Why We Do Better

From earlier this summer, what I call the prognostic treadmill:

“The hedonic treadmill describes our tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness (or curmudgeonliness) shortly after events we thought would bring us lasting joy: that new Tesla, that condo with the view, that promotion (long overdue, really).

We are less familiar with, yet no less afflicted by, the prognostic treadmill:

Our tendency to return to a level of confidence in our predictive ability, shortly after events that confirm our inability to make predictions: failure to reach last year’s growth targets, global economic recessions, populist upheavals.”

A shocking event scrambles the neat picture of the future that we held in our heads, like a child dashing a finished jigsaw puzzle to the floor.

For a fleeting instant, we see the unfolding of human history as it is: impervious to prediction. Anti-certain. Unfortunately, our brains crave closure.

Moments after the experts and pundits get it wrong, we gasp for more predictions, new predictions to settle our roiling bellies. Like salt water, bad predictions just make us thirstier for more predictions.

What would it look like to sit in uncertainty? To admit that in complex environments with interlocking dependencies, the odds are always 50-50? That it is better to have no map than a wrong map?

Might you be more cautious? Might you listen more closely? Might you work a little harder?

We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for possibilities.

Why We Act

When a vote is held on the floor of Congress, the result is almost always known before the votes are cast. Party-line votes are more common than at any point in history. In a system where loyalty is prioritized over effective decision making, the details of laws, the stories from the people they affect, and the possible consequences twenty years down the road matter less to our representatives than what the person sitting next to them is voting for.

We legislate by attrition. It often appears that the role of congresspeople isn’t to evaluate and decide on a course of action, but to show up, be a warm body in a seat.

We demand the same from our peers. During an election season, we tend to chastise those who show ideological uncertainty. We mock undecided voters, who seem to require a little more evidence before they make a decision.

Yet, when we look at the habits of our congresspeople, you wonder whether we could use a little more indecision up and down the political ladder. A few more people that wanted to learn more. A few more people open to either outcome. To alternative outcomes. A few more cautious optimists.

We get frustrated at undecided voters, but it might be marvelous if we were able to elect more of them.

Why We Act

You would though.

Given the right set of circumstances, you would vote for an erratic, dangerous, anti-democratic nitwit, assuming that she or he represented the majority of your political priorities.

So let’s build a liberal Donald Trump.

First off, it wouldn’t be Donald Trump, because an old white male would have difficulty channeling the younger, less-white, less-male Democratic base. However, this person could have all of Trump’s other qualities: narcissism, inexperience, troubling attitudes toward women, bluntness, and the ability to entertain large crowds by saying nothing.

Look: Kanye West would be liberal Donald Trump.

And what would be the characteristics of a Kanye candidacy? In order to appeal to a liberal base in a Trumpian fashion, we would see appealing far-left positions framed with a naive understanding of policy and diplomacy.

On the Kanye platform:

  • Monetary reparations for Black, Native, and Asian Americans
  • A promise to end to “all war”, including suspension of drone strike program
  • Federal legalization of marijuana and psychedelics
  • Expansion of women’s rights, including equal pay, parental leave, and greater access to reproductive health care (unfortunately including an off-color joke about being the cause of many abortions himself)
  • Amnesty to undocumented immigrants and uncapping the number of work visas granted per year
  • Commitment to move U.S. energy sources to “future shit”: solar, wind, etc. by 2030
  • Free Tidal accounts for all citizens (taxpayer subsidized)

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? The fact that he is a musician and entrepreneur with no political experience no longer strikes you as a deal-breaker. His inability to discuss these issues with any clarity or nuance on the campaign trail becomes easier to overlook.

But are you willing to overlook his more disturbing habits? Let’s also imagine:

  • An open war with police unions, including public musing over whether he will “shut down” the NYPD and prosecute officers for biased policing
  • Insults toward any opposition, including families of fallen officers
  • A full-throated defense of celebrity rapists
  • Behind-the-scenes recordings of him making demeaning comments about women and bragging about sexual exploits with questionable consent
  • A pledge to outlaw paparazzi and jail media outlets critical of his albums
  • 3AM Twitter ranting on biased journalism
  • A disgusting insistence that he will finally sleep with Taylor Swift as president
  • First Lady Kim Kardashian

You’re on the fence now. When 2024 rolls around, you don’t vote for Kanye in the Democratic primary, but he wins the nomination on a wave of (now-greying) millennial support. And who does the Republican party nominate?

