Survival’s Guilt and the Human Condition

I used to comfort myself with the fact that, compared to the vast majority of humans today and throughout history, I have it pretty damn good. Of the 107 billion people who ever lived, all but a relative handful lived short and miserable lives defined by work, disease, ignorance, fear, and repression. Hell, billions died before they even reached the age of five, and billions more before their prime. Even fewer had the chance to self-actualize, to reach certain goals of personal fulfillment and achievement, or to enjoy basic comforts and conveniences; good food, entertainment, a warm bed, etc.

It always felt kind of wrong to use others’ senseless suffering to bolster my own sense of purpose and gratitude. But it also isn’t working like it used to, because I realize what it all says about human existence. How the heck can I get solace from knowing that the default experience of most thinking and feeling animals is pointless suffering? And that the only reason I am in a better position is a series of fortunate circumstances, starting with when and where I was born?

It is madness-inducing to imagine that most living things suffer and die without any meaning. Humans across time and place have come up with all sorts of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices to explain and cope, but none of it is as verifiable, salient, and provable as the suffering right in front of us. As far as anyone can truly tell, things just come and go in and out of existence, and there is no real point to it. (I explore a lot of these beliefs and ideas, but none of them ever really stick, even if I can’t rule them out.)

I don’t know, maybe this pandemic and the general state of the world have just weakened my mental resilience. As grateful and comfortable and amazing as my life has been, it is harder to focus on the good given the more widespread and established reality of existence being really awful. I know I’m not the first to think about this, and I know most of the reassurances and counterpoints, I just feel kind of stuck. I welcome any and all perspectives on this.

For my part, all I can do is make the most of this wonderful life that has been granted to me, to embrace and indulge in its wonders and beauties, to add to its kindness and compassion, and, above all, to strive to make it as wonderful for everyone else as possible. It’s not much, but it’s something, and despite these hiccups, it has gotten me this far—for which I am eternally grateful.

Fated for Conflict?

Nearly two centuries ago, a French traveler to America noted that the U.S. and Russia were destined to become great powers, fueled by their own conflicting but similar sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism.

In many respects, the two countries are foils of each other, with their visions shaped by very different historical and geographic forces.

The U.S. benefited from inheriting a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy (by European standards) and an entire continent to itself, protected by two big oceans and lacking any rival powers in the entire hemisphere. It made experimenting with democracy far easier.

Russia was hemmed in by nomadic tribes and left open to raids and conquests by its flat steppes. Hence the eventual reliance on strongmen who could provide peace and security (such as the Rus Vikings) and the obsession with expanding as far out as possible to create buffers of security. Hence also a more cynical foreign policy, shaped by a history of foreign invasions.

Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his 1835 treatise, Democracy in America:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived … Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

This also goes to show how much geography shapes destiny. It is difficult to imagine we would could have developed a representative political system if we were subject to the constant existential threats that prompted Russia’s embrace of authoritarian security. We already significantly constrain civil liberties over threats much further away or less drastic.

The Rare Privilege of Education

Fewer than 7 percent of the world’s population (6.7 percent) has a college degree of any kind. (This is up from 5.9 percent about two decades ago.) An even smaller proportion of this population has earned a degree beyond a Bachelor’s, and an even tinier fraction of those people have attained a degree from a reputable or good quality institution.
 
As much as I obviously lament student debt, the financial inefficiency and inaccessibility of our education system, etc., I must acknowledge that I am still extremely privileged to be able to pursue a fulfilling career at a fairly prominent law school. I am fortunate to have been born in the right time and place where such opportunities are available; I am lucky to have enjoyed relatively good health, no major family tragedies, good parenting, and an overall stable socioeconomic environment that facilitated my educational attainment and development up to this point.
 
I must never forget how much good luck played a role in where I am today. It is a humbling and effective motivator for working hard and not squandering this rare opportunity, by global and historical standards. (And also a good cause of action to help more people get access to these opportunities..)

Ringing in the New Year With Gratitude and Purpose

I know 2017 was a rough year for many people across the world. That makes me all the more grateful that it was overall kind to me. I got engaged to the love of my life, finally started law school (after nearly seven years talking about it), and got to travel to almost a dozen new places. I made a lot of great news friends while fortunately still remaining with the same tried but true ones. I continued struggling with my physical and mental health, but made a lot of progress on those fronts, too (due in no small part, as always, to my incredible support network).

