Everything I Have Learned So Far, and then some

I hit a milestone birthday this weekend: 40 years on the planet.

Reflecting, as one does at times like these, I decided to revisit a post I wrote in 2010 titled Everything I’ve Learned So Far. I dug this out of the archives because I was curious: how much, or how little, have these convictions changed for me in eight years? If I was going to write a 2018 edition of Everything I’ve Learned So Far, what would I omit or add?

For the most part — for better or worse — 32-year-old James sounds suspiciously not unlike 40-year-old James. At the same time, a lot has changed. To recap: I’ve been married to an incredible person for these eight years, who has taught me so much. I have almost completely changed the direction of my so-called career path. On top of all this, I even had the immense privilege to spend three and a half years writing along the way. In sum: it has been a significant eight years.

In the intervening years, these sixteen ‘life lessons’ have been tested, stretched, forgotten, re-learned, and developed. There have certainly been a few additions. And perhaps some remain less front of mind today. Either way, I am going to make some space to ponder and write about each of “things I had learned so far” as a 32-year-old and revisit them from the perspective of my forties. My goal is to reflect on one per week.

I humbly own the fact that this onset of contemplative energy is wholly inspired by turning 40. I am intrigued by the cultural significance associated with the passing of decades. But like the countdown of a New Years celebration, a big round number seems as good of a reminder as any to intentionally pause and ponder life.

If I have the good fortune of another 10 years on this planet, I will hopefully look back on this reflection (in 2028, in my fifties!) through yet another decade of existence. I want to believe that wisdom compounds with age — or, at very least, that every year adds another year’s worth of experience and learning through which to see and describe life.

(I’ll tag the subsequent posts in this ‘series’ of reflections as life lessons.)

Stop wasting other people’s lives

10 Timeframes by Paul Ford is a beautiful essay. Ford asks a deceivingly simple question: when you spend a portion of your life (that is, your time) working on a project, do you take into account how your work will consume, spend, or use portions of other lives? How does the ‘thing’ you are working on right now play out in the future when there are “People using your systems, playing with your toys, [and] fiddling with your abstractions”?

It is good to think about how to negate wasting other people’s time in the here and now. Straight to the chase, I can’t say it better than Jason Fried: “If you have a meeting coming up and you have the power to do so, just cancel it.”

But what about the future users of your products, platforms, systems, and knowledge? Are you honouring their lives and time, too? I often think about this when editing video: does this one-minute section respect the time of future viewers? A minute multiplied by the number of times a video might be viewed suddenly represents a sizeable chunk of collective human resources. In this respect, ‘filler’ is irresponsible: if you know something is not adding value or meaning to future ‘consumers,’ then you are, in a sense, robbing life from them. It seems extreme to say that, yes, but hopefully contemplating the proposition has not wasted your time.

The Lie of the Timeline

Having pulled the plug on my social media presence, it is interesting to think about these platforms from the outside. Indeed, I am thinking about them very often. The reoccurring engrained impulse, I should post this on Twitter, remains a very strong instinctive muscle response.

It’s like my brain is a recovering pigeon that escaped from a Zuckerbergian version of a B.F. Skinner lab.

This respond-in-the-moment impulse highlights one of social media’s most conniving sleight of hands. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter present themselves to us as timelines, as if this moment is a ‘snapshot’ in a timeline. They purport to engage us in this moment, in the present. But as we engage, we do not merely input data into a timecoded sliver of history called ‘the present’, but into an archival dataset that is ostensibly the property of someone else, and for their profit. Timelines that ask us to comment on the present are lies: a status update is not really about the present moment at all, but about compiling your data profile.

Social media steals our present, saves it ‘outside’ of time, so it can ‘serve’ us ads in the future. This exchange is equally true if you are a selfie- or foodie-enthusiast, a tele-grandparent, a hate mongering troll, or a social justice warrior. Everyone is being played.

