Looking directly at the world

I often listen to podcasts while I’m walking to and from places. Edinburgh is a small city and I can walk just about anywhere I need to in an hour or less. The episodes that really blow my mind and stick with me often get attached to particular routes and weather, so that the next time I’m walking that way or the sun is hanging out at that point in the sky, I think of what I heard the last time. 

There was the episode of Radiolab about fungus that I listened to on one of my moody walks around Arthur’s Seat one summer evening. And the kidney-shaped pool episode of 99PI that I listened to on a walk to Tollcross via the Cowgate.

And now there’s this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed: Capacity for Wonder and Sunsets, which I first heard while walking from my new studio in Leith to a meeting in the centre of town. It was cold and the sun was low in the sky like it always is in winter here even though it was about 1.30pm. Almost always on the verge of sunset because we’re so far north. 

Now I walk that way a lot more often, and I think about this episode every time. But then I love this podcast so much that at least two other episodes are attached to other areas of the city already. And I’ve only been listening to it since the summer.

I had not seen the episode artwork for this particular installment before I pushed play, so I had no idea that John Green would be using Gatsby as a vehicle for exploring the human capacity for wonder. I was just excited that a new episode of my new favourite podcast had appeared in my feed.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books. Like I have a tattoo favourite. Like I read it maybe every 5 years and see it in a new way every time and still love it favourite. I love when it pops up and surprises me like this, because I believe it fits into a lot of categories, and it’s nice to discover new ones. 

I think I could probably attribute my love of many things to my own capacity for wonder. The space program, for instance, which is specifically tagged as one of the things that disproves that line about man possibly being ‘face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder’ when seeing what would be New York for the first time. The Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow is possibly one of the best places I’ve ever been in my life. It’s evidence that something as vast and mysterious as space can bring together groups of people who often regard each other with suspicion. I often think this is about cooperation for the sake of research and scientific advances. But really, it’s about wonder. Why else would we try to go further into a void that will quite literally kill us without the innovation of a rocket and a spacesuit?

But while space is fascinating, smaller things like the reaction that makes a roux possible are equally so, and I could (and do) marvel at things like that regularly. And I think this is more about Green’s assertion that wonder is perhaps more about ‘our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires’. Anything can provoke wonder at any time, it just depends on your state of mind.

This reminds me of Richard Feynman’s chat that knowing something more about a flower does not make it less beautiful. It’s in fact the opposite. For me, knowing how a cooking reaction works scientifically doesn’t make it any less magical. Even things you know (or think you know) well can be categorised as wonders, which as Green points out, truly never cease. 

I like listening to Green’s voice, because he often sounds as though the world is ridiculous and exasperating to him, or at the very least, frustrating, even if that’s frustratingly beautiful. He refers to his cynicism as armour in this episode, but he recognises that tendency in himself, and you get echoes of this in many of the other episodes. Sometimes addressed directly, sometimes in hints. Despite that, he’s hopeful about it all anyway. 

This is often the way I feel. I worry that my initial reaction to things puts people off because I can sound negative a lot of the time. I am very aware of this. But it’s my way of working through the shit to see what makes it good. It’s just that most people are not used to dealing with honesty in real time if it’s not also relentless positivity.

I am by nature an extremely frustrated person. Until recently – like early this year recently – I saw this as a problem that needed to be fixed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that my life has been a string of moments where I’ve thought, ‘I’m so frustrated right now, but if only I can get through this awful job/this weird social situation/this financial minefield/this world politics shitshow, then I will be less frustrated.’ But there is always another thing – or, let’s face it, multiple things – at the end of this thing. And there is not one damn time I have been ‘less frustrated’. 

So I decided to make an effort to stop seeing this as a problem, because it’s not great to see yourself as a problem. Now I just think of it as fuel, or a tool to help me understand what needs working on and what can wait. This runs parallel to what I often hear in Green’s voice: this constant frustration doesn’t mean I don’t think the world is incredible and a nice place to be and at some times even magical. I appreciate that all the more because it happens in an arena of pure frustration. I imagine that, to some people, this may sound hellish. But it’s my life, and I don’t think it’s half bad. 

It’s certainly better than pretending to be a ball of sunshine all the time. 

There is plenty of sun already without need for me to emulate it. The things that are amazing in this world cut through the frustration on their own, and it’s easier to recognise them if you make sure you pay direct attention to them.

As Green quotes Toni Morrison, ‘at some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.’ This is sort of why I’ve stopped taking as many pictures when I travel. It’s very nice to have photos to look back on, but I’m aware of the balance of time looking at the things in the place I am in and holding a camera up in between myself and those things and places. I observe so many people getting stuck in the latter mode, and I don’t want to forget or squander the former. 

I’ve never been a big review writer. It’s easy to fall at the hurdle of articulating why I do or don’t like something, or why it is or isn’t good. Subjectivity is hard to do well for general public consumption. I’m drawn to The Anthropocene Reviewed because it’s the sort of writing I aspire to. 

The human brain is a great categoriser. The ability to put two seemingly unrelated things together seems like a kind of magic when it’s done well, and never fails to impress the socks off me. But really, it’s practice. Although practice itself is a kind of magic.

John Green manages to weave a crafty thread between himself and two different subjects every month. The connection between the two topics of the episode is just the crowning flourish. The ability to connect yourself to anything in the world is supreme power to change your own mind. The world needs more of that brand of magic right now. 

You can often hear Green figuring out how he feels about things in The Anthropocene Reviewed. In this episode, you can hear him changing his mind.

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