Still Waters

Still                           -                      Volatile
Permanent                 -                     Transitory
Life                           -                      Death
Solid                         -                      Liquid
Order                         -                     Chaos

Nothing is truly still.

In trying to keep things too still, too serene, too perfect, we must repress anything that may cause a disturbance. Things are pushed under the surface - out of sight, out of mind - and we are afforded the comforting illusion of tranquility. All appears to be well.

But really we know that those disturbing and pesky data points aren't really gone, they are merely forgotten. And the longer we keep them in the dark the more of a debt we accrue. Their power grows - slowly, silently - until it can no longer be contained; at which point it bursts forth, catastrophically.

What is the alternative? Robustness, or resilience.

In becoming resilient we are able to tolerate an amount of volatility - we don't allow disturbances to disturb us too much. We accept that perfection is an illusion, that nothing in life is truly still, and that the need to make it still is pathological. We accept that at times we will be sad, unsettled... imperfect. We come round to Dionysus, become less fixated on Apollo.

Where there is too much stillness - a peace that lasts too long - there is too much repression. If things seem too good, then they likely are. Low volatility is paid for with greater exposure to catastrophic risk.

I don’t trust [Steven Pinker’s] optimism […] more and more kinetic energy, like war, has been turned into potential energy, like unused nuclear weapons - [but] if you don’t have a potential energy term, then everything’s just getting better and better.

[Eric Weinstein]

[...] we may need to intervene to control the iatrogenics of modernity - particularly the large-scale harm to the environment and the concentration of potential (though not yet manifested) damage, the kind of thing we only notice when it is too late.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 121

[…] we can see how the fear of volatility […], leading to inference with nature so as to impose “regularity,” makes us more fragile across so many domains [...] Reducing volatility and ordinary randomness increases exposure to Black Swans - it creates an artificial quiet. 

Preventing small forest fires sets the stage for more extreme ones; giving out antibiotics when it is not very necessary makes us more vulnerable to severe epidemics - and perhaps to that big one, the grand infection that will be resistant to known antibiotics and will travel on Air France.

Which brings me to another organism: economic life. Our aversion to variability and desire for order, and our acting on those feelings, have helped precipitate severe crises. Making something artificially bigger (instead of letting it die early if it cannot survive stressors) makes it more and more vulnerable to a very severe collapse - as I showed with the Black Swan vulnerability associated with an increase in size.

The idea is simply to let human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to prevent their spreading through the system, as Mother Nature does.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 322, 329

We sacrifice ourselves in favour of our genes, trading our fragility for their survival. We age, but they stay young and get fitter outside us.

Things break on a small scale all the time, in order to avoid large-scale generalised catastrophes.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 350

A story

A man marries a woman and they settle down.

They buy a house, decorate and furnish it. Eventually they have a child together.

All seems relatively well, until the man’s behaviour begins to change. Perhaps he begins to drink more, or drinks with less control. He gets drunk and stays out, gets into trouble. He becomes more distant from his wife, and child. Maybe he has an affair. Perhaps he does other troublesome, disruptive things.

And for his actions he faces recriminations.

“Why are you doing this?” he is asked. And perhaps he cannot come up with an answer, and he feels bad; but he does not know if he feels bad because he did those things, or because he cannot say why he did them.

And so our hero becomes a villain; his name muddied, his image tarnished.

And he sees the pain that he is causing, and he feels the judgements that are cast upon him. And, whilst he may not show it, somewhere within him he is hurt. He does not like being the one to bring about all this pain, and he does not like the weight of shame that has been hung around his neck. And so he makes efforts to change his ways, to do less of these things that have caused pain. He pares himself down, becomes “good”.

People begin to notice a change in him.

In becoming good he seems to have lost something. He seems dulled, muted. Neutered. At certain points of the day he can be caught staring into the distance, empty-eyed. And people wonder, “What is wrong with him?” “What happened to him?”

Some people, those with eyes to see, sense a deep rumbling within him; and they know that something is very wrong.

A story about a story

We started with a fantasy, one that was presumably shared by both parties; a fantasy of “everything is alright.” An image of a still lake, of balance and harmony. But for some reason this fantasy lost its truth for our hero, and he began to desire new images, and different stories.

His abandoning of the initial fantasy – the shared fantasy – caused pain; not only to his beloved, but to those in the community who were also invested in it. They could not understand his new stories, the sense of them; and, unfortunately for him, neither could he.

All he “knew” was that they were in some way necessary. To keep his own private lake still he seemed to have to cast stones upon communal waters. But he knew that these stones were not thrown out of malice, just to see the splashes and disruption that they would cause. There was an unconscious logic in his actions, a balance was being preserved.

