Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Nietzsche

Time Is Tight Part One

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 3, 2021.

“Emerson says, “We are always getting ready to live, but never living.” Thoreau says, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Burkeman Book

In my previous column, which was on the subject of attention, I quoted from a book by Oliver Burkeman called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. On August 10, 2021, Burkeman published a new book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I preordered the book and read it on the day it was published. As it says on the cover, it is about time management. I am reviewing it here so that you can manage your time better by not having to read it. I have done the heavy lifting for you.

Burkeman tries for a new approach to time management. “Yet the modern discipline known as time management – like its hipper cousin, productivity – is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.” Or writing several months’ worth of weekly columns in one day.

He starts from the premise that life is short and we had better not waste it. “The outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks”. That is all the time we are likely to have on this earth. This is not about business efficiency but about living a less anxious life for the short spell we are here.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Procrastination has been called “the thief of time”. Burkeman does not believe procrastination is necessarily a bad thing – some procrastination could be seen as positive time-management. “The point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. … One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”

These words of wisdom are often attributed to John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. Lennon does sing something like that in his song ‘Beautiful Boy’. The actual provenance of those words of wisdom is less hip. It comes from a 1957 edition of Reader’s Digest. The thought was expressed by  a cartoonist called Allen Saunders (April 24, 1899 – January 28, 1986).

Fake Busyness

I was never terribly career-minded and did not reach any dizzy heights in my “chosen” profession as a civil servant, although I had many valuable experiences and met many interesting people. Despite my lack of ambition (one boss told me I did not have the fire in my belly. I said, “you mean an ulcer? “He said, how did you know I had an ulcer?”. I didn’t know.) I still found myself working long hours to little purpose because that was the culture of the people at the top.

At some time in the 80s, round about the time that Yuppies were invented, busyness became an emblem of prestige, even if the activities undertaken were futile. A long time before that, Nietzsche wrote, “We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life, because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

In those dread dark days when I had to work for a living, The Management was always trying to force gadgets on us; there were little hand-held computers called Organisers which one had to go on courses to learn how to operate. I never used mine at all and was chastised for creating this redundant e-waste. I found it much easier to jot things down in my diary – and I don’t mean Filofax.

Burkeman notes that the definition of what needs doing expands to fill the time available. “The technologies we use to try to get on top of everything always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.”


In TS Eliot’s words, we are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have seen distraction as more a question of character than a matter of external interruptions. To be seduced by distractions was a systematic personal character failure. What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is. Is reality endless games of Candy Crush? As Burkeman puts it, “your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention … it hardly matters how committed you are to making the best use of your limited time if, day after day, your attention gets wrenched away by things on which you never wanted to focus.”

There is a huge, profit-driven machine dedicated to commandeering your attention. Your puny will is no match for it. “There are ‘a thousand people on the other side of the screen’ paid to keep you there – and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone.” There are people making a fortune out of stopping you doing what makes you feel good by drawing you into “the feuds and fake news and public shamings on social media”. This is an essential part of the business model. “Once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days inevitably feels like.” The philosopher Harry Frankfurt says they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want”.

It would take a heart of stone not to grieve at the current situation in Afghanistan. However, I also despair at the virtue signaling on social media. I do not lack compassion but I am not to blame for the situation and there is nothing I can do about it. I still have not solved Myanmar. Burkeman writes, “Worse than distraction, being constantly braced for confrontation or disaster, or harbouring a nebulous sense of foreboding” is not good for our mental health. “Each new scandal overwrites the last one in public awareness – and anyone who responds or retweets, even if their intention is to condemn the hatemongering, finds themselves rewarding it with attention, thereby helping it spread.”

Burkeman does not solely blame the gadgets we willingly buy from Big Tech. The flaw is within us. “Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else – to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most. Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter – the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives – that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want.”


A great deal of advice these days focuses on mindfulness and meditation, on living in the now. Trying to live in the moment can cause its own anxieties. One psychiatrist describes the hell of being stuck in a Groundhog Day of “a new kind of everlasting present”. This is an inferno of social media scrolling in which one is too stifled to make plans or picture any kind of future.  Jay Jennifer Matthews has written a short book called Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are. “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life.”

Burkeman recounts a few anecdotes from people who had narrow escapes and savoured their current lives because they could easily have missed the joys (and sufferings) of now by departing yesterday. I can relate to this. In October 1983, I was in the Peruvian city of Huancavelica, struggling with the altitude of 3,676 meters. Huancavelica is considered one of the poorest cities in Peru with a population of 49,570. The people are mainly indigenous and small and squat in appearance. We attended a festival at the local church and I was approached by a hulking man who resembled Herman Munster. He seemed to take a shine to me but I became anxious when he kept repeating the name “Margaret Thatcher”. The Falklands War was still fresh in everyone’s memory. We saw many people wearing T-shirts bearing the legend “Malvinas”. I was glad to leave Huancavelica. Soon afterwards, I read in a local newspaper that the police station at which we had registered had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso just after we had left.

