The fear of ideas and the playful creativity of curiosity

I saw this article in the current Economist, and I liked it so much that I wanted to share part of it. It was written by an African author called Chigozie Obioma.

I BECAME CURIOUS at a young age, radically so as I grew older. In keeping with Albert Einstein’s dictum that “the important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing,” I exposed myself to every possible idea.

I have studied religious texts from the Bible to the Koran to the Book of Mormon to the tenets of Odinani, the pantheistic religion of Nigeria’s Igbo people. I have read political philosophies from Winston Churchill’s “The River War” to Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”. I have read books considered to be standard-bearers of leftist thinking and those seen as right-wing intellectual staples.

Sometimes I find myself holding several conflicting, incommensurable beliefs, but most often I arrive at a centre—a rich ground that enables me to fully appreciate the complexity of the human condition, to understand the substance of different ideas and why others might hold them. I am forever open to the possibility of changing my mind.

That is why I got such a shock in my first few weeks in America. At an event at the University of Michigan an African-American speaker was hectored and shouted down by a mob. I could not understand; why wouldn’t the audience hear him out? The response I received—that the speaker’s view was “problematic”—would reverberate through the next few months and years. Speakers across various platforms in America were drowned out, attacked and silenced

These conflicting actions and reactions, I think, are a result of a societal malaise that has been developing in the past decade or so: radical incuriosity. It is, in essence, the fear of ideas.

Obioma then goes on to describe the importance of what he calls ‘provisional thinking’: a capacious open-mindedness, encompassing both the moral and the political, in which one’s assumptions can constantly shift, unattached to ideology or dogma. And arrives at a natural resting place for him, namely agnosticism.

This is logical and I warmed so much to what he wrote. But I wonder if agnocisim itself is also a little flimsy as a resting-place for your soul. I may be wrong. But if you are open to everything, on what do you base any judgements you make? What values can you hold that are not themselves potentially valueless? I struggle to understand how being agnostic about everything (if that is what is being argued) can enable you to form judgements about anything? Presumably, better minds than mine, not hard to find, have views on this.

But that is why I like the position of Christ as truth, as he claimed to be. Perhaps with him (and what he said) as the foundation, we are able better to judge the value and utility of multiple different political and moral viewpoints? At least we have somewhere to start.

And that starting point, Christ himself, was and is iconoclastic, turning some truths upside down, reshaping others, fulfilling others, just like Truth would if ever, like some icebreaker, it started ploughing through the frigid accumulation of our reasonings. Hmmm..

Created by Dall-E-3

Dopamine – our dangerous friend

Just read a fascinating book called ‘Dopamine Nation’ by Dr Anna Lembke: ‘Why our addiction to pleasure is causing us pain’. It’s not clear what faith Dr Lembke has, if any, but I was struck by how Christiany, how committed to patient revolution, were some of her remedies. (Some other reviewers really hate the book for this.)

First, the problem. Dopamine, a happy hormone, is what we give ourselves when we reward ourselves, and evolved to keep us doing good things that make us healthy.

The problem is that our society is awash with unhealthy ways of giving ourselves a squirt of dopamine– rewarding us for unhealthy behaviours. So, for example, sugary and fat-laden foods; swiping on your phone; recreational drugs; shopping; opening a bottle; a long list of things we compulsively do but which aren’t that good for us.

Worse, our body adjusts to its squirts of dopamine. We come to need more reward to get the same feeling. We feel scratchy and irritated if we’re not doing whatever gives us our dopamine rush, and so we go back to it to get some more. So we spiral into addiction. Among the most compelling parts of the book are stories of her own addiction (she mentions an obsession with vampire romances) that are sobering because they show any of us can go there — if not with vampire romances, with something else.

The people who make it to Dr Lembke’s office are seriously addicted to lots of things. But her solutions are fascinating. They include:

  1. Making it difficult to do the thing you’ve been doing. She got rid of her Kindle, by which she’d been loading up on free books with no-one watching. A person troubled with sex-addiction had to root out all the triggers from his life, some of which were not triggers for other people. This is strikingly like the Bible’s command to ‘flee’ sexual immorality; get out of there.
  2. Quit, and endure the deep unpleasantness that comes from quitting. It will pass.
  3. Develop a habit of radical honesty. Again, this echoes scripture, ‘confess your sins to one another’.

What do you get back out of this? A happy life, untroubled by shame or secrets, not plagued with anxiety, back among the humans.

Plenty of people have issues with this book, but as someone starting from no-where, I enjoyed it.

Simple

Am in the midst of a book that my son bought me, lamenting ultra-processed food (UPF). Not news for many, I suppose, but an intriguing read for me. UPF is food that contains ingredients that you wouldn’t find in an ordinary kitchen. It’s put in to make products cheaper, longer lasting, easier; food designed for the poor.

I’m not sure I quite buy the idea that Big Food is evil like Big Tobacco (but I might be wrong). While Big Food makes a profit for shareholders, a lot of the shareholders who are thus enriched are poor people with pension funds, not the uber wealthy. And I think the scientists behind UPF were doing their best to make interesting and enjoyable food available to the masses. I’m sure I could, given a few changes of path, have become a food technologist myself with altruistic aims, spending my life on a good thing, not needing to channel my inner Cruella d’Eville.

But there are problems. Because UPF isn’t food, though it may have been once, it isn’t (so the argument goes) suited for human consumption. Obesity and many diseases follow in its train, and it targets the poor and nestles among those who struggle to make ends meet. (Or as Terry Pratchett described a maker of dodgy sausages, struggling ‘to make ends meat’.)

There are problems with this kind of book. How many books have been published over the years promising to be the definitive answer to the problems of good diet? Many. How many were backed by research? Many. How many have fallen out fashion? All of them. What will people think of this theory in 10 or 20 years? We shall see.

And yet the book’s appeal to make and cook food out of simple ingredients that belong in a kitchen, rather than engineered substances that are developed in a factory or delivered by a tanker, is appealing. Today I made a tomato soup for my grandchildren from just four ingredients (tinned tomatoes, an onion, chicken stock, and a wedge of butter. I deployed a slow cooker and a blender.) I make my own granola from honey, a neutral oil like sunflower oil, and oats, adding nuts, seeds and dried fruit and no funny stuff. I make my own bread on the same principles.

Better and deeper: I want to be simple before God. I love the description of bread back in the Old Testament, the bread for offerings: finest flour and the oil of squeezed olives: simple, simple. Pure, actually, because simple. That’s how I want to be before God, finest flour and oil mixed into a cake, not a packaged, complex, looks-good-but-isn’t convenience food.

Mental health and slow healing

Am enjoying a book called Dopamine Nation by Dr Anna Lembke. I also happened to come across a newspaper piece by author Rose Cartwright about mental health having predominantly environmental, rather than chemical causes. It’s fascinating. Since I suffer incurably from the journalists’ affliction of blogging about anything I’ve just discovered, without passing through the efforts required for actual expertise, here are a few things I’m learning:

  1. You can get excused from quite a lot of things these days by saying ‘it’s not good for my mental health’ (this is my wife’s insight). This is an upgrade on the excuse of Bartleby the scrivener, invented by Herman Melville, who avoided unpleasant tasks at work simply by saying ‘I’d rather not’. (I use Bartleby’s excuse a lot at church.)
  2. Sadly, perhaps the best way to raise the alarm about your difficulties in life is to use the language of mental health. If you do, at least someone will eventually come along to help.
  3. Mental ill-health itself, like white light passed through a prism, has a colourful spectrum of differing causes and cures. We need to think prismatically (as Rose Cartwright points out) rather than simplistically.
  4. The common practice of ascribing mental ill-health to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and then prescribing a drug to fix it, is rather less-well attested in the scientific literature (I think) whereas other causes, like poverty, trauma and deprivation have a rather stronger correlation. Rose Cartwright again: Evidence that exposure to environmental stress is the leading determinant of common mental health problems like anxiety, depression and OCD, seemed to be overwhelming, whereas evidence that organic brain dysfunction or genetics are the leading causes of such conditions seemed to be comparatively scant.
  5. Addressing one colour in the spectrum (the drug route) is arguably not going to entirely fix things in most cases.
  6. Academics generally know this. But academics don’t have ten-minute appointments with patients for which they are equipped only with a desperately scant toolbox.
  7. So doctors are left managing the problem and the result is a feedback loop involving doctors, drug companies, and mildly-sedated patients, few of whom are going anywhere except round and round again.
  8. I am reminded of a blog I wrote about the magazine Private Eye’s tame(ish) medic, Dr Phil Hammond. He wrote: Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiosity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep— collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug.
  9. Here’s a dream. Imagine a government that set up a proper study about the causes and cures of mental illness. Imagine it learnt that the issues to tackle are poverty, inequality, childhood trauma, struggling parents, discrimination, bad living conditions, food that isn’t food, the closing of recreational spaces and youth clubs, and (perhaps) the unlicencedness of smartphones, which (perhaps perhaps) are as dangerous and unregulated as cars in the 1920s. Imagine this enlightened government realized that investment and attention in those areas would reverse the tidal rise of ‘mental health problems’.
  10. Then imagine if they didn’t. Then further imagine what we non-career-politicians could do instead to make our corner of the world more congenial to the wellbeing of many: slow mission; patient revolution. No need to wait for politicians or blame them. Imagine.

