The Worst Protection

You feel safe in your neighborhood, but worry about the small chance of a break-in or act of vandalism. To protect yourself from these risks, you pay a security company to look after your house. It costs a little more than you’d like, but you determine it’s worth it.

They put an unarmed guard in front of your house at night, just to keep an eye out. It seems a bit unnecessary, but you rest easier knowing he might deter would be thieves. The guards start coming earlier and staying longer. It seems silly to have them there before sundown, but you ignore it. Soon, they’ve got someone there almost around the clock. Then they send you a bill with a new higher rate for their services. You suggest going back to night only guards, but they assure you this is necessary to protect you, and also tell you the neighborhood is getting a bit more dangerous. You pay.

The next week, not only do they have a guard around the clock, but he’s armed. Then there’s two or three patrolling at a time. Rates go up again. You’ve been hearing more stories about how dangerous the neighborhood is, so you pay. Before long, they have a constant cadre of armed guards patrolling not just your sidewalk, but the whole neighborhood. They start randomly knocking on your neighbors’ doors and searching their houses for anything they might use against you. They set up permanent stations throughout the area, manned 24/7. Guards constantly patrol and conduct random searches, without permission, and occasionally they cage or kill someone. They assure you; there was reason to believe these neighbors had it in for you. It’s a jungle out there. They raise their rates.

Some of your neighbors object. Some devise ways to protect from being searched or bullied. All become suspicious of you, and a little angry. After all, the guards are invoking your name when they do this. The more the neighbors resist or lash out at the guards, the more the company explains just how unsafe you are unless you purchase the latest upgrade. You do. They deploy more street walkers. They pre-emptively kill and cage more neighbors. It seems a fight breaks out every day. Bands of neighbors form for the sole purpose of combatting you and your security team. Their children grow up afraid of you and they hate you, and your children, for it.

The company says more is needed; threats can come from anywhere. Now guards are groping your guests and your children each day before they enter or exit your house. They search your house on occasion, just to be sure your conspiring neighbors don’t have an inside man. They treat you like a suspect on your own property. You pay the new fee with the only credit card you haven’t yet maxed out.

Every day you wake up scared of your neighbors, suspicious of your guests, leery of your own children, and irritated by the guards who may or may not rummage through your belongings. You juggle money around just to keep the lights on, meanwhile the guards roll around in tanks, thanks to your borrowed money. You remind yourself that they’re here to protect you from an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. It’s worth it. Sure, they could cut some costs, but it’s a struggle to convince them of anything, and it’s a little intimidating to try. Besides, what’s a few dollars overspent compared to the imminent danger you’d face if they scaled back too far?

One day it hits you: you’re not safer. You’re paying a lot of money, not to insure you against unlikely violence, but to stir it up. You’re paying to create enemies, not defend against vandalism. You’re paying to be treated not like a customer, but a criminal in your own home. You’ve been ripped off. You have fewer options when it comes to social circles, since you’ve made a lot of enemies. You can’t travel down certain streets, because there your name has become a byword. You’ve learned to fear your neighbors and you’re not really sure why, or what threat they pose except to the guards that harass them.

You fire the company and begin the long task of putting your life back together.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy in the real world. You can’t fire those that provide supposed security. You have to pay, and you have to obey, or else. Don’t be mistaken: just because it’s done on a grander scale and wrapped in a lot of fuzzy feelings and national myths, doesn’t make it different from the neighborhood story above. States are supposed to provide protection; instead they poke people with sticks and incite them to violence.

The United States has enemies. I do not have enemies. There is no one in a far flung place in the world looking at a map and saying, “Here, on the Atlantic coast where the Cooper and Wando rivers come together. The people who have chosen to live on this bit of land are terrible. Let’s invade them. Let’s kill them.” Every international threat to me is a threat to me because I am associated, whether I like it or not, with the United States government.

Acts of terrorism and war are strategic acts. They are intended to pressure the state into changing its policies, or to make it pay for previous policies. Attackers know that the state ultimately responds to the views of its people and the interests that form around it. They attack civilians because they believe it creates impetus for the state to do what they want. We are the pawns in the game of states. We are at risk because we are seen as leverage with which to manipulate the political class.

The state is often defended as necessary to secure individuals against foreign aggression. Yet foreign aggression has no target if there is no state. The state does not make us safer, it makes us less safe. It kills in our name, with our money. It harasses us in our own country in the name of protecting us. It makes us suspicious of people we’d otherwise never know, or know only through Tweets or peaceful commercial interactions. It makes us hated.

