Why We Do Better

In the physical world, echoes muddle. An echoing voice (say, a friend calling out to you in the forest) gets softer, cloudier with each bounce. We hear the pitch, but the message is garbled.

In the informational domain, echoes do the opposite: they clarify. Take an idea and listen to how it echoes in the history of literature, or philosophy, or political action. With each echo, each occurrence, the theme distills, the message sharpens. When history echoes, we understand it more clearly.

This short movie visualizes a speech by Alan Watts. Watts reminds us of something we knew as toddlers:

“The physical universe is basically playful…the same way [as] dancing. You don’t aim for a particular spot in the room because that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”

When we watch partners dance, we don’t observe the angle of their elbows, the sway of their hips and grasp for a greater purpose. The purpose is the dance.  We may understand our entire life in this way: the goal is not achievement or completion, but engagement, expression, presence.  In this way, we dance with every moment.

Seven-hundred years before Watts, the poet Rumi echoes:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
In this way, we dance with every moment.

There are many ways to dance. You might smash cake. I might make soup. (More echoes.)

You don’t have to change anything you’re doing. You don’t have to stop; you haven’t been going anywhere. You’ve been dancing the whole time.

In this way, we dance with every moment.


Why We Do Better

What happens when the narrative ends?

Since you were a kid, you told yourself stories: that your team was cursed, that you struggled with math, that you hated asparagus, that you needed to be polite, that you were the funny kid, that you were a romantic cynic.

And then, one day, the streak is broken. Your team wins. You ace the test. You try aspara bacon. You lose your cool. You stop telling jokes. You have hope – if only for a moment.

What happens then? It’s easiest to continue telling the same story as always. Yesterday was an aberration, an anomaly, the exception that proves the rule.

It’s harder to begin telling a new story: you aren’t the underdog, and from now on math and vegetables and cheesy love are all important to you.

What’s most difficult is to drop the narrative altogether. To stop character-building, to stop using the past to foreshadow the future, to listen to the moment rather than talk over it.

Why We Do Better

Fighter planes were new technology during World War II, and we needed to learn how to protect them.

The military commissioned a study that examined bombers that had returned from missions and had taken damage. The study found that a small number of areas took the majority of the fire. The commission recommended that we add armor to those areas of the aircraft.

Luckily, Abraham Wald stopped them before making a costly mistake.

A statistician before the war, Wald understood survivorship bias – our tendency to focus on the winners that are able to tell their story, rather than the losers that cannot.

He observed that instead of reinforcing the areas that took the most damage, we should protect the areas that took no damage. What the commission had actually studied was where bombers could take damage and survive. The planes that had been shot down, the ones that didn’t return to base to be studied by the commission, were hit precisely in the areas where the survivors were unscathed.

We are all survivors. It’s easy to forget, but the seat you’re sitting in right now is one that hundred people like you could have had. Our idols and mentors are brilliant and talented and wonderful, yes, but also lucky. So are you.

The bruises we carry with us and the mistakes we’ve made, the accidents we’ve had and the flack we’ve taken: we could focus on those when we try to improve ourselves. We could dwell on how to never be hit in the same place twice. But we made it. We survived all those hits. Our scars don’t tell us where we are weak, but where we are strong.

The better question is, where are we unscathed?

What Came Before

History classes mistake what happened for what people cared about.

NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be the most significant and widely impactful international agreements of our generation. And I have no idea what they do.

I say this because people who study economics and globalism say things like this. It’s entirely possible that they are correct; NAFTA and TPP could alter the course of human industry and events in ways it will take centuries to fully understand.

Yet, if a time-traveler from 200 years in the future appeared on my doorstep and asked me to teach them about what was important to people of the early 21st century, trade tariffs would be among the last of topics that I would cover. Far better to tell them about Beyonce, Harry Potter, Fox News, The Wire, and Dave Chappelle: the voices that spoke to us and through us. Even better, I’d open up my Macbook Air (they’d no doubt gasp at seeing the ancient device outside of a museum) and show them the stories and the songs we sing to each other.

