Last spring my body was sending me all sorts of signals that apparently classify as ‘burn out’ symptoms. Once I discovered that, I made three commitments to myself:
- I would do yoga at least 4 times a week,
- I would rush less by reducing my workload to 70% to leave more time between my blocks of activity,
- I would take 6 weeks off in the summer to ‘do nothing’.
The first two weeks I spent in between the trees on a campsite, watching my kids create flourishing friendships in half a day, while I was drowning in fiction.
My dad came to visit us for a day. He looked worried when he saw me. “Are you guys having rough nights with the kids sleeping in their little tent?”, he asked. “No dad, this is what my face looks like when I’m relaxed. Like pudding.”
I knew these first two weeks wouldn’t really ‘count’ towards achieving the secret therapeutic expectations I had about this computer-less summer. Happy kids, happy husband, sun on my face while reading my book and drinking old fashionably brewed coffee.
But once back in Amsterdam, the real deal presented itself. The 2 weeks with substantial distraction from my family had passed. So I found myself scared. I had to start with my plan to do nothing.
Day 1 of being back in Amsterdam in my normal environment was okay. I had a book I really wanted to read attentively: Homo Sapiens from Harari.
I said goodbye to the kids, went to my yoga class, realized halfway showering that I was rushing for no reason as no one was waiting for me. So I got dressed super slowly and settled down in a cafe with my book. Two coffees and three hours later, I almost exploded from the urge to text a friend. Instead, I decided to run some errands by foot (“how inefficient!”, my habitual mind was screaming at me. “Take you bike you’ll be faster!”). Then I went home and cuddled my kids extra long.
Day 2 was a disaster. After yoga I went to the park and lost myself in Harari’s book again, feeling desperately incapable of keeping some of my notoriously unhealthy emotions in check (guilt, stress and anger). After two hours of reading, my face was back in its usual shape. While that’s way better for the world, it was a bad sign of what was going on inside. I had to talk to someone about humanity, how incredibly doomed we are, and explore together how we can increase the urge in others to act now. In an attempt to calm myself, I surrounded myself with smart and loving people for the rest of the day. I was quite successful in clouding my existential thoughts with their everyday life questions and sooth my emotional state. The wine may have helped.
The days that followed I often felt unable to leave my home in the morning. I wanted to go back to the campsite. I wished I hadn’t started reading in Harari’s book.
I know the world is incredibly unequal. I remember thinking about that as a five or six year old. I thought I had found a way to accept that Humans are terribly selfish. As a young kid I found out that we have the insufferable quality to define a random set of people as our ‘group’ for which we care and carry responsibility. The ‘others’ are not our problem. Climate change, extreme poverty, hunger, migration, war, someone else should do something about that. I soon realised this to be true for the majority of people, and I remember feeling very lonely because these ideas felt alien to me. I feel that a mother in Uganda who cannot feed her child belongs to my ‘group’, and in some way I carry responsibility for her suffering because of the way all of our actions are interlinked. I could donate money to a charity that could help her, or not go on that holiday to the USA that indirectly contributes to climate change, droughts and hunger. We’re all humans, with a similar range and intensity of emotions. And those who’ve been lucky enough to be born on the type of dirt that facilitates a luxurious life, have a deep moral obligation to reduce inequality by using their talents and resources to those landing on the unlucky dirt. As this is obviously not a view that many people share, I am have grown quite accustomed to seeing the problems with the homo sapiens.
But what Harari’s book provided was an even deeper view on humanity’s ugliness. And our undeniable stupidity. He provides us with a very convincing historical account of how we collectively fall into what he refers to as ‘luxury traps’.
Love isn’t blind
Once you bite Harari’s logic, it becomes hard to feel compassion for anyone just going about their day.
While sitting in a hipster Amsterdam café, my head was filled with cynical thoughts. I was thinking for example about the time I made the argument to my American friends that they should move to Holland, as people in Amsterdam have some of the highest quality of life. Around me people were demonstrating what that ‘amazing life’ looked like. A bunch of animals trapped in cages constructed by their own mythical institutions, driving us towards non existence, ignoring those who suffer most by deeply focusing on getting some work done to buy another pair of shoes that should communicate the image of their sporty, carefree selves.
I passed a store with the slogan ‘Love isn’t blind’. They sell expensive lingerie. A spot-on illustration of Harari’s point. Humans are superior to animals as they have a complex language, with which they create collective mythical beliefs, and start to act in line with these myths. The myth that expensive lingerie will improve your love life for example. Many of these myths promise us progress, and all it takes to achieve that better life is just working a few more hours. Until nothing of your day nor spirit is left to enjoy the promised land.
Is there a way out? I’ve spent the rest of my days trying to answer that question. Admittedly, I was assisted by the writing of some of the greatest thinkers of our time.