The sooner we can forge an identity separate from the states that claim to protect us, the safer we will be. If the state is a kind of security provider, or insurance against international aggression, it’s the worst form of protection I can imagine. You wouldn’t stand for a company that marauded through the neighborhood in your name; you shouldn’t stand for a nation that does either.

Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

Old

An imaginative and captivating read, Screwtape Proposes a Toast was C.S. Lewis’s follow-up published in the Saturday Evening Post to his popular book, the Screwtape Letters.  Screwtape is a fictitious correspondence between a senior and junior devil about how to damn men’s souls.  In the follow-up, Lewis has poignant insights into the nature of modern society, and in particular the way in which equality and democracy can corrode all that is good and sturdy in humans.

The text is posted here.  You can also read a PDF version of the original magazine publication here.

“Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices. Those who were aware of feeling it felt it with shame; those who were not gave it no quarter in others. The delightful novelty of the present situation is that you can sanction it — make it respectable and even laudable — by the incantatory use of the word democratic.”

New

Jeffrey Tucker absolutely nails it in this piece for The Freeman.  Jeff is one of those guys that gets freedom on a real gut, rubber-meets-the-road level.  He also gets it on an intellectual level.  He can pull from a treasure trove of work done by great thinkers on why liberty trumps central control, and he can also pull from keen insights on every day life and apply it all to present ideas for living free, here and now, and fighting to free the future.  Tucker talks first of the intellectual journey to anarchism, then the practical journey; the part that really transforms your outlook on life.

“[L]et me admit that my anarchism is probably more practical than ideological—which is the reverse of what it is for the most well-known anarchist thinkers in history. I see the orderliness of human volition and action all around me. I find it inspiring. It frees my mind to understand what is truly important in life. I can see reality for what it is. It is not some far-flung ideology that makes me long for a world without the State but rather the practical realities of the human struggle to make something of this world though our own efforts. Only human beings can overcome the great curse of scarcity the world has imposed on us. So far as I can tell, the State is, at best, the great annoyance that slows down the mighty project of building civilization.”

Borrowed

I borrowed this story from a friend’s Facebook feed.   She rightly pointed out that this research has pretty significant implications for the social sciences and might alter the current direction of sociology, psychology, and behavioral economics.  What I find interesting is how common-sensical the findings are.  The fact that this work will shake up these disciplines reveals just how silly and prone to trendiness academia can be.  I’m also willing to wager that, should this and similar work start a new trend in the social sciences towards more context-dependent theories, the pendulum will swing absurdly far and another counter-revolution will happen a few decades later reminding us that, yes, some elements of the human mind are universal.  The paper posits, in short, that institutions matter, a lot.  They shape our worldview and affect everything from how our brain processes spacial relations, to our sense of fairness.

“The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.”

Blue

This excellent book review by Anthony Gregory is depressing, or “blue”, upon first reading, especially if you’re new to revisionism.  The patriotic myths of war heroes and cunning statesmen are shattered, and with them a sense of American identity.  It takes some time.  You have to stand back and look at the facts and alternative narratives free from nationalistic impulse.  Then you grasp that most history books are little more than propaganda favoring the powerful status quo.  It hurts at first. With time, it is liberating.  This book review is an excellent appetizer for this way of examining the past.  Open your mind and give the revisionist view a try.  Let it sink in before you reject it.  See what happens.  I’m willing to bet you’ll develop lingering suspicions about mainstream histories.  That’s a good thing.

“The Founding Fathers are the first official heroes targeted, appropriate in both chronological terms and in considering the civic mythology of the United States. And so who were the true heroes? According to Russell, it was the rabble. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Adams, John Jay and the rest of them looked upon the common American people, populating Philadelphia where they were holding their conspiratorial meetings, as “vicious,” “vile” and otherwise unsavory folk. “But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom”

Conquering Time and Space with Facebook

It is obvious how Facebook allows conversations to take place regardless of the distance between participants. Conversational threads between multiple parties in locations spread across the globe happen with more ease and efficiency than any conference call. An element of this new conversational dynamic that is easy to overlook is the way Facebook conquers not just space, but time.

