Losing your patience with winter? Nietzsche insists that cold weather makes us stronger. Miller writes that it just makes us boring.

In the next few weeks, with any luck, people will begin straggling out of their homes, dazed by the light and unsure of whether to trust the promise of spring. Survivors from a long, harrowing war. For some, winter is so psychologically devastating that spring is almost a full resurrection. For most of us around these parts, I imagine, spring will be welcomed this year more than ever, like a dear friend who was lost and presumed dead.

But what really is the relationship between happiness and weather? We’ve all heard of, and quite possibly experienced, Seasonal Affective Disorder – when you just can’t face getting out of bed only to be met by yet another grey and disheartening sky. But there may be a difference between how weather affects our mood and how it affects the quality of our lives more generally. Consider two different though similar views on the relationship between human well-being and intemperate weather:

The first is from Henry Miller, who complained bitterly about the effects of extreme weather:

why do people live in outlandish climates in the temperate zones, as they are miscalled? Because people are naturally idiots, naturally sluggards, naturally cowards. Until I was about ten years old I never realized that there were “warm” countries, places where you didn’t have to sweat for a living, nor shiver and pretend that it was tonic and exhilarating. Wherever there is cold there are people who work themselves to the bone and when they produce young they preach the gospel of work – which is nothing, at bottom, but the doctrine of inertia.

Miller seems to think that the majority of humans can’t possibly be at their best in cold weather. It saps any potential for feeling really alive and motivated, reducing us to getting through the day, postponing all living until work (or winter) is done – which is never (and in the case of winter, far too long). His view is that the entire Protestant work ethic was developed as an excuse for the inertia that sets in when one lives with the cold.

Miller also wrote that humans learn very well how to protect themselves from the cold, so that we may “rot in comfort”. And this represents his general attitude towards human civilization: rather than pushing ourselves to grow, we prefer, if given the chance, to hunker down and ride it out safely. We keep ourselves entertained and comfortable, and thus lose sight of all the amazing possibilities life might otherwise offer us. Bad weather is just an excuse for this ‘natural’ attitude, which we might be pushed to overcome were we outside in a t-shirt more often, exposed to the natural world, to interaction with other humans, and to the unknown and unfamiliar – something that we rarely find in our warm living rooms.

Friedrich Nietzsche shares this critique of the human love of safety and comfort. Yet he feels rather differently about cold and extreme climates. For Nietzsche the worst enemy of human intellectual and psychological growth is indeed the instinct to self-preservation, but a clear sign of this is the human desire to avoid cold, harsh climates. What is different with Nietzsche is that he happens to be one of those who genuinely believed that the cold weather is tonic and exhilarating. Nietzsche loved to climb mountains, breathing the thin, brisk air and challenging both body and mind. For him, to face the harshest elements and the greatest extremes was a way to remain alive and in contact with what drives away the deadening comfort of a safe and sheltered life.

So what should we take from these discussions? If we accept Miller’s view that we use the cold weather as an excuse for mediocrity, his own example shows us that this need not be the case. After all, he lived through countless New York City winters and his books are among the most vibrant and intellectually stimulating that I have read.

What made Miller an exception to his own rule is not entirely clear: natural intelligence and prophetic vision, landing in the right time and place, having learned not to take himself too seriously – all these are possibilities. But for much of his early life, he didn’t write. Instead he seems to have intentionally positioned himself on the edge of sanity and survival, in order to live intensely and observe the grittiest and most extreme forms of life around him. Misery, like the cold, can cause us to retreat behind our picket fences. But life at the extremes, if we care to come outside and inspect it, just might be where something like the truth lies.

As the spring weather finally arrives our moods will inevitably brighten and our spines soften, and this is a cause for celebration. But we might do well to remember not to lose ourselves in pure enjoyment and the comfort of the warm air, but rather to use the opportunity for a renewed sense of growth and discovery. And next winter, may we remember to find our inspiration not by the fireside, but by the very act of embracing every minute of this painful but exhilarating climate that humans were mad enough to populate.