The Politics of Inevitability and a Generation Without History

“By embracing the politics of inevitability, we raised a generation without history,” writes Timothy Snyder. The politics of inevitably is a confidence trap — a lulling sense of a security in fixed trajectory laid before us. It’s society on autopilot. To the extent that ‘progress’ becomes the assumed course, the necessity of teaching history diminishes, and in the decline of a historical consciousness comes the decline of progress itself.

In this complacency, history is forgotten. It is made to seem useless, irrelevant to ‘modern’ concerns. Indicators of Snyder’s “generation without history” are rampant. In a recent talk, The Swindle of the New, Terry Eagleton proposes: “The fact is surely that any society which only has its contemporary experience to live by is poor indeed. And that surely is becoming increasingly the case in our own time, where the past has been reduced to spectacle, packaged heritage, consumable commodity, or recyclable style.”

A critical mark of a “generation without history” is the prevalence and commercialization of authenticity. Adherents to the cult of authenticity, in Eagleton’s words, “hold the unconscious conviction that [they] are self-authoring, self-generated, sprung from [their] own head, and thus entirely entirely autonomous and self-determining.” Only in “generation without history” can one imagine themselves as capable of total self-definition, which is the cornerstone assumption of the authenticity value system and identity matrix. “The modern age is the only one I am aware of that regards authenticity as involving a clean break with the past.”

Whose version of the past counts? Do the residents of Utopia have a history? What makes time invisible?

The past, it seems, does not exist anymore. It is inaccessible and unalterable. Once the egg is scrambled and fried, it can no longer be reshaped and reconstructed into its oval shell. As far as human perception goes, the arrow of time goes decidedly in only one direction.

But the past also seems very much a part of every moment. The chair you are sitting on came from somewhere in history, but now it is inexplicably part of your present reality. When we react to the past — whether to heal from its scars or celebrate its highlights — we find our immediate priorities being shaped by a history we can no longer access.

The past, even though it is gone, always seems to be part of the present. As T.S. Eilot wrote,

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

For humans, time is about much more than eggs and chairs. Time becomes inseparable from our identities and the narratives we use to orient ourselves in the world. Does our position or role in society shape the way we think about time? Why do different people and different cultures have such distinct differences in the way they think about their history and lineage? After we recorded the podcast, Jasmine minded me of this quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:

social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.

The Panel

Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, researcher, podcaster. His podcast, ‘Talking to Canadians’ (co-produced with historian and PEI-based writer Ryan O’Connor) debuted in January of 2017. Jeremy is also a published editorialist, essayist and poet and his work has appeared in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Europe.

Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani) thinks time is fascinating. Both tangible and abstract, time exists within spaces of paradox, intrigue, science, and folklore. Jasmine does not question whether time is real, but the ways in which it is constructed at different times to be real, and the impact it has on our imagination and existence. She has time, or is it hers to have? Either ways, she will be making the time to talk about time, hoping that in time she will understand time.

Thomas Peace (@tpcanoe) is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Huron University College. His research focuses on the diverse ways in which Indigenous peoples in the northeast and lower Great Lakes engaged with colonial schooling and colonial colleges at the turn of the nineteenth century. He is also one of the founding editors of ActiveHistory.ca.

Changing the World (is an incoherent idea)

I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’

This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.

Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)

We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.

In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.

Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.

So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.

What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.

None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.

No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?

How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?

Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.

Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.

If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?

Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.

When you die, does time end?

In Timaeus (37d-39e), Plato argues that time is an emergent property of movement. If nothing moved, there would be no time. For Plato, every perception of time is a perception of movement: days are defined by the rising and setting of the Sun, years are defined orbits, and so on.

In Physics (4.10-14), Aristotle takes it one step further: time is a measure of movement, not the movement itself. It turns out that time is a human construct, not some intrinsic property of the universe. If there is no being (or “soul”) capable of counting and measuring movement, we would not be able to say that time technically exists at all.

