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Peering into the Abyss: How to make sense of the world (and become better for it)

Making sense of the world is a Herculean—one could argue, impossible—task. But since we insist on it anyways, it’s helpful to at least approach it in a balanced manner. As we explored in the last post, Changing Lenses: How to See the World from Another Point of View, drawing from multiple perspectives lends clarity to situations. When we combine knowledge from numerous disciplines, we end up with a more comprehensive, global understanding.

In this post, we’ll be taking a look at our collective attempts at comprehending the world around us: science, history, psychology, sociology, and gerontology, as well as religion, philosophy, literature and art. We’ll explore their importance as fields of study and how they relate to us. This is by no means an exhaustive list of worthy subjects, just a starting place. In each section, I’ll include a resource (book, podcast or video) that serves as a helpful introduction to the subject.

These disciplines allow us to peer into this abyss called life and work out some of its mechanics. Exploring these areas trigger a De Bono level of engagement; the lateral thinking that promotes creative problem solving. As we expand our expertise, we promote deeper self-understanding and richer connections with those around us. This is an attempt to broaden our perspective and become better people because of it.

For some behind the scenes fun, check out the vlog I made about my own journey into some of these disciplines AKA what’s currently in my book bag!

What we’re not trying to do:

• Be the most educated person in the world
• Learn things to belittle others
• Insulate ourselves in an echo chamber (challenge = growth!)

What we do want to do:

• Explore unfamiliar subject matter
• Seek out different perspectives
• Reflect on our own bias

Let’s get into it…

The Stories We Write 

History consists of names, dates and places, but it’s not a series of stand alone events. History is the linking of trends and movements in culture and nature. It’s the progression of us as a species (errors, achievements, and all) and the progression of the known universe as a whole. It helps us make sense of the current world by understanding what led up to this point. For those feeling especially pessimistic in this day and age, take comfort in the fact that, overall, we’re trending upwards.

Check out:

Crash Course by John and Hank Green (YouTube channel)
• Essentially a video version of Coles Notes (SparkNotes in the States), consolidating textbooks-worth of knowledge into ten- to fifteen-minute clips

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
• An overview of mankind from the Stone Age to the 21st century
• Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read Sapiens, but I’ve heard from numerous trusted sources (plus Barack Obama and Bill Gates) that it’s quite good. I just finished his most recent book, 21 Questions for the 21st Century, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

*Bonus: to create your own history textbook, start a journal. Track your progress, review your mistakes, record your triumphs. Seeing life in writing allows us to rapidly autocorrect and grow. It gives us a dose of realism or a push of motivation, depending on what we need.

The Stories We Discover

Science is the empirical study of natural phenomena. Though the conclusions drawn from research may be misconstrued by a hopeful audience, the data are objectively tracked and measured. The critical thinking required in this field is a crucial and widely applicable habit. Since we have a natural tendency to sway or filter results, the scientific method serves to keep our biases (and sometimes, our stupidity) in check.

Check out:

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre
• Uncovers errors (or absence) of reasoning in popular knowledge of health and medicine
• Reveals the unfortunate influence media have on what we know about science
• Explains statistics and research methods for the layperson

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Psychology is the study of the human mind and behaviour. By tapping into this knowledge, we’re able to better understand ourselves and those around us. We become better decision-makers, performers, family members, and members of society. This field of study seeks to answer core questions about our thoughts and behaviour.

Check out:

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
• Displays the power of perception
• Has prompted widespread awareness about how mindset affects outcome
• I touch on this subject matter in the post “Natural Talent vs. Natural Interest”

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
• Outlines the prerequisites for cultivating a “flow state”
• Argues that the flow state is the essence of happiness and purpose
• I explored this concept in my review of the book

The Stories We Tell Each Other

Sociology applies the scientific method to social problems so we can find appropriate, effective and measurable solutions. Through this research, we’re able to understand the multitude of factors impacting our wellbeing. We more clearly envision our connectedness and shared humanity. It has been referred to as the “science of human relationships.”

