Lucian has a famous dialog called Icaromenippus where the narrator rips the wings off an eagle and a vulture and uses them to fly to the heavens. From the moon, he sees the world as comical, puny and ridiculous. He can hear philosophers inside their homes, doing what they thought no one could see, caring about the things they pontificate about disdaining. His conclusion is that life is a strange, confusing kaleidoscope of tiny dimensions. That people are like ants, fighting over bits of food and pieces of dirt.
While doing some research for a project Robert is working on, I came across a Google News timeline for stories on the topic of fear and the economy. I noticed something strange: every economic crises shows a big spike in stories like “the economics of fear” “fearful investors” “family on the brink.” The same stories for different disasters.
Particularly you see these spikes in 1990, in 2000, 2001 and in 2008 with the meltdown of the financial sector. Like nobody remembered writing the same exact piece ten years ago and bothered to check how it all worked out. You also see a rise in stories about the psychology of fear – how some study has shined new light on the brain’s response to loss and fear and uncertainty. As though the findings are the breakthrough explanation for why people are are feeling the way they are. But we know that since the latency period of an experiment is sometimes two or three years before publication, the only thing that mattered was the coincidental timing of the results.
A more basic example: Every year Southern California is wrecked by fires. Though they are never in Los Angeles and always end more or less with the same result, the news reports on them breathlessly like this is the one. My parents will call – “How about all these fires? Are they close by?” – as though we didn’t have this exact conversation the year before. Then a few weeks later, when the winds die down, it may as well have never even happened.
We just seem to accept this as the way things should be. We never ask: Who cares? Don’t you remember having this conversation last year? Don’t you remember how the fire ended last time? How you spent the next 11 months living peacefully in the city you were half-convinced was burning to the ground? Is it still as riveting when you realize even scientific studies are pandering to the spirit of the day? Or wonder how many equally valid ones passed you by because they didn’t happen to align with any subconscious feelings of current culture? These aren’t rhetorical questions, they deserve answers.
A fire burning a few hours away from your home, an economic crises, scientific discoveries. Without context, these are critical matters. In cycle or from afar, they are regular, meaningless bullshit events. They come, they go, we survive. The only thing that’s optional is the obnoxious chatter and speculation.
It’s not so fun when you think about it that way. In fact, to me, it mostly seems embarrassing whenever I get caught up in it. What Lucian eventually concluded that if we could get it straight from beginning; if we remembered that we’re going to die; that after a brief stay on earth we leave it like a dream and never return; we could live with more wisdom and fewer regrets. And we’d waste less time going around and around in this stupid cycle.
I don’t know if I’m misinterpreting what you’re saying, but “Don’t you remember how the fire ended last time?”
Why would you assume that it’s always going to be the same? I don’t really feel like anyone can ever say for sure that each event in these “cycles” are going to end the same way. I mean chances are, they will, but there’s always that uncertainty, right?
By the way – I really like your blog. Grabbed some of the books on your reading list online, looking forward to going through them. Always looking for new books to read, so thanks for the list!
“It’s not so fun when you think about it that way. In fact, to me, it mostly seems embarrassing whenever I get caught up in it. What Lucian eventually concluded that if we could get it straight from beginning; if we remembered that we’re going to die; that after a brief stay on earth we leave it like a dream and never return; we could live with more wisdom and fewer regrets. And we’d waste less time going around and around in this stupid cycle.”
I. Fucking. Agree.
So little people actually realise they are going to die. They look at their old age like it’s going to be a cutesy fucking game for two weeks sandwiched between infinities of youth:
“Do you think I’ll do grandma farts? I would be the cutest little grandma!!”
They don’t realise that the uncaught rapists from the 40s are in our retirement homes, along with the models and business hotshots. That the era of “Mad Men” passed quickly just like ours will. That everything they ever do will go in a flash, and all the bullshit they care about now will be important to them for about ten years, to be superseded by other bullshit for fourty, and then nothing. Not black, where you can think about black, but nothing. If we all genuinely realised that, all the stuff you’re talking about would just melt away. Good post.
“Bird flu was sooo five years ago”
“Don’t you remember how the fire ended last time?” What do cycles tell me about the future? I have never seen a fire from my house. This year I could see it. “They come, they go, we survive.” Survivor bias!
I agree with you (for the most part). However, I lived in New Orleans until Katrina. I grew up with the ‘one day New Orleans will get it’ scenario. Then it happened.
Counterpoint: 1) It shouldn’t have happened, if the people would have evacuated as requested (I evacuated) and if the levees were built up to good standards. 2) Katrina, believe it or not, wasn’t worst case, it was indirect hit.
So, I’m torn on this. Are you saying ‘probably won’t happen’,’no chance in hell it’ll happen’, or ‘don’t worry about it until it’s actually happening’?
I’m young but I feel I have a right to chime in on this solely due to luck. In other words, during my drug abusing and nearly psychotic youth, I walked away from a lot of situations in which I should’ve died or at the very least, spent a lot of my life in prison. I’m trying to avoid sounding like Billy Badass like some internet e-badass, but I see things differently than most (or at least most of my peers).
Paradoxically, fear is a survival mechanism and an impediment to enjoying life. Nowadays, I’m happy in almost any situation, but I’ll take calculated risks that make a lot of my friends shake their heads. Why? I realize how fragile life is, and I realize what my priorities are.
My personal theory is that religion is such a touchy topic is that it’s an anchor in a very turbulent world. It’s comforting to think that even death won’t be the end. As an atheist, I believe it is, so I try to spend every second wisely.
What’s the point of my ramble? Not sure. But fuck fear. It rarely helps. A strong grasp on reality and on your short time in it helps.
What you guys are talking about – not being prepared for unexepected events – is something totally different. I’m just saying we tend to think what we’re going through right now is unique and important when historically, it’s cliche and overblown.
Not being in LA or California, you probably wouldn’t understand the fire analogy but it is some of the most ridiculous trumped up disaster porn there is.
The comments section of your site does seem to get used as a sounding board often. “Hm…I skimmed Ryan’s post and I know *exactly* what he means, except better. Here’s my take.” Guilty as charged.
The same thing happens with certain ideas that happen to be en vogue every generation or so. We as a society just don’t realize it, because the opinion of those people who are knowledgeable enough to know that it occured before tend not to get society’s attention and therefore we believe that such and such situation is unique to our generation. I think we overestimate the uniqueness of a lot of problems societies currently face.
There was a short op-ed in the Boston Globe about fads like “21st century skill-sets” which according to some pedagogues absolutely should be taught in schools right now, which just happen to have been proposed in a very similar form all over the 20th century before.