On clouds, and remaining an individual amidst a crowd

Inauguration Crowd

Image courtesy of Jake Brewer/Flickr/Creative commons

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:

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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.

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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.

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Advert currently in Camberwell

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.

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We often need to take a closer look to ensure that we have seen everything

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.

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Recognising the wisdom of clouds, many go to great lengths to get as close to them as possible

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.

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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.

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A poem by an unnamed author that appeared in the Portland Guardian (Victoria) on Thursday 5 February 1942. Click on image for source

References:

Official manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

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On unluckiness: Friday the 13th

Nothing was entirely supposed to go right and so nothing has particularly gone wrong.

Alain De Botton

Today, Friday the thirteenth , is purported to be an unlucky day.

It is unclear what, historically, has made Friday the 13th a day of bad luck, but popular theories have connected it to Biblical events that were said to have occurred on a Friday, as well recurrences of the number thirteen: the crucifixion and the death of Adam and Eve reportedly occurred on a Friday, and the presence of Judas Iscariot as the thirteenth guest at the Last Supper are some examples often cited.

In contemporary society, the bad luck associated with Friday the thirteenth is responsible for the dread of an estimated 17–21 million people each year, a number large enough that an official classification of friggatriskaidekaphobia has been named to describe the condition. Symptoms of friggatriskaidekaphobia include avoidance of things like flying on an aeroplane, going to work or even pronouncing the words ‘Friday the thirteenth’. Anxiety, panic attacks and a nagging sense of doom also lurk among the symptoms.

Without wanting to suggest that this kind of fear is a good state to be in, I would, however, like to continue a strand of thought started by Alain De Botton in a video about pessimism. De Botton suggests that there’s nothing foolish or superstitious about possessing a fear of the present moment, but that there is a surprising and useful amount of practicality, and indeed wisdom, in possessing an impending sense of doom every now and then.

We’re currently living in troubled times, and many of us respond to these troubled times with a feeling of injured self-pity. As though something that was supposed to have gone right has gone wrong. I would like to reverse the equation: nothing was entirely supposed to go right, and so nothing has particularly gone wrong.

Alain De Botton

In other words, every day is an unlucky day, or at least an unlucky day for someone, and our fear and frustration arises when we expect otherwise, that life should essentially be trouble-free.

In the video above, De Botton cites expectation as the prime reason for anger: when we expect things to go well and they don’t, we become angry. It’s likely that expectations also play a part in creating many people’s dread of Friday the thirteenth. When the date is seen as an abnormality against the ‘norm’ – a state of living where things generally go right – anything unfortunate that happens will be remembered in relation to the fact that it occurred on Friday the thirteenth. This is a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘confirmation bias’; something that can create a mistaken faith in the idea that things are, essentially, generally supposed to go well.

As De Botton points out numerous times in his speeches, the ancient Romans were much better at processing the idea of bad luck or ill-fortune than modern societies. In Ancient Rome, Fortuna –  the goddess of Fortune – was acknowledged and thanked when things went well. Success was not necessarily seen as the normal state of affairs, and Lady Luck was often depicted wearing a blindfold, to convey the fickle and unpredictable nature of fortune: she might strike at anyone randomly, with no thought for what consequences.

Although this may seem a pessimistic starting point, De Botton argues that it frees us from the distinctively modern idea that we have personally failed in some way when things don’t go well. The ancient Romans remembered, much more easily than we do today, that very little in life is actually within our control.

Fortuna, or Lady Luck. Above all things, blind.
Fortuna, or Lady Luck. Above all things, blind

Fortuna’s ancient Greek counterpart, Tyche, was similarly represented. In the sculpture below, she wears a crown, while sitting comfortably with a handful of grain atop a struggling figure – perhaps an ancient farmer who wanted only to polish his tools before she came along. A mere glance at her composed countenance can remind anxious onlookers – or anyone whose hands are wrung tightly in confusion at the state of things – that Fortune reigns as queen over all health, life and prosperity, and that this is something that is far easier dealt with when accepted.

The Tyche of Antioch, Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides.
The Tyche of Antioch, Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides
Harvey Dent is perhaps the most obvious symbol of the modern man in relation to the idea of luck: he thinks he can make his own luck but is ultimately and unfortunately undone by greater forces. His effort is sincerely applauded, but his optimism can be damaging when overindulged in.
Harvey Dent, perhaps one of the clearest symbols of the modern man in relation to the idea of luck: he ‘makes his own luck’ for most of the film, but is ultimately undone by greater forces. His effort is sincerely applauded, but this bad turn of events reveals the frailty of even the greatest idealists in relation to that most fickle of guardians, Lady Luck.

In the modern world, however, stability in the form of breakfast, traffic lights, school timetables and regular mortgage repayments can often disguise the inconsistency with which the world is governed. The benefits of surrounding ourselves with both private and public reminders of the fragility of life – rather than unrealistic images of perfection that we see in the pages of glossy magazines – can easily be overlooked.

In public spaces, sculptures such as those by artist Lorenzo Quinn can remind us that we are all at the mercy of Fortune, and that every day we have lived so far has been lived according to these constraints. Acknowledging bad luck every now and then – as the ancient Greeks did with their love of tragedy – can keep our perspectives in check and help us adapt to the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

The Force of Nature by Lorenzo Quinn. Click on image for source.
The Force of Nature by Lorenzo Quinn. Click on image for source

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In order to resurrect some of the wisdom of the ancient Romans, I would like to suggest that sculptures of giant question marks should be scattered here and there. In busy city streets especially, or perhaps broadcast into the night sky in lights, so that when people step outside to wring their hands and look at the moon they needn’t feel too lonely in their confusion.