Unfortunately for our hero his lack of insight into his own behaviour – his lack of language, of concepts; his inability to explain himself, to make himself known – meant that it became illegitimate. Lacking an advocate, it was forced underground, into the depths, where it could no longer disrupt the fantasy of “everything is alright”.

In forcing his devils underground he was able to once again to become “good”, the communal lake restored to stillness. But he did not realise that the devils do not disappear; they came to him with an important message, and it is their duty to make sure they are heard. Forced into the darkness, they still sing and dance, only he can no longer see them, or hear their song.

Perhaps our hero even begins to think of himself as “bad”; after all, he can see the consequences of his behaviour, and he is not blind to its effects. And so he is forced into a corner, given an ultimatum; to deny his devils, and to force them underground, or to remain the “villain,” and to live with the label of “bad.”

But perhaps an understanding of his actions – of their sense – would make the choice irrelevant.

Because he could not defend himself, he was forced into an act of self-amputation; an act that – seen from a certain angle – is perhaps the most horrific of this whole tale.

Things that can't be said or thought within a relationship/marriage.

The marriage becomes a normalising structure, marking out a safe area within which we can live. Each keeps tabs on the other to make sure that they aren't straying too far from safe ground.

But the structure cannot stop us dreaming; it cannot halt the flow of fantasy. We see what happens when fantasy enters the marriage, when messy, foreign madness is brought into the home, muddying the carpet and disrespecting the rules.

The question is: will fantasy be allowed in here? Will we open our door to it, or will we turn our back on it; deny it, or vilify it? Does fantasy have a place within our safe structure? Perhaps we made it too safe, too secure. Or perhaps we were wrong to build it in the first place.

"We should be grateful that we've managed to survive our dreams [...] The important thing is, we're awake now."

And so, we're back to normal. We're both back on safe ground, and let's put an end to our dreaming. It was too messy, too painful.

Frozen in time

The marriage begins with an image - the wedding photo - and asks the couple to remain faithful to this image. It asks them to keep smiling, to maintain harmony.

But perhaps the marriage needs to be able to allow other images within its borders; images of tears, and bared-teeth; of dreams, mistakes, regrets.

In asking its participants to stick to a single image it does not allow them to be fully human, condemning them to the immovability of rigor-mortis. Its foundational image is two-dimensional; pathology free, all smiles and great expectations. But if we decide that pathology is an important aspect of flourishing - an aspect of a balance - then it must be let in.

In this case, the mark of the strong marriage is its ability to adapt to changing waters, to allow the roiling seas as well as the calm lake.

[…] if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness

How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together […]

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 338

The general lack of experience of pain of both kinds and the relative rarity of the sight of anyone who is suffering have an important consequence: pain is now hated much more than was the case formerly: one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one considers the existence of the mere thought of pain scarcely endurable and turns it into a reproach against the whole of existence.

The emergence of pessimistic philosophies is by no means a sign of great and terrible misery. No, these question marks about the value of all life are put up in ages in which the refinement and alleviation of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malignant and one is so poor in real experiences of pain that one would like to consider painful general ideas as suffering of the first order.

There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophers and the excessive sensitivity that seems to me the real “misery of the present age" - but this recipe may sound too cruel and might itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge that "existence is something evil." 

Well, the recipe against this "misery" is: misery.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 48

A system's functional efficiency is often related to its integration. The system is called stable if it returns to or fluctuates minimally around a constant value. Stability is usually inversely related to integration, that is, to the stringency of the structural bonding. 

For the most part, the more flexible the coupling between the subsystems, the greater the overall system's stability. Usually, too, the more homogeneous the environment in which the system is located, the more stable the system. Greater variety of internal couplings as well as a larger number of such couplings also tends to increase stability.

The Great Lakes ecosystem is a good example of a stable system, one that also illustrates the fact that very stable systems, when perturbed, may be unable to survive. Because flora and fauna in freshwater aquatic systems are fairly homogeneous and the water tempers extreme climatic fluctuations, lakes are characteristically stable ecosystems. 

They may be stable, but they are not resilient. 

Fish stocks are often quickly decimated when the lake's ecological balance is perturbed. Resilience is "the ability of the system to absorb changes ... and still persist". A system can be quite resilient yet unstable if it persists as that (kind of) system despite wide fluctuations. 

Resilient systems are able to modify their specific structure so as to ensure the adaptability and survival of their overall organization. Insects and viruses are remarkably resilient: they can mutate dramatically and so persist. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.111

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