Wisdom of Insecurity - Book Review & Summary
Apr 9, 2018
5 minute read

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan W. Watts

Review

This book is full of pseudo-mysticism and pernicious nostalgia. It glorifies eastern philosophy at the expense of enlightenment ideology that brought the world all the technological advancement that we enjoy today.

The central thesis of the book that humanity is less happy now that we have strayed from religion and trapped by consumerism. However, is it true?

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment book comes with 72 charts of human civilisation advancement. Chief among them is happiness and life satisfaction data:

source: https://ourworldindata.org/happiness-and-life-satisfaction

If the research is valid, it proves that we are not descending into atheism hell. Instead, we are getting happier.

Sure, the absolute number of people who are depressed and having a hard time finding meaning in life might be increasing, but we have to look at it in context. The world population has exploded significantly over the past several decades due to advance in medicine, so the absolute number of almost all demographic has increased with it.

The next big problem is how people deal with lack of faith in religion. The book postulates that modern people try to fill the void with stuff. Hedonic treadmill is a well-studied phenomenon, but it is not an exclusively modern one. The poor religious peasant in medieval Europe would desire an ever larger homestead and farmland. Once they have gotten that, they would be happy for a while before adapting to the new home, then repeat the process all over again. Their lack of ability to get rich is the great deterrent to hedonism.

The modern problem is that since we have more economic mobility and much wealthier compared to the peasant, people could afford larger homes and faster car. Because of this ability, people would spend a more substantial portion of their resources on the hedonic treadmill.

Instead of going back to the old eastern religion and philosophy, humanity could look forward to a different belief system like humanism. We could look at Star Trek and see what can we do to achieve interstellar travel. Let the past go. We have been using religion as a crutch for thousands of years without much to show for it.

In conclusion, this book is not malicious. It is just operating under false assumptions and doesn’t try to put things into modern context. We can still learn something from this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary

What is the meaning of life?

Religion offers strict doctrines that govern how people live their life. People feel more fulfilled when they follow the rules. Do good stuff according to the book, and one will live forever in heaven. The eternal afterlife is a very useful carrot and stick.

During the industrial revolution and rapid technological advancement, the world seems to move away from mysticism. Many people lost their sense of direction. When they lose faith in religion, they lose their compass in life. Why do we have to suffer in this life if there isn’t any afterlife to look forward?

The lost souls attempt to fill the hole with drugs, excessive partying or to become workaholics. The more they try to stimulate themselves, the more stimulation they need to feel alive. They have become desensitised. Thus the cycle of addiction continues.

Consumerism

We are not here in this world to buy and consume stuff. New car and new clothes are fun for a while, but they do not give life much meaning.

Without religion to guide them, people fell into hedonic treadmill where they always want to get the bigger house and the faster car. It is a treadmill for a reason. The thing they chase is designed never to get caught. We are playing a rigged game.

We train our children at an early age to follow the rules. Study hard to get good grades. Get good grades to go to college. Go to college to get a good job. Get a good job to make lots of money. Make lots of money to can buy stuff. Buy more stuff to be happy.

What happens when they are still unhappy at the end?

What if a child wanted to become a nurse to help others, but everyone around them steers them to go to medical school?

Pleasure & Pain

We want the sweet feelings without the bad. We want the joys of life but not the pain. These two are interconnected, and it all depends on perspective. We need to feel the lowest low to appreciate the highest high.

Just like Passenger sang on his song ‘Let her go.’

Well, you only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go
Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go

Learn to view all events as temporary. Neither good nor bad. In Zen Buddhism, letting go of everything indeed is the path to enlightenment.

Let go of the past, embrace the present. Don’t worry about how the future is going to impact the present, just enjoy the now.

Sometimes thinking hard about a problem will bring you no closer to the solution. Instead, you should go for a walk in the park, or take a long hot shower. Ideas to solve your problem might emerge serendipitously. Inspiration comes when we aren’t thinking hard about it.