Per Aspera Ad Astra

Observation

As is customary around this time, let’s review the year we left behind.

While we were watching the ball drop in 2019, nobody could have imagined the storm that the coming year would bring. If anyone had predicted even half of the stuff that we have gone through, we would have wet our pants… laughing!

“I’ve seen the future and 2020 will be horrible! A plague will change the world completely, people will have to isolate at home and the streets will be empty. All sporting and cultural events will be cancelled. All companies, stores and even schools will close. Countries will shut their borders and while thousands of people die, most leaders will deny reality and science and will even encourage gatherings ignoring the experts. We won’t be able to approach our loved ones, we’ll have to wear masks and wait in line to buy toilet paper…”

“Suuure… and Mariah Carey will finally be #1 for Xmas…”

But even though on paper 2020 has been crushing, most people I have talked to about this say the same thing; they would have never chosen it voluntarily, but then have taken many good things from this year and their overall balance is positive.

Let’s be clear here, I don’t want to seem callous; evidently each person/society has suffered the impact differently and for those who have lost a loved one or their livelihood to the virus, the pandemic will have been the worst thing that ever happened to them.

But I suspect that my reduced sample corresponds to the general opinion. How can this be? It seems completely unintuitive to appreciate going through such a tough and traumatic experience.

The explanation is that this year has re-taught the important and hard lesson that Nietzsche expressed so well: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Lesson

Putting in the hours to study in school, university or masters, sweating in the gym or training, dedicating more time, money and willpower to healthy eating, investing whatever is necessary to maintain a relationship or facing the trauma of ending it, the innumerable sacrifices required to run a business, going through the frustration and embarrassment of learning a new language, sport or instrument, overcoming the uncertainty of changing jobs, cities or countries, etc…

We have all been through these situations and many worse ones. This is a lesson we should have already internalised because it is a key component of the human experience. Throughout history, each society had some kind of rite of passage, often extremely demanding, to mark the moment when a person ceased to be a child to become an adult. And there have always been movements that have been deeply aware of this lesson ( stoicism, Asceticism) and have even adopted them as a way of life ( Spartans, Marathon monks).

Problem

The problem is that, although we are antifragile creatures[1], i.e. changes strengthen us, we also have a deeply-seated self-preservation instinct that makes us avoid danger. That is why it is so important to internalise this lesson, because otherwise we will follow our natural tendency and will remain forever in our small, comfortable and familiar pond.

Some countries still have mandatory conscription and one of the main arguments to support it is that it contributes to maintain a society of more responsible individuals.

Source: Wikipedia

However, most of the western world has gradually abandoned such traditions. This important lesson has become an individual experience that each person must overcome by himself, however and whenever it arises in their life. Personally, I believe that we have gone too far in this sense. Following our best intentions to protect our children, we have gone to the opposite extreme and have deprived them of ways to gain self-confidence.

I have no doubt that this is the reason why nowadays we are witnessing a massive explosion of experiences which normally one would never submit to undergo voluntarily, such as Escape Rooms, and especially events that challenge our limits. It started with popular marathons and then extended to triathlon and similar disciplines such as the extreme version the Iron Man, and now we have an absolute boom of obstacle racing, like Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and a thousand others [2].

¿Why do so many people put themselves through an ordeal? It’s because our modern world has been created by blindly following our instinct of maximising security, predictability, comfort, etc. so we find increasingly less challenges, problems or even inconveniences.

Just have a look at marketing, e.g. how we try to sell things. Can we imagine an advertising campaign like this?:

  • The new FU plan from Verifone promises 45 minutes of holding time listening to ENTER JOKE to speak with customer care.
  • At Barclloyds Union you can only draw cash at a branch (open Tuesdays, from 10:15 to 10:30). Your money safer than ever!
  • With no air conditioning, power steering, radio or windshield wipers: Fordswagen 1960, go vintage.

Of course not, the arguments used to sell something are based on promising the solution to a problem to make lives easier, simpler and more convenient.

But, even if it’s often at a preconscious level, we all realise that in reality a life without problems is not necessarily better or happier, like Agent Smith explained to Morpheus:

Up to 1:10. Great performance by Hugo Weaving, except that it was too obvious how much he was enjoying himself!

Of course, nobody enjoys paying the tuition fee for this lesson, living through the period of suffering and learning, but we do enjoy the benefits that it gives us to have experienced it, the extension of our limits.

Moreover, this idea doesn’t apply only at the individual level.

Parents (tutors of the next generation)

One of the main duties of parents is to teach their children this counterintuitive but essential lesson. Helping them to learn it by themselves, while they are still little sponges, by not removing all the obstacles in their way and prevent them from living through difficult situations[3].

The problem here is that it is also counterintuitive for us; all our alarms go off when we see them suffering or running towards danger and it’s very difficult to stop ourselves from intervening. But those are precisely the times when we should try to remember our experiences and listen to our rational mind.

Governments (tutors of society)

Going up one level of complexity, governments are the ones that should fulfil that same role with regards to the people, since they should be comprised of the most experienced, knowledgeable and rational people. Regrettably, in most countries the pandemic has made it very obvious that this is the last of their priorities. Instead of forcing people to learn a valuable lesson by enforcing lockdowns, mask-wearing and other unpopular measures to contain the virus in time, they have followed populist instincts and ignored the problem until it was too late.

Conclusion

Going back to our initial idea, we should all try to remember this lesson that the pandemic has reminded us about in 2020 in order to improve our lives in 2021. We would do well to bear in mind that hard times are the ones that help us grow and make us stronger. If we don’t want to remain in a status quo forever, we must accept that we will have to go through rough patches. Of course the actual period of suffering itself is harsh, but what we should focus on in that moment is that, while the misery passes, the benefit lasts forever.

And with this we connect to the next article, where we will discuss a practical application of this lesson.

[1] The concept of antifragility was proposed in a book by Nassim Taleb and basically means refers to the fact that there are four possible responses to a stressful situation:

  • Fragility: being harmed by changes. The worst possible scenario.
  • Robustness: resisting changes. Better than fragility.
  • Resilience: adapting to changes. Also better than fragility.
  • Antifragility: being strengthened by changes. The ideal situation.

The main conclusion to be drawn from this mental model is that depriving an antifragile system of stressors is not necessarily beneficial and may even be harmful.

[2] My personal example: in 2018 I took part in one of these events and on the very last obstacle I broke a finger. I can perfectly remember the pain as I let go of the rope, looking at my hand and seeing my pinkie bent the wrong way. It took more than a month to recover and my finger is now crooked and with reduced motion, but even with that, I absolutely loved it and would sign up again in a heartbeat.

[3] One of the most common fears is public speaking. Many people fear speaking in public more than death itself! Which is crazy because, not only does public speaking not entail any real danger, it is also an extremely valuable skill. One thing they do really well in the USA is teaching kids to speak and present in public from a very early age, through “Show and tell.” Those who have kids may want to try this game, which also teaches them to improvise: make several cards with different topics, the kids choose one at random and then have to talk about it for 1 minute. To make it more effective, aim to have as many and unfamiliar people in the audience as possible.

Originally published at http://pandemicponderings.wordpress.com on January 13, 2021.

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