the smell of earth after rain
In many things, humans are no more insightful than the other animals. For all our attempts at prediction, it’s not the weather report that warns us of the approaching thunderstorm, it’s the silence of the birds.
People are not special in the way we fall down. We are special only in the way we get up again. Unlike the birds, we can turn to each other and marvel at the squall. If one quality could be said to characterise the human condition, it would be this. Like petrichor, after the storm, we make ourselves known again.
Humans possess this kind of extraordinary flexibility to thrive. We are the dominant force in almost every biosphere on the planet. We create communities and cultures that outlast catastrophe to span thousands of years. And we are each maps of the scars that brought us to where we are. Human stories invariably speak to our capacity to endure the changing fortunes of time.
This quality is borne of one thing: humans, of all the animals, have the greatest capacity for nurture. Our capacity to thrive is due to our ability to adapt, and our ability to adapt is merely a reflection of our ability to come together and share ideas.
Yet there is no doubt that much is wrong with the world. The map of our scars only grows with the passing of time, and the storms are more frequently created by us. There is an old story that is told to explain why.
This story tells of a people who, despite their best efforts, are deeply flawed: prideful, jealous, greedy, destructive. Think of Pandora’s fateful curiosity; the Buddists’ concept of Taṇhā; the ever-present stain of biblical sin. Consider the selfishness of the baby boomers and the entitlement of the millenials. In all cases it would seem that we are fated to take more than we deserve.
This story is laced into our allegories of the many and the few, the in-group and the out-group, the weak and the strong. Caesar’s slaughter of the Gauls; Hobbes’ war of all against all; today’s reflections on the myriad relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors. And no modern story is complete without lamenting the state of the capitalist system: the opulence of the rich, the misery of the poor, and our ceaseless yearning to join the caste of the unjust, laying waste to our forests, our oceans, and our fellow travellers to that end. Our nature is one of survival and competition and thus, for all our strength in coming together, we are destined to be alone; at war.
These narratives trend toward indictment. They condemn us to failure while simultaneously condemning us for failing. For our weaknesses, we are doomed to walk this perpetual cycle, “the halt, the lame, half-made creatures that we are”.
But there is another narrative.
William James called us “half awake. Our fires are damped, our rafts are checked… the human individual lives usually far within his limits”. It is this: the peculiar deadening of the human capacity that is the true source of our struggle. Our ability to cultivate our limits—to nurture ourselves and each other—these things are stifled by the very shelters we built to protect us from the storms we created.
Today, our culture slots us increasingly into narrow bands of opportunity, even as our ability to communicate and explore ideas grows. We spend our formative years in a primary education system that systematically fails to develop our potential. We go on to invest time and debt into tertiary institutions that are increasingly ill-suited to the needs of the world-at-large. The successful outcome of this process leads us to occupations that require only the tiniest sliver of our capacities, but, as technology intrudes into every quiet space, the maximum amount of our attention. What little attention remains is routinely directed towards the economy of shame, outrage, yearning, and terror that floods our media streams and away from any form of real connection or meaningful pursuit. And all along this hectic path we find our friends, our families, and our mentors have been pushed to the margins.
We are assigned roles that we never signed up for, surrounded by people who don’t understand us, encouraged to engage with issues that don’t concern us, and left no choice but to vote for leaders who misrepresent us. We are made automata, built to serve the needs of a system we never agreed to contribute to and unable to reach out or grow because we were never granted the tools. As such, we are perpetually caught unawares by the storm.
Storms are weathered by the prepared. We, more than any creature, have the capacity to prepare. We can be more than that which we have been told we should be. Not alone and at war, but together, on the heels of those who came before and in the arms of those around us.
But first we must rise from our lethargy, and embrace our capacity to nurture ideas. We must uncheck our rafts, stoke our fires, and cultivate the domains of our capacities that have lain dormant. We each pay a price to live with ourselves on the terms that we will. When those terms are spelled out clearly, that price doesn’t have to be so costly. This project is about waking up, so that, like petrichor, after the storm we can rise again.
There are many ways to measure success. Wealth. Status. Fame. Power. Productivity. Yet, typically, each of these is corrupted by a comparison to the other. Power is measured against the deferral of others. Status against recognition. Productivity against demand. Wealth against our models of what defines the wealthy. The exception, perhaps, might be something like happiness, for ourselves and our families. But happiness, like any emotion, is necessarily fleeting. To seek to hold these states constant is an ill-fated affair.
Despite their corruption, each of these metrics of success hold at their core a thread. They are each a proxy for something deeper: an attempt to prepare for the silence of the birds. We habitually look to others to tell us how prepared for the storm we should be. We do this because our ability to cultivate our own understanding is limited by a system that values us, not as individuals or as communities, but rather for how well we engage in the system. As Girard:
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.
Or, as Žižek:
The problem is, how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural, about human desires. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.
Project Petrichor puts forward a different value system. One of devoting ourselves to our defining quality. We have the capacity to support one another to weather the storm. To do so, we must no longer live “half awake”, but instead open ourselves to the full range of human experience. In this new system there are no roles we are forced into, because there are no single points of failure—we each teach and are taught; we each are prepared to weather the storm, and so we are each better placed to help others in the effort. As such, it holds three key values:
- Devotion to the project is the end, as well as the means. Our progress should not be dictated to us by others and our success not defined on their terms, but instead be measured by the steps one takes along the path to petrichor.