When you have a pint with someone and discuss matters of the day, sports, philosophy, or family, you’ve got the time allotted, and then you can mill it all over and process the implications of the conversation later. On the phone, you’ve got a a few seconds to reply to questions or to pose them. It would be awkward and disruptive to make your interlocutor wait for minutes or hours as you think over her comments before responding. Hanging up and calling back every few hours or days to complete the conversation in fragments is equally cumbersome. In many ways, time, rather than the flow of ideas, is in control of what gets covered. Facebook overcomes this constraint.

Online threads can begin anytime, and participants in the conversation can post immediately or hours, or days, or even weeks later. Everyone is notified, and everyone has the chance to let it sink in, go about the day’s business, and respond only when they have the time and their thoughts are clear. There are myriad conversation flowing at any given time, and you are free to enter and exit at will, around your schedule.

The ability to maintain relationships and social connections on your own schedule is incredibly freeing. It allows you to break your day into modules and specialize in particular activities when you are most capable of doing them well. I often lump all my social interactions for the day around lunchtime by browsing Facebook. I might be lying in bed that night when someone’s post pops into my head. I can post a comment immediately from my bedside smartphone, or wait until the next morning. The conversation’s not going anywhere.

The passive nature of Facebook, like email, is easy to manage and keep from being a disruption. But unlike email, Facebook has an open format where posts are directed at nobody in particular, so you can freely enter or exit the stream. It may seem like a recipe for shallow relationships and flighty social bonds, but I have not found this to be the case. Facebook is not replacing dinner with my family, or a phone call with my brother, or a funny text with a good friend; it is supplementing them. It opens entirely new groups of people to socialize and share ideas with; people who, if only phone or in-person meetings were available, I would realistically never have the ability to get to know. What’s really cool is that, if you so choose, you can form in-person relationships with these people at any time and much of the small talk is already out of the way. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve met fellow travelers at events and been completely unsure whether we’d ever met in the flesh before, because we know each other so well from Facebook.

Your social life is in your own hands like never before. You are no longer bound to friendships of happenstance – who happens to move in next store, or share an office – but can build various overlapping social circles based on your genuine and dynamic interests. Of course you’ll still talk to the neighbor. But if they happen to be crazy or uninteresting, that’s not your only option. You’re free from the constraints of proximity. Neither are your forced to get all your catching up done during those difficult to schedule windows when both parties are free. You’re free from the constraints of time.

This new way to interact might seem like a fun little perk for your personal pleasure, but does it really have transformational power over society? Consider the efficiencies in knowledge capture and transmission and the ease and individual control with which social capital can be built and maintained. The freedom from time and place in the social arena has staggering implications if you ponder and let it sink in.

What the News Could Never Do

I love Facebook.  It’s a great way to connect to people I enjoy communicating with, see new ideas and articles, enjoy social diversions during the day (when you work from home it can replace the water cooler), and of course keep up on memes and videos of cats.  But there is another function of Facebook I didn’t foresee that has become increasingly valuable.  It does something news outlets can’t do – respond to exactly what I’m interested in at the moment and give me stories about it.

A few weeks back I realized it had been some time since I read or watched anything about new advances in science and technology.  I remembered the excitement I got as a kid looking at Popular Mechanics magazine, and wanted to get that thrill again by hearing the coolest stuff now within the realm of possibility.  I could have gone to any number of news outlets and browsed the technology section.  I could have gone to tech specific magazines or websites.  But these don’t always have articles on the most cutting edge stuff, and if I picked the wrong day, I might get a story about a new app instead.  It would require some browsing.  I could use Google, but Google is best when you know what you want to find, and I was looking for something I didn’t know existed.  In short, I needed to be inspired by the creative power of mankind, and I had no where to turn for a quick overview.

I posted an open-ended question on Facebook: What are the coolest things going on in science and technology? Within a few hours I had dozens of amazing articles, video clips, pictures and stories of everything from 3D burrito printers, to graphene smart phones, to particle accelerators, etc. ad nauseam.  Not only that, the responses were from people who knew something about me and could add some humor, flavor, or insight no other outlet could.  There was even some friendly competition over what was truly the best innovation going.  I’ve only read through half of the things posted thus far, but I still go back to the thread from time to time to be further amazed.

News outlets and periodicals can produce great stories.  The problem is, they have no way of knowing when I’m going to be in the mood for the latest trend in herb gardening or the latest adventure sport.  They publish such pieces, but most of the time my interests don’t intersect with their schedule.  Sure, they archive them, but there’s no good way for me to access the info unless I already know exactly what I want to read.  Enter Facebook.  Now it’s like every one of my digital acquaintances work for me.  I can outsource the article reading, categorizing and rating to a few thousand people I find interesting.  They enjoy the chance to share their interests, and I get the benefit of good stories without wading through all the other fluff.  I do the same for them.