Another incident in Peru reminded me of my mortality. We were travelling in a clapped-out old boat on Lake Titicaca when the engine died. We drifted around for a long time and could have drifted forever. There was no sign of human life on the huge expanse of water except for a ship of the Bolivian navy in the very far distance. I was quite relaxed about the possibility of a watery doom. (Titicaca has an average depth of 107 m , and a maximum depth of 281 m.) I did not worry too much. I was a tourist. I had paid for this experience and had rights as a customer. This was ignoring the fact that the boss of the travel company in Lima had a villainous aspect and the two young men travelling with us were sniffing coke most of the time. Eventually, the engine coughed into life and I am here to tell the tale.

More recently, we had lunch in the Taprobane Room at the Colombo Cinnamon Grand Hotel on Sunday April 14, 2019. One week later, suicide bombers attacked the Taprobane Room. The waiter who had served us was killed. We probably would have perished too if we had chosen a different date for our rendezvous.

This links in with a major theme in Burkeman’s book – the importance for our mental health of accepting our finitude and embracing the miracle that we are here now. “Surely only somebody who’d failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given – as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away. So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.”

I seem to have run out of time to discuss time management. More cheerful musings on death and finitude next week.

Immunity and Community Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 7 2015


Colman's Column3

I had most of the childhood illnesses without too many problems. I remember measles as being soporifically pleasant. I slept endlessly, wrapped up in a tartan blanket in front of a roaring fire in the kitchen of my grandparents. Mumps was painful but I survived. I had a bout of whooping cough. Chickenpox was an itchy scalp and I still have some scars. My abiding memory of that illness is that while I was still off school my father took me to the cinema (perhaps before I was fully recovered) to see Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. This was strong meat for an eight year old. I was morally confused. Olivier’s Richard was clearly bad because he was killing many people to get his political way. However, he was funny, charismatic, and occasionally likeable. The scary thing was that during the soliloquies, he was speaking directly to me and I could not escape. I feigned boredom and pleaded to go home. I had nightmares in which Richard was the dressing gown hanging on my bedroom door.

I also had a respiratory attack – I panicked when I could not breathe. The GP diagnosed it as bronchitis but it sounds more like asthma. My mother decided I was allergic to feather pillows and I have avoided them ever since and  have had no further attacks. My mother may have been somewhat overprotective but she had been severely ill as a child with rheumatic fever and had known people who died of diphtheria and scarlet fever.

These days one can get vaccinations to protect against measles (rubeola), whooping cough (pertussis),mumps (parotitis), chickenpox (varicella), asthma, diphtheria, scarlet fever (scarlatina) and tetanus.

The Fever Van

In 1901, Emil von Behring won the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work developing serum therapy for a diphtheria vaccination. Thanks to (among other factors) vaccination, scarlet fever and diphtheria, which were common in the 1930s, are now almost unknown in the UK.

These diseases occurred mainly in children between the ages of two and eight and spread rapidly because children would often continue to play with friends in the street and to mix with neighbours despite symptoms.  Social stigma sometimes caused families to conceal the illness and an outbreak on a farm could lead to a ban on the sale of dairy products and hence loss of income. LS Lowry’s painting The Fever Van recalls those times. These vehicles operated throughout Britain from around 1910 to the 1950s transporting patients with infectious diseases from their homes and isolated them in special fever hospitals for up to six weeks. This allowed time for their own immune system to fight off the infection and limited the risk of contamination between patients and family. However, there was a strong likelihood of never returning, such was the high mortality of scarlet fever and diphtheria.

Nietzsche wrote: “What does not kill you makes you strong”.  The body often provides its own immunity. I did not get vaccinations against measles, mumps, chickenpox or asthma but I survived. “Natural” immunity results from the body defending itself against an infectious illness. Vaccines provide immunity without a potentially dangerous infection.


Although measles was a fairly pleasant experience for me, it  has killed more children than any other disease in history. Complications range from the mild, such as diarrhoea, to the serious, such as pneumonia, otitis, acute brain inflammation, subacute sclerosing, panencephalitis, and corneal ulceration.

Between 1855 and 2005, measles killed about 200 million people worldwide. Measles killed 20 percent of Hawaii’s population in the 1850s.  In 1875, measles killed over 40,000 Fijians, approximately one-third of the population. In the 19th century, the disease killed 50% of the Andamanese population. Seven to eight million children died from measles each year before the vaccine was introduced. Measles still affects about 20 million people a year mainly in Africa and Asia.