So, on balance, I could not have asked for a better year. Things do really seem to be getting better with time, and I am really thankful for that. The cosmic dice were rolled in my favor, and for no other reason than raw luck, I find myself in such incredibly good circumstances. I hope that in the coming years, I can give back accordingly, both through and beyond my legal career. I hope for the best for everyone else and promise to do whatever I can to be there and help out, even if I am not the most available or reliable. (Something I am continuing to work on, promise!).

Finally, if it is any consolation, for all the horrible things still going on in the world, each passing year of 21st century is seeing a consistent improvement in everything from poverty reduction to increases in longevity. Progress is somehow still marching on, and there is a good chance that there will be many great things ahead on the horizon, however many bad things may still be there for us to resolve. Let’s keep the moral arc going in whatever way we can.

How Can We Help Those Who Suffer?

I hate feeling powerless to help others through their suffering. I know it seems selfish – after all, said suffering is the bigger issue – but the idea that human misery is indomitable and inevitable, and none of us are really equipped to handle it ourselves or alleviate it for others, is difficult to come to terms with, no matter how prepared one feels.

Stoicism (my instinctive reaction), in its fatalism and detachment, feels too cold and inappropriate; sympathy too inadequate; kind words and reassurances, secular or religious, like empty platitudes.

Perhaps it depends on the preference of the person being consoled or on the nature the situation. Perhaps none of it matters, or maybe what matters is the intention regardless of the effectiveness. Maybe most people are happy just to have someone care and be there, period. I know I do.

I might just be too cynical or defeatist at the moment. I don’t really know.

What are your thoughts?

Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

Continue reading

Conceptual Progress

It is easy to take values like freedom and democracy for granted, and that speaks volumes about how good we have it (at least in some parts of the modern world). For the overwhelming majority of human history, across almost every society, ideas like individual liberty, human rights, and equality were not even conceived, let alone practice.

In the approximately 200,000 years that homo sapiens have existed, only in the last three thousand or so years did such concepts even emerge, and even then they were quaint ideas limited in scope and agree — the ancient republics of Athens and Rome still had slavery and the disenfranchised women, as did the republics of the United States and France.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have higher aspirations and ideals to live up to. People speak of realism versus idealism, but at least better values and principles exist to be attained, if even only conceptually. It was not that long ago that the very idea that slavery was morally monstrous, that women were fully humans, that children warranted rights, and that people should have a say in their governance, simply did not exist in the minds of even the most heightened intellectuals, let alone the largely impoverished and illiterate masses.

We have come a very long way as a species, even if we have an even longer ways to go.

The Importance of Gratitude

Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.

The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.

The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.

Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects: Continue reading

Blogger Reflects on Narrowly Avoiding a Shooting In Toronto, Only to Die in the Recent Massacre in Colorado

This was the last blog post of Jessica Redfield, a young reporter who was sharing her thoughts about coming close to death at a mall shooting just a few weeks before she would die at the recent gun massacre in Colorado. It’s unsettling that the following reflections would be her last mark on the web:

I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.

I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.

I feel like I am overreacting about what I experienced. But I can’t help but be thankful for whatever caused me to make the choices that I made that day. My mind keeps replaying what I saw over in my head. I hope the victims make a full recovery. I wish I could shake this odd feeling from my chest. The feeling that’s reminding me how blessed I am. The same feeling that made me leave the Eaton Center. The feeling that may have potentially saved my life.

I think I’m all the more perturbed by this consider that I, too, right those sorts of reflections about life, death, and the fragility of our existence. I guess seeing someone with similar observations die so suddenly makes me realize that even being consciously aware of life’s delicateness will do little to save you.

You can find her Twitter account here, where she posted what would be her chilling last words: “movie doesn’t start for 20 minutes.” She had no idea what was to come. How could she? As her post stated, no one ever really knows. Even as I right this very post, I may die from some freak accident or random act of violence. Who knows what post of mine will be my last?

These arbitrary and senseless killings are disturbing enough, but they’re made even more disquieting in an age where people leave their imprints online, and communicate instantaneously throughout the day, often giving you a very last glimpse into their thoughts and actions before they die.

Death in the Age of Social Media

Social media has made the ritual of death pretty interesting. When we die, we will be among the first generation to leave behind a unique timeline of our lives, in the form of photos, biographical information, status updates, and interactions with others. Our profiles will become shrines for our loved ones to leave condolences or see a time capsule of our time on this Earth (I’ve already seen this happen with the Facebook profiles of several deceased friends and acquaintances).

Of course, this would raise another interesting thought: do we plan on keeping our social media profiles indefinitely? Will there be a point where we’ll just grow out of it, or will it continue to mature with us until we die? It’s strange to think that we’ll have this constant (albeit wildly variable) record of our lives following us as we age.