We are who we are.
Writing has long offered me a way out and in. It's a way out of predicaments of the present (for example, the possibility of writing independently for a living is a way out of having to do things I loathe in exchange for money). But it's also a way into new ideas and revelations.
Leaning into ideas through writing has taught me how to focus and stay focused on one thing for a long time. I didn't used to be able to do this. I can still barely do it unless I'm writing. I can kind of do it when I'm reading, meditating, exercising, or doing breathwork. But even then, I'm still just who I am. And who I am is a ruminator. I drift off. My mind or imagination or whatever that vast inner expanse is gets noisy and inviting. It wants to show me something and spin it around, and I want to see it and follow it. It feels dissatisfied, and I want to fix it. I wander around, sometimes feeling free and weightless, other times feeling little but the drag of my own psychic gravity. Often feeling the distracting pull of both, arriving at the same time in dark and light waves that keep crashing into each other.
Staying focused on one thing for a long time is intensely enjoyable to me. As is creating something new. So it makes sense that I would find fulfillment in doing something that enables me to do both. But the intensity of the enjoyment I feel while focusing and creating is also dangerous. It makes me want to keep focusing and creating to the exclusion of all else, and in turn, to the detriment of some of those other things: my job, my relationships, my sleep, my body, my mind. The act of writing can slip too easily into becoming more of an unhealthy compulsion than a healthy practice. To be clear, I think it’s both. But the ratio is always shifting. And the only way to counter the trend toward imbalance is to always be shifting oneself back toward balance. It’s either that or fall.
Stability is not just something we find and keep. It requires our constant creation. This is why, for me, not writing at all can be as dangerous as writing compulsively. My balance breaks, my focus fades, my inner expanse expands, my drifting off accelerates, my enjoyment and fulfillment decrease, my sense of order crumbles, and chaos fills the vacuum.
Entropy is the default in life. Everything in nature moves toward it. We don't like this so we look for antidotes. Writing is one. It brings order. This is true of all uses of language. Including speech and conversation. But the spoken word lacks the generous allowances of time and space that writing provides and many of us need. Especially those slow-motion ruminators among us.
Speaking, in my experience, doesn’t suffice. It’s like an instrument I can't play. I'm lucky and grateful to have a few great conversation partners despite this. But most other conversations feel like exercises in endurance and chaos to me. I leave them feeling damaged and depleted. Relieved to be back merely in the endurance and chaos of my own mind, where the ideas and I exist in un-rushed silence, and the revelations linger like demented cartoon characters in the shadows, lazy and fat and lying under giant trees, with nothing to prove and nowhere to be but in my slow and haunted head, their only purpose to stay plump with promise and strong of scent and wait to be found, at which point they will of course be killed, eaten, and catalogued.
Because writing is my way out and in. And creation can’t exist without destruction. They are two sides of the same coin.1
It is fairly indisputable that humans have reaped great rewards from advances in science and tech. If nothing else, we can cite as examples our longer lives and the fact that fewer people live in abject poverty. But what of all the new problems caused by our new creations?
Has social media made the world better? Have smartphones? Has 24-hour news? Will AI? Has industry given to us and the world more than it has taken? Has agriculture given us better lives than the ones hunter-gatherers already had? What about science and tech? Has our history of advances made us more whole now than we were tens of thousands of years ago (or even just 10 years ago, for that matter), or less?
Do longer life expectancies and growing economies necessarily cancel out the rises in atomization, stress, mental health issues, suicide, and so on that appear to stem, at least in part, from the modern societies we’ve made, and the fact that humans live increasingly connected to machines and disconnected from both other humans and ourselves?
Maybe the simpler place to start is just: Are longer lives necessarily better lives? I think the answer to that is clearly no. Because it depends what one considers “better.” So no, not necessarily.
What is a better life? One possible answer is: a life of less suffering. Just for the sake of argument, suppose you pop into a lab and come up with some way to double human lifespan that unfortunately also doubles human suffering. Have you made the lives of humans better? I’d say no. What if you go back to the lab and come up with a way to double human lifespan without increasing human suffering. So suffering just stays the same. Is that better? Possibly. But still not necessarily.
