The Impossibility of Meritocracy

In Paul Willis’s 1970s classic Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, he ends with a series of recommendations, one of which is that as a society we must learn to “recognise the contradiction of a meritocratic society and educational system where the majority must lose but all are asked in some way to share in the same ideology.

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This is a powerful statement which I would like to work to unpack. A meritocratic society or meritocracy is one where an individual’s success and advancement are determined by one’s talents and abilities. Thus, the hardest working and the smartest can be successful and rise to the top. Which is all great – people should be rewarded according to their talents and efforts, right?

The only other element to consider though is that just as a meritocracy creates and propels winners, it also creates losers. A lot of losers.

And the dangerous thing about living in a society based on meritocratic principles is that it creates the illusion that poor outcomes are deserved. It encourages the judgement that an individual without strong prospects or with a poor educational track record is in their situation because of the choices they’ve made. The individual and their choices are largely to blame. The wealthy are wealthy because they deserve to be wealthy. And the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.

But is a true meritocracy even possible? Alain de Botton in a TED talk states it well, ” I think it’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; it’s an impossible dream. The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.” In a true meritocracy, one would have to account for one’s genes, one’s starting point in life, the quality of one’s teachers. We don’t, because we can’t.

Willis in his book tries to answer the questions, why is it that working class kids grow up to take on working class jobs and why is it that middle class kids grow up to take on middle class jobs? His answer more or less is that we live in a society that only purports to be meritocratic – but is actually far from it. In fact, Willis looks specifically at one of the institutions that should be a main engine and proponent of meritocracy, the educational system, and argues that in many ways our schools do the very opposite.

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The educational system is a true vehicle of growth and class movement for some. Some students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds obtain good grades, get into good schools, and have successful careers, enabling them to reach middle class or even higher. However, as Willis states quite aptly,

“To the individual working class person, mobility in this society may mean something. Some working class individuals do ‘make it’ and any particular individual may hope to be one of them. To the class or group at its own proper level, however, mobility means nothing at all.

Although individuals from a lower socioeconomic class may find success, success for a few individuals does not equate to success for the wider class. In fact, in some ways the success of a few individuals of a lower socioeconomic class serves both to legitimize the existing system (as in “See, – it works!) and condemn those who have not succeeded (“See, like him, you could have ‘made it’ but you didn’t – and so it’s your fault”).

The middle class comfort themselves by believing that they got to where they are through hard work, good grades, and their own intelligence. Which they have – except they don’t perhaps consider where they would have gotten had they started from a position of lesser advantage. Or how much further they could have gotten had they started from a position of greater advantage.

And those that are worse off either accept the ideology of the meritocracy which in the worst cases, in the words of Alain de Botton, “leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally — they own their success, but they also own their failure.”

Or, as Paul Willis found in his work, when they don’t accept the ideology, it leads to a sense of alienation from society and a rejection of its values. Willis found this sense of unfairness to be a source of rebellion in the classroom, “The refusal to compete, implicit in the counter-school culture, is therefore in this sense a radical act: it refuses to collude in its own educational suppression.” But such rebellion can be, as Willis describes, a ‘self-damnation’ of sorts. In rejecting and refusing to participate in a system that they recognize as unfair and oppressive, they further cut themselves off from society and decrease their chances at success. It is a dangerous cycle and one that is difficult to escape or recover from.

The idea of meritocracy can be damning to the weakest in society. It can serve to provide a sense of personal failure (even in cases where luck or circumstance are more to blame) or to alienate them. On the other hand, the idea of meritocracy comforts those of us who are better off. It creates the illusion that we are where we are because we deserve it, and others don’t. A sense of unearned privilege can be uncomfortable. But earned privilege feels fair. It provides a certain sense of comfort and helps to quiet our sense of obligation to help others.

So let’s just not fool ourselves. We don’t and never will live in a meritocracy. Perhaps we deserve what we have, but perhaps we don’t.

The Experts Weigh In – on Disagreeing

Nuggets of wisdom on How, Why, and To What Ends we disagree from some of my favorite writers and philosophers.

