Lifetip 7: Embrace doubt

This post is about doubt, about truth, about facts and our reliance on them.

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

One of my favorite books of all times is Life of Pi, which is basically 400 pages of inner musings of a very contemplative kid.

It is a story about a boy surviving a shipwreck and dealing with his trauma by befriending it. Pi’s inquisitive nature and innocent mind investigate religion in a such an open-minded way, that it opened my mind towards the spiritual realm more than any cleric ever could.

During a conversation Pi had with a fervent atheist, he came to the conclusion that this conviction was not for him, but he did respect the thought process behind it. He understood that atheists were thinkers as well, which was something he could appreciate. He concluded that agnostics were the ones furthest away from the truth, as they accepted the idea that anything could be possible, while at the same time doubting everything. He said:

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Even though this is one of my favorite quotes from the book, I will be making a case for doubt as a philosophy.

Uncertainty is the only truth

These are insecure times. Somehow though, this is not reflected by what we see and hear in the media. People with strong opinions debate each other, the one more certain about their point of view than the other.

In the current state of the world, experts are mocked for changing their views on matters such as climate change or the way viruses spread. Yet, it is the ones that claim to know precisely what is going on and what we should do that we should be watching with suspicion.

If you really want to be right, be prepared to admit some things are simply not known or clear. Doubt and nuance are key, yet these properties are not welcome guests at talk show tables.

Mark Rutte

Our own prime minister admitted that during the peak of the COVID-19-crisis he was making decisions for our country based on whiffs of evidence and in some cases deciding what the course would be only minutes before the press conference. There were no clear facts, only ideas. I definitely don’t envy him for having to govern under such circumstances.

I praise him for admitting that he had no certainty to build on.

Subsequently though, as Dutch citizens, we must accept the idea that the prime minister may have flipped a coin to draw the lock down road map, but we need to follow it nonetheless. His doubts may not be reflected in our actions.

The appeal of misinformation

Sadly, US citizens do not have a leader that gives them a clear path to follow. This is not just tragic for the American people themselves, but also for the rest of the world. Just like it gives a kid confidence to compare notes with the classmate with the best grades before a test, we have become accustomed to look at what the “land of the free” does, to see how our own course compares.

In fact, POTUS #45 does pretty much the exact opposite of what our prime minister does. Whereas the Dutch prime minister says much is uncertain he still tells us what our course of action is going to be. The US president says he reads everything and knows all, yet he gives the American people nothing to go on as far as a consistent plan is concerned. More even he contradicts himself on a daily (hourly basis) and spreads (and invents) misinformation on the go.

Fake news and disinformation create fearful people that crave for a simple answer on which they can build a simple truth. People prefer a solution in a happy meal package; not nutritious per se but cheap and easy to swallow. We must not give in to that.

Actual facts take a while to take form. Ideas that don’t rely on research can be up and ready pretty much immediately. When faced with a new situation, people need a frame of reference. Conspiracies and fabricated information find fertile ground in these moments, as scientific information will not yet be available in such an early stage.

Practice doubt

In order to become a doubter, you must:

  • ask questions
  • empathize with people that think differently
  • be brave enough to change your mind
  • accept that absolute facts are rare (if they exist at all)

Because the more we admit we don’t really know anything for certain the closer we will be getting to the truth. The humility we gain in the process could even turn out to have a positive side effect in other areas as well.

Lifetip 6: Calibrate and compare

This lifetip was originally supposed to be titled ‘Create your own compass’.

When Jesse Frederik discussed this lifetip in a Rudi & Freddie podcast episode, he lamented that fact that people tend to prioritize whatever fact they encounter most often.

He described that, as a consequence, we only seem to talk about what everybody else is talking about. His tip was meant as an encouragement to always ask ourselves what is important to us individually and to talk about that instead.

This all rang so true to me. I could think of dozens of examples of people that followed their heart, going against the stream, and making the world a better place because of it.

Also, Jesse Frederik proclaimed that people should make their own estimates and assessments with the available facts. You can do that by asking yourself, what ‘a lot’ means to you (for example when speaking about money)? What is a ‘big’, what is ‘small’? What is ‘wealth’? What is ‘poverty’?

Is a billion dollars investment in military equipment ‘a lot’? Should the amount going towards education be equal to that or would that be ‘too much’? Is a farmer in Spain rich or well off? Is he still rich when compared to farmers in the Netherlands? Is he rich in comparison to you?

