My friend and occasional co-author Matt Wedel is finding it hard to make time to write paleontology papers, in among all the administrative responsibilities that have accumulated as he’s become more senior at his university. He observed: “I need to recultivate the ability to Just Say No when it’s time to do paleo.”
This is an example of an important and pervasive problem: whatever is most important to us becomes — for that very reason — a kind of background-radiation thing that we do whenever we’re not doing something more urgent. But what that often means in practice that everything else is more urgent, and we paradoxically neglect the thing that is most important.
I am convinced this is a big part of why marriages fail.
From The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, written as a weekly newspaper column in 1941 and published in book form in 1942:
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.
Lewis puts these words in the mouth of his character Screwtape, a senior devil instructing his nephew on how to undermine a human’s progress as a Christian and as a person. They are intended to be too ludicrous to be taken seriously as anything but a satire of the most destructive and appalling philosophies on the market.
Yet somehow this has become completely conventional mainstream political theory in the UK, and now governs everything from how our universities and funded to the progressing privatisation of the NHS.
A lot of my key memories of my childhood aren’t really mine. They are of incidents that I don’t have my own memory of, but which I talked about and laughed about with my parents so many times that they have become canon. I suspect this is pretty common: most of the memories that most people have of their early childhood are not authentic.
But some are. And the reason I know this is because there are little incidents that I never told anyone else about — so there has never been this reinforcement that you get from do-you-remember-when and what-about-the-time-when. A trivial example: I remember stopping in a cafe with my mum when we were shopping, smelling real coffee for the first time, and being mesmerised by the tanks of juice with their paddles constantly churning. I would have been very young: maybe two, perhaps three years old.
To my complete astonishment, I am 49 years old today. If someone suddenly leaped out in front of me on the street and shouted “Quick! How old are you?” and I had no time to think, I’d probably say something like 27. It’s sobering to realise that’s not much more than half of my real age. Where did it all go?
Due to a miscommunication, Fiona bought me (among other things) 48 walnut whips — a box of 16 boxes, containing three each. This renders all the more relevant the card that Jonno (our youngest, at the bottom of the photo) gave me. As you can see in the picture, he modified the “DAD” on the front of it to read “FAT”. I certainly will be.
As an offshoot from my tweeting about a session at the AAAS meeting, I found myself challenged: “what are some practical things you did with your sons when they were young to nurture critical thinking?”
Given that I wrote some brief answers in response, I thought I might as well write them up here. This is by no means exhaustive, just a few thoughts and memories.
A few days ago, THINK! — a confusingly named education group at the UK Government’s Department for Transport — published this 46-second-long video aimed at cyclists:
Its message is — to quote the caption at the end — “Don’t get caught between a lorry and a left turn”.
Way back in 2011, a commenter on this blog asked “Where is this soul? If it can’t be measured, it is not real.”
Our lives are made up of a hundred things that are real but not measurable even in principle. The quality of sunlight that transforms your mood after a week of overcast days; the poignancy of Still Crazy After All These Years; the heart-swelling sense of honour and decency when Santos offers Vinick the post of Secretary of State; the piercing half-real clarity of Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte; love.