[H]ere’s the thing: the more successful I become, the more shows, the more episodes, the more barriers broken, the more work there is to do, the more balls in the air, the more eyes on me, the more history stares, the more expectations there are. The more I work to be successful, the more I need to work. And what did I say about work? I love working, right? The nation I’m building, the marathon I’m running, the troops, the canvas, the high note, the hum, the hum, the hum. I like that hum. I love that hum. I need that hum. I am that hum. Am I nothing but that hum?
And then the hum stopped. Overworked, overused, overdone, burned out. The hum stopped. […]
But you know, you do, if you make, if you work, if you love what you do, being a teacher, being a banker, being a mother, being a painter, being Bill Gates, if you simply love another person and that gives you the hum, if you know the hum, if you know what the hum feels like, if you have been to the hum, when the hum stops, who are you? What are you? What am I? Am I still a titan? If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?
And then my Southern waitress toddler asks me a question. I’m on my way out the door, I’m late, and she says, “Momma, wanna play?” […]
The air is so rare in this place for me that I can barely breathe. I can barely believe I’m breathing. Play is the opposite of work. And I am happy. Something in me loosens. A door in my brain swings open, and a rush of energy comes. And it’s not instantaneous, but it happens, it does happen. I feel it. A hum creeps back. Not at full volume, barely there, it’s quiet, and I have to stay very still to hear it, but it is there. Not the hum, but a hum. […]
I’m not perfect at it. In fact, I fail as often as I succeed, seeing friends, reading books, staring into space. “Wanna play?” starts to become shorthand for indulging myself in ways I’d given up on right around the time I got my first TV show, right around the time I became a titan-in-training, right around the time I started competing with myself for ways unknown. 15 minutes? What could be wrong with giving myself my full attention for 15 minutes? Turns out, nothing. The very act of not working has made it possible for the hum to return, as if the hum’s engine could only refuel while I was away. Work doesn’t work without play.
It takes a little time, but after a few months, one day the floodgates open and there’s a rush, and I find myself standing in my office filled with an unfamiliar melody, full on groove inside me, and around me, and it sends me spinning with ideas, and the humming road is open, and I can drive it and drive it, and I love working again. But now, I like that hum, but I don’t love that hum. I don’t need that hum. I am not that hum. That hum is not me, not anymore. I am bubbles and sticky fingers and dinners with friends. I am that hum. Life’s hum. Love’s hum. Work’s hum is still a piece of me, it is just no longer all of me, and I am so grateful.
Imagine a child playing in a sandbox, dreaming up elaborate stories about the castles they’ve built with their sandbox toys. Now, imagine a group of eighteen adults, two teams of office co-workers, throwing around a baseball according to very precise rules. Those adults are playing too.
It seems contradictory at first. The elaborate rules of the baseball game are very different from the child’s freeform storytelling. How can they both be forms of play?
What makes them play is freedom from external consequences. A child in a sandbox does not fear that their day dreams will bring harm to them. A softball player knows that to swing and miss three times will result in an out but nothing else. Play can be elaborate and ritualistic or wild and spontaneous, it can be solitary or communal, it’s usually pleasurable but can also be painful, it can involve building things up or tearing them down. What unites all these activities is the mindset of the participants: blissfully free from worry about unintended consequences.
Work is one of the opposites of play. When we work, we’re striving towards a goal which matters, and everything we do must be measured against that purpose. A job can involve both work and play, if care is taken to create environments where there is no pressure to get things right the first time and no negative consequences for the employee if they fail. But some kinds of work can never be turned into play. You would not want a surgeon to play during surgery, happily disregarding the consequences as they cut into your body. Most jobs require at least some periods of seriousness.
But no human being can go too long without play, without respite from the fear of consequences. A surgeon must take their surgery seriously, but the must also have space in their lives to play. And because we spend so much of our lives at our jobs, they’re one of the best intervention points when it comes to bringing play back into people’s lives. It is through play that we are able to take work seriously. Without those breaks, those moments of freedom, we are too exhausted to think through the consequences when it really matters.
