9. History is boring because you don’t want to feel it

On Ötzi, the Tollund Man, and a procedure for historical contemplation

Week 9

This week I’ll share more thoughts on felt understanding and how to attain it. I’ll describe a ‘history meditation’ procedure I followed about five years ago. Then I’ll provide a framework for thinking about the epistemic value of emotion.

Piercing through the veil

A lot of people find history incredibly boring. It’s ‘a list of meaningless dates.’ But when they watch a movie about history (like Lincoln or Amadeus or Gladiator), they suddenly get the idea that something dramatic and meaningful happened once, somewhere. (Not long after, the thought leaves their minds.)

On this topic I often think of Ötzi, a cadaver found in the Alps, who lived in ~3400-3100 BC: 

Ötzi the Iceman's journey to final resting place revealed by plant ...
(Looks pretty good for a 5200-year-old!)

Through the magic of modern archeology, we’ve learned that Ötzi:

  • Was about 5’3”

  • Was 45 years old

  • Spent his childhood north of Bolzano, Italy

  • Had a last meal of “a dried, fatty meat, probably bacon, which came from a wild goat in South Tyrol, Italy”

  • Had another meal of chamois meat, red deer, herb bread, roots and fruits about 6 hours prior

  • Took long walks over hilly terrain

  • May have been a high-altitude shepherd

  • May have been involved in copper smelting

  • Looked “old for his 45 years, with deep-set brown eyes, a beard, a furrowed face, and sunken cheeks”

  • Had whipworm

  • Had spinal curvatures, and wear-and-tear in the knee and ankle joints

  • Was sick three times in the last 6 months before his death

  • Had cavities, possibly from his high-carb diet

  • Was lactose intolerant

  • Had “61 tattoos, consisting of 19 groups of black lines ranging from 1 to 3 mm in thickness and 7 to 40 mm long”, on his back and side-body, plus “a cruciform mark behind the right knee and on the right ankle, and parallel lines around the left wrist”

  • Had tattoos “created from pigment manufactured out of fireplace ash or soot”, perhaps an early form of acupuncture

  • Wore a woven grass cloak, leather clothes, a bearskin cap

  • Carried a copper axe, a dagger, a quiver, arrows, birch bark baskets, pouches full of mushrooms

I need to stop listing here, because the Wikipedia article just goes on and on about his tools, his genome, the conditions of his death, the blood on his clothes, the comrade he traveled with, how he was hunted by his enemies, etcetera.

This list is magnificent. It gives an evocative sense of a real life. Of a real person, with real concerns, with a spiritual life and a limp and a bunch of shit to get done by the end of the day.

(Artist’s reconstruction of Ötzi. I never know how accurate these things are.)

Perhaps even better, due to his better physical state, is the ‘Tollund Man’, the name given to a body from the 4th century BC, incredibly preserved in a Scandinavian bog. You can still see the lines of care in the Tollund Man’s face:

“There was short stubble (1 mm length) on his chin and upper lip, suggesting that he had not shaved on the day of his death.”

There’s a noose around his neck, and it’s thought that he was sacrificed by druids. (Who wouldn’t watch this movie? DiCaprio’s The Revenant, but with cruel, moon-worshipping druids, hounding our protagonist through the ancient Jutland bog?)

Examples like this help show us a thing we intellectually understand, but have difficulty emotionally grasping: that the past is made of real lives and real people. That everyone that came before us had real cares and concerns. That every life is experienced in the first-person.

These clues can start us on a road to a deeper understanding.

Meditating on history

About five years ago, I set up a yoga mat in my room, turned on Dan Carlin’s WWI podcast, and prepared to do an hour of history meditation. 

The procedure I followed was this:

  1. I’d listen to the podcast, while attending to the emotions and sensations in my body.

  2. I’d look out for two things: (A) emotional reactions to the events of history, (B) the conspicuous absence of reactions to actually-significant events of history.

