Society’s Progress

Succesful systems are not necessarily characterized by efficiency.

The best systems are those that are immune to catastrophic failure and allow for incremental improvements that compound across time.

Literate societies that pass down all accumulated scientific and ethical knowledge to future generations tend to be very successful.

We are the beneficiaries of such a system, and we are complicit in its decline insofar as we do not contribute to the process of improvement that makes our very existence possible.

Some people are simply apathetic, or outright malicious against the system that provides them with safety, food, water, and economic potential.

However, most people do hope for improvement. The issue is that they ignore history and believe improvements can be achieved via means and principles that are antithetical to what got the society to its current state of prosperity.

Or, because of bitterness and a pathological attachment to perverse ideology, they envision progress in terms of systems that have consistently failed in the past. Such people read history and ignore the thread of progress that runs from ancient Greece to the modern day.

What is this thread?

The belief in and the pursuit of objective truth, a limited representative government, and property rights.

The degree to which these are valued by the individuals in a society is the degree to which long-term scientific, economic, and moral progress can be achieved.

There is no surer sign of a civilization’s decline than the relegation of these values to the status of “radical”, “extreme”, or perhaps even worse, “boring”.

You do not make progress down a road by tossing out the engine of your car, or by dismantling it piece by piece. Perhaps some of those modifications will increase your speed in the short term, and give you an illusory pleasure. But by way of these changes, you will have created a system without incremental improvement, prone to sporadic catastrophe.

Failure is Not Fun

Self-help junkies hate to admit that unfiltered self-expression inevitably results in embarrassing mistakes and mishaps. The romanticization of failure, struggle, and authenticity is a good thing, but it is rarely contextualized with concrete examples of failure.

When failure and the integrity it necessitates are kept in the abstract, they sound attractive indeed.

However, once we actually see someone acting with integrity around disapproving peers, or failing at something they are passionate about, the prospect of doing the same ourselves becomes repulsive.

From our privileged perspective as an outsider, we can say: “What a fool! Doesn’t he realize what he’s doing?”

The closer the failure is to us, the more likely it is to affect us and spread like an infectious disease, the more conservative we become with our own ambitions and creative instincts.

We fear the mess, the chaos, the rejection above all else. The fear and disgust for these things are programmed into us at the biological level. An intellectual understanding of the positive power of failure or the wondrous freedom of honest expression is not sufficient for overriding our instinctual aversions.

We must measure failure beside the ultimate goal towards which we aim. It is in regards to this goal that failure is necessary, and authenticity rewarded.

Failure is not good, but it can be useful.

Failure can hurt us, but aren’t there some things for which it is worth it to get hurt?

Authentic self-expression can lead to severed relationships, but what use is a relationship that honesty can break?

We must measure failure by the quality of our long-term outcomes. The approval of others is weak evidence for any given action’s utility in achieving our goals.

Other people don’t know what we are aiming at, or why.

We ourselves may aim at the wrong thing, and find that our vision of success was due to a failure in self-knowledge. Such pitfalls are numerous and necessary, but no amount of affirmations or mind-expanding quotes will change the simple fact that failure is a very painful thing.

The successful person does not love failure and rejection.

They choose a goal so large that pain and frustration are rendered insignificant.

 

Getting Lost

Being lost has its benefits.

You’re forced to pay close attention to whats around you.

You’re made to engage with unknown objects and gaze through the fog of fear.

Nature looks you in the eye and screams, “Do something! Quick!”

You can only survive by answering that call.

The fear will make you desperate, and you may take directions from others more lost than you are. The longer you follow such directions, the more distant your goal will become. You will forget where you started, and where you were headed.

Getting found requires remembering how you got to where you are–recalling the point at which you entered the unknown.

Was it negligence or arrogance that brought you there, or bravery?

For what reason are you lost?

These are the questions that make the lost want to clutch their heads and collapse to the ground, or else accept a sort of formless existence, without aim or intention, and therefore no standard by which they can be judged as lost.

Of course, being lost is not a general condition: almost always, parts of our lives are in decent working condition, whilst others have been severely neglected and thus we have drifted off course.

When we have the horrible feeling of being pulled apart by internal contradictions, we know at least part of us is not in proper orientation with the rest. Proper orientation is at once determined by the demands of the Universe, the body we exist in, and our conscious mind’s desires. A lack of awareness of these determinants destroys our ability to navigate the world.

And who are the great philosophers but cartographers of that which is common to all maps?

Who are the specters of history but fellow travelers of the unknown, their missteps and triumphs kept alive through words?

If you are lost, consider consulting the maps of those who came before.

 

 

 

Moral Radar

Though it is not knowable, every one of us has a hypothetical ideal self: an entity that acts out the best possible set of behaviors in any given circumstance.

We cannot know for sure what this ideal would do, but we can, by examining our past, determine what is fundamentally opposed to the morals and sensibilities of this higher version of ourselves. In the realms of science and moral development, failures are among our most useful data points.

head-3001166_640“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” 

-Oscar Wilde

But as useful as such reflections can be, they are not sufficient for the attainment of what is greatest within us. We must not only identify what is contemptible and worst within us, but also what is most noble and excellent not through speculation, but experience.