Check out:

Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam (NPR Podcast)
• Reports on human behaviour and social issues in relatable manner

The Stories We Become

Gerontology, the study of aging, is a subject most of us avoid until it’s directly relatable to us (ie. we’ve aged). It tackles fears like loss of independence, physical decline and death. By confronting these fears, we are better prepared for a potentially beautiful stage of life. Familiarity with this area helps us cross barriers of age to glimpse the wisdom that comes with age.

Photo credit Matthias Zomer

Check out:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
• Details the aging process, end of life decisions, and hospice options
• Encourages difficult discussions with loved ones before stressful medical situations
• Explores what matters most at the end (quality or quantity)

The Stories We Preach 

Religion has touched us all in one way or another.  As such, it’s important to explore and challenge these ingrained beliefs. Despite the abundance of spiritual traditions, the overarching theme is the same: it’s a “concern with the ultimate meaning of human existence; and an identification with a supernatural power beyond the limits of the human and natural worlds.”1 These two concerns have and will continue to occupy the human mind. 

Since religion generally requires fervent belief, it’s prudent to counterbalance such fervency with humility. As sure as you are about your beliefs, there’s someone on the other side of the world who’s equally sure. Let’s make sure we’re creating a world where we can coexist with each other. Let’s intersperse preaching with learning.

Check out:

Op-Ed by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in the New York Times
• “Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever.”
• Preview of book, “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together”

21 Questions for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
• Addresses pressing ethical questions of our time
• Explores our need for meaning-making and myths

The Stories We Ponder 

Philosophy is about exploring the big questions: the meaning of life, the nature of existence, and the principles of ethics (We can see the similarity with the previous section). The value of philosophy comes from its emphasis on discussion and exploration. Most of us have heard of the Socratic Method: a type of debate wherein a line of reasoning is followed to a deeper understanding or revelation by asking and answering questions. Although this field is often regarded as esoteric, it’s very relatable. As we attempt to create a moral, meaningful life, we’re all confronted with the same age-old questions.

Check out:

On Being with Krista Tippett (Podcast)
• Peabody-award winning show that explores the big questions we all ask

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön
• Depicts and deconstructs simple truths we struggle to grasp

*Bonus quote: “All of us have to answer, for ourselves, the questions asked by philosophers.”2

The Stories We Express

Art and literature are part of culture, but “being cultured” doesn’t necessitate visiting museums or attending operas. Simply expanding our radio selection can prompt an opening of the mind. The same goes for reading a biography if you’re used to fiction, or reading a book of poetry if you’re used to mathematical equations; it might not always stick, but it’s good to see what’s on the other side. Observing different forms of expression allows us to consider unfamiliar perspectives, but it counterintuitively provides a glimpse inward as well.

Check out:

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
• A collection of poignant essays on cultural affairs and personal reflections
• Effortlessly weaves philosophical thought with pop culture and politics (see: “Meet Justin Bieber!” depicting a generation’s love affair through the lens of Martin Buber’s work)

In Search of Lost Time, Volume One: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
• Detailed “ramblings” exploring themes of human interaction and desire
• Philosophy in prose

Spotify Playlist Change-Ups
• If you listen to rap, shift into the Neo-soul genre
• If you indulge in pop, pivot into some indie hits
• If you get down to country, try a taste of modern folk

Wrap up

By becoming more well-rounded, self-aware, empathetic beings, we can continue on our quest of personal development with a clear conscience. We can rest assured that by adopting an open approach, our society will trend towards positive overall growth.

Which of these fields of study catch your eye?

What’s an area you’d like to explore further?


Footnotes

  1. UNESCO. Definitions of Religion. http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_c/popups/mod10t01s01.html
  2. “Why Study Philosophy?” Department of Philosophy, University of Washington. https://phil.washington.edu/why-study-philosophy

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