The famous Facebook philosophy of “move fast and break things” is fundamentally a playful one. Paraphrased, it just means “go ahead, don’t worry about the consequences”. The world is your sandbox. But of course, not having to worry about consequences is a form of privilege. And, insulated by that privilege, Facebook and other tech companies have played games with a great many very serious things.
The problem is not that Facebook encouraged playfulness, it’s when and how they encouraged playfulness. They handed a scalpel to a surgeon and told them “move fast and break things” rather than creating a more appropriate space for play.
The business of thinking is like the veil of Penelope: it undoes every morning what it had finished the night before.
Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 166
I’m an anxious sort of person.
That’s a glib way of saying that I have an anxiety disorder. I’m afraid a lot of the time. I have practical fears, like heights and driving and cardiovascular disease. I have existential fears, like global warming and the descent of American society into fascism. And I have social fears, like public speaking and calling people on the phone and putting myself out there when I want something or someone.
Every single person feels anxiety sometimes. What makes it a disorder is that it interferes with your life. My disorder is not a bad one – anxiety is ever-present in my life but I largely work around it. I hate flying and driving, for instance. If I could take the train everywhere I would, but I can’t, so I fly and I drive and my nervous system freaks out but I’m okay. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m just anxious for no damn reason, and it lasts all day, or all week, and there’s nothing I can do. And that’s hard but it’s also reassuring in its own way. It’s a reminder that anxiety often can’t be reasoned with. At a certain point, all you can do is acknowledge what’s happening. “My nervous system is freaking out, but I’m okay.”
What I’m trying to say here is that my relationship to anxiety is very personal. I think that’s true for most people. You can reason about fear but there’s a part of it that’s inescapably embodied. And uncertainty exacerbates fear. I’d rather get a single painful shock I knew was coming than sit around waiting for a shock that might come. It’s less terrifying to ask out a person you know will say no than someone who might say no. So my relationship to uncertainty is very personal too. To tolerate uncertainty is not just an intellectual choice or an emotional choice, but a physical choice.
The Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 coined the term negative capability:
[At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.
Part of why negative capability is so rare and difficult to cultivate is because uncertainty provokes for so many of us a physical fear. So we try to escape the fear by leaving the situation, or reasoning ourselves out of it, or blaming something else for the fear, or trying to grit our way through it. Negative capability is the decision to sit with that fear, to say, “I’m afraid, but I’m okay”. And when you approach uncertainty with that kind of acceptance, it lets you view the world – and the uncertain issue or object – in a different way.
This way of approaching the world is not something Keats invented, of course. From Hannah Arendt:
It is in [thinking’s] nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter. The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics. These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.
Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 177
In other words, Socrates sought to build a community of people with negative capability, people who could hold perplexities in their hands.
(Brief aside: I can’t help bringing up one of my favorite characters, Chidi Anagonye, again. Chidi is a moral philosopher with severe anxiety and essentially zero negative capability, who I think would benefit enormously from having Socrates as a mentor. Maybe I will write fanfiction about this.)
Negative capability is vital in so many endeavors:
It’s vital in scientific research, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how the world works and whether the hypotheses and theories you’re relying on are true.
It’s vital in technological innovation, since you must tolerate uncertainty about whether your inventions will work and what impact they’ll have on the world.
It’s vital in political coalition-building, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how to compromise and whose perspectives to favor.
And of course it’s vital in philosophy and art, as Socrates and John Keats would agree.
[R]ather than make an unvarnished demand for freedom to oppress he is more apt to present himself as the defender of certain values. It is not in his own name that he is fighting, but rather in the name of civilization, of institutions, of monuments, and of virtues which realize objectively the situation which he intends to maintain; he declares that all these things are beautiful and good in themselves; he defends a past which has assumed the icy dignity of being against an uncertain future whose values have not yet been won; this is what is well expressed by the label “conservative.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 39.
There has not been very much research on the links between uncertainty tolerance and authoritarianism or conservatism. There has not been much research on uncertainty tolerance as a whole.
These are, fittingly, subjects for which we must tolerate a great deal of uncertainty. So let us do as Socrates would do, and share our perplexities with each other.