That Winged Thing


By Václav Cílek


To stand up to the world

In one of the books on the collapse of societies I found a sentence about how each generation had its own deep crisis, which they considered to be the end of the world, but which never came to being. And this is how it is probably going to be with other similar events. When thinking about the future, we almost always focus on the technical side of things – where energetics should be heading to, what is happening with food prices, how to complete at least a small section of the highway. But what remains unmentioned is psychological resilience. Climbers, polar explorers and cavers are well aware that perhaps more than half of a crisis takes place in our heads. I remember a military exercise when it was so terribly freezing that the desperate soldiers opened the sealed first-aid kits and ate all the training replicas of their medications. The next day they told the commanding officer that these pills had saved their lives. He didn’t have the strength to tell them they were pieces of plastic.

But the thing works in the opposite direction too, so to be inundated with information about all the possible iniquities and crisis scenarios means to feel worse, exhausted and even sick. It is said that “extreme weather brings not only a strange climate, but also extreme politics”. There is certainly a need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, consume less and be more environmentally friendly, but it is also necessary to build up psychological resilience and build a barrier to toxic messages that saturate our negative emotions. The internet is full of them. The use or rather abuse of alcohol and drugs has changed. In the past people consumed them mainly to feel better, but today they use them more and more often so that they do not feel bad. What to do with this? Above all, there is no one way or one method to face the real or virtual adversity of the world. What helps is movement, nature, good music and sincere (and to some extent even insincere) friends, time for yourself and many other personal things – contact with water or the forest, manual work and various hobbies. However, our age old experience but also much of our current research emphasise the role of gratitude in this self-healing process. It didn’t seem like it, but it probably represents one of the most basic human qualities.

Men play Russian roulette for the world, but women keep it going

At one time the dean of an important American university had to leave his position because he misinterpreted how it is with the differences in intelligence between men and women. He focused too much on the first part of the research, which said that there are more personalities with well above-average intelligence among men than among women. This appeared terribly sexist. But the second part of the message doesn’t look so good for men: There are also many more people with very low intelligence among men. If we wanted to simplify it we would say that there are more geniuses among men, but also more criminals who do not manage their psyche. Women form a more homogeneous group in this area.

It seems that men have traditionally been sent to hunt or to war, where good military leaders and cruel psychopaths have found their use, while the main role of women has been to keep the world going. This corresponds to today’s situation where one would like to see more women in communal politics, economics or business management, because women are more able to create a stable environment, some kind of home and that home can be a city or other large community. On the contrary, men – especially in the last two to three decades – are increasingly subject to a gambling mentality, which typically leads to economic crises.

It’s quite disturbing, because part of the gambling mentality is a reduced ability to assess risk, a tendency to overestimate oneself and to lose long-term responsibility. I think that many more men than women are out of control at the moment. This is sometimes described by the fact that women’s ability to stabilise the world – and that means anything from their family to their community – has not changed much, while men’s ability to destabilise the world has increased.

When men talk about feminine and masculine qualities it often ends with erotic comments but this is rather one of the consequences of femininity and masculinity being two different sides of the world. We can illustrate this with a few examples. Which words are feminine in a majority of languages?

Take the word Earth, for example. Although the phrase “the life giving earth” immediately comes to mind, in ancient myths the Earth, in the form of a black goddess like Kali is also a destroyer. Men kill for glory or power but female goddesses terminate the existence of something so that something else can come. Imagine, for example, the edge of the mainland, which sinks into the depths of the Earth, melts and becomes a new mainland. Sometimes it is described as creative destruction. Men kill, women recycle. They free up space for another life.

Similarly, the word water is mostly feminine. We all know a woman’s privilege to change her mind. A man is expected to be as unchanging as granite, but a woman is constantly transforming, it is difficult to treat her like an object, she escapes between the fingers, she cannot be grasped. She keeps space for herself. There is nothing else left for her to do in the presence of conquerors. Water is almost always a force for the good, but one should not rely on this automatically, because what appears soft is actually forceful and powerful.

The third word is death. There are languages where Death is a man, and that’s when the dying person fights a mortal combat with it, and there are languages ​​where Death is feminine. She is a godmother, like someone from a family, maybe even a mother or a mistress. One dies without a fight, in her embrace. The pairing of life and death, something masculine and something feminine, thus creates a unity.