Because suppose your life is one of working long hours for little pay in mines to extract the minerals that increasingly power our technologies and insatiable economies. Or suppose you work in a factory to make one of the many products that run on the batteries made from those minerals—one of those factories with the suicide nets to keep you safely inside and productive, say.
Or suppose instead that your life is one of six-figure salaries and endless days and nights of unrewarding work and a crippling depression that you cover in meds that numb you just enough to keep you “safely inside and productive.”
Or suppose it’s one of great power, wealth, and success, all built from the equally great anger, resentment, and sadness that you developed as an unloved child, all keeping you in a state of perpetual misery through your many insufferable seasons of life, including your one(s) as president.
Is that better? Or are those just lives of suffering more for longer?
What if you go back to the lab again and come up with a way to double human life expectancy while somehow decreasing human suffering. Is that better? Probably, yes. At least in extreme cases. Ones where inordinate amounts of unnecessary suffering arise from things like poverty and hunger and disease, for example. But this still wouldn’t actually solve the problems of poverty and hunger and disease. Nor would it guarantee surviving them, which would kind of defeat the purpose of doubling human life expectancy.
What if you abandon the lab and pursuit of longer lifespans altogether and instead focus only on solving the problems of poverty and hunger and disease. And then you do it. Is that better? Yes. Great work. Take the rest of the day off.
What if solving the problems of poverty and hunger and disease gives you a boost of confidence that prompts your triumphant return to the lab, where you succeed in developing some means of decreasing or even eliminating all suffering? Is that better? I would like to think so. Especially after initiating this whole line of questioning by suggesting that it might be. But now that I’ve spent as much time with the thought as you have in the lab, I’m less sure. Maybe we need to suffer.
Do We Need to Suffer?
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines suffering as “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” Don’t we need some of that? Isn’t it essential to our growth both as moronic individuals and idiotic groups?
When I look back on the periods of pain, distress, and hardship in my life, I see them as the beginnings of what eventually became welcome life transitions. I feel gratitude for them, and stronger as a result of them. Don’t you? What if we’d had a dial or an off switch to turn our suffering down or off? Would that have made us more resilient, or more fragile? Suppose we need a certain amount of moderate—or even extreme, but nonfatal—suffering to aid our survival and development. Suppose it gives us the impetus to do hard things like get our shit together or get in shape or make amends or read Infinite Jest. Suppose it drives the innovation that the economists and techno-optimists and progress writers and their ilk are always going on about. Suppose meaningful suffering drives the creation of all meaningful art and human transcendence. Now suppose that we no longer experience any meaningful suffering, or that we can turn it off whenever it gets to be too much. Is that better?
I don't know. This isn't an argument and I'm not trying to convince you. I'm just thinking things through.
“Why do people suffer?” Bruce Springsteen asks in the Wings for Wheels documentary about the making of Born to Run. “I got the answer to that one,” he says. “Because we have to. What would life be?”
“Songs arise out of suffering,” singer-songwriter Nick Cave wrote in response to a question about ChatGPT’s songwriting capacity, “by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer.”
ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.
What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.
If meaningful songs—and possibly all meaningful acts of art and transcendence—“arise out of suffering” and the “internal human struggle of creation,” then would eliminating suffering be like removing life’s balls and poetry? Would that be better?
Well, I don’t know about the whole balls thing, you might now be thinking. But as far as the stuff about suffering goes, that’s all easy enough for someone like Nick Cave to say. He is, after all, a rich white man decades into a life of artistic success. Also what about his views on Israel-Palestine something something? And, omg, I read in a headline in a tweet in a news story that embedded the tweet that he was a misogynist or something something??? What does this cisgender fat cat know about suffering?
I’m sorry to hear that you’ve so thoroughly closed your mind, dear reader. But I want to help. So here’s Cave in conversation with journalist Seán O’Hagan about the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who fell tragically from a cliff near Cave’s home in 2015:
Seán O’Hagan: Were you angry at the world after Arthur died?
