Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 7 – REST OR FREEDOM
The well-known detail: The weekend has arrived. You have two days of free time at last, which you can use to: 1) do the cleaning; 2) set up the online payment of the latest bills; 3) organize that business dinner for next week; 4) clear the sink which is full of piled up dishes; 5) go to that concert even if you don’t feel like it, but you have already bought the tickets; 6) study the new offers from telephone providers; 7) visit your neighbours to maintain relations (which you’ve been delaying for weeks); 8) go shopping; 9) catch up with overdue laundry and ironing; 10) any other business. The two days are over in a jiffy. On Sunday evening, to chase away the shadow hanging over the back of your mind, you start watching that funny video on the Internet that everyone but you in the office has already seen. One video leads to another, and at three in the morning you’re still on your computer. It’s already Monday, and you’re more tired than before
The background: Even during free time you can feel anything but free. Caged as we are in our schedule, in a fragmented time marked only by planned and unavoidable duties, we tend to fill the hours with incentives and to keep our minds moving even when we have nothing to do; otherwise it seems to us we’re wasting our time. Rather than just sitting around doing nothing, we start playing a mini-game on the phone: to quit doing things is increasingly becoming a taboo today. The machine of the so-called late-stage capitalism demands from us that we constantly produce (or become products ourselves). Excitement does not stop for a second, there is no rest at all, there is no boredom. Perhaps it would be enough to learn the ancient Chinese art of “doing without effort”. For instance, the skilled butcher never sharpens his knife because he knows how to exploit the spaces inside the flesh, his blade passes through the cavities between the bones and never go blunt; yet if you ask him how he can cut so perfectly maybe he won’t be able to answer. Instinctively, and thanks to practice, this ninja-butcher has learned to recognize emptiness and fullness, he knows when to sink his knife and when to withdraw it, he is aware that the key is alternating effort and relaxation, doing and not doing. Even the God of Genesis, when on the seventh day he allows himself a little relaxation after the efforts of creation, is not just having a rest. He is completing his work through rest. Stasis is an essential moment of creating (and of creation), such a fundamental part that the seventh is the only day that God defines as sacred. Doing without doing, completing with rest: all this sounds very good on paper, but how does it apply to our everyday life? Help comes to us from an often misunderstood state of mind: boredom. A study conducted in 2013 by the University of Central Lancashire suggests that performing a repetitive and uninspiring task can sometimes influence creativity in a positive way. A group of 40 subjects was given a monotonous task consisting in copying phone numbers from a phonebook; on the other hand, a control group wasn’t asked to do anything. Subsequently, psychologists presented polystyrene cups to both groups, asking the participants to come up with as many uses as possible for these objects. Those who had been bored by copying telephone numbers found creative solutions which were definitely more original than the others. Boredom gives the mind an opportunity to rest, but also to fantasize. Scientists are convinced that mind wandering is essential for learning, developing creative thinking, solving problems, planning and simulating future events, and then making decisions.
The Seventh Lesson: Since we are no longer able to simply stop doing, here is a replacement exercise. Try to dedicate yourself to a long, repetitive and above all boring task. You can do whatever you prefer: dust your old collection of action figures, wash the dishes by hand, paint a wall – or even better, perform a completely useless activity. Do it without music, without notifications from your mobile phone, unconcerned about the result and enjoying this ancient sensation to the full. A little boredom is good for the organism, the mind and even philosophy (many thinkers, from Giacomo Leopardi to Bertrand Russell, have included it among the most sublime human feelings).
Therefore, claim boredom as a luxury or, better, an inalienable right! On Monday morning, when your colleagues ask you what you have done on the weekend, you can proudly answer: “I got bored, and I liked it.”
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. (Steven Wright)
This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day. Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line;I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much. In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.
The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.
Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 1 – AND THERE WAS LIGHT
The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.
The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.
The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.”
DAY 2 – THE FIRMAMENT
The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.
Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.
The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.
One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.
Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.
The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.
In quel tempo c’erano sulla terra i giganti,e ci furono anche di poi,quando i figliuoli di Dio si accostaronoalle figliuole degli uomini,e queste fecero loro de’ figliuoli.
Era il 1868. Il tabaccaio George Hull era ateo, e non sopportava quei cristiani fondamentalisti che prendevano la Bibbia alla lettera. Così, dopo un’ennesima discussione esasperante con un suo concittadino convinto che nelle Sacre Scritture non vi potesse essere alcuna metafora, Hull decise che si sarebbe preso gioco di tutti i creduloni, e forse ci avrebbe anche fatto qualche soldo. Si preparò quindi a mettere in piedi quella che sarebbe stata ricordata in seguito come la “più grande burla della storia americana”.