The difference between abolition and clemency

Have you noticed that these days instead of the word clemency there is talk of abolition? It is a word that has undergone a long evolution. It is based on the Latin word for destruction or annulation, but in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century abolition was spoken of mainly in connection with the abolition of slavery. From this point of view, it is important that when we use the word “grace,” it expresses a relational sense and gratitude, while the word “abolition” only indicates an official procedure that has nothing in common with gratitude. Abolition is a hard word because it carries the association of “destruction”, while clemency is a warm and human word.

We don’t like to talk about gratitude. It reminds some  of us of the religious attitude of thanking for the gifts of life, which is one of the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most people are aware that if they show gratitude, they are committing something to the other party. If we are grateful to someone or something, we accept some mutuality, reciprocity of services. Manifestations of gratitude are best studied in chimpanzees, where they result in mutual servitude. To individuals they give a sense of belonging and security. The chimpanzee does not psychologise or speculate too much. He is bound by gratitude but life showed him that gratitude also gave something in return.

Another reason why we talk so little of gratitude, the psychologists found, lies in its inconspicuousness. It’s not a complicated emotion. Quite the opposite, it’s clear and direct, but the media age needs noisy feelings and torn apart heroes. Complex times usually cannot comprehend simple things.

Practicing gratitude is better than visiting a psychiatrist

In the last two decades gratitude has been studied by a number of psychologists such as Robert Emmons, John Elfers and many others. They point out that gratitude is not one emotion, but a kind of continuum of feelings that usually begins with one person, but then spills over into gratitude to family, society, or even the cosmos. People who consciously cultivate an attitude of gratitude for what they have received, rather than anger at what has escaped them in life, describe this process as a transition from a black-and-white to a colour vision of the world. They often have a feeling like building a home or a safe place, both among other people and in the world.

Recently the public became fascinated by the experiments of psychologist Joel Wong. Wong worked with a relatively large sample of 300 respondents. These were mostly university students who, for various reasons, sought psychological help, while previous attempts focused mainly on quite healthy people. The aim was to find out whether gratitude also helps people with some mental problems.

Respondents were randomly divided into three groups. In the first group, their task was to write a letter to a person every week, in which they expressed their gratitude. The second group described their feelings and nightmares and the third, the control group, had a different program. It turned out that the first “grateful group” had significantly improved their condition after writing a few letters. The effect was relatively long-lasting, as the evaluation was performed 12 weeks after the end of the experiment. Interestingly, it did not matter much whether the respondent actually sent the letter. Therefore, psychologists later advised patients to write similar letters, even if they were not sure these would be passed on.

The second group, in which the participants dealt with themselves and received regular professional help, improved significantly less. Wong commented with some astonishment on the situation, saying that practicing gratitude had a greater effect than a visit to a psychologist. The team then analysed the content of the letters. In particular, the ratio of the use of the pronouns “I” and “we” and the number of words denoting positive and negative emotions were compared.

In principle, healthier people use the pronoun “we” more often, but it turned out that the use of words with negative emotional meaning had the greatest impact on health in the first and second groups. It seems that when you express gratitude to someone (or something), it limits the use and feeling of toxic feelings as if it pushes them aside. It often happens that the good qualities of some positive attitudes weaken over time, but in this case the onset of gratitude has been shown to be slow and cumulative, while the consequences persist for a long time.

The next phase of the experiments was checked by scanning brain activity. During the experiment, a amiable person brought the participants some money, with the proviso that if they feel grateful, they can donate part of them to a good purpose (and they were actually handed over to a local charity). It turned out that people with well-developed gratitude had a more active centre for learning and decision-making.

That winged thing

This is how I see the basic situation of the world, of the Czech Republic and of ourselves: in some unknown but foreseeable future a difficult period awaits us, no apocalypse, but no walk through the rose garden. We are mentally ill prepared for this time. The first part of the message about the form of a climate, political or economic crisis has meanwhile become part of mainstream media. The problem is that fear leads to alternating between apathy and hysteria and offers rather a few solutions. One gets unnecessarily fatigued and learns the feeling of helplessness. Fear is from the devil, said Master Eckhart. And when public media is full of fear one begins to look around to see if anyone is manipulating us: One interprets the spreading of simple fear without a spark of light as an intentional act with an intention.

Emotions are not big and small, but they can be divided into those that are well visible and those that are somewhat hidden. In our time the predominant emotions that can be filmed, such as anger or great passions, completely prevail. But filming a ‘peace in the soul’, for example, will take some work. Emotions are a strange thing also for the fact that we feel them taking place in some vague, indistinguishable space, just as a small child imagines that a man is some amorphous mass inside. We miss emotions’ anatomy and distinctive behaviour. Jan Evangelista Purkyně believed that emotions behave like small animals but they are obedient to the whole environment and all other animals in it. He could imagine that a dormouse in a hazel thicket behaves differently from a squirrel or marten close to it and completely different from a hedgehog down on the ground.

Psychology began to address some basic emotions of calm relatively late. In regards to gratitude, it was able to discover that it activates the creative centres in the brain and prevents toxic emotions. It focused on the difference between hope and optimism for the sole reason that it noticed that when a US presidential candidate says he is optimistic about the economy, he is more likely to be elected than if he  “only” has a hope that things turn out well. Optimism seems to be based on some external analysis of the world, while hope says more about your inner values.

Hope can be in vain, in which case it prevents us from doing something about the situation. The ancient Greeks perceived it more as a negative emotion, while Christians perceived it as a door opening to a good future. Culture determines how we perceive emotions. Surprisingly, we are not defenceless against them but we have quite a lot of power to change, cultivate or bend them in any direction, including a bad one. In one experiment on hope American and Korean students answered the same questions. For most Americans hope was related to the material world, position, and money, while for most Koreans it was also related to the material world, but it was about good experiences, food, or sex.

In the next round, respondents answered questions about altruistic desires. For Americans, religious themes clearly appeared in the classic Christian trinity of hope, love, and faith, but the Koreans, influenced by Confucianism, spoke of society and its healthy, undisturbed development. It was often thought that hope gave one strength, that it was something like a rope that a fakir threw into the sky and then could climb up. Let’s remember that most regimes like weak people who they can lead or make promises to.

Yet today’s people do not talk much about hope. This is not the right topic. This is also demonstrated by the results of other psychological experiments according to which one of the great values ​​of today’s people lies in individual personal freedom – that is, in the feeling of ‘I will do what I want’ – of not being constrained. Religion of course requires something of a man, sometimes even the value of his inner authenticity is measured by the level of claims, and so we move away from these demanding forms and create a handcrafted spiritual patchwork, composed of pieces of doctrine, movie announcements and fragments of a functioning culture. Most likely we cannot do otherwise because we are responding to excessive religious pressure from past centuries. Who knows? But with the bath tub we may also pour out all those inconspicuous, psychological helpers, such as hope, gratitude, a sense of harmony or a clear and concise thinking that used to help us during the difficulties of the Thirty Year War and in many more recent conflicts. The poet Emily Dickinson speaks of hope as ” the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul “.

The person perhaps closest to understanding the practical, historical role of hope was the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who in 1970, after a six-day war that might have ended tragically, was asking the question of how it is possible that Jews were still here at all? How come the diasporas didn’t dissipate somewhere after millennia? He answers: it is due to hope, which is a commandment, because despair easily turns into a sin. We Czechs and Slovaks are also here thanks to hope, because it would make a greater practical, political and perhaps even economic sense in the 19th century to start speaking German or Hungarian. It is a strange thing that such a fleeting and elusive trait as hope can determine the existence of a nation and perhaps a civilisation.

Václav Cílek (b. 1955) is a Czech geologist, climatologist, writer, philosopher, and populariser of science. He graduated from the Mining Institute and Faculty of Natural Science of Charles University, and became involved in the study of hydrothermal deposits. Later, he studied samples brought from the Moon by Russian satellites. Thirty years ago, he began to focus on climate change and environmental issues. He combines a knowledge of the humanities with the natural sciences. He is the author of around 400 scientific articles and several books, including the award-winning Inscapes and Landscapes and Makom Book of Places. He was awarded the Tom Stoppard Prize (2004) for his essay work and the Vaclav Havel Foundation Vize 97 Prize in 2009. 

From Václav Cílek ‘s latest novel ‘How to cross a river’, published in 2020 and translated here from Czech by Tereza Stehlíková

Images by Tereza Stehlíková