Be the change you want to see
As I was so angry at the world around me, I had to start with answering this question at the personal level first. It was helpful for me to make a list of myths that have gotten to me, but that I don’t deem beneficial for my life. Many of them surrounded around ‘pride’:
- Work pride (caring whether others deem you to be ‘successful’ in your work)
- House pride (caring about having a perfectly designed home),
- Kiddy pride (caring about the way your kids look, and whether others perceive them as ‘sweet’ or ‘good kids’ that say please and thank you),
- Fashion pride (caring about the imagine you beam out with the way you dress ‘look at my 150 Euro Lululemon yoga pants, I must be a fit mindful person’)
On some of these I’ve already made some progress, especially during my time in the US when I saw friends (especially women) struggle so much by having huge amounts of these types of pride. Others need more work.
Next to this list of myths I want to debunk for myself, I also made a commitment to some things that I believe are beneficial to a more joyful life.
- Do more things that make me laugh
- Make more time for other humans, especially when it’s not work related
- Take better care of my mental immunity through meditation
- Say yes more often to new experiences
Could the toxic system be it’s own elixir?
In the past years, I have actively tried to keep the discussion about the value of future generations at a cognitive instead of emotional level. Logically, I agree that future generations are about equally valuable as current ones. Emotionally, I have struggled feeling equally motivated about researching effective interventions for the far future in the same way that I have spent time researching global health and poverty interventions. Harari’s book changed this. Because of the wider perspective it offers us about human history, and the seeming increasing severity of the ‘traps’ we get ourselves into, I started to feel the worry many in the Effective Altruist movement have had for years now. This worry is strengthened by limited trust in the virtues for humanity as a whole of our current capitalist system, and seemingly (to my limited knowledge) very few realistic ideas how we won’t be eaten alive by it.
At Effective Giving the donor is not an individual giving 1.000-20.000 Euro’s a year. Instead, our community exists of large donors giving (or investing) 200.000 plus a year. Because of the hypothesis that it is rational for philanthropists to give more risky donations, I had started researching ‘riskier’ global health and poverty interventions since 2016. Effective Altruism is often criticized for its focus on saving individual lives, that end up living in a world with very low wellbeing (no work, no rights, no freedoms). The typical response is that Effective Altruist didn’t arrive at these ‘saving individual lives’ interventions by a predefined preference for health, but that it is the conclusion from mixing i) what has the deepest impact on a human per Euro, ii) what has strong evidence for effectiveness, and iii) what is neglected by others. Most people in the Effective Altruist movement that I know agree that fixing systems to improve overall wellbeing of people would be an extremely urgent and important thing to do. So the problem is not the importance, but the lack of effective solutions that we know can actually make a difference.
Most ‘system’ level interventions that are not health related focus on stimulating good functioning of the market economy in developing countries; functioning chamber of commerce, establishing land rights, financing Small and Medium Enterprises. Even if we’d know how to intervene effectively, I question whether the net effect in a more holistic definition of wellbeing (not just economic) and a more meta-view of humanity are desirable. However, I am also well aware that I don’t have great ideas for an alternative.
One thing that the capitalist system we’re trapped in has done for us is immense inequality between people. While this is often referred to as one of it’s most terrible negative effects, it might also be the little beacon of hope. If we’re indeed in a trap like Harari describes, and maybe even the final trap that will result in our extermination, it may provide an opportunity that at this point in time an extremely small group of people have almost all of the resources. This small group controls almost everything that happens in our capitalistic world, they own the lion share of the money, determine investments and thus what we can and cannot buy and have immense political control. Even though it is more strongly against their self-interest than for anyone else to make a change, maybe we should spend more time to pressure them into it.
What if we make a list, with their names? Maybe the idea that we’ll all be dead if they personally don’t intervene is persuasive enough for them to get into action? The next question is of course whether anyone would know what we want them to do. For now, I just have to hold on to the belief that there must be people with great ideas.
I remember being a teenager and becoming incredibly existential and unhappy whenever I was bored. Maybe I should have thought about that before I decided to inflict boredom upon myself. This time however, while I really did feel like I was going nuts for a few days, my involvement with Effective Giving and access to great thinkers have helped me to channel this existential energy a bit. Feeling deeply doubtful about productive courses of action for our community scares me.
However, I gain hope from the undisputed belief that acting to the best of our ability – while improving those abilities by researching and brainstorming even more – is necessary. It also helps for me personally to have overcome the ‘hopeless’ feeling that has always made me so angry, as the success in mobilising others that have disproportionate resources to put to use is likely to be much higher when it’s approached in a joyful way.
I look forward to a zealous year, hopefully with a few more answers instead to answer some of these new questions.[belangrijk: Heel veel mensen zouden mij, hopelijk terecht, op basis van bovenstaand stuk als doemprofeet labelen, zoals deze man en natuurlijk Frans de Waal]