Freedom’s laughter

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Just went to a fascinating seminar with my wife on ‘teacher retention and recruitment’, part of this year’s Cambridge Festival.

No, fascinating it really was. There were perhaps a number of messages but one struck home. Those with long memories have seen every trend in education come, go, and come again.

We are apparently–hopefully– at ‘peak prescription’. That is, teachers are being told (prescribed) how to teach. Teachers who mentor early career teachers are (it is feared) being told how to mentor them, the right framework, the right steps.

Never mind that children are complex, teachers are complex, solutions are complex and based on a teacher’s own style and personality. The teaching force is being trained like an army, and delivering a lesson is taught like cleaning and assembling a rifle, this way, or the wrong way.

The panel of speakers were lamenting that joy and laughter was disappearing – the joy and laughter that had kept some of them in the classroom for 30 years. It’s a bad sign when the laughter dies away.

Next to me, I could sense my normally-calm wife stirring in agreement. (As P G Wodehouse might have said of Jeeves, the eyebrow was raised a full quarter-inch).

There were other complaints. Pay has diverged from graduate equivalents in the past handful of years – – ten years ago, that wasn’t a problem. Workload has eased but still teachers aren’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, take on board the current research, deepen their practice. Management needs improvement. An HR department might help.

But how many times do we have to go round this? Central control looks like a short-cut to widespread efficiency, but it stifles the creativity that makes teachers excel. Education is not the same as training. The very thing you want to unleash (flourishing in staff and students) is flattened and numbed by standardization and mechanization. The shortcut, the quick way, runs into the sand.

Then look at other pieces of our austerity-savaged public services. Junior doctors? Defence lawyers? Pay, conditions, space, respect. Saving money has cost us so much.

person wearing blue and black blazer holding bag
Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

The slow-step of freedom

If you like to control things, you do not do well with freedom. You don’t have to look far to see this. You may see it in your workplace or even your home. We certainly see it in nations.

In some countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Eritrea, North Korea for example but even in these days, the New York City subway apparently), people call in the army to do non-military stuff. The army is efficient, or cheap, or a machine capable of being ordered around, people believe. And they like it for that reason.

In Egypt and Pakistan, generals, proper generals who have been exposed to army for a lifetime, and should know better, believe the army is efficient, so they give it jobs like building airports or retailing soap-powder. It is perhaps no surprise that these same generals also have the IMF Bailout Department on speed-dial.

I am a fan of freedom, but I am also my culture’s child. I like living in a country where you can say most things without a van turning up at your doorstep filled with people who mean you harm. I like the way people can start businesses without having to look over their shoulders in case the state (or the Party) seeks control or the army has already cornered that part of the market.

But is there an argument for freedom as a good thing in itself, a way to make a society prosper, despite freedom’s raucous and rowdy ways, so disturbing to the serenity of the autocrat’s pillow?

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), whom I heard about because of Lesslie Newbigin, was a Hungarian polymath. After earning cojones as a scientist (two of his students and one of his sons won Nobel Prizes), he changed roles at the University of Manchester from Professor of Physical Chemistry to Professor of Social Studies. He was a Catholic Christian. And he started writing about freedom and knowledge.

One of the ways to get wonderful things to emerge, he wrote, though I paraphrase, is to:

  1. set some boundary conditions
  2. let free agents do their stuff, freely, within the boundaries set.

It is (I think) classic liberal economics. It is also (as Polanyi taught), the driver of great science:

S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization.

Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.

