Dead and alive
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
In this episode
- How to spot when you’re alive.
- How to manage uncertainty.
- How to manage dread.
- How to apply the Schroedinger-Pascal model for anxiety
Sometimes I get a letter from the bank. It might just be a notification that a monthly overseas transfer went through. A lot of letters from the bank are just that, so there’s a good chance. On the other hand, it might be something unpleasant — some bad news. Perhaps I misjudged my budget and I’m too overdrawn to make a repayment.
It is possible.
If I open the letter, I will know for sure which of these it is, but as I circle the unopened envelope I tell myself that the reality may be too stressful for me to handle right now in this precise moment. As long as I leave the letter unopened, the possibility still exists that this letter is perfectly benign and I have plenty of money.
So what about that mole on your shoulder? The one people keep saying you should get checked out? It may be perfectly benign. But it could be a melanoma. The trouble is, as soon as you see the doctor you will know for sure and the reality may be hard to handle. As long as you avoid seeing the doctor, you avoid the certainty of bad news but the possibility of bad news coexists alongside the possibility of good news. The mole is both good and bad.
What about my spinning top? If I tell you I set the top spinning, answer me this: is it spinning clockwise or anticlockwise? The truth is you don’t know. Until you observe it for yourself, the top could be spinning either way.
And therefore it is spinning both ways.
This was precisely the kind of mind game my brother, the engineer, enjoyed playing with me, as a kind of psychological gamesmanship, while we were playing Battling Tops. Literally blinding me with science to knock me off my game.
“Early proponents of quantum mechanics,” he would explain, while carefully winding twine around his top, “called this a superposition of states. Because we don’t know which direction the top is spinning in, the top that is spinning clockwise is superposed, or added together, with the top that is spinning counter-clockwise to create a top that is spinning both clockwise and counter-clockwise at the same time.”
Then he would pull the cord on his top and watch my eleven year-old mind get blown.
Quantum theory is a branch of theoretical physics that tries to explain the strange behaviour of sub-atomic particles, such as electrons. What transpired from experiments with electrons was that as long as the electrons were not being observed they behaved like waves.
Fired repeatedly over time at a wall, via a barrier with two slits, the unobserved electrons would leave a trace in all the possible places they could hit the wall, the way a wave would behave.
But once the scientists attempted to observe and measure this, the electrons did something odd: all the other possibilities collapsed and the electrons only hit the wall directly behind the two slits. The way, for example, a tennis ball would behave if it was fired at the same barrier.
The implications of this are a bit hard to accept. For one thing, because everything we see and touch is made up of atomic particles, then the theory surely must apply to larger objects, too — such as a tennis ball or a letter from the bank …
For another thing, why would the act of measuring somehow influence the particles and cause them to behave differently. Almost as if they know they are being watched? Clearly we need to be careful with our language and how we talk about this or we drift off into fantasy.
It took the Austrian theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger to highlight the inherent difficulties in this type of thinking.
Schrödinger designed an experiment — a thought experiment, meaning the kind that works on paper but would be impractical to set up — that has become rather more famous than its context.
In Schrödinger’s experiment, a cat is placed inside a covered box along with a radioactive particle that has a fifty-fifty chance of decaying and activating a hammer that breaks open a vial of cyanide, killing the cat. As long as the box remains covered, we have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead. And so the superposition theory would say that the cat in the unopened box is therefore both dead and alive. Only once we open the box — the act of measurement — would the cat’s superposed states “choose” one state and collapse into it.
But of course, this is nonsense, we understand how cats work. Simple common sense tells us that inside the box the cat is either dead or alive. One or the other. We just don’t know which. The act of opening the box does not force one outcome, because a cat cannot be both alive and dead. Opening the box simply allows us to see which one applies. The idea that a cat could be simultaneously alive and dead is absurd and that was essentially the point that Schrödinger was making.
Nevertheless, sub-atomic particles, just like people, sometimes behave in ways that common sense is not apt to understand.
For example, electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom in one of various fixed orbits, like spinning tops circling the amphitheatre. If the electrons are excited, charged with a discrete quantity of energy — or quantum — they will leap to a wider orbit. This is the famous “quantum leap” of popular literary metaphor. If they lose that charge they leap to a closer orbit. One orbit or another. Never the fuzzy space in between.
Many years ago, I was sitting in a call centre in one of Britain’s smaller cities, enjoying life and sitting on the cusp of a decision regarding the direction my life would take. This existence, to be honest, was not too bad at all. Work was fun, the people were great, it was good to have money and exercise power over my life.