As horribly conflict-averse as I am (I suffer from a crippling tendency to be a people pleaser), disagreement has been on my mind lately. I wonder about the best way to disagree, why we can disagree so strongly on things that seem so trivial, and how it is possible that we can disagree so fundamentally and irreconcilably when it comes to some of the most important of issues (think pretty much the entire political landscape in 2017).

And so I have mined from what I’ve read some nuggets of wisdom on disagreeing – among which, fittingly, there is somewhat a lack of consensus. Take from it what you will.

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Bertrand Russell on How to Overcome our Biases

The below is taken from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy in which Russell strives to objectively describe the contributions made by key individuals in Western philosophy. Early on in the book, Russell acknowledges the challenges of bias and outlines a methodology useful for considering the ideas of others objectively, despite any disagreements we may have with their ideas.

Although the context here is studying the contributions of philosophers, I think this approach could be used in a variety of settings, including those of a political nature where it is often so challenging for one side to truly understand the viewpoints of the other.

“In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held.

Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second.”

All in all,

Two things are to be remembered:

1) A man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence

2) No man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever.

And further,

When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.”


Eckhart Tolle on How Much Can Seem at Stake Even in the Most Trivial of Arguments

[From Eckart Tolle’s A New Earth]

“What is an argument? Two or more people express their opinions and these opinions differ. Each person is so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion, that those thoughts harden into mental positions which are invested with a sense of self. In other words: Identity and thought merge. Once this has happened, when I defend my opinions (thoughts), I feel and act as if I were fighting for survival and so my emotions will reflect this unconscious belief. They become turbulent. I am upset, angry, defensive, or aggressive. I need to win at all cost lest I become annihilated.”

Tolle captures perfectly how even the simplest and most trivial of issues can create the most heated of arguments. In these situations, the actual issue at stake is less what is being argued over – but more likely pride, identity, and one’s need to feel right and validated.

Alain de Botton’s excellent The Course of Love carries similar insights in its exploration of the ups and downs in romantic relationships.


Daniel Kahneman on How Facts Don’t Actually Always Matter

In a recent episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast she interviewed Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who has won the Nobel Prize in economics and the author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Together, they discussed how our beliefs – and therefore our disagreements are in many ways fundamentally irrational.

Kahneman is quoted below,

“When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously

Even if you did destroy the arguments that people raise for their beliefs, it wouldn’t change their beliefs. They would just find other arguments…

The reason [people] don’t change their minds is that facts don’t matter, or they matter much less than people think.


Theodore Zeldin on the Benefits of Disagreement

And finally, ever the idealist (see Zeldin’s hopes for the future of creativity and cooking here), Theodore Zeldin describes quite beautifully a different image of disagreement – one in which there is opportunity for growth, conversation, and an expansion of what we had previously considered possible.

“Disagreement forces us to clarify our thoughts, to put thoughts into words, and to discover new questions. Without disagreement, there would be no reflection, no search for truth, no enlivening conversation; humans would have nothing to dissuade them from constantly repeating the same platitudes, nothing to expand their tastes and their sense of wonder.”

(from The Hidden Pleasures of Life by Theodore Zeldin)

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Bullet in the Brain, David Hume, & What Makes Us Curious

Certain facts, certain books, certain entire fields of study leave us unfazed, unstimulated, and generally uninterested. And yet, sometimes something – anything – a mere phrase, can arrest the attention and set the mind reeling.

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There is a short story by Tobias Wolff called “Bullet in the Brain” about a man named Anders, a book critic, who is shot in the head during a bank robbery gone wrong. As the bullet enters his brain, it fires off all sorts of synapses and moments of his life flash before him. Despite everything that he has experienced in his life, what he remembers, rather than his marriage, the birth of a child, and his achievements – is playing baseball and a phrase one of the kids said:

“Short stop,” the boy says, “Short’s the best position they is.”

Anders was struck by this phrase. He was “strangely roused, elated, by those two final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.”