Bionic Dick Cheney.

It has to be him. It has to be him because Dick Cheney makes liberals shudder the way Hillary makes conservatives furious. Their records aren’t equivalent, but they both represent the worst of the opposition party, and they have for decades.

We now have a 2016-style election between a dangerous asshole who you mostly agree with as long as he keeps his mouth shut (which is rare), and a literal zombie that hates everything you stand for.

You could, of course, make a protest vote. But you balk at people who do that. After all, there really is no such thing as a protest vote: Either Kanye West or Dick Cheney is going to be the next President of the United States.

And you aren’t going to vote for Dick Cheney. No way. No way.

You are going to vote for liberal Donald Trump.


Bury a body on the beach.

No one needs to know about it but you.

And when they find the bones washed up, the mystery will captivate them.

Chaz Bundick of the band Toro y Moi describes a body he buried in the lyrics of his song Half Dome. Toward the final chorus, he repeats the line:

Look at who you are beside

Again and again, the words lapping like waves. And on the final repetition, nearly inaudible:

Look at who you are beside

(No one)

What could he mean? Is this an illusion to a specific person in his life? An observation about the obliterating vastness of a walk in nature? A red herring to throw everyone off the trail?

When brought in for questioning by the Song Exploder podcast, Chaz offers his confession:

“Yeah, that was intentional. I threw it in there just because it’s fun. The Beatles would do that, just throw in random stuff that was inaudible. It’s for purposes like this, like ‘I found this, what is this?’”

He had no motive. In the midst of creative intention, a carefully obscured piece of nonsense will fascinate them, aggravate them, confuse them, inspire them.

Your art should be a bit weird, a bit inexplicable.

What is this? The question will drive them mad. In your next project, bury a body on the beach.

Why We Act

When we look up:

“When we [look at stars in the night sky], we feel ourselves pleasantly diminished by the majesty of what we contemplate. As we renew our connection with immensity we’re humbled without being humiliated. It’s not just us, personally and individually who are diminished in comparison. The things that trouble and bother us seem smaller as well.”

The Book of Life, On Stars

When we look down:

“When [space physiologist] Russomano met Buzz Aldrin, he told her of how, as he stood on the Moon, he held his finger over the distant globe of Earth, effectively erasing it from view. Nothing in an astronaut’s training, he suggested, could possibly prepare a human being for such an immutable revelation of our own smallness, our own fragility, amid the endless universe. ‘This is, according to psychiatrists, something too big for a human to experience,” Russomano said.”

– Leigh Alexander, never go to space it’s terrible omg

Career aspirations, relationship fulfillment, choice of movie on a Friday evening: there is much that is capable of making us feel our insignificance. Grandeur or terror. Humility or dread. It’s not the stars that change. It’s where we look.

Why We Act

A confession: I used to be a person that rolled my eyes at the superstitious. When friends searched for wood to knock on, or kept a charm around their ankle, or pointed out the presence of a full moon, I’d puff my chest and poke holes in their mystic caution.

I might ask: Well, what exactly do you think will happen if you don’t touch wood? Why would that have any effect? I’ve never done that and nothing bad has happened to me, isn’t that weird, hm?

With the asphyxiating condescension of a true nerd, I’d insist on reason, logic, proof.

Later that weekend I would watch professional wrestling.

The next morning I’d bark to blank faces about the heart-rending rivalries between these athletes: years-long tales of kinship and betrayal, cowardice and grit, of heroes and heels scratching and clawing, inch by inch, setback after setback, toward the grand prize, the golden belt, the roaring fans, to immortality itself.

My friends reply: “Mm, yeah it’s fake, right?”

In that moment, I understood the meaning of a full moon:

Superstitions shine a light toward the limits of our understanding. They are a ritualized reminder that disconnected events can harm us (or help us) in ways we can’t predict. Take them literally, or don’t. Like pro wrestling, to challenge the reality of superstitions is to miss the idea entirely. In their unreality, they amplify our human truths.

In a scientific age, our superstitions form a lonely tribute to the weird, the wonderful, the dancing inexplicable.

Why We Create

We had a class called Arts and Crafts in elementary school, and nobody, neither the teachers nor the students, could explain the distinction. I grew up assuming art was painting and craft was sculpting. Or perhaps art was making things and craft was washing our hands afterward. These days, I understand the difference this way:

Craft is everything on the canvas, and art is everything outside the frame.