I wonder if this relatively new experience of power had a bearing on what happened next.
I’ve searched back in memory, but have come up short. I’m afraid to say I don’t recall. What I know is that one moment I was preparing to move away and study psychology, with the long-term aim of practising. I was interested in feelings: what drives them, what they make us do, how we can master them.
The next moment I had abandoned this idea to study foreign languages and literature and was on a bus heading for a lost pine forest.
Both literature and psychology deal with feelings, of course. But while science experiments, documents, theorises and tests in order to obtain exactitudes, art takes a giant charcoal and makes smudges on a blank piece of paper. Both the science and the art attempt to document and explain the human condition but while psychology sticks respectfully to the orbits that can be plotted on a graph and proven, art spills into the fuzzy places in between, which are anyone’s guess. Science has to call a red apple a red apple but literature can call it a rosy orb and more or less get clean away with it.
My best analysis, in retrospect, is that like an electron I got excited, charged, and made a sudden quantum leap to a wholly new orbit.
Art at its best is about finding language for the things that don’t have words, the things science has difficulty proving and pinning down, like feelings. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to it. Science describes the boundaries of the known universe, but art, like our imagination, is limitless. Science deals in precision, but good art and literature thrives on metaphor, symbolism and the unspoken ideas between words.
Particle physicists have to construct a large hadron collider to throw atoms at each other but a writer can make whole worlds collide in a reader’s mind, simply by the implications of words that have been left out. Perhaps that felt like power to me.
For someone who grew up in a pebble-dashed suburb of a forgotten city, the sheer expanse of the forest was a world apart — and a welcome one. Standing at the apogee of the lighthouse, on the circular cast iron balcony that surrounded the lantern room, I could turn through 360 degrees and see no towns. Nothing. The pine trees stretched far beyond the horizon for 180 of those degrees. The ocean covered the other half. Whatever civilisation was, this wasn’t it.
The sun was warm but never so hot you didn’t want to go out in it. After a few months here my pallid Englishman’s skin had turned a happier bronze. My life was very simple. My days were filled with menial work: I fixed broken things around the campsite, such as fridges, boilers and burners. Angry zips that didn’t want to play. I liaised with the local butane supplier. I carried my tool box on a bright blue remorque trailer attached to my bicycle. I would chat with the customers, recommend places to eat. One day I took the mobylette 25 kilometres down the coast to the nearest proper town and bought a sketch pad, pencils and pens. In the evenings I drank cheap supermarket wine, made cassoulets of white beans and local sausage and sat drawing the forest. Some nights I played the guitar.
The work was physical and mostly in the open air. The floor of the forest was soft against my bare feet, the sand and pine needles made a gentle carpet. Sometimes I would finish my working day with a swim. My body became more vigorous and agile. From time to time I would have lunch with John and Betty, an older couple who tended a small estate of mobile homes nearby. Sometimes I played ping pong. There seemed to be plenty of time, that long summer, to explore. I would ride through the forest, with the wind in my hair and should I come upon an interesting place, I would park my mobylette at the side of the road and walk over cones, soft needles and the sparse garrigue of wild azalea, Jacob’s ladder and sweet woodruff until the forest gave way to marram grass and dunes and finally the shifting steel blue mass of the Atlantic.
Every couple of weeks or so a Dutch travelling manager would visit and she and I would spend a few nights together, driving up and down the coast, drinking in piano bars and eating fresh seafood. A very uncomplicated and happy relationship that existed entirely in the present tense, with no rules or boundaries or promises that could be broken.
The pay was very low, I remember, but I also remember that it was quite enough. No one was making excessive demands that I would struggle to pay. In fact the only negative hanging over this existence was the knowledge that it would eventually end. And as the summer wore on, worry about the next stage of my life ate into my peace and threw shadows over the sunlight.
And that shadow is where I want to focus the rest of this episode.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have ruined a good moment with anxiety about future probabilities. How many walks with my daughter have I spoiled for myself by silently worrying about what’s in that letter from the bank? Whether literal or figurative, it eats into your capacity to relax and enjoy, it tenses your muscles, keeps you in a permanent state of fight-or-flight. The panic reflex leads to immune responses, such as inflammation. You can make yourself physically sick with it and there’s a growing body of evidence that this stress-induced inflammation actually causes some types of depression. So by worrying about something you can actually galvanise into being the monstrous lack of will to do anything about it.
And that’s where a lot of us live today. In that shadowland, neither alive nor dead.