Whether if soul did not exist time would exist or not, is a question that may fairly be asked; for if there there cannot be some one to count there cannot be anything that can be counted, so that evidently there cannot be number; for number is either what has been, or what can be, counted. (Physics 4.14.21-24)

Remember the old thought experiment about whether or not a falling tree makes a sound if no one is there to hear it? Aristotle invites us to apply a similar question to the whole cosmos, not just the forest. Can we rightfully say that “time” literally existed at all for 13.8 billion years before some conscious beings emerged that gave movements and durations the label of “time”? If Aristotle is right — and if we agree that time is more of an emergent property of consciousness than arising from orbital movement — then should we consider time and consciousness as more synonymous with one another than they are distinct?

What is time? In a sense, time is consciousness. All perception of time — past, present, and future — will cease upon the dissolution of your mind. Time is qualia. We all tell different stories of the past, experience the present in unique ways, and imagine various futures. Whether you speak of unicellular life 3.5 billion years ago or the future civilization you will leave as an inheritance to your children, you are talking about a subjective phenomenological experience that is inseparable from your consciousness.

I suppose, ultimately, this is just another way of reminding myself that efficiency and productivity never actually “save” any time at all — they are only distractions and preoccupations to which I surrender this tenure of conscious being.

Pindar Goes to Rio

Over the last few weeks, my journey through my lifetime reading list brought me to Pindar — the fifth century BCE poet who was widely considered by the Greeks to be the greatest ancient lyricist.

Most of Pindar’s surviving works are odes to victors of the games: winners of foot races, wrestling matches, chariot races, and other competitions at the Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea festivals. Winners often commissioned professional poets to write celebratory poems in honour of their achievements. Long before broadcast media, poets like Pindar served the function of providing slow motion ‘replays’ of grandiose victories in words, to the awe and amazement of everyone back home. (These poems were typically performed at celebratory homecoming festivals upon the victor’s return to his town or city.)

I did not plan this intentionally, but I found myself reading Pindar during the Summer Olympics (Rio 2016). What a riveting juxtaposition to read about, say, Hagesidamos’s glorious boxing victory at the Olympian games in 476 BCE, while being surrounded by a palpable hum of excitement for present-day heroes like Usain Bolt, Penny Oleksiak, and Michael Phelps. To read Pindar during the Olympics is to come face-to-face with our primal, collective, and timeless obsession with exemplars of our own kind. Here we realize just how acutely we need to be represented by a champion who flies the flag of our in-group.

Pindar was enthralled by the god’s ability to endow particular humans with exceptional physical ability. In the athletes of his time, Pindar saw the unmistakable spark of the divine. Indeed, the Greeks did not consider sporting competition and religious observance as categorically isolated activities in the same way we do. Pindar’s poems blend mythological accounts of the gods and fifth century BCE sports commentary to a climatic end: to acknowledge that all achievements of human greatness come from Mount Olympus. Greatness, in human terms, is a measurement of how one’s exploits rank compared to those of the gods.

Yes, much has changed since Greek aristocrats founded those early Panhellenic games. Today’s Olympics is different. Women now compete. Every moment is archived in pristine, digital high definition. Winners are determined by technology measuring hundredths of a second. It is the Games of broadcast rights, international committee politics, and drug scandals.

What remains the same? Sports and arts — coliseums and commissions — are still primarily sponsored by elites. Vendors still setup shop to sell merchandise to enthusiastic pilgrims and fans. Songs are still written. Great wealth and glory are awarded the victors. We fawn over the accomplishments of archetypal human specimen: athletes who have honed their bodies to the nth degree of precision. We are infatuated with the heroes of our tribe. And many winners still cast an eye to heaven with a gesture of thanks to the gods, as if deflecting the adoring praise of the stadium to Zeus and Apollo.

But do you remember Hagesidamo’s victory at the 476 BCE games? How important is his triumph now? What of his fame and rewards?

The poems and fragments of Pindar remind us not only of what has not changed in 2492 years of history — they tell us that Time turns even the glory of gold to dust.

Or does it? Conversely, by remembering the works of Pindar here, Hagesidamo’s name remains to this day. In Pindar’s poems, we are compelled to continue to dream the dream of the Olympians: our feats and accomplishments matter if they can only be remembered.