- Key to this endeavour is balance. Weight any facet of the project too heavily, and the project comes undone.
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is no serious capacity for change without the exchange of ideas, the sharing of knowledge, and the support we can provide to others in their efforts to weather the storm.
Two precepts guide the project. We start with our focus, something to guide us: a cynosure. In this, we must focus on growth, on the celebration of our successes, and on sharing our successes with those people who sustain us. But, for such focus, we must also build the architecture to support us in the effort. Systems of thinking and acting, and of gathering and maintaining those tools which provide the means of life.
A cynosure is a centre of attention, focus, and guidance. Ours should be in setting goals on a pathway towards moral growth, but also in rejoicing in our achievements. It should be practical, but also aspirational. It should tell us what must be done now, but also where we should look to the future. And always, it should include others who share in our successes.
The search for a righteous, fulfilling, and moral way of being, is a concept that has preoccupied every major philosophic and spiritual tradition. According to the greats, this way of being is the path to eudaemonia—wellbeing of the highest order. In the east we might know it as dharma, and in the west as the Greek arete or ‘virtue’. These concepts have filtered their way through civilisations uncounted and all coalesce on a core of achievement and excellence, but within the boundaries of morality.
Any fact about morality is at it’s core an attempt to make a utilitarian judgement about the wellbeing of those involved, which can only be explored in the context of the mind in the loosest sense—the capacity to feel, think, and act. Thus, any journey towards betterment must consider these things.
So, let’s consider them.
All major traditions of wellbeing also tell us that we should also be guided toward eudaimonia by something like the Hindu kama or Maslow’s hierarchy toward self-actualization. The autopoietic drive towards those positive states and pleasure which are the function of our self-renewal, but also that which drives us towards creativity and expression. Our cravings for gratification can often be maladaptive and, as captured in the Buddhist taṇhā, lead to suffering. Yet, by balancing surrender and constraint, gratification remains at the core of eudaemonia, and no true betterment can occur without celebrating the fruits of our successes.
So, let’s celebrate them.
Despite the trope of the ‘competent man’, no man is competent alone.
It’s no secret that we are lonelier than ever. We are fond of talking about the perils of modern society, but of these threats the collapse of our communal impulses and our increasing isolation is the one that often concerns us most. It would be conspiratorial to suggest that this was by intent, but it is certainly by design. As a society, we continue to choose directions that draw us away from each other.
Communities require a persistent environment, such that people can develop shared interests and shared experiences. These things are vectors for the discovery and development of shared beliefs, and on this basis community emerges.
Communities also require obligation. The kind of commitment to one another that cannot be broken by time, or the changing circumstances of life. Our communities must become more to us than the kind of fair-weather family that characterises our modern connections, and more like the deep blood ties many of us feel toward our siblings, parents, or children. The kinds of connection that have no particular relationship with how much we might like someone or how they behave, but exist anyway, above it all.
Finally, communities require culture. Shared values and ideals that create identity and go beyond the individual, but are also close enough to our hearts that we can connect with them.
Creating such communities is no easy feat to be sure. The increasing urbanisation, globalisation, and digitisation of modern life fractures these communal foundations, even as our ability to connect across time and space grows. By turning these new tools to our advantage, and rekindling those older skills that have faded we can once again choose directions that draw us together.
So, let’s choose them.
Our architecture is the means of support; those things which sustain us. Those instruments both within and outside ourselves that enable the satisfaction of our and our community’s growth, success, and desires. As the Hindu Artha, or Maslow’s hierarchy, we must seek out the means of life.
Today, the scholastic enterprise is a bit funny. The pursuit of truth, but only for those who can read the articles. Terminology that isolates us from expression. Facts for the sake of facts, without understanding. A thousand proliferating disciplines, showering us with isolated fragments of information until “we know more and more about less and less”.
The information that does make its way to us is necessarily filtered. Not always by intent, but rather by the pressures attendant upon producing the information in the first place. Narratives which centre on an economy of shame, outrage, yearning, and terror have come to dominate, and narratives of growth have become increasingly superficial.
The good ideas are buried among all these fragments.
To find those ideas, we must create an architecture of thought: a system of knowledge that can guide us in the pursuit of understanding. But knowledge is nothing except in relation to the way we use it. Our architecture of thought must be embedded in the context of our desires and coordinated in the light of experience. In short, we must become wise.
And the best way to learn is to teach our future selves.
So let’s do that. Let’s turn scholarship into wisdom.
Our digital lives are as much an entity as our physical lives. We each manage an online ‘person’, who has interactions with other online ‘people’ and services, much as we would in the physical world.
These digital lives have become much more than just an interface to our physical selves. We do the majority of our socialising online, often with people we only know online. Most of our possessions are online, in the form of photos and documents and conversation histories. We watch movies online and listen to music online. Many of us conduct our entire workday online: students, office workers, researchers, managers. Our physical lives are simply fit in around the margins. And yet, we don’t treat these digital selves of ours very well. In fact, we don’t really treat them as anything at all. This is a problem.
