Reflection on Aphorisms #63

Today we hit 100 aphorisms. It’s been a bit of a journey, taking a little over two months with no breaks, but it’s been worth it.

One of the things that I love best about doing this is that it gives me a challenge to engage with the thoughts of some of the greatest people to ever live. It’s been a tremendously enriching experience, and I hope to continue it for as long as I live.

Aphorism 100

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s best statements are intended to provoke a response, and this is no exception.

Of course, at its surface this seems like it would be self-contradictory. In the traditional dichotomy, terror and optimism are at opposite ends (or nearly opposite ends) of the spectrum of outlooks.

However, there’s perhaps a sliver of truth to this.

One of the things that I’ve noticed ever since I became “enlightened” to it (the top experience I had in college, by a decent margin) is the nature and prevalence of self-deception.

I think this was probably because I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and put my soul into reading classic texts, finding like-minded companions along the way. I had a professor who stressed the concept of self-deception in works like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There were other books, including The Sorrows of Young Werther and Things Fall Apart that I experienced in the same class that added some nuance to this.

One of the things about self-deception is that almost all faulty outlooks are based out of it. Optimism is faulty in the sense that it is not capable of accurately perceiving the world, though I think it may also be fair to say that it has tangible benefits.

The motives for self-deception vary, but one of the most potent ones is terror.

There are a few reasons for this.

First, there’s something to be said for the fact that the world is absolutely incomprehensibly fear-inducing.

It’s a giant primordial ball of chaos.

And we’re just standing on it, basically hoping that things work out all-right.

The fact is that somehow, miraculously, they do. However, that is a result of so much sacrifice (both in the present and in the entirety of the past), that it’s a difficult thing to contemplate. We’re adapted for our world, molded to it and molding it to us. All the same it’s contained within a system so incredibly complex that any number of horrible things could plague our minds.

So we excise them all, aiming to protect ourselves from the dark.

I consider the fear of the dark to be an entirely rational fear. Not just because I myself am afraid of the dark, but because the dark is the fulfillment and physical embodiment of the chaotic unknown.

During the hardest part of my life, the time that probably pushed me to and perhaps a little past my breaking point, I remember being so terrified of the dark that I slept in front of the television with a standing lamp on next to me.

Later, during my first year teaching, I found it intolerable to drive home under a starless sky. There was a stretch of the route home that took me along a frontage road, and at parts of it the only lights would be from my own headlights. Normally have satisfied me but in this case the darkness was just too much to bar.

I started taking a different route home to avoid the dark. Once the stress diminished and I felt more confident, I didn’t mind the route.

The self-deception of optimism can be a similar form of aversion to darkness. By avoiding the contemplation of a terrible outcome, it becomes less real and less threatening.

Of course, I do not wish to merely tear down optimism. As I said earlier, it has value, and I think that Wilde is oversimplifying for the point of getting a response. If you want to see if someone is being optimistic to shield themselves from danger, see what happens when they are confronted with reality.

A healthy person responds to reality. One who is sick ignores it.

Resolution

Respond to reality as it presents itself.

Be open about fears.

Consider the worst in the future, but the best in the past.

Aphorism 101

Never show a risk number, even if it is right.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Because we’re talking about optimism and self-deception, I think that this is a case that logically follows its predecessor.

There are a few reasons you don’t want to consider risk when making decisions, at least not a mathematically derived question of risk.

First, one’s response to risk should always be found in the balance of fragility, resilience, and anti-fragility.

For instance, I do not take any excessive risks with money right now because I do not have the money to take risks with. I’m comfortable, but I can’t afford risk.

When I have extra money, I will often take risks with it. There’s less of a reason to hold back in this case because I can afford to hunt for a risk.

The problem with presenting a risk number is that it ignores this part of the equation.

The second problem is more in line with Wilde’s ideas. You don’t know what the future holds. We live in a world in which the vast majority of everything is beyond us. I struggle to find words to describe how far we are removed from knowledge of the future.

It’s like lying: when you lie you pit your wits against the entirety of the universe. If it at least seems to end well, you got lucky, but the truth is that most of the time there will be a problem later down the road that you can trace back to a lie.

In this case, you try to tell the truth, and it’s no less difficult.

One of the things that we have said as a culture is that lying is hard. It’s something that people used to back up polygraph tests (which don’t generally work), because a liar needs to actually try to lie.

The truth is a little more complicated, as truth tends to be.

Both lying and telling the truth are difficult. You can often speak easily, but the speech is fundamentally meaningless or so contextualized that it doesn’t matter.

Consider this writing itself. The act of putting words on a page is trivially easy for me. Spaghetti. Isotope. Fluorescence (which I originally messed up the vowels in, so I’m not even fully correct in my assertion!). The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains. She sells sea shells by the sea shore. I think, therefore I am.

The act of speaking truthfully, the act of finding Truth, is not an easy one.

And you can mess it up really easily.

Resolution

Be sure that what I claim is true is really true.

Don’t think I know more than I do.

Don’t mistake the apparent simplicity of an act for a facile nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *