I hope you are well and that you will continue to be so. It appears that the number of cases worldwide of COVID-19 are still increasing. It seems as if the curve is yet to flatten — at least globally.
Many individual countries appear to be doing well. In fact, if you take away the United States and Europe from the question, we may have well and truly passed the peak: depending on how we play our cards for the rest of it.
As of today, the 17th of May there are a total of 4.5 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. North America and Europe each have over 1.6 million, a third of worldwide cases each.
At the end of all this, when looking at all the countries in the world, how they responded to the pandemic and how successful they were at slowing its spread; we will have learned something. We will be better at adjusting to pandemics, responding to a global crisis and hopefully at cooperating worldwide.
This letter will be a little different; I did not write this today. I wrote this a few weeks ago, and I was writing very freely and allowing my thoughts to flow onto the screen.
I would like to revisit my 2019 letter: Happiness and Problem Solving.
Whenever I think “which piece of mine will benefit a person I know the most”, it always seems to come to mind.
The essence of the piece is this: All of the suffering in our circumstance are solvable problems.
We solve problems through reason, not force.
We often laud discipline as a virtue, but I make the case that we are sorely mistaken.
The term seems to me forcing yourself to do what you do not want.
By training oneself in discipline, one is training oneself to remain stagnant in the face of one’s own suffering and make no attempt to address it.
There are other ways of framing the term that are healthier, for example; acting in a way that represents one’s deepest interests rather than the shallower ones.
But even this is flawed.
Why is there a conflict between our interests in the first place?
Surely the right answer to is to resolve it, to make it so what is fun to do right now is the very same as what is in our ultimate best interest.
I want to take the analogy to disciplining another person — say a child — in my mind it doesn’t work.
If a child does something wrong and you discipline them, they won’t learn why what they did was wrong. They will simply learn that if they do it, they will get yelled at.
The entire way our culture looks at morality, character, virtue, vice, sin, goodness and badness almost demands that we engage in a pointless struggle with ourselves. Instead at looking at what we all want, how we can all come to a situation we find we want to live in — we focus on how actions reflect on us.
Rather than simply looking at the cause-and-effect conditions of behaviours, how the world would look like if everyone acted that way, how they can affect our future selves, we believe certain actions are intrinsically “good”, and others were “bad”, and we are sold the story of having to overwhelm the bad with brute force. That is; discipline.
When I wrote the letter, I would have said that fun is always better than productivity and we shouldn’t settle for suffering day-after-day with no end in sight. That we should aim to lead lives where everything we do is fun.
I stand by this, yet I am considering moving to an even more extreme position.
We should aim to lead lives where everything we do is fun and productive / meaningful / in alignment with our deepest values.
We should aim to have it all.
There’s no need to imagine there are limits to how good a life we can lead.
The TCS concept of common-preferences is instructive here.
“If you are having a discussion about where to go for dinner, and the Indian you had all wanted to go to is full, and you think that a great solution would be to go to the Chinese one over the road, but one of your party doesn’t like Chinese, you might point out that the Chinese place also serves non-Chinese food, but if the person also doesn’t like the smell of Chinese food...”
“What’s wrong with them?! I love Chinese!”
“Well, if you tell them this they might be ready to change their opinion of the smell, and re-interpret it as a lovely smell, but if they aren’t, it is probably time to think of another restaurant or some other solution to the dinner problem. To put it simply, you keep making bold conjectures and subjecting them to criticism until you have a solution that everyone involved wholeheartedly prefers to any other candidate solutions any of you can think of at the time. (We call that a common preference, the preference you have in common.) You enact the solution tentatively.”
A compromise is the opposite of a common-preference. A compromise is where one party suffers and do not get what they really want — or even worse, both parties fail to get what they want, and each of them gets only a part.
We’re too quick to imagine unnecessary trade-offs. As if there were a limited amount of happiness in the world and it had to be distributed evenly. To not see an option C is simply to lack the creativity and determination to keep everyone happy. Of the infinite possibilities of what to eat, is finding a common-preference really an intractable problem?
The very same applies with ourselves — why are we so sure we can’t find ways of being that bring us joy in the present that do not detriment our highest aspirations?
Why are we so sure that for our own happiness we must jeopardise that of others? Why are we so sure that to benefit those around us, we must constrain our own happiness?
I remember once a friend of mine told me that he didn’t enjoy going to the gym. He forced himself to go believing it was necessary for his health.
When you look at the activity of going to the gym, it seems intrinsically boring, the continual lifting of weights over and over—the repetition of movements in pursuit of a future ideal of fitness. I could relate with being hesitant.
But the promise of health, the promise of fitness, is in the physical activity not the mental anguish of the exercise.
There are so many ways of keeping active. Swimming, bouldering, tennis, soccer, ice skating, parkour and many delights are on the menu. Given the vast array of options here, what is the likelihood that every single one of them is dull?
Going to the gym was simply a way of solving a problem. It wasn’t the only way. It also caused another problem, that is; boredom. But does that mean it’s the only way?
Once again: It is not the suffering itself that leads to the positive outcome.
Therefore, there is bound to be a way of achieving it without suffering. It’s simply a matter of finding a solution. Of course, if we don’t even try to look for an answer, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We remain stuck in belief and behaviour patterns that cause us pointless suffering for even years of our life, simply because they didn’t know otherwise.
The friend agreed with me quickly.
The wonderful Lulie Tanett (who inspired the original letter) describes self-discipline as a patch. A temporary fix in lieu of a solution. When we cannot see an answer to the problem, we fall back on the compromise of discipline. I want to stress it isn’t that the world is ordered in such a way that the trade-off is necessary, the problem is that we can’t see another way. That is; the problem is with our ability to perceive them.
We should never use discipline, in a way that demands we go on forever. Rather, it is only a placeholder until we find a better solution.
I am reminded of Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End.
I adored this film as a teenager.
In the final scene, the pirates of the world who have formed an alliance have been cornered. The Royal Navy is based outside their hideout ready to destroy them as soon as they emerge. They can either hang low in their fortress and live off their food supply or confront the enemy at the gates.
The main character Jack Sparrow said something that hasn’t faded from my memory to this day.
“We must fight... to run away!”
Much of the discipline we engage in is contrived and unnecessary. It is conceivable to me that all of it is.
But if we engage in discipline, in self-restraint, in the enslavement of our present self to that of our future, this is how we do it. We should use discipline to remove the circumstances that demand it in the first place. To pull ourselves out of the condition that causes us to believe we must weather hardship. We must fight to run away!
A world where we are all having fun, where we aren’t madly chasing a future we believe we need to get to, where we can see life as it is in the moment and enjoy it as we pursue that which interests us most — is the world worth striving for.
And I believe nothing about this process demands that we all suffer on the way.
How did you find this week’s letter? I was stuck going back and forth between topics to write and settled on one, only to not have enough time. This evening I attended a short talk by the Neuroscientist Anil Seth on how consciousness works. He talks about the brain as a prediction machine, and our how our perceptions arise from the continual collision between these predictions (our models of the world, our expectations) and information from the senses. I think I will mull all of this over and write a letter on it in the next week or two. Look forward to it.
Thank you for reading yet another letter!
Take care everyone,