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Remembering that luck does sometimes get the better of us can be a useful reminder of how vast and mysterious, and beautiful and terrible the world actually is. It needn’t always be a cause for despair.

I entreat you (however trite the words may be) to think that life is not empty nor made for nothing, and that the parts of it fit into one another in some way; and that the world goes on, beautiful and strange and dreadful and worshipful.

William Morris

Along this line of thinking, Friday the thirteenth becomes less a terrifying anomaly in the calendar, but a survivable day, just like any other – albeit one where we can pause for a moment to acknowledge that everybody is at the mercy of Lady Luck. But if that doesn’t work, it might be worth remembering that today is the third Friday the thirteenth of 2015, and if you’re reading this, you already survived the other two.

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Is that you in the mirror Lady Luck? 

 

 

What is wrong with being ordinary?

There are many annoying things about advertising.

How loud and in your face it can be,

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(Because billboards don’t have wheels)

The way you are sold a product through an (often highly polished and unrealistic) image of a coveted lifestyle,

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And the way women’s heads are periodically removed from their bodies:

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But one theme in advertising that has been bothering me lately is this: That to be ordinary – to be anything remotely like anyone else – is unacceptable.

seen not herd toyota ad

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Advertising is something I try not to pay too much attention to, mainly because when I look at most ads the standards they imply through photos such as those above strike me as unfair and unrealistic. Like a strange pseudo-reality, or a fictional narrative in which one has to suspend one’s disbelief to get very far, ads frustrate me from how removed they often are from everyday life.

And yet, as frustrating as they can be, ads are part of everyday life. As Hank Green explains eloquently here, advertising functions on the premise of creating ‘need where no need exists’ – or in other words, on the very ability to get into our daily lives and show us how, in one way or another, we are missing out. And so, I hover between being frustrated by tag lines such as ‘Never Hide’ and ‘Do Not Dress Like Child‘, and interested in the ways in which advertisements can inform us about the cultures in which we are living.

When we look back to vintage ads like these below, we get a glimpse of what the dominant social values were in any particular time and context. Advertising provides us with valuable resources for understanding different times, cultures, and societies, as well as the dominant values, standards, and views of those societies. In this sense, advertising carries immense cultural weight:

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Ads such as these tell us much about the dominant attitude towards women in 1960s America

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Ads reveal what’s perceived as ordinary, or perhaps more interestingly, what should be considered ordinary according to the dominant standards of the day. But as well as this advertising can function also, for better or for worse, as an active cultural force: A feedback loop that reflects, but also sets and shapes the standards for how to live, or how to live ‘well’.

When musing on wealth and advertising in the South of France, Hank Green observes that ‘this is a place where people to go to realise how much they don’t have’. This feeling, however, when applied not only to what people have but also to what people are, becomes a frustrating and even destructive one. Ads that are designed to remind people how much they aren’t contribute to the notion that to be ordinary is not good enough. To be remotely like anyone else is failure.

‘People want other people to know that they are important, and that they matter, and that they are powerful and cool’ continues Green. But there are many serious downside of this, the first being that such thinking makes it easy for us to forget how extraordinary even so called ‘ordinary’ day-to-day life can be. The fact that we can buy what are effectively little heated and air-conditioned rooms on wheels and zoom around to the far corners of the country is actually….pretty insane. Especially when you compare it to when people had to walk everywhere. That we can walk around with bionic metal pieces in different parts of our bodies, that we can buy a ticket to board a flying metal tank that will deposit us and our families safely onto another continent – these things are actually really cool. In the midst of what we take to be ordinary there is actually some pretty amazing stuff happening. Every day.

So whilst browsing through pages and pages of highly polished models and shiny new products, after a while they all started, oddly, to look the same – even when reminding us to ‘be more’, be ‘extraordinary!’

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I was reminded of this quote from The Plague by Albert Camus, when the narrator muses on a character called Joseph Grand. Grand is a modest man who joins a team of volunteers who try to combat the plague that sweeps Oran, and not much like a hero by today’s standards. Even as he is working with the volunteers, Grand becomes obsessed with the first sentence of a book he is trying to write. In his spare time he dedicates himself to getting this sentence absolutely, perfectly right, which might seem like a trivial goal to those with their eyes on bigger issues. Yet despite this the narrator tells us that,

…it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.

Grand obsesses over what is, in the grand scheme of things, probably an insignificant project. He has also, as the narrator tells us, ‘only a little goodness of heart’. And yet despite this there is something extremely heroic about him and his dedication to his task. There is nothing shameful about his ordinariness, and I think, therefore, that there is much that we can learn from him.

I’m not saying that it’s not great to have new ideas and be different – the world needs people who are willing to challenge dominant standards and ideals. But we are all also, in many ways, very ‘ordinary’, and there is a danger in setting our standards too far above this fact. All of us occasionally miss trains, trip up the stairs, and blurt out awkward things at parties. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, some of the best moments in life arise out of our very ordinariness, and even our imperfections.

How much more impressive is life supposed to get? This is the question that advertising has not a hundred, but a million answers to, and something that I suppose I am trying to encourage a wariness of with this post. In taking a step back from advertising, and in becoming aware of the feeling of manufactured discontent many advertising campaigns try to sell us, we open up our eyes to the world as it actually is, and ourselves as we actually are – as well as all that remains beautiful despite the imperfections. In the words, again, of Hank Green, ‘real happiness doesn’t come from being the biggest fish with the most people tripping over themselves to be like them, it comes from being personally secure in yourself and your life and your values and your future. That has something to do with money, but definitely not everything.

Your car doesn't need to have a jet engine for you to be good enough
…Your car doesn’t need to have a jet engine for you to be good enough