The Room, The Pendulum, And The Spider
How a simple metaphor can help thoughtful people avoid the pitfall of perpetual disappointment
A very dear friend of mine is afflicted with a charming but ultimately frustrating predisposition: she believes that people are fundamentally capable of seeing the obvious and performing basic reasoning. While I personally adore her persistent optimism about our species, I can’t help but observe the bathos consequent on the fact her beliefs regularly and very firmly run into stolid reality, leaving her emotionally bruised every time.
Intellectually she understands that our species evolved to do as little thinking as possible because during 95% of our evolutionary history this was the most adaptive strategy. Attempting to think burns precious calories that far more often were needed to power muscles for tasks such as foraging for food or fleeing from predators. What little thinking we humans do perform is usually restricted to the realm of social competition, for every group animal’s main task is to out-compete its peers in order to improve its chances of mating and thereby passing on its genes. We creatures are, after all, pace Richard Dawkins, simply the means whereby genes ease themselves forward along the endless slope of time.
Emotionally, however, my dear friend is wedded to the notion that we humans can’t possibly be as dull-witted as the entire span of human history indicates. Surely, hidden deep (very deep) inside the human cranium lies the possibility of coherent thought? Surely what is blatantly obvious to her must be equally obvious to others? Surely almost everyone ought to be able to perform rudimentary cause-and-effect reasoning?
Time and time again these lucent ideals are quenched by the actions and words of everyone around her. Time and again her frangible hopes are shattered by the implacable hammer of typical human folly. And each time she finds ways to excuse the outcome. “It’s only because they’re afraid that they’re saying/doing those things!” she cries, trying desperately to nurture her guttering flame of hope back into life from its presently flickering and endangered state. But then she remembers that the reason these good people are so afraid and therefore so devoid of function in their frontal cortexes is because of the actions they took earlier — actions which were obviously foolish and which obviously would produce outcomes that necessarily would engender even more anxiety and fear. We humans, after all, are master fashioners of our own destruction.
My friend thus suffers from the contrast between her hopes and harsh reality. It is deeply saddening to watch her ideals fall into desuetude and become inexorably buried under the detritus of ordinary human behavior.
Upon occasion I’ve attempted to confer the nominal benefit of my own perspective, namely that in order to understand what is going on inside most people’s heads it is enough to imagine a dark and largely empty room from the ceiling of which perpends a rusty and immobile pendulum; tucked up in one corner is a dust-laden spider’s web. In short, there is no activity taking place worth mentioning. Periodically a soundbite enters through some gap in the door and will echo around the bare bone walls; at other times the flickering light generated by some popular entertainment patterns the insides for a moment or two. But aside from these external stimuli briefly penetrating the darkness, there is nothing happening. No one is at home.
Nox est perpetua.
I then explain to my dear friend that on rare occasions I’m lucky enough to encounter someone actually in possession of active mental faculty; and precisely because it is so unexpected, such an encounter fills me with tremendous joy. As I expect so very little of the average person I am not perpetually disappointed by normality; instead I embrace the exceptions, those rare moments when one realizes one is conversing with another human being who uses their gray matter for something more than mere ballast the purpose of which is to stop their head from bobbing about when they walk. These are my diamonds encountered unexpectedly when laying my head down beneath a tree or discovered by chance when going out at night to dispose of the garbage.
They say an optimist is someone who perpetually discounts her interactions with reality, while a cynic is an optimist who’s been defeated by reality one time too many and a pessimist is someone who assumes that all outcomes will be negative. For me, a realist is someone who understands that nearly all outcomes will be negative because of generic human ignorance and folly but nevertheless there will on occasion be positive outcomes. A realist lives for those occasional moments and treasures them, while being careful not to entertain the idle dream that such infrequent exceptions may one day become the norm.
My friend thought carefully about my metaphor of the dark empty room. “But what about the spider?” she asked, clinging desperately to her last remaining hope much in the manner of a spider clinging to its last remaining strand of web after a hurricane has torn the bulk of it asunder. “Surely the spider has some sort of intelligence?”
I felt her pain. I truly did.
She stared at me, her eyes full of yearning like a baby bird hoping against hope that one of its parents will return to feed it despite the enormous time that has already past and despite the fact the rocky beach around it is strewn with the carcasses of adult birds torn apart by predatory beaks and teeth.
Sadly, and with great heaviness in my heart, I slowly shook my head.
“The spider’s dead.”
NOTE: for anyone harboring the wonderful desire to help make the world a better place, the raconteur and great humanist Eddie Izzard is leading the way by putting into practice the opposite of the mindless “patriotic” nationalism/populism that unfortunately has become the norm in recent years. Not only does Izzard tour Europe and perform in English, French, and German to try to offset the divisive stupidity of Brexit but he’s also learning Russian and Arabic to be able to perform in those parts of the world as well. And he’s raising money for charities that attempt to encourage empathy & cooperation and mutual support. He’s launched a crowdfunding site called Make Humanity Great Again to support these various charities: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/eddie