Nick Cave: No, I was in despair. I don’t think anger was part of it. Not for me, although who knows what boils away inside us. [My wife] Susie, of course, entered a circle of hell that is reserved solely for mothers who lose their children. It’s a whole other level of loss and suffering, a terrible, terrible thing to happen to anyone. There are all sorts of feelings tied up in it, guilt and shame and self-loathing so primal, yet so complex, they are near impossible to unravel. We don’t have the language for it. Or maybe language itself is not up to the task. Perhaps the cultures that encourage people to dress in black and just wail, maybe that is the most articulate response.
I remember, in desperation, reaching across and taking Susie’s hand and feeling the shock of that same violent electricity in her hand. It was so physical. That physical affliction is not often talked about, as far as I can see. We tend to see grief as an emotional state, but it is also an atrocious destabilizing assault upon the body. So much so that it can feel terminal.
O’Hagan: Nothing prepares you for it. It’s tidal and it can be capsizing.
Cave: That’s a good word for it—“capsizing.” But it is important to say that these feelings I am describing, this point of absolute annihilation, is not exceptional. In fact it is ordinary. We are all, at some point in our lives, obliterated by loss. If you haven’t been by now, you will be in time—that’s for sure. And, of course, if you have been fortunate enough to have been truly loved, in this world, you will also cause extraordinary pain to others when you leave it. That’s the covenant of life and death, and the terrible beauty of grief.
It may not necessarily be a death, but there will be some kind of devastation. We see it happen to people all the time: a marriage breakdown, or a transgression that has a devastating effect on a person’s life, or health issues, or a betrayal, or a public shaming, or a separation where someone loses their kids, or whatever it is. And it shatters them completely, into a million pieces, and it seems like there is no coming back. It’s over. But in time they put themselves together piece by piece. And the thing is, when they do that, they often find that they are a different person, a changed, more complete, more realized, more clearly drawn person. I think that’s what it is to live, really—to die in a way and to be reborn. And sometimes it can happen many times over, that complex reordering of ourselves.
O’Hagan: When you are deep in grief, there’s no real comfort to be had in people constantly telling you that time will make things better. But I distinctly remember [after my younger brother, Kieran, died] waking up one morning, having finally had a decent night’s sleep, and thinking, it’s going to be okay. There was a sense that something had shifted imperceptibility. Did that happen to you?
Cave: At first there was nothing but darkness, but, over time, Susie and I started to experience something like small fragments of light. These points of light were essentially thoughtful gestures from the people we encountered. We began to see, in a profound way, that people were kind. People cared. I know that sounds simplistic, maybe even naïve, but I came to the conclusion that the world wasn’t bad, at all—in fact, what we think of as bad, or as sin, is actually suffering. And that the world is not animated by evil, as we are so often told, but by love, and that, despite the suffering of the world, or maybe in defiance of it, people mostly just cared.
Grief can be seen as a kind of exalted state where the person who is grieving is the closest they will ever be to the fundamental essence of things. You either go under, or it changes you, or, worse, you become a small, hard thing that has contracted around an absence. Sometimes you find a grieving person constricted around the thing they have lost; they’ve become ossified and impossible to penetrate, and, well, other people go the other way, and grow open and expansive.
Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person. I am not talking about being a traditional Christian. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt, on a profound level, a deep inclusion in the human predicament, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperiled. Each life is precarious, and some of us understand it and some don’t. I became a person after my son died.
Do periods of despair and grief make us people? Does suffering change us? Suffering from despair and grief is not necessarily the same as suffering from poverty or hunger or disease. But is it any less extreme? All can break or end a person. So where is the line drawn?
Maybe it’s better to draw the line instead between necessary and unnecessary suffering, and to maybe add another one between meaningful and meaningless suffering. Under the light of those distinctions, perhaps the better pursuit—better, that is, than longer lifespans and/or reduced suffering—would be to reduce the amount of unnecessary, meaningless suffering that we cause. In other words, to reduce through means already available to us our capacity for both direct and indirect cruelty, and to let the more necessary and meaningful moments of suffering come and run their course. Just a thought.
Or we can keep trying to be gods.
Historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks we’re already locked into the “be gods” plan. In his book Homo Deus, he writes:
Success breeds ambition, and our recent achievements are now pushing humankind to set itself even more daring goals. Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health, and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness, and divinity. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease, and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.