No, the time traveler might say. What do you think about NAFTA? We learned all about NAFTA in seventh grade.

I would regretfully inform my friend from the future that their history class has failed to teach them anything about the past.

Why We Act

There is an irony to the white-collar worker that advocates fiercely for a Paleo diet, because the relationship between corporate employees and freelance artists echoes the relationship between agricultural and hunter-gatherer communities.

For linguistic simplicity, let’s condense our subjects across timelines into freelance-hunters and agro-employees.

Freelance-hunters follow abundance. Life as a freelance-hunter allows for, and often requires, regular movement to new fertile spaces. Agro-employees tend to root to one place for as long as possible.

Freelance-hunters tend to share resources within their community: food, tools, technique, knowledge. Agro-employees protect resources via private property, trade-secrets, and patents.

Gifts and favors animate freelance-hunter economies, while salaries and taxes form the basis of agro-employee economies.

Gender equality is prevalent in freelance-hunter communities (though not a requirement). In agro-employee cultures, patriarchy prevails.

In freelance-hunter communities, reputation within the group is vital; reputation outside the group is not relevant. In agro-employee societies, the opposite is true.

Finally, it is curious to observe that the popularity of eating like a hunter-gatherer has reignited in parallel with the freelance economy. Call it the freelance artisanal revolution.

What Came Before, What Came Next

On the most recent episode of the Hardcore History podcast, host Dan Carlin details the gruesome punishments Persian king Darius I allegedly dealt to a captured city:

Darius I: “I cut off [the rebel king’s] nose, ears, and tongue, and I put out one of his eyes…after that I impaled him…I hanged the men who were his foremost followers. I executed his nobles, a total of forty-seven. I hung there heads…inside the battlements of the fortress.”

In his Carlin-esque way, he adds a final musing to the anecdote: the people who committed what we’d describe as atrocities are no different than you or I; were we to take a newborn baby from today, put them in a time machine, sent them to 550 BC, and checked back on them in 530 BC, that young adult would give a full-throated defense of mass killing of defeated cities.

Of course, you don’t need to travel back in time to find modern defenders of barbarism. However, the practice is less common than it was 2500 years ago. Less common than even 500 years ago.

When people insist they want to live for 1000 years, or perhaps spend eternity ageless, many thinkers frame this as a fear of death, an irrational and selfish thrash against the natural order.

But perhaps a more humane reason to wish for another 1000 years is to live to see humanity, in fits and starts, crawl towards its better self.

What Came Before, What Came Next

Sometimes it’s not until years or decades after a public figure has passed away that we begin to piece together who they were in private through their letters and diaries.

Although Facebock and Twetter and Snatchap have given every person with a phone the tools to become a worldwide celebrity, I suspect that in the distant future historians may have more difficulty researching and understanding our private lives.

The reason is that as we move the majority of our thinking and correspondence online, we also tuck most of it behind a layer of encrypted security. This is unquestionably a reasonable thing to do while we’re alive. And despite what the more conspiracy-minded might think, most of these companies fight hard to protect personal data even after their members pass away. In some cases, they will release some data to families of the deceased, but this is not standardized across the industry and the process can be prohibitively difficult.

The question our dedicated future historians might pose is whether there should be any sort of expiration date on that security. It’s understandable that a person’s correspondence doesn’t feel any less private in the days and weeks after they die. After all, the recipients and subjects of those messages are probably still around.

However, privacy is a concept that exponentially decreases in importance once you no longer have a self. The people two hundred years from now will have no respect for our secrets, any more than we would leave a journal from 1820 unopened.

With today’s mechanisms of digital security, the challenge for historians in the future won’t be discovery, but access. In the year 2220, the primary discipline of historians won’t be physical archeology – the practice of uncovering and analyzing stone and paper records – but digital archeology. Otherwise known as hacking.