Every brushstroke of the Mona Lisa is craft. Its color palette is craft. Is portrait composition is craft. The expression on her face: alas, it is craft. The art lives in every secret teased by her inscrutable glance. The art lives in our obsession with her hands, her smile, her personal life. Her mystery, her history, her conspiracy.

As it goes in oil, so it goes in ink and strings and code. So it goes in our relationships, too.

Art requires something left unsaid. Everything else is craft.

Most classes teach craft.

Why We Learn

You hold a white mug full of hot chocolate. Steam rises from the cup. When you feel the moment calls for it, you toss the mug to the floor. The mug shatters, the liquid splatters. Repeat thirty times, in thirty different rooms.

Shatter, splatter.

What changes? What is changed?

At the cafe, the patrons (mostly new moms and white-haired retirees) whip their heads in your direction. Their eyes flash half-fear, half-amusement.

At the opera, hundreds of tastefully-dressed men and women crane their heads and glare. You hear a dark murmur of resentment. A lady on stage misses a high A-flat. Several attendants rush in your direction.

At the football game, nobody notices or responds. A few wonder why their shoes are sticky on the walk to their car.

On stage, the audience shuts up and pays sharp attention. They did not expect your company’s keynote to open in this fashion. They wonder if this is some sort of performance art. Bloggers openly speculate about which rival toward whom these “shots” were “fired.” Your company’s stock price ticks up. Speakers at TED Talks adopt the “subversive” custom of opening their presentations with a sharp, destructive gesture. WIRED magazine writes a feature on you for their November issue (sales are modest).

The mug explodes every time, the froth flies more or less the same.

The reaction tells you more about the action than the action itself. A few consequences of this:

  1. We can unfollow the news; we will learn a greater amount by following only peoples’ reactions to the news.
  2. Reactions change depending on the room. To be indignant about the popularity of anything is to be stunned that the opera does not appreciate dropped mugs.
  3. Investigate surprising reactions, seek to map out the many rooms.
What Came Next, Why We Talk

On days when I need a pick-me-up, I remind myself that the first extraterrestrial life we encounter will be likely be indifferent to us, just as fish and grasshoppers and ducks are broadly disinterested in human swimming, jumping, and quacking.

Of course, when we meet our aliens we can’t assume that. Of course, we are scientists, so we will demand a rigorous examination of the alien-hopping-fish-duck’s capacity for intelligible conversation.

Carefully, thoughtfully, the eggheads will concoct an elaborate light and music show in an attempt to communicate without language. We’ll spend months crafting the proper message and two of the lead scientists will get into a fist fight over the use of a diatonic rather than pentatonic scale (with some implications of racial bias). They’ll later apologize to each other over email, both agreeing that they were very tired and have been put into a stressful circumstance with a very tight deadline, that this is water under the bridge as far as each party is concerned.

Following twenty tense months of deliberation, composition, and review, we play our light and music show for the hopping-fish-ducks. Then we hold our breath.

They seem to just be hopping more-or-less in place, like they always do. Wait, did one do a little dance just there? It was quick, but it looked like it perhaps shimmied slightly before its little hop. The lead zoologist leans in: Yes, there is a possibility that the shimmy was an intended response. We will require a follow-up investigation.

An application is submitted to concoct an elaborate dance routine for the hopping-fish-ducks. We can’t rule shimmying out. We can’t rule anything out.

Why We Act, Why We Fuck Up

“If you aren’t speaking out, you are part of the problem.”

“If you aren’t in the streets, you are part of the problem.”

All variations of “If you don’t agree with me and act the way I’d like you to act, then you are part of the (i.e. my) problem.”

All variations of gatekeeping.

While some assert that inaction is itself a type of violence, there are plenty of cases where action is more harmful than inaction. It is often wise not to take action at the height of fear, anger, or resentment, when we are most capable of trading our humanity for a feeling of safety, a thirst for justice.

Sometimes we just don’t know the answer, and that’s okay.

As part of the Hippocratic oath, doctors pledge to “not be ashamed to say ‘I know not.’”

At the heart of the Hippocratic oath is the principle, primum non nocere: first, do no harm.

In times when we are called to act boldly, action itself is not the virtue. As doctors recognize, sometimes the best treatment they can provide in the moment is to listen, to comfort, and do their best to learn. Primum non nocere.