Imagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces. The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value. It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect. This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery. It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it. People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.
When I was a teenager, I had a fascination with all things supernatural and superstitious. It started out with me telling stories about witches and the occult. Then I started to carry an astrology book with me and work out the horoscopes of my schoolmates. My tarot card reading phase got me into trouble with a catholic priest once. I must confess I actually read those incredibly boring books about witchcraft while the other kids merely put them on their shelves to impress fellow adherents to the gothic sub culture. But one day a classmate produced something truly scandalous: a copy of “The Satanic Bible“. Now I can’t for the life of me articulate what I actually was expecting to find in this book, I just knew it had to be bad. Preferably dark, sinister, and disturbing so I could impress girls with my wicked seductions or some other nonsense. However, I remember feeling disappointed with the book. It just didn’t contain anything in it that sounded particularly evil. The idea behind the book was the assumption that Christianity was altruistic and therefore Satanism logically should be the opposite of Christianity and thus be selfish. However, the book quickly ran into some philosophical problems regarding the nature of selfishness and how it related to evil. Namely the assumption was that being selfish was necessarily a bad thing, however, this assumption about selfishness quickly hits a brick wall. So for a book that’s meant to be about being evil it ends up being a rather peculiar, if not silly, unintentional self-help book.
Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
The Roman god Janus, for whom the month of January is named, had two faces. One looking towards the past, and the other towards the future. Each new year the typical god fearing Roman would make a selection of promises to Janus. Promises to do his duty, to be honest, to do better work, to make a better sacrifice, to be a better person. Thousands of years have passed since this Roman tradition started and Europeans across the world to this day carry on the tradition of making special promises to themselves to do better in the new year. Surprisingly this tradition is not going away, but actually getting stronger. A century ago only one in four people made resolutions each year, but today half the population of Western countries make new year’s resolutions. I take this as a hopeful sign that we are living in an age of a new awakening in terms of self-awareness and self-responsibility.
A resolution is an act of rebellion against mediocrity within oneself. It shouldn’t be about recognising that one isn’t perfect, of course one isn’t, but instead about recognising that one can do better. I am a poor cook for instance, off the top of my head I know about ten recipes that I can make with confidence. I do find myself making the same things over and over again and I would like to learn how to make more interesting dishes. So one of my new year’s resolutions this year is to learn one new recipe each month. That’s merely a total of 12 new recipes for the year. It’s not particularly hard resolution on the face of it, but it would improve the quality of my life in many ways. Firstly, it would more than double the number of dishes I currently feel confident making. This would bring more variety into my meals, pleasing me, and increasing my quality of life, but it would also increase my value to other people as an entertainer or guest to a pot luck dinner party. Having new recipes I can make for my friends means that I can give more to them and enjoy the giving experience as well as the increased respect that comes from my increased value as a friend. Continue reading