This is the incongruous dilemma of our current reality: we create laws and place restrictions on our fellow man because we believe others are immoral and that without these enforced restrictions society would descend into a hellish chaos. . .but the world is a hellish chaos due to the (largely unintended) repercussions of those very restrictions.
We tell ourselves and each other ‘There are monsters in the world and we must protect ourselves from them’. We say ‘Look at how people act when some freedom is given. Give an inch, they’ll steal a mile.’
But ‘some’ freedom is a half-hearted attempt at the full bodily autonomy that is the sacred birthright of all living, sentient beings. Not the freedom to do whatever we like without consequence, but the freedom to do as we like with ourselves and with those freely consenting to joint endeavours.
Because we develop within a world of limited freedom we become miserly assholes. When we obtain something that helps – to numb the pain, to protect against future lack – we fiercely desire to hold onto it. And we desire more – more finances particularly because in our current social structure wealth is all but equivalent to security, as it can be traded for most anything else.
So when someone else wants what we have (which of course anyone who perceives they’ve less than us naturally will) we brace against them. ‘No. Fuck you. This is mine. I fought for it. I need it.’ The idea of sliding back to a place from our past in which we had less is anxiety-inducing, yielding perhaps even rage.
But were we to grow within a system in which we believed we were free and safe to remain so, it follows that we would defend less fiercely. Without the learned trauma of subjugation, an egoistic altruism¹ naturally flourishes, because we are creatures of reason (at least in part) and the fact is solid that helping my fellow man just makes sense. Why? Because I would of course want him to help me in turn. No one wants to get fucked over. But the error we make en masse as a species is assuming most everyone else would take advantage of us, given the chance.
We are in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the default reasoning seems to be that the other guy would definitely rat us out because everyone’s looking out for their own skin. That’s how people are, right? Naturally self-serving? Every man for himself? So we scramble to rat the other guy out first, the other guy does the same, we all end up in prison for three years cursing the other guy for our shitty situation, for being an asshole for doing the same thing we did when, if we’d acted collectively, we’d have gotten off with one.
But the reality of our situation is far more heartbreaking than this game theory simulation because none of us actually need spend any time in prison by co-operating. Quite the opposite, actually: If I gracefully set my narcissism aside and allow myself to believe you to be as virtuous and rational as I, and leave you to your own devices and freedom on the assumption you will grant me the same privilege, there is no hell either of us need serve. Instead, we create heaven. Here. Now. On Earth, in this life we know we have.
We assume ‘other’ people want more. They need power, need others to bow the knee, need to be served and will kill for that privilege. And I’m willing to concede that, yeah, in the world we have, some do. We do have Putins and Trumps and Kim Jong-uns, people who have no ability to face or fill the void inside themselves so instead attempt to exert power over others in a futile attempt to finally make themselves feel less small and vulnerable. But it’s important we acknowledge the very real possibility that these people are not actually devoid of compassion but instead terribly broken by the failing systems within which we have all been raised. Corrupted code vs faulty hardware, so to speak.
Fear and desire make us do fucked up things but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re rotten to the core. It just means we’re doing what we believe we must out of necessity and that necessity is created by the failing narratives with which we navigate reality, the most heinous of which might be ‘Other people are bad’. Because they don’t look like me. Because they don’t share my values. Because they don’t believe what I believe. I don’t understand them (or I inaccurately think I do), so I should fear them.
I’m personally more optimistic. I don’t think we actually need force our will on each other, we just need to collectively agree on a few guidelines. Like:
– No violating another’s bodily autonomy without consent (no murder, attacking, raping)
– No enslaving your fellow man (no forcing others to do what you want them to when they clearly don’t want to)
– No taking what isn’t freely offered (no theft)
– And, ideally, no lying (this is admittedly a more philosophically complex one)²
Sure, in our complex world we’ll need a few more agreements than that to really smooth out the specifics (limited planet and all that, we can’t all have that beachfront view) but I truly believe we can work this shit out. Those different values we’re so convinced mean we’re doomed to be forever at odds could actually be a blessing; because we value and desire different things there might just be enough to go around. Turns out you don’t need to fight me for that beachfront view after all because me? I’m more of a secluded forest hut girl myself.
You can call it naive if you like (I’ve little doubt many will), but I really do believe that harmony is possible, even optimistically within our lifetime. I think that if we could lay our worst assumptions aside we might surprisingly find that for each person that longs to be served in a certain way, someone is willing and happy to provide that service (like the song says of sweet dreams ‘some of them want to use you, some of them want to be used by you’). That we would help each other not only because we accept the mathematical logic that to receive we should rationally offer in turn but because helping our fellow man feels good. It feels correct. Rewarding, even.