So, we’re going to give our digital person the attention it deserves, and build it a digital house. A digital architecture if you will. We’ll take back control of our digital presence from the companies that own us, learn to manage the digital threats that face us, and most importantly learn to keep safe our digital possessions in the face of trouble.
In pulling together these threads, we create a secure digital home for our digital self.
We are necessarily capacity-limited by the tools we are afforded, and the most basic of these is our body. As Juvenal, mens sana in corpore sano: we should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
There is no doubt that both mental and physical resilience are necessary for wellbeing, but these remain moving targets for academics, specialists, and individuals.
There are, however, some basic principles we can apply. Perhaps each of us may struggle to reach the pinnacle of health, but there is no reason so many of us should be struggling at the bottom.
In sum, our focus should be on functional fitness—mind and body. A baseline of understanding and a baseline of resilience in the face of the changing fortunes of time.
Less obviously, perhaps, this fitness necessitates ‘trials’ of one form of another—a development through perspective. Without an understanding of the facets of the world we live in—the physical, emotional, and social challenges they pose—we can never quite be prepared to seize opportunities when they come. Instead we are merely poised to survive the challenges as they arise. The question that leaves us, of course, is how we might cultivate these trials artificially—in the absence of the high stakes these trials pose to us when we encounter them in the world.
So, we ask and we answer.
“If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy…”.
The path toward betterment is at its core a question of our place in the world: how to improve ourselves and those around us by our contributions to the world. In times past and today, this journey has most often been intrinsically bound up in godliness. For many, only through spiritual maturity—an enduring connection with the sacred and the truth therein—might we discover growth, success, and gratification. In the more secular worlds of today, we turn instead to the comforts of philosophy and the scientific method for the same guidance.
In the secular world, we consider morality most often through the lens of consequentialism. Do the least harm and the most good. Under that lens, we have come to believe that morality can be quantified. We interpret questions of morality in terms of the biological capacity for wellbeing. To a stone one would act differently than to a tree, than to a dog, than to a child, than to an adult and so on. In such a conception, one could theoretically imagine a secular, objective morality based on a science of the mind—a given subject’s capacity for perception, and thus capacity for states of wellbeing.
Unfortunately, in a similar way to any deterministic claim about mind and behaviour, while this may be true, for all intents and purposes it is eventually unhelpful. The systems of this world are too complex for our tools to measure. And thus, whether secular or spiritual, to determine the path to virtue is inevitably a journey of faith.
But all faith lies on this fundamental core—whether through the guidance of the god(s) or through an understanding of some objective moral landscape—we seek to find our place within the systems within systems of this world.
The Rarámuri believe that each moving body part has a unique soul, from the joints of the fingers to the ‘heart’ and the ‘head’. These souls, or ariwi, must be cared for lest they become sick and the body begins to fail. Similar ideas pervade many health traditions. Today we would call these things organs, or cast our net wider perhaps and include other systems like the microflora of our bodies.
But the notion of these things as souls with agendas of their own highlights something important. At some level, we can and do view the body as an aggregate of disparate parts and each has a role to play that might help or hinder the role of the others.
This aggregate quality is reflected both within us and without. As our bodies are comprised of many souls, so too is the world comprised of many bodies. Any line of thinking that follows this path eventually notes that while we are us at the level we perceive the world, we are many different things at many different levels of perception.
Thus, we find ourselves in the territory of any mystical spiritual tradition—the pervasive notion that we are part of some unifying ‘oneness’. We are a part of both everything and nothing.
This finding should guide our search for morality. Thinking at scales bigger and smaller than ourselves provides perspective in our efforts to participate in the world. Whether we do this in a secular fashion or a spiritual fashion, we should hold close the faith that we can discover more.
Let’s discover more.
Of course, as sufficient as we become in mind, body, and spirit to confront the changing fortunes of time, it’s no secret that we must also seek those instruments outside ourselves that enable the satisfaction and growth of our communities. Securing food, shelter, and safety. Securing resources to underpin growth.
Yet, one feature of any developing civilisation is the increasing specialisation of the population, and the deferral of many tasks to the state or to other agents. Outside of our areas of expertise, and the income our work in that domain brings, we find ourselves increasingly dependent on others to provide these resources. In becoming specialised, in many ways, we become helpless.
Specialisation is for insects. Specialisation leaves us vulnerable. And specialisation leaves us not only less capable of securing resources beyond value of our contribution in our specialisation, it also leaves us less capable of making connections with those outside our speciality.
The creation of a wealth architecture, therefore, should be a process of expanding our horizons beyond the narrow band we have learned to inhabit. It should be a process of developing a ‘from-zero’ mindset—developing a knowledge of systems that allows us to generate resources from zero. From the basic, like food, hygiene, and healthcare, to the complex, like the generation of income.
And, though there is much to say for a depth of knowledge, there is also much to be said for a broad knowledge of the basics. An understanding of the minimum viable conditions, resources, and knowledge required to succeed across the lifespan.
So, let’s succeed.