient…

Should Life be a walking shadow?

I have to admit that I had not heard of the ‘attention economy’ before -never even thought about it like that, in fact. And yet, when I think about attention, I suppose I’ve always heard it used as a currency, a thing that was paid to a specified ‘other’ -the thing attended to, in other words. Inattention, was no attention at all; it was an aimless, uncontrolled drift that gathered nothing of importance, and hence was to be discouraged; it was the kind of activity that, if noticed, would inevitably evoke a ‘pay attention’ rebuke from the teacher in a classroom, thus reinforcing the idea that there was only one flavour of the concept: the directed attention.

Indeed, capturing attention is the way business works, isn’t it? Getting you to think about a particular product when the need arises, and making you aware of its attributes and benefits, is the only way to interest you in buying it. We tend to segment reality into little fragments that we grasp, one at a time, to sew into the fabric we call our day; from the moment we awaken until we slip, often exhausted, into sleep, we wear a patchwork quilt of attendances as our realities. Only in retrospect, should we ever choose to examine them, are we able to recognize the qualitative dissonances we have accepted as seamless.

Perhaps the perceptually dissolute may decide to comb the day for information, but somehow that act seems as bad as stripping a sentence of all its adjectives to get at the nouns and thereby losing the colour and vibrancy each was intended to wear. Sometimes attention misses the beauty of the forest by examining the trees too closely. At any rate, I’ve often thought there must be more than one variety of ‘attending to’…

I can’t help but notice people on the street walking past me wearing earphones, or staring at their phones, oblivious of my presence unless we bump. Do they see the series of comic faces in the clouds, or the hawk circling high above the little park? Do they notice the missing brick in the wall of the hospital across the street, or the sad old man leaning on the post outside the Emergency department? Would they stop to smell the flowers in the little pot beside the barbershop; do they wonder if the owner takes it in each night so it doesn’t disappear? Do they even care?

Do they feel the wind on their cheeks, and hear the rustle of leaves as it fights its way into the meadow? Do they see the squirrel that stares at them from a branch above their heads and wonder which tree he calls home? Even more important, do they notice that there are less birds singing in the trees above the trail in the nearby woods, and more litter along the way?

I suppose they are entangled in another, more important, world -and yet it’s probably the same one as mine, but without the distracting detours that make the journey as important as the destination. Of course I realize that few of us are monolithic, or so wedded to each moment that we are not tempted by diversions from time to time; we all daydream, I imagine, although some of us are more open to it than others; some of us are not wracked by guilt at the imagined loss of time that should have been better employed.

We have all, no doubt, travelled to someplace new to us, and been completely absorbed in the novelty of discovery: the unusual smells, the strangely loud buzz of traffic, or maybe the unanticipated imaginative architecture, or the flash of unfamiliar clothes hurrying by on unexpectedly familiar bodies. In those moments, we are immersed in the experience and only when the shock wears off do we re-emerge to attend to particulars and grasp at purpose.

Yes, I know I am not alone in seeking different ways of defining what it is to pay attention, but I have to say that I was delighted to find that someone had actually written an essay about it:

https://aeon.co/ideas/attention-is-not-a-resource-but-a-way-of-being-alive-to-the-world

Dan Nixon, a freelance writer and senior researcher at the Mindfulness Initiative in England writes that, ‘Talk of the attention economy relies on the notion of attention-as-resource: our attention is to be applied in the service of some goal.’ So ‘Our attention, when we fail to put it to use for our own objectives, becomes a tool to be used and exploited by others… However, conceiving of attention as a resource misses the fact that attention is not just useful. It’s more fundamental than that: attention is what joins us with the outside world. ‘Instrumentally’ attending is important, sure. But we also have the capacity to attend in a more ‘exploratory’ way: to be truly open to whatever we find before us, without any particular agenda.’

‘An instrumental mode of attention… tends to divide up whatever it’s presented with into component parts: to analyse and categorise things so that it can utilise them towards some ends.’ There is also, however, an exploratory way of attending: ‘a more embodied awareness, one that is open to whatever makes itself present before us, in all its fullness. This mode of attending comes into play, for instance, when we pay attention to other people, to the natural world and to works of art.’ And it’s this exploratory mode that likely offers us a broader and more inclusive way to experience reality: an attention-as-experience. In fact, it is probably ‘what the American philosopher William James had in mind in 1890 when he wrote that ‘what we attend to is reality’: the simple but profound idea that what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention, shapes our reality, moment to moment, day to day.’ And ‘It is also the exploratory mode of attention that can connect us to our deepest sense of purpose… the American Zen teacher David Loy characterises an unenlightened existence (samsara) as simply the state in which one’s attention becomes ‘trapped’ as it grasps from one thing to another, always looking for the next thing to latch on to. Nirvana, for Loy, is simply a free and open attention that is completely liberated from such fixations.’

I like the idea of liberation; I cherish the notion that by simply opening myself to what is going on around me, I am, in a sense experiencing what the French mystic Simone Weil called ‘the infinite in an instant’.  It sure beats grasping at Samsara straws.