Clouds are frequently considered for the information they can give us about the weather, about what types of crops will fare well, and about what clothes we may wear comfortably. It is less common, however, to find clouds consulted for the wisdom they may offer us about ourselves. In fact, even saying so aloud can seem ridiculous. In popular culture, appeals to keep one’s feet on the ground and one’s ears close to the ground undermine some very practical lessons we can learn from the skies, while expressions like down to earth, and pie in the sky create the impression that gazing upwards is a dangerous hobby – only for the foolish, and something that should be avoided at all costs. It is not surprising, therefore, that despite the presence of clouds in our everyday lives their wisdom has become easy to overlook, for rarely does it feature on billboards, in the pages of popular magazines, or on highly-rated television programs. It is for this reason today, that I would like to examine more closely what clouds may teach us about an important and complex question often faced in modern living. One which regularly haunts the subconscious thoughts of many down below. The question is that of retaining one’s sense of identity amidst a large and sometimes confusing crowd.
We are reminded often that the world as we know it has become far more interconnected than ever before. As each day passes our exposure to other people – both in real life and through digital media – increases so phenomenally that it becomes difficult to comprehend exactly how many people actually exist, each living lives as complex and intricate as our own. But with this knowledge there occasionally appears an unwelcome feeling of being small, ordinary, or of following the same pattern as everyone else. On the worst days – when crossing a busy city street amidst the hustle and bustle of peak hour – it is easy to feel as though one’s sense of identity is quietly slipping away, that amidst such noise and movement one is merely inconsequential, and that if one is not careful, one may disappear. Nor is it uncommon to find oneself feeling far lonelier at a crowded dinner table than alone in one’s bedroom eating chips and pottering about. But it is here, I believe, that clouds may help.
Clouds, by their very nature, are difficult to define. The Oxford English Dictionary itself uses many inexact words to define them:
A visible mass of condensed watery vapour floating in the air at some considerable height above the general surface of the ground.
It even contains an entry that reads simply ‘a type of the fleeting or unsubstantial.’ And although there are three major categories into which clouds are classified, it remains true that no two clouds look alike. It also remains true that crowds function primarily in groups: in speech, when we name a cloud, we use a singular term to refer to what is actually a multitude of countless raindrops and ice crystals. This reveals how natural it is to think of clouds as singular rather than separate entities. In short, even the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps without even realising it, agrees that clouds are far more mysterious than it would seem at first glance.
But not too long ago, I stumbled upon another dictionary. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a project dedicated to identifying and naming the nuances of sentiment not yet adequately covered by the English language. Its founder, John Koenig, has created the beautiful word sonder to refer to the realisation mentioned earlier, which often occurs amidst a large crowd:
If one were to pay too much attention to things like advertising, or the fashion pages of magazines, the idea of sonder may seem a horrible prospect. Be more, be better, stand out, do the never done proclaim so many adverts, adding fuel to a distinctly modern insecurity about being too much like anybody else. Or worse yet, being only an extra on complex and crowded stage. When one compares the fervent promotion of individualism (and I speak here primarily about individual expression, not individual rights) in the contemporary human world, to the slow and measured pace of clouds as they drift thoughtfully and patiently through the skies, it is difficult to deny that clouds seem to have accepted something that we humans have not. For the idea of sonder – though at first glance it may seem cause for despair – is really an eloquent acceptance of the complexity of the world, and an acknowledgement that the stranger next to you is just as complex as yourself. It can make us more appreciative of, and respectful towards, the unique experiences of other people. It reminds us too that we are not, and needn’t be, the centre of the universe. Sonder is far more in line with the melancholic wisdom of clouds as they pass silently above us each day, making no demands for attention and no loud calls for an audience.
Like sonder, clouds acknowledge the occasional necessity, or inevitability, of the crowd. They understand that bearing occasional resemblance to others needn’t negate one’s individuality. They do not trouble each another with patronising accusations of adhering to a ‘herd mentality’ when it is uncovered that one enjoys something that has perhaps become suspiciously popular, or when it is revealed that one drives the same car as somebody else. For even in the fanciest of cars you must spend most of your time driving cooperatively within the lines specified upon the road.
Clouds do not use the same false dichotomies as advertising, with its assertions that if one is not a leader, one is inevitably a follower. In fact, I have just realised whilst writing this, that the word “cloud” very closely resembles the word “crowd” – and yet, because of the endless shapes and formations into which clouds can transform themselves at the blink of an eye, it is far more common to think of them primarily as creatures of independence and not conformity. This is despite the fact that they are, by their very nature, bound to a larger group. Clouds understand that when we rely too heavily on only one term or concept to define ourselves, unfair generalisations become far too easy, as does the risk of missing the finer details that cannot be captured in a cursory glance. Labels may help us to understand the world and each other, but it is important to remember that they often overlap, interact with one another, and should not be taken as the definitive measure of anyone’s identity. As if to prove the point, just one minute ago I spotted a cloud drifting by that resembled an extremely detailed and terrifying monster, but which then quickly and unexpectedly took the form of a shoe.