If there was one thing I could change about myself today with the flick of a switch it would be that. In reality it takes more than the flick of a switch but what you can switch on directly, what you now know how to switch on, is your open-ness to a new style of thinking. We can use a couple of models to help us. From science we can borrow Schrödinger’s cat and from philosophy we can borrow Pascal’s wager.
Blaise Pascal was a French physicist, mathematician and philosopher. One of the first inventors of mathematical calculating machines, Pascal was a man of proof and precision and someone who wrote at length about scientific method. Working in the seventeenth century, Pascal was a forerunner to the period of Enlightenment that produced thinkers such as Rousseau.
He was also a Catholic and a theologian and it was while studying religion not science that I first came across his famous wager, which is about belief in God. The Christian God. In brief it is this:
Either God is, or He isn’t. We can’t know, and we can’t reason it. When religious leaders ask us to believe, ultimately we are forced to gamble. To throw a coin in the air: Heads, when we die, believers go to heaven and sinners to hell, or tails none of that happens, it’s all made-up. Each of us must wager with their life.
Better then, Pascal argues, to wager that God does indeed exist and aim for faith, because if we are wrong we have lost nothing other than a little worldly sacrifice. But if we are right, we have eternal salvation to gain. On the other hand, if we wager that he doesn’t exist, live against his teachings and then find out he does exist, then we pay a far heavier price for our perfidy.
Pascal’s wager looks like theology but it’s actually mathematics. It’s a probability model for dealing with uncertainty and was the first ever example of decision theory.
Pascal talks about God because can there be any greater uncertainty in the human condition than the concept of deity?
But let’s start with the letter from the bank. Let’s apply my modified Pascal-Schrödinger model for anxiety.
Pascal-Schrödinger model for anxiety
Let’s run for a second with the Copenhagen theory of quantum physics and say that until it is observed, the letter from the bank is both good and bad. Perpetuating this dual, superposed state allows us to hide from the certainty of bad news. But we pay a high price, by living in anxious uncertainty and fear.
Schrödinger reminds us that the cat can’t be both alive and dead, it must be one or the other. The letter cannot really be both good and bad, in reality it is either good news of which we are depriving ourselves, or some kind of early warning which, if ignored will snowball into something much harder to handle. The worry that it contains bad news is stopping us from opening the letter and collapsing the states, forcing us to live with the fear of the unknown rather than deal with a known value.
We cannot deduce by reason which of these it is, though. We are forced to wager. Pascal reminds us that it is better to wager on good news and open the letter, because if we are wrong, the worst that can happen is that we now have the opportunity to fix a known situation and carry out damage limitation. The best that can happen, though, is that we both have a piece of good news and we free ourselves from the fear of uncertainty.
When I look at some of the royal messes I’ve made in my life, the worst of them came from inaction. The worst of them came from not opening that letter. From not making a choice.
For example, one of the letters I ignored contained a speeding fine from the French government. I had been caught on radar doing 45 kilometres per hour in a 40 zone. On my mobylette. The original fine for this rather minor — and somewhat flattering — transgression was 70€. A sting, but a sum I could muster without trouble. By the time the court got involved and forced me, figuratively speaking, to open the letter, the debt had expanded to a whopping 400€, a reckoning that hurt me. I’ve done it time and again, with council tax and electricity bills, with applications for grants or jobs. It is the single biggest violence I perpetrate upon myself, forcing me as it does to live in perpetual fear and anxiety and then finally deal with situations that are far worse for my inaction than they would have been at first.
In fact, it was the failure to open one such letter that eventually forced me to go and work for that toxic diet guru. The one I told you about in our first walk. For me, the unopened letter is literal. But for others the letter is more of a crossroads where a decision must be made.
I’ve made some curious choices in my life, some that people have looked at askance and some that even I look back on and think: wow, what was I thinking? But I’ll tell you this, I’d make most of them all over again. Because when you make a choice, you’re collapsing that box and telling the universe that you’re alive. And I’ll wager on life every time over the zombie state.
You’ve fancied him for ages, should you ask him out? Choose life.
You get another job offer, should you quit your horrible job for the unknown? Choose life.
A troubling situation arises: should you fear the worst or wager on the bright side? Choose life.
How little we need to be happy
I was too young to know it at the time, but the summer I lived in a tent in the shade of a pine forest at the foot of a lighthouse, cradled by the roar of the cicadas and the hiss of the waves, that summer I discovered the secret of life.
And you know what? I wasn’t paying attention. I actually forgot all about it, until recently. At that precise point in my timeline I had everything I needed to live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life. I had food and shelter, I worked on my feet on the open land, without discomfort or excessive effort, breathing in clean air from the sea, exercising my body, surrounded by growing and living things everywhere, by birds, insects, lizards, flowers. My mind was free of toxic thought. I balanced company and solitude, tenderness with physical exertion.