Those type of questions are crucial for people like Jesse Frederik, who make a living from the understanding of politics and economics. It must be so frustrating to realize that people (including politicians and people in positions of power) have lost sight of proportions.

In money terms, it’s like everything above a million is just ‘a lot’, putting millions and billions and trillions all on the same heap of unfathomableness. This lack of understanding that we have of amounts and dimensions, is something I will go into further on another day, in another blogpost.

Whereto does the compass point?

Allow me to bring the focus back to the metaphor of the compass and the suggestion to ‘make your own’.

This lifetip was pretty much ready to be packed and posted, when the pandemic took over our lives. From that moment on, all sorts of people started deciding they knew what was good for themselves and their families in ways that were hard to fathom.

All of a sudden, me telling people to stand up for their own truths and to ‘create their own compass’, suddenly sounded like quite a dangerous notion, or in the very least an incomplete one.

I guess I had never considered the possibility that the idea of having an original opinion and a rebellious mind could backfire this way. That sounds incredibly naive now, doesn’t it?

So I came to the conclusion that suggesting you can make your own compass, implies that it is up to you to decide what North is. That is really not a good idea at this particular time.

We already know where North is, as well as East, West and South. The wind directions are not up for discussion. These are facts, backed by science and carefully crafted compasses (and modern day global positioning systems). The compass is fine. you don’t need a new one.

At the same time, I can not ignore the importance of questioning absolute truths every now and then and to never settle for answers like “That’s just the way it is” or “Because I told you so”.

So I went back to the drawing board.

True North

Something that applies to all compasses is that they are of no use if you don’t know where you are or where you want to go. If you don’t know what the starting point is, then there is really very little point in knowing what North, East, West or South is…

I then renamed the blogpost to “Find your own true North”, which is more of an encouragement to figure out which ideas you want to guide you through life.

I also contemplated if it would be different if the lifetip would be ‘Calibrate your compass’. This wouldn’t require a whole new set of truths (aka a new compass), just a re-allignment of your values with the current one.

It also reminded me of Jack Sparrow’s ‘broken compass’, that doesn’t point towards the classical wind directions, but only towards the thing you desire for most in life.

The idea of having a compass but no idea of ones position or destination paralyzed my whole thought process for a while.

Explorers and cartographers

When I found my courage to continue with this post, I decided to investigate the compass metaphor a bit further. I realized that, as a tool, it is most useful when you also have a map. With a map, you can pinpoint your location (or so I’ve been told) and analyze what you would encounter if you were to go in this direction or that.

Once you’ve decided where it is you want to go, the compass can be useful to set your course.

The map we all have to deal with in our daily lives, is one of those computer-game-type-maps where you only get to see the areas where you’ve already been and only fill in the rest as you proceed.

This means you will inevitably be flying blind for a a bit, until you pass a certain threshold and the new borders of the map become visible. I guess that notion comes closest to the way the first explorers had to navigate.

The point beyond the furthest anyone had ever gone remained blank on maps for many centuries. Dragons were drawn into these unknown territories to discourage people to go any further down that unknown path.

The parallel between that metaphor and life is that we can’t really know anything about situations in the future, nor anything that we haven’t experienced first hand.

I have to suppress the urge to type something sarcastic after the previous sentence, as it is almost insulting to have to say it. As professor Redundant would say: you don’t know what you don’t know.

Compare maps & compasses

Basing your choices in life solely on what you have experienced first hand is not very practical, though.

As an example; if I saw somebody diving into a pond from a high cliff and not die, I would assume I could do the same and survive as well. I wouldn’t need to measure the depth of the pond or the wind or check if the water was of the right density. I also wouldn’t check if there were crocodiles, sharks or anacondas down there ready to gobble me up. I would instantly accept that the reality that applied to the first diver would also apply to me (and that I would have fun in the process).

But what about the person standing on the side of the pond refusing to take the jump, convinced it would not end well? What reality does he base his ideas on? Does he have different facts? What does his compass read and what does his map show? Can both realities be true?

If I were to speak to the bystander, I could encourage him by saying “Come on and jump in with me! Hakuna Matata. It is fun!”. With that, I would be assuming many things.