Here’s Harari and scientist/podcaster (and, importantly, techno-optimist) Lex Fridman talking more about our rapid advancements and what we risk by aiming to upgrade humans:
Lex Fridman: It’s fascinating that feminism and communism and all these things happened in the 20th century. So many interesting things happen in the 20th century. So many movements, so many ideas, nuclear weapons, all of it. Computers. It just seems like a lot of stuff really quickly percolated and it’s accelerating.
Yuval Noah Harari: It’s still accelerating. I mean, history is just accelerating for centuries. And the 20th century, we squeezed into it things that previously took thousands of years. And now, I mean, we are squeezing it into decades.
Fridman: And you very well could be one of the last historians, human historians to have ever lived.
Harari: Could be. I think our species, Homo sapiens. I don’t think we’ll be around in a century or two. We could destroy ourselves in a nuclear war, through ecological collapse, by giving too much power to AI that goes out of our control. But if we survive, we’ll probably have so much power that we will change ourselves using various technologies so that our descendants will no longer be Homo sapiens like us. They will be more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals. So maybe they’ll have historians, but it will no longer be human historians or Homo sapiens historians like me.
I think it’s an extremely dangerous development. And the chances that this will go wrong, that people will use the new technologies trying to upgrade humans, but actually downgrading them, this is a very, very big danger. If you let corporations and armies and ruthless politicians change humans using tools like AI and bioengineering, it’s very likely that they will try to enhance a few human qualities that they need, like intelligence and discipline, while neglecting what are potentially more important human qualities, like compassion, like artistic sensitivity, like spirituality …
If you give Putin, for instance, bioengineering and AI and brain-computer interfaces, he’s likely to want to create a race of super soldiers who are much more intelligent and much stronger and also much more disciplined and never rebel and march on Moscow against him. But he has no interest in making them more compassionate or more spiritual. So the end result could be a new type of humans, a downgraded humans, who are highly intelligent and disciplined, but have no compassion and no spiritual depth.
And this is one … For me, this is the dystopia, the apocalypse. When people talk about the new technologies and they have this scenario of The Terminator, robots lying in the street shooting people, this is not what worries me. I think we can avoid that. What really worries me is using … The corporations, armies, politicians will use the new technologies to change us in a way which will destroy our humanity, or the best parts of our humanity.
Fridman: And one of those ways could be removing compassion.
Another way that really worries me, for me is probably more likely, is a Brave New World kind of thing that sort of removes the flaws of humans, maybe it removes the diversity in humans, and makes us all kind of these dopamine chasing creatures that just kind of maximize enjoyment in the short term, which kind of seems like a good thing maybe in the short term, but it creates a society that doesn’t think, that doesn’t create, that just is sitting there enjoying itself at a more and more rapid pace, which seems like another kind of society that could be easily controlled by a centralized center of power.
But the set of dystopias that we could arrive at through this if they’re allowing corporations to modify humans is vast, and we should be worried about that.
It seems like humans are pretty good as we are. All the flaws, all of it together.
Harari: We are better than anything that we can intentionally design at present. Like any intentionally designed humans at the present moment is going to be much, much worse than us. Because basically, we don’t understand ourselves. I mean, as long as we don’t understand our brain, our body, our mind, it’s a very, very bad idea to start manipulating a system that you don’t understand deeply. And we don’t understand ourselves.
There are a number of ideas in there worth thinking more about.2 But let’s sit for a minute with the last one. Maybe we don’t need an upgrade. Not of the happier, more docile, less compassionate, creating our replacement species kind, anyway. Maybe the upgrades that brought us where we are today have been, on the whole, to our detriment.
In recent months, I’ve found myself oscillating between mourning our hunter-gatherer past and accepting our modern world and its potential future. This wasn’t a “looking at the past through rose-colored glasses” kind of mourning. My glasses were clear. And what I saw was a richer and more rewarding existence, along with a fair amount of pain, distress, and hardship. So, suffering, but of a different kind, a kind that I can’t help but find preferable.
There’s no going back, of course. We are us. We live here. And this is now. Hence my acceptance, as I pondered all of this enriched by the technologies that aid and cool and enlighten me. Even if we could go back, it seems clear to me that we would eventually find ourselves here again. We are dreamers and builders and growers. We dream and build and grow. And we would do it all again if we could. Every time.
