On 10th July 2018, the RSA Japan Fellows’ Network (RSA JFN) had the pleasure to welcome a distinguished guest, Alexandra Krawiec, at STOCK Takanawa in Minato-ku, Tokyo, for a lecture and debate about how to deal with uncertainty and stress in our modern age. 14 fellows and 24 guests attended the event, including university students who also had the opportunity to learn more about the RSA and the coming activities of RSA JFN. Alex is not only a scholar and the creator of several science-related documentaries, but also the Polish Connector of the RSA. The main message of her talk was the importance of creating meaning in our lives. Meaning gives us strength because regardless of what happens around us, we have the freedom of using our mind and deciding how to perceive and react to events. After the lecture, small groups were formed and a discussion followed on the ways each of us had dealt with failure or uncertainty, what could be the best ways to do so in the future and how Alex’s suggestions could lead to personal changes.
Alex began her talk by pointing out that mankind has been contemplating failure and decision-making since ancient times. She introduced the 15th-century Macro Manuscript, drawing also on works by great figures of the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment such as Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham. She suggested that failure, based on the interplay between pain and pleasure, could be defined as a state of mind when we experience a painful sense of loss. A “Sense” of loss implies a level of pain depending not only on the type of failure experienced, but also proportional to one’s own sensibility. Therefore, it is interesting to note that we are all differently equipped emotionally to deal with failure.
However, as Alex explained, human beings can find resources in their own minds to cope with uncertainty, as did the following two contemporary thinkers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and anti-Nazi militant who was hanged in a concentration camp asked himself the question “who am I?” at a time of great uncertainty and insecurity. Such self-reflection is, according to Alex, highly necessary, even today, when we are given the illusion of a choice but more often than not choose what society decides for us. Mentioning the focus put on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and economics as the ideal education path promoted nowadays, she warned us that if we neglected the study of philosophy and literature, we might be less inclined to ask ourselves vital existential questions and in the end be unable to deal with ethical ones involving for example artificial intelligence and robotics, or even our identity as human beings. Viktor Frankl was in a concentration camp like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and like him reflected on how to deal with uncertainty. After observing how some prisoners, not necessary the strongest ones, survived, by finding meaning, he wrote Man’s search for meaning and proposed a therapy system to help people build meaning. We find strength in meaning because regardless of what happens around us, we have the freedom of using our mind and decide how to perceive and react to events. This was a point emphasized by Alex.
Later on, Alex mentioned the works of Hobbes and Seneca and stoicism. She expressed some reserves as for the benefits of practicing a pessimistic philosophy and preparing ourselves every day for the worst, when it is possible that such thinking might play a role in making self-fulfilling prophecies happen!
Reminding us of the technological and environmental challenges we face in modern times, she also introduced the optimistic proposition of Steven Pinker, which many RSA fellows are familiar with, Steven Pinker having participated in RSA events where he introduced his analysis of various parameters such as a growing life expectancy and the eradication of devastating diseases. She advocated, however, a reasonable but more cautious approach, mentioning the example of Sir David Attenborough, whose optimism is tempered by his deep concern for the environment and the survival of human beings (Alex made a documentary untitled David Attenborough. Passion for Life.).