The moments that redefine us

The cause-effect relationship between doubt, desire for change, and the resulting choice to achieve it is a complicated matter

by Matteo Scanni

Culture 21 October 2021

The previous issue of maize dealt with doubt, or rather, the new ethical, existential, and work-related doubts that the global pandemic scenario has thrown at us (one above all, the subject of “great resignation”). And we mentioned that after the impasse caused by doubts and dilemmas, hopefully a time will come when we can get back to thinking clearly, focus on the horizon, and move forward. Yet what exactly drives us forward? Simple: the fact that at some point, we make a choice. And that’s what we’d like to dwell on this time. After all, we only manage to cross the boundary where we’ve been stuck when we find the determination to leave our lovable remains behind. Of course, we are also driven by desire, that possible source of unhappiness that Buddha considered a disease as old as the history of humankind.

All this is to say that the cause-effect relationship between doubt, desire for change, and the resulting choice to achieve it is a complicated matter: on the one hand, desire appears to be the energy that powers our actions; on the other, it is the fuel for our suffering. If this is how we look at it, Buddha seems to suggest we should leave our desires where they are since they don’t deserve to be fulfilled. The Greek tradition, however, offers us a different perspective, as depicted by the legend of Tantalus, which suggests that we should follow our desires, making all the choices that seem necessary—including those that could ruin us—in order not to be incinerated by our inner fire. In the legend, the king of Lydia was forced to forever go thirsty and hungry for having desired what he was forbidden to desire: nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods. Of course, Tantalus also committed some other little sins, making him unpopular with the gods: he tried to kidnap Ganymede and organized the theft of a golden dog created by Hephaestus, besides other minor things. The sense of the story, however, is clear: desire makes us human, but it carries a price.

However, let’s get back to the issue of choice, or rather of turning points. As we were saying, a courageous decision marks the divide between before and after, can open up new spaces between two worlds, and certainly helps overcome the wall of liminality and the state of torpor into which we so often fall. It is the moment that we have called the “turning point” in the following pages: technically, the very moment when things start to change. At this point, the central role of the temporal context in which decisions are taken must be emphasized: whether it is a sudden intuition, rather than a decision developed over a long period of time, the existence of an “internal time” for the faculty of choice must be recognized. Only rarely—as we shall see—is it chance that governs it, much more often, fortunately, it is all of our own making. Nevertheless, there is a second, equally fundamental attribute of choice, which we could roughly call “external time”, i.e., the context in which things take place: was it a Tuesday? Was it raining? Was it by bending over to tie my shoes that I made the decision to adopt a child? Why do we feel the need to specify this? Because actually, there are not that many turning points in our lives, let’s say a couple at most. And the details matter.

Noting how technology was produced, Günther Anders (1902-92) argued that we have no choice. “While utopians are unable to produce what they imagine, we are unable to imagine what we produce. It is what we produce that makes us obsolescent. We have created a world that is self-reproducing by a kind of technical determinism that feeds itself and in which every new technological innovation is deduced from the previous one without the possibility of choice, without the innovative process being oriented by value judgments.” Are we still here? Instinctively we would answer no. However, part of this reasoning has resurfaced in a much more contemporary debate about free will, which we address in the opening piece. In simple terms: are we free to choose, or do our choices originate in the brain a few milliseconds before we realize we are thinking them? These are ancient doubts, but recent advances in neuroscience seem to confirm them, amplified by a plethora of scientists and philosophers who are highly skeptical of human abilities. This was our starting place to discuss turning points, immediately admitting the difficulties that every radical change brings with it, including those of dealing with it in a magazine.

To tell the truth, when we began to prepare our list of potential articles for this issue, we were inspired by another suggestion: “Stellar Moments”, the wonderful collection of historical miniatures by Stefan Zweig. It’s a title that stood out on its own, soon becoming somewhat of a North Star for the editorial staff because of its ability to ponder the destiny that awaits mankind, net of its will to self-determine. And from there, everything else flowed like a karst river. A series of conversations with some unusual minds on how and when they experienced their defining moment; a psychoanalytical interview with complexity scientist David Krakauer (a true rock star of the Santa Fe Institute); a painful reflection on the tools that schools should give us to become adults capable of making bold choices; the merciless analysis of our climate by Emily Atkin, founder of the viral newsletter “Heated”; the plans of migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea seeking asylum; critic and director Mark Cousins’ rollercoaster of turning points in the history of cinema; the Siberian journeys of the great Polish writer Jacek Hugo-Bader, author of stories that have the flavor of the most inspired Ryszard Kapuscinski; and then Eliane Brum, a Brazilian journalist who has succeeded in transforming the marginal lives of the Amazon into a sort of universal mirror. And then there is also much more, a bit of madness, insights, digressions. In short, enjoy the read.