0413 – stop trying to save the world

Having written one vomit about a status update, I figured I might as well write another. This time it’s about saving the world.

Isn’t that an intriguingly persistent idea, saving the world? Everybody wants to save the world. “Who’s going to save the world tonight?” Its sister tropes are “rule the world”, “run the world”, “teach the world to sing”, “buy the world a coke”, and so forth. Where does this grand idea come from, why does it persist, why are we so susceptible to it? I definitely had a world-saving phase as a teenager, and I still have some remnants of it left over. Where did it come from? It’s some sort of reaction to seeing ugly things in the world. Seeing death and decay and injustice and unfairness. And there’s some sort of inner moral outrage– somebody should put a stop to this! Somebody should fix all these problems! Nobody’s done it yet, maybe it’s up to me. I’m going to do it. I’m going to save the world. [1]

But why do we even care? Why do we even bother? I can only speak for myself. A part of it is probably identity performance, whether I realize it or not, whether I admit it or not, especially when it’s expressed publicly. “I am the sort of person who cares about social justice, who cares about making the world a better place. This is the sort of big-picture person that I am. I am for humanity.” – that’s an identity I performed to my friends for a very long time. Why did I do that? A part of me thinks it might just be the identity I liked most, that was most favorable given my preexisting interests and condition. I should attempt to falsify that hypothesis, but the confirmation bias is too strong. I enjoyed reading about people who did all these big amazing things– Carl Sagan… and all these quotes seemed so grand and inspiring, and I wanted to just be a part of that sort of thing.

Social identity performance is a very critical thing, but I think it’s also important to note that I performed this identity for myself, to myself, when I was isolated and alone. Of course, no isolation is really permanent, so even moments of isolation are probably still to be considered within the context of a longer, broader social life. It might be interesting to ask– if I were completely uprooted from my current community, and all my friends and family were utterly extinguished and erased from existence, and I was implanted into some other society– what would I perform then? (Apart from mysterious person who lost everything– suppose that’s somehow a non-issue… yes, this is a rather tediously elaborate thought experiment). What would I perform? I know I’m articulate and thoughtful and smart. But what would I do? What would my interests be?

I don’t actually have a super-clear idea, which is mildly troubling. Realistically I’ll probably just wander around my new environment and try to make sense of it, and figure out how everything ticks– how this environment fits within the world. Being implanted in some sort of religious-fundamentalist culture would be very different from being implanted in say, Silicon Valley, or New York, or Tokyo, or the Himalayas. So who knows? Given the choice of switching to any of these contexts, which would I pick? Sounds like I’d stay where I am, which also sounds like a bit of a suboptimal outcome. I should probably visit everywhere.

I’m running out of words for this vomit and I haven’t gotten to the ‘pivot’ point of the post, which is to transition from thinking about the world to thinking about the self. There’s a quote about how “when I was young I was foolish, and I wanted to change the world. As I grew older, I grew wise, and so I want to change myself.” Can’t remember who. There’s also other quotes– you can have no greater or lesser dominion than over yourself. (One wonders, with modern neurology and such, if even that is a little too generous, and if we might have less dominion than that.)

The point is, to save the world, if that were even possible, if the world even needed saving or wanted to be saved, we have to become the kind of people who can or would save the world. And that requires a lot of personal transformation. And it requires saving ourselves, from whatever is bothering or aiiing us. I think often (though really I’m just talking about myself) we proclaim that we want to save the world, because if we saved the world then it would mean that we are okay. By having provided such a grand service, our personal failings are forgivable, are forgiven.

But we don’t have to save the world to do that. We have to look in the mirror, we have to sit and greet ourselves arriving at our own door.

[1] It’s such an interesting concept. The world is so inconceivably large, so inconceivably complex (and yet, within the grander scheme of the galaxy or the universe, it’s practically a rounding error, negligible. Which is what most of us are as individuals, within the context of the world.)

What is significance? What is meaning? Why do we care about each other? It’s all chemicals in the brain, does that make it irrelevant or unimportant? Well… all relevance, all importance, all meaning, all significance, all of it is constructed, imagined. Whether that’s real or not depends on the lens you want to observe it through, and what you mean by real. It’s real in the sense that we kill each other over it. That’s pretty fucking real. But it’s also in a sense ultimately a dream. (And here you could keep going, and realize that all of our experiences of everything is ultimately a sort of dream, a sort of simulation.)

What is reality? Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. It’s inconvenient, unforgiving, ruthless, relentless, indifferent. But what does it mean to believe in something? What about the observer-participant problem? If something appears to come into reality because you believe in it, and goes away when you stop believing in it, does it make it any less real WHILE you believe in it? It’s “real” to you– and if you kill somebody because of your imagined belief, then your belief is real to them– in the sense that they have to take it into account when figuring out how to not get killed.

So other people’s fanaticism is a real thing, even if their fanaticism itself is entirely imagined and would go away if they just decided to stop believing in it. And there are all sorts of real reasons that may explain why they believe what they believe, and why they cling on to that belief despite the fact that it’s not _technically_ grounded in ‘absolute reality’. It all gets a little fuzzy, really. The emperor might indeed not be wearing any clothes, but you’ll still get really arrested and really beheaded for pointing out that truth. Reality doesn’t give a shit about the fact that sometimes people make stuff up. It doesn’t give a shit, period. So you have to account for other people’s (potentially lethal!) BS when making sense of the reality we inhabit, because it includes other people.

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