Any attempt to organize the group … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation

Michael Polanyi quoted, yes, in Wikipedia, which sort of proves the point.

I like this, a lot, because it is a rationale for freedom, not just in economics or science, and a rationale that goes beyond the idea that freedom is generally a nice thing to have. It is, given good guardrails, the way to get human societies to thrive and flourish further and wider than any single individual is capable of imagining or delivering. Being a herd, rather than being led by a demogogue, is our superpower.

Freedom looks inefficient, and slow, and awkward, and a roundabout way of getting things done– particularly if you like the idea of being in control. But it is not nearly so inefficient as the army.

Craftsmanship

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Those of us who read the Bible in a year are probably deep into the Pentateuch by now, or just emerging from it. I’m not currently on a Bible-in-a-year scheme but I do now and again listen to our the audio one-year Bible that we downloaded from Audible, one of the better bargains on the site.

The passage I listened to recently was about the Israelites constructing the tabernacle in the desert. What struck me was the project scope and the ambition:

  1. The cost, all that gold, acacia wood and other precious metals and materials.
  2. The artistry, those carved cherubim above the Ark
  3. The craftsmanship: tongs, shovels, forks, basins, altars, tent-poles, curtains.

It was a national investment, costly in materials and time, built beautiful, and built to last. And it was the best they were capable of.

Every profession and trade that I can think of can be subject to loving, careful craftsmanship. Every profession and trade contains people whom other people in the same trade respect as excellent at their job.

This excellence is an option for all of us, I think. Even constrained by budgets and deadlines we can lavish craftsmanship into whatever it is we do. Even the traditional cry of newspaper journalism– I don’t want it good, I want it by 4:30— didn’t prevent journos from journalistic excellence.

Some things do get in the way of craftsmanship: bad management, for instance; repeated changes in project scope; a certain disrespect for the final customer; perhaps relentless cost-cutting; perhaps the sheer impossibility of doing a job to be proud of within the time and costs available; perhaps the pointlessness of the thing attempted. All of these things make for a mush of shoddy, of half-baked, of poorly constructed and badly finished products that we find ourselves swimming through every day.

Then we come across things that sit comfortably in the hand, that do their job perfectly, that take our breath away with their elegance, things done with great skill, and we think… beautiful.

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God … The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it (Revelation 21:10, 26 NIVUK).

Alexei Navalny’s slow work

I was so shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Alexei Navalny. I thought, Mandela-like, he was going to survive prison and see the regime he opposed collapse around him. Not to be. But how brave, how slow, how peace-loving it was to return to Russia when he didn’t need to, and take his stand with determination and wit, retaining a sense of fun even if all around him was grim. This is the powerless frightening the life out of the powerful; President Putin could not evidently bring himself to utter his name.

It was quite something to discover that this Russia hero had a Christian faith. I’m grateful to blogger Diane Butler-Bass for this slightly redacted version of his testimony. (You can find more of her here, and I enjoy her weekly writing)

In prison, apparently, he used to pretend he was on a spaceflight–hence the discomfort–towards a new Russia, one that was Europe-like in its democracy and rule of law, but Russia-like in its history and greatness. He didn’t see it yet. Instead the call from his Lord was: ‘This day you will be with me in paradise’.

The fact is that I am a believer, which, in general, rather serves as an example of constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly people are atheists, I myself was quite militant.

But now I am a believer, and this helps me a lot in my work, because everything becomes much, much simpler. I think less, there are fewer dilemmas in my life — because there is a book (editorial note: the Bible) in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what needs to be done in each situation. It’s not always easy, of course, to follow this book, but in general I try.

And therefore, as I already said, it is easier for me, probably than many others, to get involved in politics.

A person recently wrote to me: “Navalny, what is everyone writing to you: ‘Hold on, don’t give up, be patient, grit your teeth? Why do you have to endure it?’ I think you said in an interview that you believe in God. And it is said: ‘Blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’ Well, that’s great for you, then!”

And I thought — wow, this person understands me so well!