George Hull acquistò un terreno ricco di gesso nello Iowa, e fece estrarre un grosso blocco di pietra squadrata. Con enormi difficoltà, riuscì a far spostare l’ingombrante fardello fino alla ferrovia, dichiarando che serviva per un monumento commissionatogli a Washington. Ma il blocco di gesso venne invece spedito a Chicago, a casa di Edwin Burkhardt, uno scultore di lapidi e busti funerari. Hull l’aveva infatti convinto a lavorare in segreto, con la promessa di un lauto pagamento, alla scultura che aveva in mente. Lo stesso George Hull fece da modello per quella strana statua di quattro metri e mezzo, e quando l’opera fu completa i due passarono sul gesso acidi, mordenti e agenti macchianti per “invecchiare” la scultura. Riuscirono addirittura a ricreare quelli che avrebbero dovuto essere scambiati per i pori della pelle.
Hull tornò quindi con il suo “gigante” a New York, dove lo seppellì dietro il fienile del suo amico e complice William “Stub” Newell. Lasciarono passare un anno e poi, con la scusa che serviva un nuovo pozzo, pagarono una ditta di scavi per cominciare i lavori. Gli operai, ovviamente ignari, scoprirono l’incredibile statua, e già il pomeriggio seguente Hull e Newell avevano eretto una tenda attorno alla “tomba del gigante pietrificato” e chiedevano ai visitatori 25 centesimi per poter ammirare quella meraviglia. Cominciò un immenso passaparola, e il prezzo di entrata raddoppiò in poco tempo a 50 centesimi – una cifra altissima per l’epoca.
Il gigante di Cardiff divenne l’argomento dell’anno: politici, accademici e religiosi ne discutevano con fervore, e le teorie più assurde vennero proposte per spiegare l’enigma. Secondo alcuni il gigante era un missionario gesuita del 1500, secondo altri un indiano irochese Onondaga, ma per la maggioranza, come aveva sperato Hull, il gigante era la dimostrazione inconfutabile che ciò che era scritto nella Bibbia non era soltanto una verità spirituale, ma anche storica. Nemmeno la lettera, proveniente da Chicago, di uno sconosciuto scultore tedesco che affermava di aver preso parte alla beffa, convinse nessuno: erano certamente i vaneggiamenti di un pazzo. Un geologo dichiarò: “il gigante ha il marchio del tempo stampato su ogni arto e fattezza, in un modo e con una precisione che nessun uomo può imitare”.
Il gigante di Cardiff, cominciato come un costoso ed elaborato scherzo, stava diventando un business enorme: venne spostato a Syracuse, dove il prezzo del biglietto salì fino a 1 dollaro – più o meno 60 euro di oggi.
E qui entra in scena il geniale P. T. Barnum. Come sempre, appena fiutava odore di affari, il più grande showman di tutta l’America non si faceva scrupoli. Barnum offrì a Hull 50.000$ per portare in tour il gigante per tre mesi, ma Hull rifiutò. Barnum però non era certo tipo da darsi per vinto: riuscì a corrompere una guardia, e di notte fece intrufolare nella tenda un suo artigiano, che eseguì un calco in cera del gigante. Tornato a New York, ricavò dal calco in cera una copia in gesso, del tutto identica alla statua di Hull, per esporla nel suo museo.
Adesso c’erano quindi in giro ben due giganti! Cominciò una battaglia tragicomica, senza esclusione di colpi. Barnum dichiarò che il suo gigante era l’originale, che aveva comprato da Hull, e che quello di Hull era un falso. Hull denunciò Barnum per diffamazione. In tribunale, Hull ammise che il gigante era una burla, e la corte decise che Barnum non poteva essere ritenuto colpevole di aver dichiarato che il gigante di Hull era un falso, dato che lo era. Durante la disputa, un collaboratore di Hull pronunciò la celebre frase There’s a sucker born every minute (“Ogni minuto nasce un nuovo babbeo”), che sarebbe poi stata erroneamente attribuita a Barnum, e che riassume perfettamente una certa filosofia dello show-business.
E infatti i “babbei” non si fecero attendere. Il processo, paradossalmente, riaccese la curiosità del pubblico per “la grande burla del gigante di Cardiff”, e la folla ricominciò a pagare per vedere non più uno, ma due giganti, che su strade separate continuarono la loro carriera per molti anni, fruttando una fortuna sia a Hull che a Barnum. Se vi interessa sono ancora visibili. L’originale è esposto al Farmer’s Museum a Cooperstown, New York, mentre è possibile ammirare la copia di Barnum al Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum di Detroit. Ed entrambi valgono il prezzo del biglietto… se siete dei babbei.