The story ends with Anders in his final moments replaying the words, “They is, they is, they is.

I love this short story and I love thinking about how some things can capture our attention in ways that sometimes feel mysterious. Certain things just appeal to us and we’re left wondering why.

I recently came across this statement about curiosity and the ideas that interest us.

Not every fact elicits our curiosity, but occasionally one will become sufficiently important, “if the idea strikes us with such force, and concerns us so nearly, as to give uneasiness in its instability and inconstancy.” (Quote attributed to David Hume, found in Curiosity by Alberto Manguel)

While the statement leaves unanswered why certain facts might ‘strike us with such force,’ I am interested in the second part of the phrasing: as to give us uneasiness in its instability and inconstancy. Interesting facts are interesting to us partly because they contain some instability or inconstancy so as to cause us uneasiness.

This feels true. I think we can be most interested in things we don’t fully understand – as children we are drawn to the possibility of magic and fairy tales. As adults, what we don’t fully understand can be religion, other human beings and psychology, outer space and mankind’s place in the universe, natural disasters, modern evils – ISIS, terrorism. We understand enough to know that there is so much more that we don’t understand. And what we are able to understand feels tenuous next to all that we do not know. The idea doesn’t feel complete, but yet it feels important – and so we are curious. There is a yearning to complete the idea and to complete the understanding.

We can be interested in and drawn to the ideas that do not fully fit into our previous conceptions of how things are or how they should be – whether in our contemplations on new scientific theory or on the unexpected music of they is, they is, they is.

Stephen King and Noel Carroll on Why We Like Horror Stories

So I know I’m late in the game, but I just saw the movie, ‘It’ on Sunday. To be fair, I saw about two-thirds of it. The remaining third, my hands or my hair or my sweater were at least partially covering my eyes. In general, I’m not good with horror movies. I don’t have the stomach – or the nerves for them. As far as horror movies go, I liked the new ‘It.’ And it got me thinking, what is it about this movie and horror movies in general that appeal to us? They can kind of be a stressful experience. Parts of some horror movies can even make for an unpleasant experience.

I came across a book a few months past called Stephen King and Philosophy by Jacob M. Held. In its introduction, Held (with the help of philosopher Noel Carroll as well as Stephen King himself) presents a theory or two,

 

From Stephen King and Philosophy


Noel Carroll notes that “the attraction of supernatural horror is that it provokes a sense of awe which confirms a deep-seated human conviction about the world, viz., that it contains vast unknown forces.”…Carroll calls this attraction a paradox of the heart insofar as we are attracted to that which horrifies us. We are attracted to wonder, the sublime, the awesome, something before which we tremble in the recognition that we may be destroyed by or lost in it. It is terrifying in that it inspires terror, as do the deepest and most profound mysteries of the universe, for they rightfully put us in our place as insignificant, cosmically speaking.

Stephen King refers to horror as a “dance of dreams.” Horror, he claims, awakens the child in us and, he notes, children are bent. Children think around corners. Horror invigorates our imagination, requiring us to think around the corners of life. In this way horror helps us to reenvision what matters most. King notes, “If the horror story is our rehearsal for death, then its strict moralities make it also a reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination. Horror is conservative, and some things matter enough that they ought to be conserved. Horror challenges our norms, pushes them to the limits, and often times breaks them to smithereens, only to have them come back restructured, reconfigured, and reinforced. “So the norm emerges stronger than before; it has been, so to say, tested; its superiority to the abnormal vindicated.”

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A Philosophical Fairytale for All Ages: The Lying Carpet by David Lucas

Reading The Lying Carpet is a mesmerizing, dizzying experience. Somehow, through the story of a little statue and a lying (and talking) carpet, Lucas effortlessly pushes us up against some of the most essential questions – the nature of truth, the role of stories, and making sense of one’s existence.