Philosophies and belief systems, like any scientific hypothesis, must be falsifiable. There are none so lost and undeveloped as those great intellects who do not throw their ideas against the walls of the world and watch for the reaction.

An untested idea, belief, or behavior is a blind spot, and the more we cling to such an idea, the blind we become. By focusing on a blind spot, we see nothing at all.

By acting out our beliefs, and facing success or failure, we move towards perfection. However distant and impossible perfection may be, it can be moved toward. 

Until we have attained a life congruent to our highest ideals, until we have embodied those traits that would allow us to move through the world with grace and courage, it is best not to lapse into comfortable patterns of action.

We must continue to test ideas, not just without our minds, but out in the world, where they can be confirmed or destroyed. Only then can we receive course correction data, and direct ourselves towards the highest good, in accordance with our own limitations and the demands of objective reality.

 

 

 

Tiny Habits

We often think of habits as things to be perceived at the macro level, across long stretches of time. Rarely do we perceive the minuscule actions and thoughts that work in tandem to create what we perceive as a habit.

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“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

Take something as simple as coming home and immediately positioning ourselves in front of a screen for a comforting dose of entertainment.

The action of sitting and switching on the screen is only the last in a long chain of small decisions and allowances that have been made according to previously established and unquestioned patterns.

Perhaps one has a habit of mulling over all future responsibilities on the commute home, whilst listening to radio advertisements that remind the mind of a particular snack’s deliciousness.  This results in a pattern of stress that makes a run to the fridge the only natural action upon arriving at home, and the pleasure of entertainment the only way to drown out an overwhelming stream of disorganized worry.

These tiny actions and thought patterns can be easily observed in the early morning: our minds tend to default to a familiar set of mental images and emotions upon waking. These prime the next set, and those the next, and so on and so forth.

The term ‘autopilot’ is often used, but it fails to convey that autopilot systems are the result of thousands of tiny adjustments, decisions, and calculations that result in a predictable pattern of behavior.

This is why meditation is so powerful. By observing our thoughts for a mere hour, we can see the wellspring from which all of our mistakes, failures, and disappointments come. We can see the reason why day after day, year after year, things remain the same, and problems come and go like so many lights on the highway, each just like the last, stretching out behind us and into the horizon.

The Other War of Art

Creative work is what is left on the battlefield after the fight between the rational mind…and the other thing.

Call it the soul, the unconscious mind, the muse; call it whatever you want because whatever you call it, you are referring to the same thing: that within your mind which you can’t by force of will access or control. 

If you’ve ever put a too-small fitted sheet on a too-large mattress you have some idea what it’s like trying to get “the other thing” to do what you want. She doesn’t listen. She hardly cares about deadlines. She doesn’t like your rational mind too much, though she needs him in order to exist as anything but a brief series of synapses.

It’s a cat and mouse game, and you only win if your rational mind forgets to chase, so that your muse no longer has to run and hide. When that happens, it’s easy to create.

That’s the thing about really hard things: when you do them really well, they stop being hard.

Creativity is indeed warfare, but the muse will only allow your rational mind a victory if there is no violence involved. Both sides must raise the white flag, come out from the trenches, and settle all the disputes peaceably.

War becomes a conversation, the conversation leads to agreement, and that agreement is expressed as an internally consistent artistic expression. Get tactical. Get clever. But if you start resenting one side, and favoring the other, peaceable terms will never be met, and you will never raise a monument in commemoration of the conflict.

 

 

 

Framing the World

We view the world through frames because to perceive everything at once would make life impossible. Some things must be left out, and it is what we choose to ignore that largely determines who we are and how our lives will change in the future.

We don’t construct these frames consciously. They materialize over time, in reaction to pains, triumphs, and hangups of the past.

We ignore what we think will bring us pain, and build the frame around that which we think will bring us pleasure. Unfortunately, our estimations of what will bring us pain or pleasure are usually inaccurate. Many of us have a perverse attraction to that which hurts us because we do not believe ourselves worthy of joy or pleasure.

Good things come to bad people largely because bad people are eminently skilled at believing themselves worthy of good things.

On the other hand, many good people who are good precisely because they are so aware of their own shortcomings, do not believe themselves worthy of the good. They start to perceive the good as that which is farthest from their current condition. They reject the good and push it away until eventually, they lose the ability to see it at all. In such a state, every moment becomes painful because there is no possibility of a better future.

Human beings need a better future to aim towards, to fantasize about. In order to have such a vision, one must have a reasonably accurate understanding of what is good and what is bad. Further, one must feel worthy of the good.

Being “present to the moment” is of no use to someone who does not know up from down. All the money in the world is useless to someone who cannot envision a future enhanced by that money.

Examine the frame and be careful to shape it so that all the light in the world is not filtered out.