As well as this, clouds are content to let us think of them what we will. Despite how often we might picture them as sprightly creatures of lightness and grace, clouds are far denser than they appear. And if we can move from the literal into the figurative for a moment, the same can be said of the people who make up a crowd. The Cloud Appreciation Society has made note of this, and reminds us in their manifesto that clouds, like people, are far more than they may at first seem:
We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.1
Since 2005, the society has devoted itself to bringing the wisdom of clouds to a wider audience. On their website members elect a cloud of the day, share images of the shapes and creatures they have found in the clouds, and are currently writing a proposal to create the world’s first museum of clouds. For as they point out, clouds remind us of transience, of expressions or states of being that come and go, and that needn’t be used as the only means of defining oneself or another.
Now, having said all this, I arrive at one of the more serious problems of crowds, and one that I do not wish to overlook in this piece. As far as I know, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard did not pay an unusual amount of attention to clouds, nor write anything in praise of the numerous characters they assume as they shift endlessly across the skies. He did, however, recognise one of the major reasons behind a general distrust towards crowds, and one that accounts for the widespread, contemporary distrust towards them. In his essay The Trouble With Crowds, Kierkegaard explains that much of the tension surrounding human crowds is not so much to do with the fact that they exist, but more to do with when they are treated inappropriately as a source of authority and a means for determining the ‘truth.’
There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth [for] a crowd – not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, or rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept – is untruth, since the crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision. […] A crowd is an abstraction, which does not have hands; each single individual, on the other hand, normally has two hands.
Here Kierkegaard is writing specifically about the means of determining truth – while I am writing about the tension that arises when individual self-expression is compared to the inevitable fact of belonging, at various times, to crowds and groups of different sorts. Writing against the ‘decisive importance’ that is more frequently given to the group rather than the individual, Kierkegaard argues that that truth becomes corrupted when it is agreed upon by too many and then subsequently mistaken for truth. In the following passage he highlights the tension between not only the crowd and truth, but also a perceived tension between the crowd and individuality:
Never at any time was even the most cowardly of all single individuals so cowardly, as the crowd always is. For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual, […] contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice” which is: the crowd.
There is much truth to what Kierkegaard writes, for feeling as though your mind has been made up for you, against your will by a larger force around you is never a good thing. When Kierkegaard writes that in being part of a group one’s responsibility is made only ‘a fraction of his decision’, he acknowledges the need (or perhaps inevitability) for compromise when dealing with multiple parties. To never submit to compromise is to dictate, and the modern suspicion that our status as an individual will diminish if we accept too much compromise is one that is prone to overstatement. (For an interesting discussion about this in the contemporary media, see The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen). Clouds too understand this need, and calmly address it when required. Discussing how clouds are able to remain in the sky without falling down, the Free School informs us that ‘individual droplets are not heavy enough to overcome the resistance of the air below them until they join together into much larger drops,’ producing what we recognise as rain.
But as well as understanding the need for cooperation in serious endeavours, clouds also possess far more wisdom than humans for another reason. In understanding that it is sometimes necessary to remain in a group, clouds know too that there are other times when it is wiser and more necessary to break away from that group if it ceases to properly represent them. Clouds accept that identifying occasionally as part of a group does not threaten their status as a freethinking and serious individual, not do they let only the crowd or their status as an individual define them. They move seamlessly between each mode with the stoutness to accept when each is necessary, and the courage to leave when it is not. For (as Kierkegaard suggests) there are times when it is far wiser to leave than to stay, depending of course, on each particular context.
Kierkegaard and clouds both remind us that it is sometimes wiser to calmly and with consideration break away from a group that no longer represents one’s values or identity. In fact, their ability to move from one mode to the other is exactly what is so enchanting about watching them. When the poet below writes that his clouds are ‘now gorgeous, now sombre, then fading away,’ he captures the way in which watching the skies can prompt the same calming pleasure that we get from watching a crowd from the window of a train – somewhere where we are close enough to see the details in the paining before us, but not too far for them to distort into a picture of what may otherwise seem like monotony. And when it comes to whether or not such scenes should be seen as a threat, clouds are wise enough to not care for the question and to never ask it, avoiding much of the anxiety it creates in the modern world.
1 Official manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society.