I’ve got a lot more to say about Facebook, but I’ll save it for another post.  I am of the opinion that we haven’t fully internalized how radical is the shift in social order wrought by Facebook.  We have yet to appreciate the tremendous impact on every facet of social and commercial life.  The layers are many.

Nothing is Something

Nothing’s more complicated
Than the absence of a dream
Like an end without means,
And without a beginning it seems
Your eyes are running over,
With all that’s left inside
This little, this much,
This hollowness such
A thing to bear, or worse yet you fear,
Nothing at all, no place to fall
To fall from what?
From what you don’t have
Or at least you don’t realize,
And it’s driving you mad
Scooped out it feels,
And biting your heels
But in all that’s real,
It no longer lingers
Its now removed fingers
Lie powerless to touch
What once hurt so much
There’s only one clutch
In which you now reside
A hand so firm, and with sole design
To hold you and mold you
And fulfill what was told you
To create in you by this creativeness
What once felt like emptiness
Emptied out now, of all that was shallow,
Hollowed somehow, of all that was hollow
Yet you fear for tomorrow
For tomorrow may bring
May sting;
May not come
Still in it all, your eye’s filled with awe
Are yet soft as they thaw
To this goodness
This love
Your all

The Things That Make for Peace

(Originally posted here.)

“I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” – Psalm 120:7

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” – Luke 19:41-42

“All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.” – Thomas a Kempis

I recently heard praise among churchgoers for the movie, “Act of Valor”, a movie about Navy SEAL’s funded in large part by the Navy itself. (And, judging by the previews, essentially a military recruitment film.)  There is even a Bible study that coincides with the movie and is based on the SEAL code of honor.  I was unexpectedly overcome with grief when it was excitedly mentioned during a church service I attended.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible contrast I had just experienced.  The sermon was on this verse from the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.  And yet here Christians had high praise for a code of conduct espoused by an outfit whose entire purpose is to kill ruthlessly and efficiently.  And not merely to kill, but specifically to kill whoever they are commanded to kill by the political powers in the United States without question.  The very first tenet in the SEAL code of conduct is “Loyalty to Country” which means, in practical terms, obeying the orders of your superiors who are supposed to represent “the country”, however ill-defined the term.

Not only does obedience to the first tenet render obedience to any of the rest impossible, it is unfathomable to me how a Christian could find this a suitable basis for a Bible study intended to make men into better Christians.  The first tenet of this code means, quite plainly, to forsake your own conscience, do not question the morality of your orders, do not seek to understand why you are supposed to be at war with whomever you are told to be at war with, do not investigate whether or not your targets are a genuine threat or deserving of death, but simply pull the trigger.

The Evangelical Church in America today looks very little like a body of Christ followers and more like a body of state and military followers.  American flags grace many a pulpit.  Veterans Day celebrations are common.  Prayers for the success of military ventures are not unheard of.  Calls by politicians and pundits for the use of violence in almost any country for almost any reason will almost always gain the unwavering support of the entire Evangelical community.  Anything – including torture, assassinations, and “collateral damage” – can be excused and even praised if it is done “for the country” and under the stars and stripes.

How did this happen?  Can you imagine Jesus, or Peter or John with Kevlar vests and M-16’s kicking in doors, screaming , and “double-tapping” people in the head before yelling, “All clear!”’ and high-fiving each other?  Can you imagine them dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?  Can you imagine Jesus instructing his followers to study a code of conduct that begins first and foremost with, “Be loyal to the Roman government”?

Not only did Christ and the giants of the Christian faith refuse to aggress against others, no matter how sinful or evil, they even refused to use violence in self-defense and instead chose martyrdom.  When Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword by cutting off the ear of a soldier, Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus did not instruct the disciples to go to the wilderness and train for a few months so they could plan a stealth nighttime assassination of the guards who crucified Him or any who opposed the Way.  He told them to forgive.  To Baptize.  To turn the other cheek.  To submit even to death for the sake of the gospel, rather than resort to violence.  That is a radical message and they lived it.

And yet the Church finds herself cheering for the military and honoring them without questioning what they are doing, who they are killing, why they are doing it, or if it’s right.  Worship of America and the myth of its righteousness have taken the place of any sense of individual moral responsibility on the part of soldiers or those who support them.

