0537 – what is going on?

What are we, what is going on, what should we do?

We’re all bags of cells. A hundred trillion nanobots working together, seemingly in some sort of celebration. There isn’t really a good reason for it, it was all rather arbitrary. Skeletons, muscles, nerves, skin. A digestive tract- mouth, throat, stomach, intestines, bladder, anus. Lungs, heart, arteries, veins. Glands, hormones, neurons. Our ancestors were simple cells, and they reproduced and grew complex over practically a billion years. The Earth that we’re on is 1.6 billion years, it orbits a nuclear reactor we call the sun, which is one of a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way, a hundred thousand light years across. And the Milky Way is one of probably billions and billions of galaxies in the known universe.

But for the time being, we’re stuck here on this Earth. Some cool people are working on getting us to Mars. Some cool people have written about all sorts of possibilities and we have begun to realize them.

Zooming back. People. We are social creatures, we don’t live alone. We live in groups. We pass thoughts and ideas from mind to mind through elaborate systems of gestures, vocalizations, squiggles. We used to live in smaller groups, but have been progressively expanding them. Today we have mega-cities with millions of people. We have not yet learnt to see ourselves as part of a single human family. We are still squabbling, killing each other over all sorts of trivial nonsense. But it’s not trivial to the killers- it’s of crucial, critical importance. People are consumed with hate and pain and rage, often understandably so considering their starting conditions, considering the terrible fates they inherited.

You only ever need to step into a children’s hospital to realize that life is cruel and unfair.

I’ve been thinking lately that there are two extreme ends or positions that a person can take with regards to the world- both a little simplistic. One is a position of unconditional love towards all things- probably best embodied by the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. A position of service and kindness and grace.

The other is a sort of fundamental contempt for incompetence, weakness, bullshit. [1]

It seems likely that both of these positions will have to coexist. They seem to contradict each other, but that’s probably because I’m being vague to a degree I do not realize. It seems like a case of “love the sinner, hate the sin”. But then sometimes it does seem like the sin can be so consuming that the sinner is an unrecognizable shell.

Zooming out. The point is that humanity is a teeming, writhing mass, messy and chaotic, bristling at the edges. In the civilization centers, things can seem calm, smooth, predictable, reliable. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing we can conceive of. We’re all we know. Which is kinda limited.

Humanity requires energy to survive. As individuals we need food to eat, at the most basic level. To maintain our civilizations and standards of living, we need a lot more. We need electricity, we need power. For that we largely burn fossil fuels. We’ll need to eventually move to solar power, which is the primary source from which everything actually originates. Fossil fuels are compressed organic material from living things that were either plants themselves or animals that fed on plants– and plants themselves. All life on Earth is sustained by solar energy. Some people are working on this. Some people are working against this. It gets very complex because of all the extensive histories of all the agents and all the nuances of politics and whatnot.

So… what do we do? What are we here for? I live on an island city-state called Singapore, which is a tiny minnow in the grand scheme of things– 0.07% of the global population. It’s a full-time job just staying afloat, and to use the tiny influence we have to keep the region and world around us stable enough so that we can continue to survive.

There is a lot of poverty and pain and suffering in the world, a lot of injustice, a lot of cruelty and unfairness. It would be nice to see the world make progress on this. At the same time, it also feels like an intractable, insoluble problem– like there’s always going to be more no matter how much you do. The parable of the starfish on the beach comes to mind. I suppose ultimately we justify our actions within the greater context of the fact that we’re all going to die and that life is fundamentally meaningless. If we decide that we want to believe that something is meaningful, then we do that.

I also have come to think that it probably makes more sense to focus on the problems that we CAN measureably solve and make a difference to, than to flail wildly at problems that we can’t do much about. It seems like there’s a sort of ladder here– you begin by solving problems for yourself and creating a superstructure around you that allows you to take care of business for yourself and then some, and then you use that additional capacity to take care of things beyond yourself– and you keep scaling that, keep doing more. That’s one way of living a life. Another is to just let it all go and to engage each thing as it comes, which has a rather zen quality about it. Which yields greater peace? It depends on your own mental model of what you respect.

Either way, wringing one’s hands or feeling sorry for oneself doesn’t achieve much. You can do that for a few minutes a day, then you gotta be a gangster. And do what is objectively the best you can do, and then strive to do better. That’s the most anybody can ask.

[1] It would be interesting to hear what the Pope and Dalai Lama have to say about those things, about their experiences with those things. They seem to always be cheerful and good natured, but are they? Do they have their doubts? Have they experienced the dark night of the soul, their own inner despair? I’m sure they have; I can’t imagine that not being the case.

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