In 2011, the WHO estimated that there were about 158,000 deaths caused by measles. This is down from 630,000 deaths in 1990.  As of 2013, measles remains the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in the world. In 2012, the number of deaths due to measles was 78% lower than in 2000 due to increased rates of immunization among UN member states.

One in every twenty children with measles will develop pneumonia; one in every thousand will develop encephalitis, which can leave a child deaf or brain-damaged. Measles is airborne and extremely contagious; a virus transmitted by a sneeze can still infect people an hour later. A community generally needs more than ninety per cent of its members to be immunized against the virus in order to protect everyone.

Recent Measles Epidemics

In 2013–14, there were almost 10,000 cases in 30 European countries. Most cases occurred in unvaccinated individuals. In 2014, a review by the Centers for Disease Control concluded:  “the elimination of endemic measles, rubella, and CRS has been sustained in the United States.” However, an outbreak that started in February 2015 in California, has now spread to 14 states and there is fear that it will spread throughout the nation, particularly in places where parents have sought legal exemption from vaccination. California is one of nineteen states that allow people to opt out not only for religious and medical reasons but also because of a loosely defined “personal belief.” Antii-vaccination sentiment decreased the community immunity afforded by public health programmes. Currently, eight percent of children in California kindergartens are not adequately vaccinated.

The infection has now spread beyond California to Utah, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Mexico. Last year, California made the “personal belief” exemption law more stringent, requiring parents to submit a form signed by a health professional. Governor Jerry Brown, at the last minute, added a religious exemption, so that parents who object to vaccination as a matter of faith do not need a physician’s signature.


Outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) were first described in the 16th century. The bacterium that causes it was discovered in 1906. Throughout the world, pertussis affects 16 million people every year and there were 61,000 deaths in 2013 – down from 138,000 in 1990. It strikes people of any age. Two per cent of children under one who get it will die. Most cases occur in the developing world

A vaccine became available in the 1940s. In the latter 20th century, vaccinations helped to reduce the incidence of childhood pertussis in the US. However, reported instances increased twenty-fold in the early 21st century, causing many deaths. Many parents declined to vaccinate their children for fear of side effects from the vaccine itself. There have been concerns that DPT, a class of combination vaccines against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus caused brain damage.

As long ago as 1990, the Journal of American Medical Association called the fear a “myth” and “nonsense”. No studies showed a causal connection. The alleged vaccine-induced brain damage proved to be an unrelated condition, infantile epilepsy. Scepticism endures – in 2012, more than forty-eight thousand pertussis cases and twenty deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control, the greatest number since 1955.


I did get vaccinations against polio and TB. Diphtheria was seen as a disease of poverty but the aristocratic president of the USA, Franklin D Roosevelt, was struck down with polio. I remember the shock in 1959 when Jeff Hall died of polio. He was a young and fit footballer, playing with distinction at full-back for Birmingham City and England. Hall’s last match for Birmingham was away to Portsmouth on 21 March 1959. He became ill two days later and was admitted to hospital where he was diagnosed with polio. Over the next twelve days, his condition deteriorated; he became paralysed and lost his speech before dying on 4 April, aged 29.

Polio had been a comparatively rare disease in Britain. However, at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide every year.  In 1952, during the worst recorded epidemic, 3,145 people, including 1,873 children, in the United States died from polio. It was feared because of its capacity to maim young and healthy bodies. The consequences of the disease left polio victims marked for life, in wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, or iron lungs. One sees many victims in Sri Lanka. Rock poet Ian Dury was severely disabled by childhood polio. Booker Prize winner JG Farrell contracted the disease when he was at Brasenose College Oxford and was partially disabled, sometimes needing an iron lung. There is a strong suspicion that his death by drowning in County Cork was suicide. Anxious parents kept their children away from swimming pools where the disease was thought to spread, but take-up of the Salk vaccine was slow.

In the weeks following Hall’s death, and after his widow, Dawn, spoke on television about her loss, demand for immunisation surged. Emergency vaccination clinics were set up and supplies of the vaccine flown in from the United States to cope with the demand.

The last case of natural polio infection acquired in the UK was in 1984. Between 1985 and 2002, 40 cases of paralytic polio were reported in the UK. In Sri Lanka, the incidence of poliomyelitis has decreased steadily along with the rapid increase in the immunization coverage of infants. Sri Lanka has not reported any cases for the last 15 years and the last virologically confirmed case of polio was detected in Sri Lanka in 1993.


Vaccination and the concept of “herd immunity” raises civil liberties issues which I will discuss in next week’s column.

Cruel and Unusual Part2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 13 2014.


Colman's Column3

An examination of  issues relating to capital punishment, continued from last week.

What Do the Philosophers Say?