Can we do it better, though? What of all the holes we make as we dream and build and grow? You know the ones. Those holes that our ancestors dug in us as they built their way to the modern world. The ones that we try to fill with the products and material goods that we make.
I don’t think we actually want most of those things. Nor do I think most of us actually want longer lifespans. I think we’re just afraid of boredom and death. And baked into those fears, I suspect, is a kind of existential FOMO. We’re afraid of missing out on existence itself. We also happen to live in a world built on the premise that the solution to virtually everything is to keep adding MORE.3 Got a problem? Fill it with MORE. Got stress? Fill it with MORE. Got a nagging emptiness inside? Fill it with MORE. Got a wound where love, friends, and community should be? Fill it with MORE. Solved all your problems? Fill them with MORE. Got a bunch of new ones now, as a direct result of filling all your old ones with MORE? Fill them with MORE. Can’t afford MORE? Work for MORE.
I’m not a doomer. But I’m sympathetic to the doom-laden’s distaste for the modern world, and their concerns about the direction our advancements are taking us. I see what the doomers see. It’s just that I also see what the optimists see. And I see enough truth and bullshit in both to stay neutral and uncertain. I see great advancements and great losses that seem to work in unison. I see human nature, and I see us: creator-destroyers, just doing what we do.4
Chase Waterfalls & Be Alone
What’s the way forward? I will inevitably be ruminating on that, and likely writing more about it. But I encourage you to share your thoughts as well. With me or with friends or whomever.
In the meantime, there has for a few weeks now seemed to me to be something like an answer in an email that I wrote in response to a friend. I’d just taken about a month off from writing, and for the final 10 days of that month, I had the nutritious experience of not using my computer at all. The words below were the first personal/non-administrative ones I typed upon returning to reality:
My brother came out to visit towards the end of July through the first week of August. We did some traveling around the north of the country with my wife (and for part of the way, her family). We did a decent amount of hiking in Pai and Chiang Mai, mostly near waterfalls. In Pai, we were able to swim at the base of one of the waterfalls. The water was cold and felt great.
The message is subtle and the words are totally unexceptional, I know. But I think that’s what gives them a place in the way forward.
It felt good to take a break from writing, and I considered making that break permanent. But something warm and thankful and restorative lit up in me when I typed that paragraph, and I couldn’t deny that light, even though I spent a few weeks trying.
There’s no adequate explanation for the answer that I see in those words, other than maybe to point out that they are a product of the month that they emerged from. What I can say, though, is that I think breaks from technology are essential. As are breaks from writing, which is also, we sometimes forget, a technology. But breaks aren’t permanent closures. I may or may not be right that we need suffering. I’m far more certain that we need balance. And the only way to achieve it is to always be shifting back toward it.
Last night, lying in bed, my jaw sore from the enjoyable but intense focus of writing, I read this greatpost titled “Writing in the 21st Century.” This excerpt in particular moved me and seemed to be asking for residence in this essay, which I’m approaching the end of now:
With distraction lurking around every corner, the ability to contend with silence has become vanishingly rare. Yet, silence is a prerequisite for thought. In the words of Blaise Pascal:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I believe this to be true, and I believe that working on this is another way forward. But I also believe this: All of humanity’s solutions stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
We are the best, and we are the worst. We are great, and we are awful. Life is hard and painful and gross and beautiful and challenging and debilitating and regenerative and rewarding and humiliating and humbling and joyous and boring and inspiring and depressing and long enough and fine. That’s my review thus far, at 43 years old. Here’s to the possibility of another 30 or so. But please. Not more. Only better. Or at least not worse. And with all my necessary and meaningful suffering intact.
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Creator, you destroy me
You know my hunger well
And yet you starve me
Until I'm begging on my knees
The whole conversation is packed with interesting ideas and considerations, including:
Is intelligence overrated?
Is consciousness more valuable than intelligence?
Is suffering a mark of consciousness?
Is it possible that stories are living organisms and humans are just hosts?
Do advances that bring positive outcomes also bring negative ones?
Do greater positive outcomes also bring greater negative ones?
How to think
Mounds of Readymade Everythingᵀᴹ