His answer could be: “I am so clumsy, I would surely trip before making the jump and hurt myself with the fall”. I could comfort him by saying (without lying) that I had very poor motor skills myself and that if I could do it, he would surely be fine as well.

If he were to say “sure, but I can not swim”, that would definitely change things. It would indeed be dangerous for him to jump in, without being able to swim, and very reckless of me to encourage him anyway.

Pushing someone who can not swim to dive into a deep pond, would be homicidal. One could say that, from where I stand (with my compass and my map), it is quite rare to encounter someone who can not swim. It is customary for Dutch children to learn how to swim at an early age. My frame of reference tells me that, being an adult equals being able to swim. The possibility that an adult may not be able to swim, would simply not occur to me.

So… long story short: when speaking to someone with a different idea or opinion, it is very useful to check if your maps and your compasses are based on the same parameters, for you could be having a very long discussion without realizing you are simply not talking about the same thing.

Trust the equipment

This leaves me with the dilemma that I don’t want to encourage people to embrace ideas that are just not true.

After thinking it over, I arrived at the conclusion that people that are embracing ‘true fake news’, are not using a compass at all (and the fact that there we live in an era where we have to differentiate fake fake news (which is true) from true fake news (which is fake) continues to baffle me, but no something to go into further here).

People that are not willing to base their life decisions on facts but prefer to rely on gut feelings, would never look at a compass to decide whether to go left or right. They navigate more like Sandra Bullock did in the movie Birdbox; moving around in fear with a blindfold on, shooting at scary sounds and hoping for the best.

A compass will always just do that one thing, which is show you what direction North is. If someone would say “I don’t want a compass that shows me what North is, I want one that always points towards the closest supermarket”, you can simply conclude that they don’t really want a compass. That is not what compasses do. Period.

That means that the compass metaphor stands and that “Make your own compass” is still sound advice. The definition of that device already encompasses (hehehe) its parameters as well as its scientific origins.

Check your coordinates

Along with the creation (or purchase) of a compass one must also be encouraged to figure out the coordinates of ones current location.

I suppose that means you must become conscious of your position, which you can only do by looking around you and retracing your steps to where you came from.

Which lessons did you learn along the way? Ideally you would also ask yourself which lessons you didn’t learn, but that is a tough one (that goes back to the lesson professor Redundant brought us earlier).

What are your values? By whom were they instilled in you? What are your life goals and how do you wish to reach them?

Let’s say your life goal is “owning a house, a pool and a golden retriever”. Do you want to achieve said goal by working your ass off and slowly climbing the corporate ladder? Do you want to marry a rich gal or guy who will make all your dream come true? Or would you rather rob a bank?

All these options are viable. All of them have their up- and downsides. Your moral compass can help you decide which method fits you best.

The triad of tips

Congratulations, you have reached the bottom of the page and the end of this blogpost. The conclusion is that this lifetip consists of a triad of metaphorical tips:

  • Make and calibrate your own compass to set your course.
  • Determine your coordinates to figure out where you are, where you came from and where you want to go.
  • Check and compare your map and compass to that of the person beside you, especially if you plan to go out on an adventure together.

For now, I will leave any further translation of these metaphors to your own personal lives to you.

Mind Cleanup – May 2020

May 2020 came and went. I worked from home. The weather was sunny.

The first of those two facts is actually the less troubling one, at this point.

This Mediterranean feel is awfully nice if you are looking to get a tan but it is really kind of worrying, considering I live in the Netherlands, which us Dutchies endearingly refer to as our “cold frog country”.

First week of May

The month of May started out with a few events, my brother’s 40th birthday being the most noteworthy.

This year was also the year we celebrated 75 years since the end of WWII. The 4th and 5th of May were supposed to be big commemoration and celebration days, with activities all around the country.

But then, the pandemic happened. It was a very odd way of celebrating liberty, I’ll tell you that! Also, it was quite awkward to see our king perform all sort of ceremonious deeds, with no more than a handful of people present.

Back to Lifetip # 1

The idea that people are generally good and deserve to be trusted has been coming back to me in different shapes and forms this month.

Jason Mraz’ song “Look for the good” is a cute tribute to the optimistic lifestyle that we all could use a bit more of right now.