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(image from author David Lucas’s site)

The story centers around the statue of a little girl, Faith, who one day awakens and starts to wonder what she is. She’s puzzled with the realization that she is a statue and questions how she became a statue. With the assistance of the lying carpet, she wonders if she was once a little girl turned into a statue through a magic spell. Or is she just an ordinary statue and before that stone on the side of a mountain before being chiseled into creation by a sculptor? If she was once a girl and there is a spell, can it be unbroken? Or is she doomed to be a statue forever? And what would happen if she was knocked off her pedestal to smash against the floor? What would she be then?

Although disguised as a children’s story, I found this to be a philosophical fable – an allegory perhaps for the creation stories we humans have created over time. As the lying carpet tells her possibility after possibility of what she really is, Faith finds herself believing each story and not knowing what is true and what isn’t. Each creation story is compelling. She yearns for the truth, but the carpet frustratingly seems to be talking in circles.

Faith wishes and hopes that she’s really a little girl. She yearns for meaning and to know that she is more than just a simple statue. But the carpet and no one will tell her what she is. She yearns for proof and to know.

However, proof isn’t always possible. And sometimes we will never really know. Sometimes, in whatever we believe, whether in terms of science or love or the universe, there must be, albeit how scary it may seem, an element of ‘Faith.’

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3 Things: The Case for Idleness, Rooting for the Library over Audible, & Steps to Clear the Mind

From the pitfalls that can face a society that overvalues productivity and work for work’s sake to an undervalued resource in your public library to a mantra that can provide solace to an ever anxious society, here are three things keeping me interested:

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  • In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell makes the argument for leisure
  • Audible & Library Audiobooks: Doesn’t the library also provide Audiobooks – for free?
  • BRFWA: Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Accept. Simple instructions to lessening anxiety.

In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

It never ceases to amaze me how relevant this piece is although it was written way back in 1932. Amid the rise in automation and the impact it will have on many jobs as well as murmurs in Scandinavia and elsewhere of universal basic income, Russell is so very prescient and just makes things so clear. In this essay, he challenges the traditional notion of ‘work for work’s sake’ and contends that more leisure rather than more work would make for a better society.

One of the more famous parts of this essay is an example concerning a factory that produces pins. The text is as follows,

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Obviously this is an oversimplified example, but it brings up an interesting point. In our world where more and more tasks are becoming automated and we are easily able to produce things more efficiently and with less labor than ever before – what is the end result? How is it possible that we work more or less the same number of hours despite these increases in efficiency? Are we producing more than we need – and thus being wasteful, do we somehow need more than we used to, or as in the pin example are the more productive of us overworked in producing on behalf of the masses while others are underworked or unemployed?

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Sure, you may say, but what then is the alternative?  Surely mass underemployment is as harmful or more harmful than the current state of affairs. Here, Russell is optimistic in terms of the capabilities and tendencies of the common man. He points out that the pleasures of the working urban population are mostly passive. People watch TV, watch sports, listen to music. In their leisure, people are recovering from their work. They are unwinding and attempting to undo or release the tension built up during the workday. There is less energy for active leisure, leisure in which we not just consume but also create. Russell creates an optimistic but inspiring picture of what he thinks could perhaps be possible,

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

He points out that historically, most of the great advances in society and thought have been made by men of leisure. From the great Greek philosophers to English poets to the men of science – these were not day laborers that pursued their interests in the evenings or on weekends. They did not draw a regular salary from the large corporations of their era. Many of them were financially independent by one means or another. They were men (or perhaps women, but for reasons let’s not go into here mostly men) of leisure that had the time to fully explore their intellectual curiosity. Bertrand argues that such freedom should be afforded to all.

Full text here.


Audible and Library Audiobooks

Audible, if you haven’t already heard of it, is an Amazon owned subscription service that allows access to audiobooks for a monthly subscription fee. There are various subscription options but one of the more common and basic packages allows for 1 audiobook a month in exchange for a monthly payment of $14.95. You can keep the books forever, even after you cancel. It’s not a bad deal, especially considering the usual prices of audiobooks (very high to ridiculously high – easily $30+ per book) and if you are a regular listener. A few years ago, I bought a 6 month gift subscription for my dad. He enjoyed it, it worked well, there were a lot of options in terms of books – no complaints.