The world without us: seeing the future for our children

Children are the almost unfathomable embodiment of the other-in-the-self, and as such they present us with our own limitations. We begin with an exercise in self-multiplication and what we get is a human that I think is most striking for not being a reproduction of the self. An extension of the self that is not the self, that goes beyond. Even while I’ve heard that adoptive parents have that moment of “yes, this is my child” just as strongly as do birth parents, I have also had my own experience of thinking “who is this alien being that came out of my body?” corroborated by others.

One of the effects of this uncanniness is that it forces us to confront our futural imaginations, or lack thereof. Suddenly the world that will outlive us matters to us quite intensely, and yet I don’t think we can really get our heads around this future-without-us. When I look at my small darlings, I often get a feeling of profound sadness for them. When I try to articulate it, I can only come up with a sort of vague sense that they will never get to experience life as I have because the world is ending. This is a crazy thought! And yet it’s always there, lurking under the surface whenever I picture the future, or more properly whenever I fail to do so.

Is this because the world is, in fact, headed for large-scale disasters of the environmental and political kind? The sense that the world is indeed on the brink tends to dominate our news these days, and yet I don’t think this really explains my feelings. I have read somewhere that every generation has always believed itself to be the last, and when I examine my explicit views it is clear to me that I don’t in fact think that the end is coming, not quite that soon anyway. What I suspect is that we are just deeply self-centred and cannot as such invest our minds in the idea that the world will really and truly continue to exist without us.

The phenomenological tradition in philosophy has language that sheds some light on this. Phenomenologists talk about ‘world’ and ‘self’, not as concrete objects, but as the framework for our experience. World is not itself an object of experience but a sort of background for everything else, a condition on which things can be experienced. This sense of world depends, in turn, on the self as a sort of centre, the locus of the experiencing itself. Put otherwise, self is a sort of hub of experience and world is the radius of that experiencing.

This seems to help explain why I can’t really imagine the world without myself. Of course I can believe in it, can even speculate on what it might look like, but then what I’m doing is really an intellectual reflection in which I consider things that might be the case in this future. But since the activity of imagining (in the sense of anticipating real events, rather than in the sense of indulging in flights of fancy) is a sort of projecting of myself into the future, there is a structural impossibility to conceiving in this way of a future in which I don’t exist. If this distinction seems overly academic, just try it. Try to anticipate the details of a holiday you will take with family or friends. Now try to anticipate that same holiday without you: of course you can picture it, but as you do so it’s as if you’re still there, watching it unseen. That’s what it feels like to try to anticipate more generally a world in which you don’t exist.

I wonder if this isn’t also the source of that old-age delight that we call “old-fogeyism”. If we can’t picture the world without us, is it also true that when we get older and less supple, less receptive to learning and new experiences, that our selves-as-centre begin to calcify? If the problem is that we can’t experience in imagination the world when we’re dead, are we also unable to really see the world as our children do because the world has moved on without us? Of course we can never see the world from any perspective but our own, but the experimentation of being young is all about trying out new perspectives, trying on new convictions and belief systems, and these are the glasses through which we see the world.

Henry Miller describes the way that he empties himself out constantly in order to be a receptacle for the world, for experience that is fluid and changing as the world fundamentally is. At some point, I imagine, this self as locus of experience starts to become rigid, unable to see the world through any lens other than the last one we tried on that has dried up and become part of our face. When we see the world changing rapidly around us and we can no longer adapt to new perspectives, is that when we write it off and say it’s all going to hell? Is that when we feel sad looking at our children? Are we thinking that they’ll miss out on life as it really ought to be when the problem is that we ourselves aren’t fluid enough to continue to see the world as it really is?

Of course the greater problem is not that we are cranky and inflexible when we’re old, but that we seem unable to live for future generations, to preserve the planet for them, to leave behind sustainable economic structures. Though we may save for our children’s education and carefully prepare our wills for them, we can’t seem to live as though the world they will live in matters. Perhaps this should be our goal as a species – yes, we can have species goals! In fact, having species goals is exactly what ought to be our species goal. Nietzsche’s Overman is a being who sacrifices himself for a better future for humankind. He’s better than us because he has overcome this structural limitation; either he has somehow become capable of anticipating the world beyond, or he has become capable of living for something he can’t anticipate. Either way, this ought to be a goal – instead of believing that the world will go on and living as though it won’t, might we just imagine the possibility that it may not and live as though it depended on us?