Immanuel Kant wrote: “But whoever has committed murder, must die. There is, in this case, no juridical substitute or surrogate that can be given or taken for the satisfaction of justice. There is no likeness or proportion between life, however painful, and death; and therefore there is no equality between the crime of murder and the retaliation of it but what is judicially accomplished by the execution of the criminal.”

Nietzsche recognised cruelty in Kant’s position. Cruelty can be, and often is, masked as morality. Base pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be, and often is, rationalised as moral duty. “Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?” Nietzsche sees the origin of this “strange hypothesis” in commercial law – “debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.” Commercial contracts provide a model for the social contract, which requires that humans undergo an internalisation of their aggressive drives. This has a psychological effect causing what Freud would call a neurosis. Nietzsche describes it as that “serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace”. Nietzsche warns that this psychic formation (or deformation) brings the risk of the subject becoming her or his own executioner.

Nietzsche suggests that abolitionists are not immune to cruelty. By preferring imprisonment to the death penalty (protracted cruelty, that is, over immediate death) they are making an aggressive attack on aggression which paradoxically preserves, or redoubles, aggression even as it seeks its eradication. As I mentioned last week, Yanna Brishyana, when sentenced to death in the Colombo High Court, appealed to the court to have her executed immediately.

Victor Hugo was a staunch abolitionist. He travelled across Spain as a young boy. Along the roadside, heads of convicted robbers were displayed as warning to others; one man had been dismembered and re-assembled in the shape of a crucifix. As Voltaire put it: Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres. In his short novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829), written when he was 27, Hugo writes about a man who has been condemned to death by the guillotine in 19th century France. He writes down his thoughts while awaiting his execution. Hugo had witnessed executions and told a story about the blade sticking halfway through a condemned man’s neck. The man freed himself and stumbled off holding his spurting head in place with his hand. The executioner’s assistant jumped on his shoulders and finished hacking his head off with his pocketknife. Baudelaire did not agree with Hugo. The poet celebrated capital punishment as a supremely sacred and religious proceeding.

Albert Camus deals with the “eye for an eye” trope: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Jacques Derrida addresses Baudelaire’s criticism of Hugo’s abolitionism. Hugo argues that the death penalty should be opposed because the right to life is absolute. Derrida says abolitionists “are afraid for their own skins, because they feel guilty and their tremulations are a confession; they confess, with the symptom of their abolitionism, as it were, that they want to save their lives, that they tremble for themselves because … unconsciously, they feel guilty of a mortal sin… ‘I want to abolish the death penalty because I am afraid of being condemned.’”

Derrida tries to expose the way that the abolitionists are implicated in the death drive, suggesting that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness. He suggests that abolitionists are like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of pornography. Derrida himself opposed the death penalty, but could still ask whether some abolitionists are committed to other forms of cruelty that are masked by elegant moral formulations, ones that rationalise prolonging the time of cruelty and the tenure of sadistic delight. Abolitionists have made sure to promote the punishment of life without parole as the alternative to execution, taking care of the question of the worst of the worst being allowed out to commit fresh crimes.

Democracy and Death Penalty

Edmund Burke, told his 18th century constituents in Bristol that, while he would attentively listen to their opinions, he would reject any talk of “authoritative instructions” or “mandates issued” which he might be expected to obey. The death penalty is normally cited as the classic example of the disconnect between politicians and the people they represent. I have written often about the lack of democracy in the EU. The EU has made abolition of the death penalty a condition for membership of the club. In every Western democracy that has scrapped the death penalty, politicians have acted against the wishes of a majority of voters. A European politician running on a platform of restoring capital punishment would be wasting his and the voters’ time, unless he was willing to leave the EU as well.

In the UK, a majority of MPs have consistently opposed the death penalty and a majority of the public consistently supported it. It used to be over 70%, but these days roughly half of the UK population support the death penalty for “standard” murder. Overall US public opinion remains clearly in favour of the death penalty, with around 60% or more of Americans saying they want it retained as a punishment for murder. Michael Dukakis’s opposition to capital punishment in a televised debate sank his 1988 presidential run.

The most combative abolitionists openly assert that they know better than their voters, and are saving them from themselves. Former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, defended his position: “Capital punishment raises important questions about how, as a society, we view human beings. I believed as governor, and I still believe, that the practice and support for capital punishment is corrosive; that it is bad for a democratic citizenry and that it had to be objected to and so I did then, and I do now and will continue to for as long as it and I exist, because I believe we should be better than what we are in our weakest moments.”

Cuomo could only block capital punishment until he left office – it was reinstated. Yet in states whose state legislatures have voted in recent years to abolish it, after long debate, there are no signs of it being brought back on to the statute books.

It is a strange state of affairs when politicians are moral arbiters acting in our best interests and keeping us on an ethical path.




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