Even high deeds of bravery
Have a great darkness if they lack song;
We can hold a mirror to fine doings
In one way only,
If with the voice of Memory in her glittering crown
Recompense is found for labour
In echoing words of song.
(Pindar, *Nemean VII* 13-16, trans. Bowra 1969:158)

Learning from the Past: being an update on the writing project

James Shelley

Yes. I am still working on a book about literature, history, and time. I began seriously developing this project in January, when the Caesura Letters transitioned to a free weekly edition. (And, admittedly, like many who study and write about their passions ‘on the side’, I find balancing writing with ‘the day job‘ to be a constant challenge: occasionally this project has found itself relegated too many rungs down in the triage of priorities.) Slow as it might be at times, however, progress continues. I am really captivated by the thesis and ethos of the project.

I would like to a) provide a bit of an update about this work-in-progress and b) invite your comments and constructive input on some ideas related to it. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to share some thoughts with friends at the City Symposium — our local ‘self-led, peer-learning network of inquisitive minds and life-long learners’. This is an amazingly diverse group of people who like to think and talk. It was a great chance to ‘float’ some ideas and garner more feedback and insight.

Today, I’d like to share some of these ideas with you, in the same spirit. These thoughts are intended to spark some dialogue. What do you think? (The audio below is a recording of my ‘discussion prompts’ for the City Symposium on Wednesday, April 13, 2016.)

Like Back in the Days

You know, like back in the days when new technologies didn’t threaten our ability to anticipate the future, young people didn’t mangle the language, children respected their elders, politicians were honest, corruption was held at bay, everyone strove for peace, and each citizen shared the same high ideals for their society in common?

You know, like back in the 1980s. No, wait… Maybe like in the 1970s? Um, not then, either. 1930s? Maybe the 1830s? Hold on just a second here…

When exactly were those days, anyway?

Attention Economy

It was back in 1971 that Herbert Simon suggested that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” and now the difficulty of capturing people’s attention (“a highly perishable commodity“) has some theorists suggesting that the future “attention economy” will have “its own different implicit rules, roles, cycles, values, etc.

If everyone has everyone’s attention the value of attention is nullified. Thus to avoid mental bankruptcy, navigating an “attention economy” means saving, investing and being cunningly conscientious of your own attention.

If you treated your attention as a monetary value, would you be considered broke, middle class or well-invested?

In the Present. Demand Delays.

Our constant, relentless need to be “up-to-date” is an eternal vacuum with a dead end. Where do we suppose that this vortex will end? What exactly is the treasure that we think exists at the end of the newsfeed rainbow?

While our culture of technology preaches the gospel of “constant connectivity” with the fervor of a televangelist, there are a growing number of us who have realized that salvation is found the seemingly heretical choice to occasionally be out of the loop, uninformed and essentially delayed in our awareness of the electronically available “now”.

Not more than a few years ago, the word “present” denoted the immediate time and place in which you found yourself breathing. Today, the “present” has exponentially expanded in scope: it no longer means “here and now” but rather the present is “wherever and always”. At any single moment you have access to a cascading torrent of data that folds time and space in on itself. The “present” has collapsed our continuum: the past archived, the commentary of the immediate, and the prediction of the future are all reduced into a singularity, the digitally eternal “now”.

The present (in its classical definition) is a hard place to visit these days.

If we want to visit this place, we must do something that has become fundamentally counter-cultural: become temporarily ignorant of the “digital present”. Our gadgets have given us the capacity to always be “on” and in the know. To be unplugged from this gadgetry has become something of a moral negative, as if connectivity is part of our social responsibility. (If you don’t know what your friend posted on Facebook, what kind of a friend are you anyway?)

Make space for intentional delays in your knowledge consumption. Relish bouts of self-imposed ignorance. If you are not constantly monitoring a feed, you aren’t going to read the next item as soon as it is posted. In fact, you might simply miss it altogether. (Gasp. Shock. Sweaty palms.) Learn to love it. Do not only embrace the delay of disconnection occasionally, but demand it regularly. Stop by and the visit the present sometime — the real present, the space around you — and say hello.

Your mind cannot be in two places at the same time anymore than the rest of your body can be.