I left the church that morning with an immense weight on my soul.  I wept.  I wept because I knew exactly the sentiment expressed by most of the churchgoers that morning.  I used to share it.  I wept as I remembered my bloodlust after 9/11.  I wanted the United States military to kill people.  I wanted bombs to drop and guns to fire.  I wanted somebody to get it, good and hard.  I wanted death.  I wanted war.  I did not want peace.  I felt no love, only hate.

This impulse is perhaps the most human of all impulses.  It is also the very impulse Christ taught us to overcome and demonstrated how to do so by His own example.  Even when others hate, love.

I wept as I saw in my mind’s eye the blood on the hands of nearly every Christian in this country.  How many self-proclaimed followers of Christ have cheered on “the boys in uniform” during every conflict we’ve ever had, including wars of aggression, just because they’re “our countrymen” fighting for “our side”?

What are “the things that make for peace”?  The belief that right and wrong trump nationality and patriotism.  The belief that killing is only ever permissible as a last resort and in self-defense.  An understanding that Congressional or Presidential approval of an action does not make it moral.  That obeying orders is not a virtue unless the orders are virtuous, in which case they should be obeyed because they are right, not because they are orders.  That voluntarily agreeing to kill whomever you are told to kill is not honorable.  That love is better than vengeance.

Before you support any military action, conduct a brief mental experiment: imagine not the US Military, but you as an individual embarking on the mission in question.  In the end it is only individuals who can act and bear moral responsibility for their actions.  Imagine standing before God and saying, “I was only following orders”.

How many churches cheered for war against Iraq?  Yet can you imagine a pastor standing before his church and saying, “For the next six months we are all going to train in explosives and guns, and we are taking a church trip to Iraq to kill bad people and make the world a safer place.”  Who would support it?  In moral terms, it is no different to support taking money from taxpayers to pay soldiers to do the same.  In fact, the latter is in some ways more nefarious and less honest.

Most would argue that there is a difference between unjust violence and just violence – indeed there is.  Some argue there is a difference between just war and unjust war – perhaps there is.  But never in my years of observing church support for state military action have I witnessed a single discussion of whether the action was just or right.  There have been a few discussions of whether it was “Constitutional”, but never whether it was moral.  The morality of war is assumed by the mere fact that the war is waged by the United States Government.

Until the Church in America stops blindly supporting violence done in the name of patriotism, our hands are bloody and our witness is tainted.  We say we are for peace, but we want war.  We say we pray to the Prince of Peace, but we ask him to bless the violence committed by soldiers.  We say “the law is written on our hearts” yet we ignore our hearts and only follow the laws of governments and call what they call right “good”, and what they call wrong “bad”.

In our ignorance, we support violence.  We can cry out, “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.”  But after our eyes our opened and we begin to examine the morality of acts of violence, we will be held accountable for what we know.  I pray we will be willing to oppose violence, even when doing so makes us “unpatriotic” or “un-American”; even when doing so may lead to our own persecution.

“He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself” — C. S. Lewis.

Why Corporations Don’t Support Freedom

There is a common assumption that advocacy of free-market ideas is funded in large part by big corporations.  As much as I wish the many great organizations and projects that are educating in liberty received financial support from large corporations, almost none of them do, and when they do it is in very small amounts when compared to the other things such firms support.

But why?  Businesses are constantly hampered and harassed by government regulation, taxation, and the uncertainty of the legal landscape one day to the next.  Don’t they stand to gain from laissez faire?  Well, yes, businesses stand to gain tremendously from market freedom.  Entrepreneurs, owners, employees, consumers, and every other market participant stands to gain.  Businesses of all sizes stand to gain, provided they can produce what consumers demand.

Aye, there’s the rub.

You see, while business stands to gain from free exchange, nobody knows which specific businesses will be most successful in a competitive environment.  Consumers are a tough bunch to please.  It takes a lot of work, and there’s a lot of uncertainty.  The creative destruction of the market is a little daunting to a businessperson who dwells on it for long.  It’s easier, for those who can afford it, to cozy up to the state and ensure that it’s restrictions and interventions hurt you a little less than they harm your competitors.  If you have resources enough and play your cards right, you might even be able to get policies that make you more profitable or put your competitors out of business entirely.