How quickly we become distracted by ambition. How quickly we fall prey to projections, our own and those of others. This idyll represented for me at the time nothing more than a whimsical rural station on the line toward what I believed would be my Real Life. The one in which I got those “qualifications to fall back on,” which employers would roll their eyes at or ignore; the one in which I held down a “proper job” in the city that would give me stomach ulcers and skin inflammation. The one with responsibilities that others foisted upon me and money that served only to pay for the upkeep of everything else. The one in which I made commitments to people and situations because that seems to be what people are expected to do and at some point you have to step up and buckle down and reign in and settle.
I couldn’t get there quickly enough. So impatient was I to get started on all of this, this better future, that I allowed the last part of my eden-like existence in the forest pass without paying attention.
I remember cashing my pay cheque without looking back and hopping on a funky little country train down to Bordeaux to meet up with my friend. We then jumped in his car and roared up the coast to an island of hollyhocks and whitewash. It was there, as the summer was drawing to a close, on a beach of white sand and marram, that I had a magnetic encounter with a woman.
Our life forces were like two spinning tops, inexplicably drawn together by unseen centrifugal forces, by tacit agreements about how the world turned. And for the days I remained on that island, the two of us were locked in a slow, circling dance. She wouldn’t tell me her name, kept me guessing, kept me intrigued and engaged.
The Dalai Lama sums it up very well. It’s a quote you’ll find on a thousand memes, but no less true for all its ubiquity. Asked what surprises him the most, the Tibetan spiritual leader writes:
Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.
The first collision came on my last night and its impact sent me spinning out high above the tree line. As I soared, I could see the pine forests on the mainland, stretching out to the north and the south, the gaping mouth of the Garonne, the white sands a trivial trimming on the edges of the vast ocean. And down there on the beach, like ants, the two of us lay.
Marry me. Had she really said that?
It was surely a joke. The idea was impossible. We were kids. I had a route laid out before me. A route to Real Life, not this youthful fantasy. And as I came spinning back towards the Earth I caused the next collision.
It’s not possible, I said. And besides —
But the impact had sent us again spinning away, wobbling this time in faulty circles careening off the edges of the amphitheatre.
And besides — I continued — I don’t even know your name.
I fail to see how that’s the important thing about me, she said. But if you must know, it’s Sophie.
That’s when she toppled and came skidding to a halt, defeated in the arena. What I thought had been a joke had been deadly serious. And I had dismissed someone’s truth without paying attention.
Me, I didn’t topple then. I carried on wobbling for years, caught on that cusp. Trapped in limbo, in all possible states, neither dead nor fully alive.
As I was sent hurtling towards the next station on my pre-planned trajectory, I couldn’t help but wonder if real life had literally just passed me by while my eyes were fixed on the horizon.
A few years ago, in Paris, feeling battered from this trajectory, I began talking with the customers of a diet guru with less than healthy practices. It was my own stubborn refusal to open a letter that had forced me to put my own burgeoning business aside and work for this toxic man, to pay off a debt.
There was nothing especially bad about his diet, but his treatment of people, his respect for his customers and the way he treated his own staff made working for him deeply unpleasant.
The customers who wrote to me were doing so in desperation. Overwhelmingly, they felt disempowered, timorous, anxious. Some were grieving, some were in denial, some were hardly there at all, their voices were so apologetic. I discovered that, with those who reached out to me to talk in any case, their relationship with food was tortuously intertwined with a complex set of other psychological aspects. And the diet guru did nothing to address or soothe these. Quite the opposite, he made sure he twisted the knife and kept them down. He nurtured their sense of failure and fed off it. And while I was not qualified to give professional advice on this score I could certainly chat as a friend.
These were all things I had wrestled with at some point. Many of us have.
I believed that if I could help them — using examples and stories from my own life — to see how they could act to boost their self-esteem, to nurture their own legitimacy, to foster their own sense of agency, to enjoy their solitude and fear social transactions less, to modify their own locus of control and to get into the driving seat of their own cognitive processes; if i could help them via stories to feel happier and more grounded in their own skins, then their relationship with food would fall more easily into place. And I discovered that it worked.
In the next season of 30 Walks, I want to talk about other people. The things they do and say. The way they act towards us. Our relationships with them and how we react to them. The people we draw into our lives and those we leave on the margins. Those who pull us in and those who cast us out. The groups we join and leave. Our enemies and our friends.