However, I now work at a public library. Within my public library system (Metropolitan Library System – Oklahoma City), you can check out almost any title as an audiobook – the majority of these are also available as an eAudiobook (as opposed to CD versions or audiobooks preloaded onto rentable audio devices). In my library system, you can rent up to 100 items at a time (as opposed to 1 a month). Yes, sometimes there’s a wait, but there’s also a supplementary streaming service called Hoopla that also carries thousands of eAudiobooks where there is never a wait and you are allowed 4 materials a month (still more than the 1 allowed by Audible’s basic package).

No, you can’t keep the audiobook forever, but you can check it out again and again. And to me at least, while I can understand the appeal of owning a physical book and being able to write in the margins and arrange it on your bookshelf and whatnot, the appeal of owning an audiobook is to me less obvious, and especially so for eAudiobooks.

Here in Oklahoma City, I’ve seen a lot of advertising recently for Audible, and it just makes me cringe. Theoretically, because of what our library system is able to offer, Audible probably shouldn’t do that well here…but it probably will because people don’t know what the library has to offer. I think a large part of your customer base for Audible is probably your young professional – the age group libraries sometimes struggle to attract.

So, the takeaway here is – as a customer, check and see what your library has. And libraries need to do a much, much better job in marketing themselves.


BRFWA

Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Accept. I first encountered this set of instructions through the book Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, but it’s actually a well known technique from the Kripalu style of yoga. Used to clear the mind when one is frustrated and anxious, it’s a useful tonic that has done me wonders. From when I’m lying awake in bed frustrated at myself and the world for not being able to simply fall asleep to when I find myself tense and irritated at a customer in the library who is letting her children run wild and systematically wreck havoc shelf to shelf, this process helps.

Sometimes feelings emerge, uninvited, that disturb us. Sometimes you can’t logically think your way out of a feeling. It is just there. Being frustrated at the feeling breeds more frustration and magnifies the sense of discomfort. The feelings are often there for a reason and are our reaction to something. The feeling is an indication that something is off and uncomfortable. Sometimes, we are able to react based off of those feelings. Confronted with a betrayal by a close friend, anger and disappointment alert us to reconsider the friendship and to exit a potentially dangerous relationship. Other times, there is nothing to be done and the feeling is just there, unpleasant and simmering.

In these cases where there is nothing to be done, frustration directed at the feeling itself and general unfocused anxiety can emerge. But frustration at the feeling, at the situation, at ourselves isn’t helpful. In these cases, BRFWA can be helpful.

  • Breathe – Take pause, take a deep breath, and clear the head
  • Relax – Enjoy the end of the breath and the physical exhale
  • Feel – Allow yourself to feel, however painfully, whatever it is that you’re feeling without fighting or trying to suppress the feelings
  • Watch – Observe whatever it is that you are feeling. Take note of it. Take note of how you are reacting to these feelings.
  • Accept – Accept it all. The feeling is just a feeling, and it’s okay to have all sorts of feelings, even the negative.

In the case of being frustrated at my insomnia, this means inhaling and exhaling deeply (Breathe & Relax), allowing myself to feel all my frustration and anger and unhappiness at the insomnia (Feel), noticing and taking stock of all these feelings (Watch), and then simply accepting that today, I am unable to sleep and I am frustrated at the fact (Accept). When the mind stops fighting, it’s often then easier to sleep.

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Alan Watts on How Our Anxieties Are Born Out of Our Desire for Security

My first introduction to Alan Watts was through the plethora of inspirational videos based on his writing that are out there on YouTube. Back when I was quitting my job, it seemed like every other person I told sent a Alan Watts link my way. And there are a lot of them out there. Spiritual Mind, the YouTube channel I was directed to most, seems to put out a new one almost every day. The videos, as a side note, are pretty good. They’re simple, but persuasive messages of encouragement to live according to one’s own standards, ambitions, and dreams. To do what you want with your one life.

