30 November 2017


Corresponding with a colleague I summed up life's problems like this.

We're self-aware, which has many advantages. However, it has the disadvantage of making us acutely aware that life is short, precarious, and unjust.

Like all living things we have an imperative to persist. But self-awareness tells us the awful truth. We are going to die.

We need certain things to survive--shelter, food, companions, etc--but self-awareness informs us that getting these things is often beyond our control. Nature just does its thing regardless--floods, fires, hurricanes, predators, draughts, etc.

And finally evolution has prepared us for living in small communities where we know what everyone is doing and following the rules cements the social cohesion that makes the social life-style so successful. So self-awareness has given us the ability to create small scale just societies, or at least societies in which principles of justice can be applied. But it also tells us that nature doesn't follow our rules. And in large societies people are not bound to follow the rules in the same way, so some feel free to break them. And of course we die. Life, from a human point of view, is on balance not just or fair.

Now some of us by luck and hard work can become reasonably insulated from hardship or injustice. We have enough to eat, access to clean water, live in a safe neighbourhood, and have either natural protection from nature, or the ability to rapidly rebuild after a disaster. Some of us manage to make life much less precarious and much less unjust. Its not perfect, but some of us do pretty well.

But no one escapes death. Everyone, every living organism dies. Communities persist much longer, but even they eventually die. Death is the one thing that we cannot escape; and yet we have this cellular imperative to persist. All living things have this imperative to keep going. Life never simply gives up, it always dies trying.

If you want to understand human beings this is one angle that must be considered. We know, we cannot avoid known, that in the end life is short, precarious, and unjust.

What do all religious leaders and politicians promise us? They promise to deal with the easy problem: resources and justice. Work, fair pay, fair prices, decent housing. The whole idea of the market economy was that it would efficiently deliver these. That is made everything worse except for the very wealthy is because it was based on mythology rather than science.

And they promise to be tough on crime. They will keep us safe from threats domestic and foreign.

The only thing that religion offers that is different, is immortality. Religion tells us how to cheat death. And when lose faith in the organised religions, we latch on to the New Age versions of these myths (ironically largely recycled and remixed from organised religion).

Here's the thing though. It is possible to deliver security and justice, at least to some extent. Ok, we've been going in the wrong direction for a few decades because we were hijacked by an ideology, but that doesn't discredit the whole enterprise. It just tells us that strong government and intervention are required to address the precariousness and injustice of life.

What cannot be delivered by anyone anywhere is immortality. Priests of many varieties promise it to us, *after* we first die, but it is not possible. It won't happen. It cannot happen. We have to make our peace with this. But it is much harder it sounds. To really face your own death is horrifying for most people, especially when you're young. Though illness, especially mental illness, can make death seem welcome. For most people the imperative to persist is the strongest motivation they have. People survive concentration camps and all manner of deprivation or brutalisation. They hang onto life.

And to me, if there is only one life, then it is all the more precious. What I do with my life is all the more important. Yes, it is difficult, and sometimes I wish I was dead. But I'm usually sure I can hang on for one more day.

If I'm right about this, and I think its all fairly self-evident, then if I'm going to make a difference, the obvious place to apply my lever is the areas of the precariousness and injustice of life. That is, *helping people*. There are many ways to approach this. We all have different things that spark us off. Not everyone needs to be the Secretary General of the UN. For me being part of a community with a vision is important, because people working together are more effective than individuals. What I do can help make our collective more effective at addressing the problems that people have, even though my personal contribution might be quiet small and obscure, collectively we amount to more than the sum of our parts.

And of course sometimes we have to keep chipping away without much sense of progress or success. The 19 blows that weaken the rock, make it possible for the 20th blow to split it. Persistence is a great virtue.

I think most, if not all, of us know this stuff, at some level. We are all trying to make things better around us. We don't all have effective strategies and tactics, but we're trying (sometimes desperately). We all face the same existential problems. Nothing much has changed, in this sense, in thousands of years (millions even).

We don't need to love everyone or take on the sorrows of the world. All that grandiose rhetoric. We just need to do what we can to make life better for the people in our sphere of influence without making it worse for anyone in the process. If we all put the effort in locally, the global change will come.

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