Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety – Alan W. Watts – Quotes

It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.

There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seems to be fewer and fewer rocks which we can hold, fewer things we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.
To some this is a welcome release from the restraints of moral, social, and spiritual dogma. To others it is a dangerous and terrifying breach with reason and sanity, tending to plunge human life into hopeless chaos.

When belief in the eternal becomes impossible, and there is only the poor substitute of belief in believing, men seek their happiness in the joys of time. However much they may try to bury it in the depths of their minds, they are well aware that these joys are both uncertain and brief. This has two results. On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any. On the other, the frustration of having always to pursue a future good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of “What’s the use anyhow?”
Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addition to “dope”. Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless.

To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. 

The principle is yet more to the point if Christ is regarded as divine in the most orthodox sense – as the unique and special incarnation of God. For the basic theme of the Christ-story is that this “express image” of God becomes the source of life in the very act of being destroyed.

Unquestionably the sensitive human brain adds immeasurably to the richness of life. Yet for this we pay dearly, because the increase in over-all sensitivity makes us peculiarly vulnerable. One can be less vulnerable by becoming less sensitive – more of a stone and less of a man – and so less capable of enjoyment.

For it is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present.

If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world. 

The root of the difficulty is that we have developed the power of thinking so rapidly and one-sidedly that we have forgotten the proper relation between thoughts and events, words and things. Conscious thinking has gone ahead and created its own world, and, when this is found to conflict with the real world, we have the sense of a profound discord between “I,” the conscious thinker, and nature. This one-sided development of man is not peculiar to intellectuals and “brainy” people, who are only extreme examples of a tendency which has affected our entire civilization.
What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money. Money gets rid of the inconvenience of barter. But it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth, because it will do you no good to eat it or wear it for clothing.

Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it. Thus all “explanations” of the universe couched in language are circular, and leave the most essential things unexplained and undefined. The dictionary itself is circular. It defines words in terms of other words.

But when money and wealth, reality and science are confused, the symbol becomes a burden. 

[…]since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live in the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.

To define means to fix, and, when you get don to it, real life isn’t fixed. 

[…] the special disease of civilized man might be described as a block or schism between his brain (specifically, the cortex) and the rest of his body.

The real trouble is that they are all totally frustrated, for trying to please the brain is like trying to drink through your ears. Thus they are increasingly incapable of real pleasure, insensitive to most acute and subtle joys of life which are in fact extremely common and simple.

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.

If, then, man’s principal asset and value is his brain and his ability to calculate, he will become an unsaleable commodity in an era when the mechanical operation of reasoning can be done more effectively by the machines.

After all this, the brain deserves a word for itself! For the brain, including its reasoning and calculating centers, is a part and product of the body. It is as natural as the heart and stomach, and, rightly used, us anything but the enemy of man. But to be used rightly it must be put in its place, for the brain is made for man not man for his brain. In other words, the function of the brain is to serve the present and the real, not to send man chasing wildly after the phantom of the future. 

If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing.

It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.

We are all familiar with this kind of vicious circle in the form of worry. We know that worrying is futile, but we go on doing it because calling it futile does not stop it. We worry because we feel unsafe, and want to be safe. Yet it is perfectly useless to say that we should not want to be safe. Calling a desire bad names doesn’t get rid of it.

The principal thing is to understand that there is no safety or security.

But the mind-body is a system which conserves and accumulates energy. While doing this it is properly lazy. When the energy is stored, it is just as happy to move, and yet to move skillfully – along the line of least resistance. Thus it is not only necessity, but also laziness, which is the mother of invention.

It is in vain that we can predict and control the course of events in the future, unless we know how to live in the present. It is in vain that doctors prolong life if we spend the extra time being anxious to live still longer. It is in vain that engineers devise faster and easier means of travel if the new sights that we see are merely sorted and understood in terms of the old prejudices. It is in vain that we get the power of the atom if we are just to continue in the rut of blowing people up.

My review of Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com

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