September 27, 2020
Some months before starting Think List, I'd briefly experimented with a Think List-like newsletter called Umwelt, a name that came to me from my reading of Conscious by Annaka Harris. She describes the term in the book as follows:
There is a wonderful term, umwelt, introduced by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909, to describe the given experience of any particular animal, based on the senses used by that organism to navigate its environment. Bats have one umwelt, bees experience another, humans another, and someone using a technology like the BrainPort [a small grid that sits on the tongue and converts a video feed into minuscule electric shocks] experiences yet another.
Harris goes on to write briefly about David Eagleman's research exploring "the possibilities of expanding our human umwelt to include information we don’t currently have access to through our five senses."
She then quotes Eagleman from his 2015 TED Talk:
There’s really no end to the possibilities on the horizon for human expansion. Just imagine an astronaut being able to feel the overall health of the International Space Station, or, for that matter, having you feel the invisible states of your own health, like your blood sugar and the state of your microbiome, or having 360-degree vision or seeing in infrared or ultraviolet.12
I found the concept super interesting and thrilling, and it also struck me as compatible with the direction I'd been feeling compelled to take my writing—i.e., in ways that might expand my own (and hopefully others') experiences, via information we, for myriad reasons, might not all have access to; and to do so without allegiance to or reverence for party lines, groupthink, political correctness, and so on.
Like Think List, I included quotes from others that I found relevant to (and that in many cases inspired me to write about) the topic at hand. Some of those quotes were innocuous enough. Others included the words of fairly divisive figures, some of whom I had/have mixed feelings about, but each of whom I've read or listened to at some length, and found to be valuable to our times and doing far more good than harm. Not unrelatedly, I had more than a few times seen these individuals mischaracterized greatly, in a variety of troubling ways, in certain newspapers of record that I read then, and continue to read now, with more and more cringing and facepalming as the days goes by.
After numerous unsubscribes that I took (perhaps wrongly) to be protest votes from people I knew and considered distant friends, I started feeling bad about myself and questioning my thinking and myself. It didn't feel like growth. Not at the time. It just felt bad, and it made me think, Maybe I feel awful, not because I'm not being heard or understood in the ways I'd hoped, but because I'm actually awful, and because my thoughts and feelings and unseen things dark and deep in me are actually awful.
So I deleted the site and the newsletter both and decided to meditate on all of this indefinitely, if not forever, and keep my thoughts to myself. After about six months, in which I got married in the presence of my family, each of whom had reluctantly traveled 9,000-plus miles in the fresh and uncertain heat of this pandemic, and each of whom had been forced to bail early, I launched Think List in part as a way to try to connect with people again, many of whom seemed, as a result of the pandemic, suddenly just like me, i.e., spending a lot of time at home writing or otherwise communicating their thoughts to the people they could not be physically present with.
It's now been five months, plus the six months when I all but stopped writing and just thought things through. So almost a year in all. I'm trying to be more careful with my words these days. That's not to say I wasn't being careful then. I was. I'm just being more careful now. I think I have a richer awareness of the importance in choosing words that at least stand a chance of being digestible, but still without being dishonest to what I actually think and feel and believe. I want to choose the words that might most effectively bring people together rather than push them further apart. That doesn't mean that the words will always go down smooth. In fact, I can tell you with relative certainty right now that they won't. But that is part of our human expansion. That is part of our growth. All the things we get right. All our missteps. All the things still floating around somewhere in the middle. We need them all. And we need to show more mercy and openness to growth and opposing views in the face of them. These are not options. Not if we truly want that growth, progress, and human expansion, whatever those words might mean to you individually. They are necessities. Prerequisites for getting past the nonsense of now, not to mention preventing a civil war, and building a country that is more fair, more just, and more equal, without sacrificing facts and science. And I would argue that this is impossible to achieve unless we adhere to some reasonable degree to facts and science. A country built on a bedrock of lies about how we are all exactly the same, even if it's done in an effort to make us more equal, will inevitably collapse. Because it's simply not true. We are different. As both groups and individuals. And while we might just be more alike than we are different, it is facts and science that will bring us closer to such answers. And like kids playing a game of their own creation together, it is up to us to adhere to the rules of the game if we want it to proceed. The egregious fact- and science-denying happening increasingly on both the left and the right in the past decade or so is extremely troubling. And I personally feel more emboldened than ever to speak up about it, specifically in an effort to achieve that more fair, more just, more equal society that the vast majority of us seem to be after.
So I will be talking about race. I will be talking about sex and gender. I will be sharing ideas based in facts and science that I think are important to our growth, even if they also happen to be controversial, and even if they are expressed by individuals whom I don't agree with on everything. I will be talking about wokeness and cancel culture and various other topics deemed too sensitive for people to challenge or think about or discuss openly. I understand the fear that is preventing many people in the US from saying what they actually think about these things right now. And it occurred to me recently that I'm very fortunate in that I simply don't have those fears. I suppose it helps a little that I'm not living in or employed by a company in the US, nor do I maintain many, if any, relationships with close-minded people there. But irrespective of all of that, I'm not afraid because I believe deep down, after much deliberation, a deliberation that continues virtually around the clock and that I couldn't turn off if I tried, that this is the only right and proper way forward, toward the possibility of a better country, and a better world.
Brian Leli, September 2020