It’s not that I’m great, but I’ve always perceived this specific commandment as more or less an instruction for action. And so, of course, not really enjoying the place where I am, nevertheless, I do not have any regrets about coming back, about what I do. Because I did everything right. On the contrary, I feel such satisfaction or something. Because at some difficult moment I did as expected according to the instructions, and did not betray the commandment…

For a modern person this whole commandment — “blessed, thirsty, hungering for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” — sounds very pompous. People who say things like that are supposed to be, quite frankly, crazy. Crazy strange people are sitting there with disheveled hair in their cell and, therefore, trying to cheer themselves up with something. Although, of course, they are lonely, they are loners, no one needs them. And this is the most important thing. Our power, the system is trying to tell such people: “You are lonely, you are a loner.”

It is important to intimidate first, and then show that you are alone. Well, because what normal, adequate people adhere to some kind of commandment. The thing about loneliness is very important. It is very important as a goal of power. Excellent, by the way, one of the wonderful philosophers named Luna Lovegood said about this. Remember this was in Harry Potter? And talking to Harry Potter during some difficult times, she told him: “It’s important not to feel lonely, because, of course, if I were Voldemort, I would really like you to feel lonely.” Of course, of course, our Voldemort in the palace wants this too….

I don’t feel alone at all. And I’ll explain why. Because this construction — “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” — it seems somehow exotic, strange, but in fact this is the main political idea that now exists in Russia…

This is very important, despite the fact that our country now, of course, is built on injustice, and we are constantly faced with injustice. We see the worst kind of injustice — armed injustice. Nevertheless, we see that at the same time millions of people, tens of millions of people, want the truth. They want to achieve the truth, and sooner or later they will achieve it. They will be satisfied.

This is the truth, and you can’t argue against it. And sooner or later these people who want the truth will achieve their goal, they will be satisfied.

And the important thing that I want to tell you, and in your person, you, the prosecutor, in general, all the authorities and all the people, is that it is important not to be afraid of these people. And do not be afraid of those who seek the truth.

Alexei Navalny

Compounding

Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

My grandad was disabled because, as an 18-year-old, a month or two before the Armistice in the first war, he was gassed. He ended up losing a lung. All his life he had a mighty cough, and he never slept lying down. I knew him and look like him and apparently act like him.

Possibly he would have praised the power of compounding that meant his life was easier than his father’s. My great-grandad was bedridden with gangrene, cared for by his wife, in a small house with few luxuries beyond a piano. (There were not enough chairs, for example, so my grandad ate his meals standing up as a child.)

The compounding wealth and compounding technology had meant my grandad had a job and a comfortable home, all supplied by the council, and electricity and water and TV and a pension and holidays. The boy who’d run down the street when someone said, ‘Look, a car!’, grew to be the old man who watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, and he was amazed and grateful for it all.

My memory of him is seated in his chair, by the coal fire, books by his feet, reading, reading (though not when we grandchildren were around when his sense of fun gave full rein). He was a keen socialist, and a Methodist preacher, and he belonged to that era when town councils and public funds supplied things for the common good–like libraries and education–and socialism and the welfare state sort-of worked.

Two generations on and what has compounding achieving? Economic compounding means welfare benefits are more generous and people’s means are on average greater. Technological compounding means I have computers and the internet, an electric bike and electric buggy, a pacemaker in my chest that supplies the heartbeats I need. Today we test drove a new car and I’ve recently joined a gym, whose machines adjust themselves to me, work out a fitness scheme, and lead me into it. None of this is merited. I have just floated on the rising tide of compounding: other people making little steps to make things good or better, to do things well, repeated and repeated and repeated.

Surely this points to the power of quiet revolution, of patient progress, of slow purposefulness. This tide is rising all over the world, subverted constantly by evil, but rising, rising.

The lube

Without it, the world grinds and splinters and crunches.

Photo by jonathan ocampo on Unsplash

Here’s a thing. I was reading one feminist criticising another and she accused her of being ‘joyless.’

It is a missing piece.

You can be campaigning for social justice, but if you’re joyless you’re a bit brutal.

You can be a brave single mum, but if you’re joyless, you’re just tired and hard.

You can be someone carrying heavy responsibilities and onerous duties but if you have not joy you’re just stressy and self-pitying.

You can be working hard for very needy people, but joyless, you’re not too attractive a person to be with.

Joy lightens loads and eases tensions. It makes smooth work of heavy work. Joy respects the opponent. Joy understands we’re all broken, all needy, all in pieces, only anything at all because we’ve been scooped up and smiled on and loved. Joy looks into the grimmness but isn’t itself begrimed. Joy peers into the depths of darkness but finds a spark.

Joy is the lube.