  3. In the case of (A), I’d sit with the feelings and explore them. (E.g. if the description of the Christmas Truce made me sad, I’d sit with that sadness for a while, feel into it, explore it, note things about it, watch it transform.)

  4. In the case of (B), I’d sit with the description of the ‘meaningless’ event until I could find some feeling. (E.g., if I heard that 70k people died per month in the Battle of Verdun, but had no reaction no this, I’d sit with the idea until some emotional reaction clicked. I might ask myself why I was feeling nothing, or why I preferred to feel nothing.)

I followed this process for several weeks. I got through the entirety of Carlin’s 6-part, ~24 hr Blueprint for Armaggeddon while lying on that yoga mat. 

Legacy of unexploded battlefield munitions | Register | The Times

It was a life-changing experience. It was the opposite of boring; it was sometimes too emotional! Several times, I wept. I’d leave these sessions drained, and often had to finish the session with a 20-minute nap. After a while, I started to suspect that when intellectual exploration feels meaningless, it’s not because meaning is truly inaccessible, but because we’re avoiding the pangs of too much meaning.

I’ve refined this technique over the years. I’ve learned the difference between ‘adding’ meaning, and ‘finding the meaning that’s already there’. I’ve learned to detect holes in my felt understanding of history, and learned what to do in order to patch them. But technique can be distracting; the essence of the approach was deciding I was willing to listen.

Everything is boring until you take the time to feel it

We’re usually taught to separate the intellect from the emotions. Just do the geometry problem; it doesn’t matter how you ‘feel’ about the fact that the inner angles of a triangle add up to 180°.

For tasks like geometry, this can be fine or helpful - at least until you reach the highest levels of mathematical ability. But when it comes to seeking felt understanding of a new domain, the overzealous discarding of felt reactions produces a glitch, in the form of disalignment between what is felt and what is ‘known’. We often let our emotional understanding coast and morph bizarrely, while trying to polish our intellectual understanding to perfection. Sometimes the former prevents the latter.

To rectify this, it can be useful to have a framework for thinking about the epistemic value of emotion.

Truth in sensation, truth in emotion

You might compare emotions to physical sensations. 

If you prod a cactus, you’ll feel pain in your finger. That pain has epistemic value - that is to say, value to one seeking truth - because it tells you not only the location of the cactus’ thorn, but the effect it’s having on your body. It even suggests the goal-relevance of that effect (i.e., that it risks damaging you and that that would be bad).

This felt experience is evidence of a thing.

Sensory experience is not always this clear. There’s a lot of noise to parse through; it can take weeks of effort to learn that a given feeling means that you’re craning your neck, or tensing your belly. (I suspect that missing and misunderstanding these signals can cause muscular tension to build up over years.)

But if you want to better understand your sensory experience, there’s a path you can follow. People who do a lot of ‘listening to their body’ will often learn that this stomach gurgle means they ate dairy, or that this head-fogginess is from too much bread, or that this specific anxiety can only be alleviated through exercise. This kind of knowledge requires an extended practice of cataloguing, analysis, and interpretation.

Emotions are not dissimilar, in that they have epistemic value but are also highly subject to interpretation

Sometimes your sadness ‘refers’ to a real event, like trouble with a romantic partner. Perhaps your anxiety is causally entangled with the fact that you lost your job. In these cases, the emotions ‘take the shape’ of a thing that really happened.

Are emotions less accurate than sensations? Maybe. They can certainly be hard to interpret. It sometimes seems like someone’s comment made you mad ‘for no reason’, or that you spent a few days depressed with no real cause.

But let’s not throw the emotional sensory apparatus out with the bath water. I consider it better to regard emotional signals as subject to interpretation, rather than ‘pure noise’ to be discarded.

With training and practice, you can get a lot of signal from the noise. The more you ignore the data, the noisier and less understandable it gets; the greater the accumulation of ‘interpretive debt’.

This framework can be applied to all kinds of intellectual investigation. Emotional understanding can’t replace knowledge and intellectual understanding, but is a powerful complement, especially when we find that disorientation and meaninglessness are the default.