The result?  Bigger businesses tend to support state intervention, because they have the lawyers and money and can hire the guns of government.  It is entirely possible that some of these very businesses would fare better under economic freedom, but they don’t know for sure, so they go the somewhat safer route of state cronyism.  Smaller businesses typically aren’t organized enough and lack the resources to manipulate policy in their favor.  Worse still, the unimaginable number of new ventures that would have been created were it not for government impediments have no voice at all; we don’t even know who would have created them.

In short, freedom is good for business, but scary to businesses.

Never Have a Magnum Opus

In yesterday’s post, I said,

“I’ve also found that viewing a post as the beginning of my own understanding of the topic, rather than my final word or magnum opus, is intellectually enriching and produces a wealth of new ideas down the road.  But more on that later…”

Now is the later.

My son spends hours every day producing artwork.  Sometimes he will go for several days on a single theme: a new super hero or comic book he’s created.  He is lost in the world he creates as he produced dozens and dozens of drawings, each with elaborate back stories.  Inevitably, whatever theme he’s on comes to a sudden and unexpected (for me, anyway) halt.  He gets a new idea, abandons his previous project, and moves right on to the next.

As a father, of course I find his creations delightful and I have a strong urge to capture them as whole works and preserve them.  He asked me once to help him turn his book of 30 different wizards and sorceresses (“Wizopedia”) into a website.  I was excited to help and began digitizing his drawings and typing in his dictated details on each character…for the first two characters.  Then he got bored and abandoned it for new ideas.

At first, I saw this flightiness as a weakness in him.  Perhaps it is to a certain extent and he’ll need to learn to see some things through to completion.  But the more I think on it, the more I see it as a strength, and the more I want to develop the same tendency in myself.  My son is not concerned about an artistic legacy at this point.  He’s not concerned about a shiny, neat and clean completed work to present to the world so he can bask in his accomplishment.  He’s not trying to create his magnum opus.  He creates for the sheer joy of it, and when he doesn’t feel that joy in a particular project, he moves to where he does.

When I think about the most interesting people, who’ve created the most interesting art or analysis, so many of them produced things until the very moment they passed.  Some of the greatest academic minds produce interesting ideas into their 80’s and even 90’s.  Contrariwise, there’s something sad about a person who produced a magnum opus, and then spent the remaining years living on that legacy, protecting it from being misinterpreted, and making sure the world was aware of its brilliance.  It seems perhaps the best thing to do after creating is to let your creation out into the world and, in a sense, walk away from it and start creating something new.

When I think about my life, I try to imagine it as an upward trajectory through time, rather than a great peak followed by a slow decline in my twilight years.  I want my greatest ideas, moments, experiences and creations to be those at the end of my life.  It seems natural that this should be the case, at least until the physical body’s aging prohibits it, as we accumulate more knowledge and perspective through time.  That is, if we don’t stagnate.

Rather than a single epic project, it seems a more interesting and challenging goal to see one’s entire life as a great work.  Let your whole catalog of creations, from beginning to end, be your magnum opus.  Never peak until you die.

Grow Up Slowly

About a year ago, I had lunch with a very successful couple.  The husband had made a great deal of money early in life on a business start-up in a big city.  After running the firm for a time, he sold most of his shares and the family moved to a picturesque rural dwelling.  He spends but a few hours a week involved with his business, and the rest of his time is spent pursuing his passion for music and a great many other things.  His wife is busy pursuing her passions in art and other cultural affairs.

I asked what prompted such a dramatic change at this early phase in life, especially when they could have easily continued with managing the business, or started another.  They said, in complete agreement, “We moved out here because we wanted our kids to grow up slowly.”

I told my wife about the conversation, and those words have stuck with us ever since.  Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of it.  We haven’t fully internalized it, but I know it was important for us to hear and consider while raising our own children.  It’s easy to get stressed when they don’t walk right at the average age for walking, or don’t read or ride a bike or swim as early as your friend’s kids.  It’s easy to try to cram their heads full of practical and theoretical knowledge and get them up to speed quickly.  You imagine what you would be if you had been more learned early on.  Or you simply want them to gain independence quicker so you won’t be as limited as a parent.

These are not necessarily bad desires, but this business about letting them grow up slowly just resonates on a deep level.  There is something beautiful about the naivety of kids; about watching them try things they’re not prepared for; about how unaware they are of just how real the world can be.  When they learn organically, on their own time, it’s amazing to see.  Feeling free to sit back and soak it in as a parent is truly wonderful.

