What would Marcus Aurelius tweet?

For my sins, I recently stumbled back onto Twitter. The first casualty of social media is peace of mind—but since I’m also reading about stoicism, which places tranquility as the highest good, I’ve resolved not to use social media to amplify messages of distress and outrage. And boosting these messages is something I used to do quite a lot. It’s not that I’m suddenly indifferent to social and political causes. I passionately believe in many of them. However, it’s not clear that constant fear, worry, and anger are helping us.

For example, in the case of the climate crisis, significant warming seems like a fait accompli. That doesn’t mean we should roll over and let emissions skyrocket but there’s a difference between writing to raise awareness and hosing people down with rage and anxiety. I’m trying to find a way to think and write clearly about these issues, without adding fuel to the fires of grief and anger that are so destructive and counterproductive. This means honesty about a reality that may be bleak at times but it does mean not melting down or abetting emotional contagion. This, to me, seems like an aspect of the Buddhist commitment to Right Speech, samma vaca.

After all, if you want to succeed on “social” platforms, it helps to stoke a little fury or despair. My fledgling tweets about things that interest me or are wholesome, such as Buddhism and Stoicism, are not exactly catnip to our ruler, The Algorithm, but that’s OK. Outrage gets one hundredfold the attention of tranquility. Dopamine is our drug of choice, likes and retweets the variable boons bestowed by our fickle mathematical gods. The result is my timeline veering wildly from being filled with lovely people doing lovely things to a white hot drip feed of toxic rage and worry.

It’s true that emotional rhetoric commands more attention; it’s debatable whether it galvanises people into action. But even if outrage guaranteed action, we must ask ourselves whether that action is worth the price of our mental composure and tranquility. I believe it may not be. Additionally, we must consider the nature of any change rooted in anger. Better to seek change rooted in clarity and calm. Revolutions that start with blood, end with blood.

This isn’t a criticism of people I follow. By and large it’s not normal folk who cause the problem: it’s social megastars who have consistently (perhaps knowingly) played the outrage game. Their furious missives get surfaced disproportionately compared to healthy messages. Perhaps I’m partly to blame, the algorithm has learnt that this is what I engage with. Well, no more. What I’ve read of the stoics inclines me not to allow anger to disturb my tranquility. Likewise, it’s incumbent on me not to needlessly infuriate and distress others, as far as that’s in my power. What would Marcus Aurelius tweet?

Original photo by Eddy Billard on Unsplash.
Marcus’ head: Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

So you’ve wrecked the planet

As you may or may not be aware, life as we’ve been living it is probably over. Greenland and Antarctica are melting much faster than expected. CO2 is reaching levels at which, historically, there have been plants and trees at the South Pole. There is the threat of crop failures and food shortages in the years to come, more social instability and perhaps even collapse. Things could get very ugly. And still there is no meaningful articulation of a new worldview at a governmental level. We insist on economic growth, and hope for technologies that will allow us to maintain our dependency on profligate energy use while counting our carbon calories. Meanwhile demand for the low-cost air travel and red meat that developed countries have indulged for so long is spreading internationally.

But, hey, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. In this undependable world, which biped mammal blessed (or cursed) with a pre-frontal cortex wouldn’t seek security and advantage through high-carbon technology? Who doesn’t want light and heat at the flick of a switch; quick, safe, and efficient travel; an abundance of tasty and sometimes healthy food; a dizzying array of toys and gadgets to ease our existential anxiety? Of course we want these things but how does one power such a Promethean fantasy? Fortunately, we found all this highly combustible black stuff in the ground. All we had to do was dig and burn. It has been a hard dream to let go of but that’s all it was: a dream.

Perhaps homo sapiens will return home in the not-geologically-distant future: gathering around a fire on the savannah, using rudimentary tools, eating ridiculous amounts of fibre. And what will be said in the red light of that fire? What stories will they tell, what wisdom will they share under lonely stars? Fragmented myths about the age of peak energy, maybe. And perhaps there will be–still visible if they know where to look–an Ozymandian reminder of our impossible lives. Maybe they’ll be happier in small ways, more connected to themselves and the mystery of life. Maybe this is a journey we are all asked to undertake.