Attending to Now
I live among a community of humans who believe that they need to save the world.
They aren’t good enough. They may still save the world completely on accident, but ultimately, on the measure, the odds are pretty grim.
And they know this. All around me I see people facing their task with grim determination, or resolute despair, or cheerful-but-insistent obliviousness.
The problem is that saving the world is hard. The Gods keep handing us monkeys new kinds of fire to play with, hoping that this time maybe we’ll burn ourselves up and rid them of the pesky usurpers. So far we’re surviving on sheer dumb luck.
When I was a child, the first truly holocaustic device had been created: the atomic bomb. For forty years, mankind stood on a palpable knife-edge overlooking oblivion—if not of the species, then at the very least of the hard-earned way of life that thousands of years of civilization had granted us.
Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, seemingly by miracle, the Cold War ended and we managed to step back from the precipice of annihilation. It didn’t have to happen that way; we dodged a bullet. And Mankind’s collective reaction to this was, for the most part, “whew, glad THAT’S over!” instead of “oh fuck, BULLETS.”
We’re busy building more bullets, and noticing the bullets that we’ve already been building for along time, that were a little slower to reach the firing chamber. Global ecological upheaval. Nanotechnology. Molecular biotechnology. Full economic automation. Artificial general intelligence. And, should we get bored of the past 25 years of relative peace, there’s always a global thermonuclear arsenal to dust off and point at ourselves again—because hey, why not?
So there’s plenty of bullets, and we’re not good enough to dodge all of them. Most of the people I know are only focusing on one of them—around here the fad seems to be AGI—and even within that single domain most everybody seems terrified that the genie will come out of the bottle before anyone knows how to leash it.
This isn’t a post about becoming good enough. Around here, EVERYONE’S talking about becoming better, stronger, faster, smarter. This is a post about facing the grim prospect of your cultural annihilation and fighting on anyways. About, if not defeating your foes and seeing them driven before you, then at least fighting to the last, making a stand worthy of the mead-halls of Valhalla, and then gathering your remaining friends to share a toast to the end of the world.
Because if nothing matters, then why not that? If, once there’s no one left to tell your tale, there’s no point to there having been a tale… sharing a last great thrust to the tune of “this would have made a great story” is just as good as anything else.
Americans are particularly handicapped in our thinking around these lines, because we expect to win. We have a cultural blind spot that denies failure even when it’s staring us in the face. This is good and useful for certain kinds of soldiering on, but it cuts us off to the grief and fear, the dread and despair that we’re experiencing anyways within the parts of us that can’t be fooled.
And maybe we should spend a little more time respecting that. Sometimes it might be useful to give “WE HAVE TO MAKE THIS WORK!” a rest, and spend some time acknowledging that we’re trying very hard, and things may still not work out. I’m certainly not suggesting some kind of grimdark suicide-cult apocalyptic attitude; but there’s a certain kind of hedging our bets that could be made.
Something like, “just in case this matters to save the world, I am going to give it everything I can. But just in case it doesn’t, I’m going to attempt to take seriously the idea that these might be my last few decades on earth, and take a serious look at how I want to spend each day of them.”
Maybe that means some hokey shit like walks in the park or more time spent meaningfully with loved ones. Maybe it means some weird shit like cutting small-talk entirely out of your life and spending your free time only on things that maximize your own hedons. Or maybe it means spending time and energy, in the short- to mid-term, on building an inclusive culture of fun and play with each other—starting with the components already in place all around us. Going to Game Nights at a group house, or learning Parkour in the park, or sitting in a quiet house having conversation with interesting people, while a lovely host cooks amazing meals for you in the kitchen. There are options.
I’m saying that, on the margin, I think you should take them more. And so should I.
See you around.