Our thinking brain and feeling body so rarely agree. It’s very important we note when they do.
But we’ve never known this harmonious reality as a modern species so we fail to believe it is possible at all. Our belief that it is not possible holds us locked in a reality in which it does not become.
Because here’s a truth you can’t deny: Believing something is possible doesn’t mean it is, but believing it’s not does mean it can’t be. Sending a man into outer space was difficult but not impossible, but we first had to believe in order to put in the copious amount of work it took to get there. If we had believed it was impossible we’d have never tried, and we’d have never done it. Things you don’t believe in can’t happen, with few (if any) exceptions. You may think it’s not very likely you’ll win the lotto (and it’s not), but if you say ‘fuck it, why not, what if?’ and treat yourself to a $3 ticket each week or month you might. If you decide ‘never going to happen, not worth the $3’ and never buy a ticket, you never will. Even if a winning ticket stub magically blows from the forest and lands in your handbag, you still need to believe in the possibility enough to at least check the fucking ticket results. (And that’s all after you even bother to believe that printed pieces of paper or digits on a bank spreadsheet have value at all which, yes, is also a belief. We make the error quite commonly of deciding some things are and some things are not when, in fact, when people talk about ‘the way things are’ what they really mean is ‘the way I believe things are accepted to be by a large group of people with whom I identify, and/or by an entity I believe to be more knowledgeable and/or powerful than myself’.)
Belief is fucking everything. It shapes our very reality.³
So we fear monsters, because we believe in them and the ways in which they can potentially harm us. But I would suggest that monsters aren’t born but made, and it is our very fear of them that creates them. We damn ourselves with our actions to their imagined presence and others oblige to become the terrible beasts we’ve assumed them to be.
Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps monsters really do exist, by nature. But I’ve been a lot of places in a lot of countries and met a lot of people and I’ve never met a monster. Not one. I’ve just met people that did monstrous things because they were ignorant, desperate, and/or afraid.
We don’t dare believe it could be otherwise because we worry for our safety and the safety of those we love, but it is very possible that we are unsafe only because we believe it to be so, and the actions that belief inspires yield a discord that trigger others to feel unsafe also, and to act accordingly. Fear is contagious.
So long as we continue to choose fear and paranoia over love and acceptance, monsters will continue to appear to exist in this world.
And even if I’m wrong, even if there really are true demons in this world, they almost certainly do not exist with such prevalence that we should structure our societies so wholly around protecting ourselves from them. Human (well, all sentient life really) well-being and flourishing should certainly be at the heart of the creation of our social structures and that starts with dropping the inherently narcissistic belief that while we are good (or at least act with good intention), others are bad, even intent on or delighting in harming us. That there is us and there is other, fundamentally different from us.
The truth as I’ve experienced it is that there is but one human condition, and an infinite number of ways in which that condition may be broken, corrupted or even temporarily forgotten.
We are here to love. We all desire love. We all desire the freedom to love safely. The sad, beautiful, broken tragedy of our time is that we might all be free except that we believe ourselves to be otherwise. The cages that hold and corrupt us are of no making but our own, just as the keys that will eventually set us free will be crafted by none other than our own hearts and minds.
But to save the world and our selves that populate it, we must first believe that it and we can, and want to, be saved.
¹ To the best of my knowledge ‘egoistic altruism’ as a term was coined by Kurzgesagt in their most excellent video ‘A Selfish Argument for Making the World a Better Place‘ (which, if you haven’t already seen it, you should definitely go check out now).
² It’s been some time since I last read it, but I recall the long-form essay book ‘Lying‘ by Sam Harris to be an excellent breakdown of lying from a moral and philosophical point of view. I also recall it being quite readable. Ricky Gervais, Time Ferriss and Neil Degrasse Tyson also appear to have enjoyed it so, you know, it comes recommended by good company.
³ I get that this seems a bold statement but breakthroughs in science (yes, ‘real’ science, with math and measurements and trials and stuff not, like, David Avocado Wolfe science) really are trending in the direction of our mental processes and their subsequent actions as affecting, even potentially effecting, the very fabric of reality in ways previously postulated only by the occult. In the meantime, I buy into the theory simply because it gels with my life experience and I’ve yet to hear a single compelling argument to the contrary.