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Watts, (1915 – 1973), a British philosopher, was well known for having been able to convey and interpret ancient Eastern teachings in ways that are understandable to and palatable by Western society. His writing addressed complex ideas, explained simply. He tackled, among other subjects, human consciousness, happiness, human identity, religion, contemplation, and anxiety – topics that are timeless and still as relevant as ever today.

In 1951, Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age of Anxiety.  A few years prior, in 1947, W.H. Auden had declared the period an “Age of Anxiety” with his epic poem of the same title. In the first pages of his book, Watts writes,

“[S]cience and industry have so increased both the tempo and violence of living…There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.”

But set aside some of the specific phrasing and Watts could easily be describing our time. In fact, I would venture to guess that every generation perhaps before and certainly since Watts has also thought themselves very anxious, having of course to deal with exceptional never before seen challenges affecting their particular times. And so it goes forever and ever, each generation feeling that they face new challenges and so are – of course, unavoidably, painfully anxious. We are anxious and anxious about being anxious.

A lot of books and articles addressing anxiety do so by identifying causes of anxiety. A quick google search led me to material explaining how our current anxiety is a result of social media and the comparisons it encourages, the election of Donald Trump, drug use, economic recessions, more people living further away from relatives, as well as a general decrease in ‘opportunities to make real connections with others.’

Watts, however, takes a different approach.

He too identifies causes of anxiety – but inner causes of anxiety. Watts identifies patterns of thinking and mental constructions that are widespread today that, almost regardless of the state of the world or individual circumstances, create anxiety. Naturally, it also follows then that awareness of and identification of these patterns can help to ease anxiety – regardless of the state of the world or of our individual circumstances.

There’s a lot of great material in the book – and there’s a reason that, together in volume, it amounts to a book rather than an article – and in paraphrasing, much is of course lost.

But the meat of Watt’s point – evident too in his title – is that a desire for security contributes to anxiety. Of course, it’s natural to want to feel secure. We want to have money in the bank to protect ourselves for emergencies, we do go and take out various insurance policies on our home, our car, our life, we do solicit advice and conduct research before making big decisions, we do look after our health, we do invest, we do strive for high paying jobs. All of these and many other actions help to provide structure and stability in our lives and are good and proper things to do and strive for.

The challenge comes though in the fact that – really, there is no such thing as real stability and security. And that, despite whatever preventative, precautionary measures we can undertake or stress about taking, we are always left with insecurity. You never know what can happen, and to a certain extent it is impossible to anticipate everything. We have to become comfortable with insecurity.

Insecurity is a part of being alive, of being. To protest against this insecurity is to struggle against – everything – life. And being in the state of struggling and anxiety makes us feel more insecure, and so on. Watts states it as such,

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”

And similarly,

“For most of us this conflict is ever gnawing within us because our lives are one long effort to resist the unknown, the real present in which we live, which is the unknown in the midst of coming into being. Living thus, we never really learn to live with it. At every moment we are cautious, hesitant, and on the defensive. And all to no avail, for life thrusts us into the unknown willy-nilly, and resistance is as futile and exasperating as trying to swim against a roaring torrent.”

An answer – or a way we can respond to the inclination to feel insecure – is to be better at being present. Feelings of insecurity are born out of a fixation on the possibilities of the future and also on comparisons to the past. Therefore, a clearer focus on each individual moment will make it impossible to be as insecure. You cannot truly be present in an activity AND be anxious about some insecurity. If you are present in an activity – that’s it. If there’s anxiety there too, then you’re not really being present.

“The art of living in this ‘predicament’ is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

And at this, we are notoriously bad.

“For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations – especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.”

And suffer greatly for it.

“After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me ‘absent,’ looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.”

I have to reiterate – the above doesn’t do the book justice and any meaningful gains can only be taken by reading the book itself. Or, for some ‘samplings’ of Watts, the YouTube channel Spiritual Mind is still a great starting place.

Other similar books I’ve enjoyed recently: The Tao of Pooh, A New Earth