Following Edith Eger, I’m suddenly fascinated by choices. Particularly the way that we usually ascribe momentous deliberation to other people’s decision-making process, but know for ourselves that the process is far more chaotic and flukey.
For example: when I was a teenager, my mum decided to read for a PhD. I’d always assumed that this was the flowering of some long-held academic ambition, one rudely interrupted by the time-sink of raising kids. I assumed that the decision-making process was meticulously worked out over lists, spreadsheets and probably PowerPoint presentations with my dad.
But I’d never actually ever asked her how she came to that decision, until last weekend.
The truth is that, one day, her boss offered her a promotion that she really didn’t want. She went to sit in a cafe to think. She knew that she couldn’t simply refuse the promotion; she needed a good excuse. Then lightning struck — what better excuse than a PhD!
And there’s the chaos and fluke that we airbrush out of everyone else’s lives.
This is tremendously liberating. If everyone else is also floundering around life making decisions in much the same way that you make an omelette, then the pressure is off. It’s fine to flounder. More than fine: my mum also said that choosing to do a PhD was the best decision she ever made.
This conversation was inspired by another short passage in The Choice, where Eger writes about making the leap from school teacher to psychologist:
I told my principal I was considering getting my doctorate in psychology. But I couldn’t speak my dream without a caveat. “I don’t know,” I said, “by the time I finish school I’ll be fifty.” He smiled at me. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow,” he said.
Boom. Of course. We’re going to be twenty / forty / sixty / ninety anyhow, we might as well plunge.
It may feel like our days are shrinking, that our expansive social and working lives are being stolen away from us.
The reality is that our lives are now being lived in the details, and it is in the details, as any artist or scientist knows, that we find our richest rewards.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Viktor Frankl likens human suffering to gas spreading through a chamber:
[M]an’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
The same metaphor, I would argue, could apply to almost any aspect of human experience, including curiosity, fascination and excitement.
But whereas suffering expands to our limits without much effort on our part, I think most of us have to work a little harder for these positive emotions to fill our chamber.
We might feel, since lockdown, that we’ve lost the richness of experience that comes from travelling up to London for the day, cycling into the country on a weekend, or hiking the Peak District for a week.
Some of us might even pang for the forbidden pleasures of formless office meetings, or fondly remember the frustration of traffic jams that held us up, once upon a time, when we had somewhere to go.
It might feel like we’ve lost something to our days and that the nights, though sleepless, can’t come soon enough.
But those lost experiences could only ever have swollen to fill a finite chamber, the finite chamber that is our destined interval of consciousness on earth.
The experiences that Newtonian physics demands must inevitably replace those that are ‘lost’ will, if we only get out of the way of ourselves, swell to fill an identical space in our soul.
The only thing we need is a little fascination for the details.
Rather than the broad strokes of outlandish living, rather than the transcontinental love affairs, the nights out on the dancefloor, the boozy Sunday roasts with friends and family, we choose to exist for now on a smaller scale, in among the overlooked details of our lives.
Be like the mycologist, who could happily spend a dozen lifetimes exploring the thousands of fungi that inhabit a handful of soil.
From where I stand at my desk, I can see sun-facing rooftops covered in bright yellow lichen — Xanthoria parietina (‘grows on walls’).
This week, in among the details, buried in books and podcasts and open access science papers, I learnt that lichen is not one organism, but two.
Most lichens are a mutualist symbiosis between a fungus and an alga, a collaboration that dates back hundreds of millions of years.
Long before humans discovered agriculture, fungi learned to farm algae for the energy they generate from photosynthesis.
(Side note: it’s not just agriculture we have in common; fungi are more closely related genetically to humans than they are to the algae they have domesticated — or indeed to any other plant species.)
I also learnt that lichens cover eight percent of the earth’s surface — more than is covered by tropical rainforest.
Without lichens, there might be no life on earth. They mine minerals from sheer rock and form the first soils in otherwise barren ecosystems. Lichen has been found inside lumps of granite.
Lichens have given us antibiotics, Harris tweed and, as black stone flower, garam masala.
I don’t suppose that I’ll look at that rooftop in quite the same way again. Will you?
All about us are the tools of enquiry — our senses, our curiosity and vast repositories of knowledge waiting to be dusted off and discovered. (I’m talking about the Internet.)
Has anyone else noticed how quiet the world is now? How ripe for observation?
That photograph at the top of the page, of the 140 million year old fossilised tree: I would never have noticed that staggering lump of palaeontology if it weren’t for the ‘boredom’ of lockdown.
There is an openness to the world right now. In our long days, we have time to notice the things that were once drowned out by the clamour of ‘business as usual’.
Rather than asking, ‘What’s on Netflix?’, we find ourselves asking instead, ‘How does the haze form, that makes this sunset so beautiful?’
Like the lichen on the rooftops opposite, everywhere we look there are questions that could seed many lifetimes of fascination, with each new discovery opening up new tunnels of exploration like the hyphae that forage and fracture to create the mycelium network that breaks up and becomes the soil beneath our feet.
Fascination is built from the combination of curiosity and imagination; given those ingredients, it is boundless. If you’re not sure, check the ingredients list on your garam masala.
I’m currently reading Edith Eger’s book The Choice. Like Viktor Frankl, Eger also survived the Holocaust. Like Frankl, Eger also moved to the US, also became a psychologist and also wrote a fascinating book about her experiences.
In April 1944, crammed into a cattle carriage with a hundred other Jews, destined for the gas chambers and smoke stacks of Auschwitz, Eger’s mother told her:
“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”
These words sustained Eger during the year of captivity and abuse that almost killed her a dozen times over.
Our self-isolation is nothing remotely like what Eger and Frankl experienced during the Second World War, but Eger’s mother’s message holds true: it’s time to fill our minds.
You could do a lot worse over the next few weeks than to fill your mind with either The Choice or Man’s Search for Meaning.