Even as I am trying to learn how to let my kids grow up slowly, I’m beginning to understand the benefits of slow growth for myself.  While reading the fascinating book, How They SucceededI came across some interesting words by Alexander Graham Bell.  The author and interviewer asked, “[I]s not hard study often necessary to success?”  Bell replied,

“No; decidedly not. You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.”

I’m the first to say that just getting things done is the key to success.  Does an action bias contradict Bell’s words?  I’m not sure that it does.  Perhaps in the realm of action, haste is a great virtue, but in the realm of thought, slow growth is preferred: act fast, think slow.  Not the best slogan, but there’s something to it.

The things we need to get out of the way – certain credentials, experiences, legwork, etc. – just need to be hammered through.  But the really important stuff – our life philosophy, an entrepreneurial venture, a new paradigm, a book – needs to grow slowly with our experience and knowledge.  It needs persistent mental activity, but not forced completion.

Since blogging every day, I have found occasions where I have nothing for the next day’s post.  There are two ways to remedy the problem.  The first is to quickly scan the news feeds, inbox, or bookshelf, come up with something, and type it.  The second is to search for ideas that have been incubating for a long while, often subconsciously.  A drive, walk, or talk with a deep-thinking friend can help me discover nascent ideas I didn’t even realize were under the surface.  Those tend to be better than the posts I think up and crank out on the spot.  I’ve also found that viewing a post as the beginning of my own understanding of the topic, rather than my final word or magnum opus, is intellectually enriching and produces a wealth of new ideas down the road.  But more on that later…

Bell concludes on the topic,

“Man is the result of slow growth; that is why he occupies the position he does in animal life. What does a pup amount to that has gained its growth in a fevv days or weeks, beside a man who only attains it in as many years. A horse is often a grandfather before a boy has attained his full maturity. The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”

Rewrite the Present

Humans tend to have a “good ol’ days” bias.  We imagine the past as better than it was.  Over time, events and experiences in our own life that were dull or painful can become funny or wonderful as we recreate them in our memory.  Epochs long before our time are romanticized, like the idea of the noble savage or the simple pleasure of pastoral life.

This bias can be problematic.  We often critique the perceived failures and excesses of the present in comparison to a past that never was and is not possible.  Some hate the fact that most of us buy food from people we don’t know, grown by still others we’ve never met.  They hate it because they think it alienates us from what we eat in some way.  They imagine some past where they would be joyously working a small field to harvest beautiful ready to eat produce that they planted months before with their own hands, far from the grit and concrete of the city and all that shipping and packaging.  They don’t think clearly enough to see the constant festering blisters; the rotten, insect-ridden, small, and unreliable crops; the body odor of their family members sleeping in drafty homes with little privacy, and the unavailability of a varied diet, just to name a few oft forgotten realities.

In this case, a rosy bias towards the past makes us less able to effectively deal with real or perceived problems in the present.  The romance is employed to prove the need for the use of force to stop human progress.  It’s a version of the Nirvana Fallacy.

We could attempt, through mental discipline, to eradicate this tendency in ourselves.  We could look hard and deep at the real past, internalize how rough it was, smash the romantic memories and become hardened realists.  I think this is a bad solution.

The past is no longer a thing that exists.  It is a bundle of ideas we carry in our brains.  It is valuable only to the extent it enhances our present.  A realistic assessment of the trials and travails before can sometimes make the present better and provide valuable knowledge.  Just as often, it offers no value, but only makes us sad. An idealized and romantic past can bring a lot of joy and laughter that enhance our present.  The fact that we recreate the material facts of the past and store mostly the positive is probably a wonderful thing.  Recall the times you felt tremendous sadness, guilt or fear: Imagine carrying a realistic memory of all those compounded experiences around with you all the time.

More problematic than recreating the past is a failure to recreate the present.  The way you perceive life determines the quality of it.  If I think fondly on my childhood because I’m filtering it for the good, why not work on implementing a similar filter for the present?  It’s never possible to be perfectly accurate in our perceptions of the world; we will always have limits and bias in our worldview.  Why not cultivate that bias towards things that bring peace, freedom, and joy?  It’s a little more than making lemonade out of lemons.  It’s a conscious effort to learn from our brain’s natural filtering of the past and trying to implement it in the present.  It’s a discipline.  An optimistic outlook is no less accurate than a pessimistic outlook, but it is more fun.

A good place to start cultivating an optimistic (yet realistic) worldview is at Tough Minded Optimism.

%d bloggers like this: