Dao Du Jour II, Day 45: Almost Micro-Famous

Chapter 44: Fame and Fortune

“Which is nearer,

Name or self?

Which is dearer,

Self or wealth?

All you grasp will be thrown away.

All you hoard will be utterly lost.

Contentment keeps disgrace away.

Restraint keeps you out of danger

So you can go on for a long, long time.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

“I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” ~ Jim Carrey

One of the many odd affordances of our new information ecology is that it presents everyone with the plausible chance of becoming micro-famous. Social media is, of course, diabolical in its ability to tap into the most ancient and powerful drives in the psyche, and with fame it is no different. The desire for fame is the sick form of the natural desire for belonging; in Darwinian terms, the desire and the ability to “fit in” was arguably the most important form of “adaptive fit” in our species’ early history. Not just the natural selection of the environment, but the cultural selection of the tribe, was essential for survival.

As with calories, we evolved in conditions of relative scarcity when it comes to recognition. There were only so many people you had to appeal to, gain respect from, and burnish your reputation before; doing so was a requirement for attaining a sense of coherence, feeling yourself integrated with the social and natural world. But now, just as our propensity to feast on sweet and fatty foods is a liability, our propensity to get people to like us—normal, natural, and necessary for both survival and sanity—gets us into trouble. The evolutionary imperative—“more is better”—began smart but has become dumb. Eating, like making a name for oneself, is a means, not an end in itself.

We know this, of course. So why do we fall for the lure?

Cardinal John Henry Newman offers us an incisive distinction for cutting through this conundrum: “real assent” vs. “notional assent.” The difference can be seen by an example Michael Pollan gives in his book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind. Smoking addicts who successfully quit after taking a clinically administered dose of psylocibin were asked, months after the treatment, why they didn’t smoke anymore. Their answers were were complicated. Why would I do that to my body? Smoking kills you. And so on. In other words, they didn’t go through any kind of intellectual conversion or gain new insight; every smoker knows full well smoking is bad for you. What had changed was their relationship to their beliefs; they had moved from notional assent—an abstract understanding—to real assent—embodied, lived understanding. It’s a fantastic explanation for, e.g., why you find yourself complaining about social media one minute while doom scrolling the next.

The problem with wisdom is not that we lack knowledge, but that we forget it. The most important kind is the category Donald Rumsfeld left out: “unknown knowns.”

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”