The guy that inspired me to write my first lifetip, Rutger Bregman, recently published an article about a historical figure called Peter Kropotkin. All though this prince turned anarchist definitely needs the story of his life to be molded into a Netflix series, Bregman mostly got me with the following remark:

Theories about human nature – unlike theories about molecules or black holes – can come true simply because we believe in them. (…) What would happen if we turned this around? What if schools, businesses, and governments assumed that most people are doing their best? What if we rallied round our tendency to trust and cooperate – a tendency with every bit as much of an evolutionary basis, over hundreds of millions of years?

The guardian also released an article about the goodness of mankind. The example of kids marooned on an island is an interesting one!

Music

Somehow the Trolls movies made an entrance into my playlists, without me ever haven seen the movies. There are quite a few really cool, groovy, funky, bouncy songs in there!

The song ‘Don’t slack” was one of my favorite songs of the month. Definitely check out the actual song but this lyrics explanation is a fun way to get acquainted.

Netflix

May was also the month that I cancelled my TV subscription. It’s Netflix all the way, from now on (all though I might subscribe to an additional streaming service at some point)

One day, when I was feeling courageous, I watched Netflix’ tribute to Michelle Obama, ‘Becoming’. And before I knew it, I was sobbing. For no reason. Or actually ten million reasons, but most of all the realization that this woman is so awesome (and don’t tell me that is not a good reason to cry for).

She is such a soul force.

And all though she wasn’t voted out of the white house, thinking of what came after her is just too much to handle. I didn’t expect someone as awesome as her to be the next FLOTUS, but my bloody golly Mrs Trump is so not like Mrs Obama that it hurts.

I also finally finished watching the Good Place and to my own surprise I found the ending utterly satisfying! It was a real ending for once. It was clever and thoughtful. Yupp. Big thumbs up to the scriptwriters there!

Now, will you please excuse me, as I have a rain dance to perform.

Lifetip 5: Climb on the soapbox

This lifetip is based on an idea Rutger Bregman spoke about in one of his podcast episodes, as were the previous four. It is motivated by his conviction that this is a time to be explicit and open about good deeds and ideology. We can go back to humility later. Right now we need to “be good out loud”.

The idea behind this, is that seeing others do good deeds is inspiring and contagious.

Charity & Public goods

There is a whole science behind understanding how and why people decide to do selfless things. Organizations that rely on donations and charity from the public can benefit greatly from these observations when applied to a fundraising campaign.

It has been observed that people’s decision making changes when confronted with different circumstances (such as time pressure or group dynamics). I find all of that super interesting, but it’s not really relevant for the point of this blog post, so I’m going to leave it at that. If you want to know more, this relatively short YouTube vid is a good place to start.

A 2004 Harvard research confirmed the idea behind this lifetip, revealing that seeing others making donations to a a charitable cause makes an individual more likely to do the same. Gentle encouragement from a family member or celebrity can also make a big difference.

Just be nice

An organization in the Netherlands that has put this message to the test is called SIRE. It’s sole mission is to make us better people through commercials and posters since 1967.

In 2019 it launched a campaign revolving around the hashtag “doeslief”. That word is a contraction of “doe eens lief”, which is basically the Dutch way of saying “just be nice”.

The videos and posters from this campaign showed statistics of unkindness, followed by nothing more than #doeslief (#Justbenice).

The image above shows three posters from the SIRE campaign #Doeslief, stating:

  • “146.571 vulgar tweets were sent in 2018 referencing cancer”
  • “Every year 8% of all public transport employees gets spat on”
  • “Cash register employee Myriam will be ignored by 30% of all customers today”

The campaign made many people chuckle at the time, but there’s no denying the phrase “Doeslief” did catch on. People say it to each other when they see a good deed being done or when there is need for one.

A follow up hashtag is now being used on social media, when an every day hero gets a shout out: #daslief. In correct Dutch that would be written as “Dat is lief”, meaning “That is nice”.

Claim the spotlight

So, don’t wait any longer. Claim your place in the spotlight.

Did you save a duckling from being run over? Tweet it!

Did you throw somebody else’s litter in the trashcan? Tell a colleague!

Did you wash your elderly neighbor’s windows? Take a pic and share it!

There is that danger of becoming an annoying and presumptious smartass. Just remind yourself that staying quiet and modest would mean the only ones talking would be the Drumpfs of this world.

So be nice, be generous, be a hero. And be explicit about it. #Daslief