Positive Action on The Via Negativa

Or: How to prepare for the inevitable surprise.

For context, here are two thoughts on the “via negativa” or the Negative Way.

The via negativa is a concept from the Orthodox tradition of doing theology by talking about what God is not. It’s like Michelangelo carving away all the block of marble that is not David. It’s a subtractive-sculptural theological idea.

Extrapolating, Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes an heuristic or rule of thumb that if you need more than one reason to do something, that probably means you shouldn’t do it — you’re trying to convince yourself. You need a single, clear reason. Not a stack of them. Consider:

“We’ve each found a friend here; we’re in love,” versus “Well, she’s cute, and her parents like me, and they have money, and we grew up in the same town and we know the same people, and my parents think she’s from a respectable family, and besides all that, oops, now she’s pregnant and I’m 90% sure I’m the dad, and…”

Which of these people exploring marriage is headed for success?

I’ve been thinking about the ideas a close friend has been sharing with me. She notes a variety of indicators highlighted by various denizens of the Internet that point toward impending doom. Perhaps in the near future. For an example, what would happen if the oceans rise due to climate change. Now these denizens (such a cool word, denizens) suggest that a ninth planet or brown star that plays do-ce-do with our sun every 3600 years or so may be coming around for the first time since the Deluge of Noah.

If some of the denizens are correct this means that the ocean levels may rise rapidly, rather than gradually; in fact, causing the ice caps to melt so fast that before the end of the year the seas could rise 700 to 800 feet worldwide. Like, on September 23, 2017 or something. What percentage of the world’s population would be displaced? 90%? 95%?

I’m not here to mock these reports. I’ve taken a cursory look at some of the videos my informant has been watching, and it looks like there’s a possibility there’s this brown star (hard to see in telescopes, you need astrophysicists who can observe how the star’s gravitational pull is impacting visible bodies around them) is indeed approaching us with a heat wave unlike anything we can remember.

If that happens it would be what our friend Taleb calls a “black swan event”. I believe in this: Black Swan Events do happen. I take it at face value that they have happened and they will happen again. This is why I don’t mock the prophets. I’m open minded to the possibility that catastrophe could strike this year.

In any case, for those who believe, it raises the question: should we all move to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, (where supposedly even those in the know re: sea levels at the US Navy is directing their retirees to go, sorry I don’t have links to all the videos and blogs that claim these sorts of things) stash some fresh water in bottles, and brace for the worst?

The thing about belief is that true belief spurs you to action, so when you’ve read and seen enough, you do have to ask yourself, what are you going to do about it? This is the case for any number of religious writings you might read, and it’s the case with doomsday prophecies, too. True believers act. Interested parties sit and observe.

Now let’s back off a bit and get back to the theory that goes beyond sea level and climate change issues. I’m not ready to move to Arkansas; I want to speak in more general terms about our attitudes toward action.

First, the problem with recognizing and even believing that Black Swan Events do and will happen, is that by definition there is no way to know how to prepare for them. But I have one suggestion I hope will help.

While it may look like the arrow on your compass is headed in the same direction, I think there’s immense value in the paradigm shift that we ought to move towards things in our lives we hope will be positive as a result of our newfound beliefs, rather than away from things that will be negative. They may seem to be one and the same. The problem with fleeing danger rather than running towards hope is that we end up looking over our shoulder. Like Lot’s Wife in Genesis, we end up a Pillar of Salt. We end up as a stalagmite casualty of focusing on the wrong thing. Now you might argue that Lot’s wife looked back not because she was afraid of what was following her, but because she desired to return to what was known. I’m not sure the story is clear on that point.

In any case, you can’t move towards the most positive thing unless you’re willing to give up what is known. In some ways that means moving towards the positive in spite of our fear of the unknown.

Fleeing danger which we suppose will come tomorrow or in September or early next year, is perhaps not a good enough single reason for doing something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get out of the road when a  car is coming. You can see the car coming, so move. I’m also not saying you should make your bed in the roadway just because a car isn’t coming at the moment. Pitching a tent in the street because it’s 3 AM and nobody’s coming isn’t wise, because you haven’t headed towards a positive spot.

Whatever you believe about the world ending or God or the latest diet, move towards what’s healthy, it’s a much better way to think about where you’re going: say “I want to be healthy,” rather than staying away from sugar just because you’re afraid of diabetes coming to get you.

Here’s the really helpful bit: Practicing this in your life will also be the best way to prepare for a Black Swan Event, because when the Event arrives (and it will), your mentality will already be this:

“Where’s the opportunity in this unexpected chaos which is forming a new normal? Where is the one place where chaos is not?

You won’t be wishing you could just return to the old normal, because you only need the one reason to move ahead: “Where’s the opportunity?” You won’t try to make something like America “great again” implying that it was best some time ago. (The President and his followers haven’t gotten the picture. They want to run from the negative, hoping they can recapture a positive which has receded like a hairline back into bald history. Instead of seeking opportunities in renewable energy, let’s get those coal miners working, etc.)

By taking the positive approach, using the via negativa and finding opportunity where chaos is not, you’ll be trying to make things greater than they ever were. Even if if the oceans rise 800 feet.

(And if they do, our house could be oceanfront property, because our city is at 801 feet elevation! Sounds like opportunity knocking at my door — or lapping at my sidewalk. Positive action: stock some suntan lotion and a cotton candy machine, and get ready for a lot of campers.)

 

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adamgfleming

The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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