"I Don't Know" (2020 Solstice Speech)

by Raemon2 min read30th Dec 2020No comments

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Secular SolsticeCovid-19
Personal Blog

This was my primary speech at this year's Solstice. I have meta-commentary on it I will share in a bit.

The virtue of darkness is to face reality at its harshest, without looking away. 

There are many forms of metaphorical darkness. But perhaps the most primal is to Not Know Things. Humans crave certainty. Is there a lion lurking in the darkness, or not? Will your family reject you, or not? Will your parents or government or god somehow make sure that ultimately, everything will be okay?

Sometimes the answer is "No, you're on your own." And that’s awful. But at the least you know where you stand. 

Sometimes, though, the answer is just "I don't know." You have to make a decision and take action without knowing. You might have to make tradeoffs, or sacrifices. And you will not find out, tomorrow, or maybe even a year from now, whether your decision was correct.

This year, there were a lot of things I didn't know. Some of them were pretty concrete and easy to think about:

How easily does covid spread?

How likely am I to die or suffer longterm debilitating effects?

Do masks work?

What distance can we safely see each other outdoors?

Back in April, the answer to these was "we don't know". And we had to make calls about what to do, regardless. Nine months later, some of the answers still aren't quite as clear as I'd like.

But those were the *straightforward* questions. Some questions got a bit murkier –  questions about what other people believe. Questions about moral uncertainty and game theory and how to handle scarcity. I didn’t know the answers, and didn’t know what other people thought the answers were.

How dangerous do other people think covid is? What norms do they think there should be in the pandemic? How do they think we should enforce those norms? 

I don’t know.

Which crumbling pillars of my life do I NEED to survive? Which pillars do my loved ones need?

If my spouse or housemate or friends or coworkers DISAGREE about how to coordinate... what happens?

I don't know.

How do I feel about that?

I’m not sure.

...

If I say "Screw it, I'm sick of living in fear", and decide to just live my life normally, how likely am I to give covid to someone else?

If I decide "Screw it, I'm sick of negotiating with everyone. I'm running away to the woods", what pieces of infrastructure will crumble a little without me? Which friends needed me? How many other people will run away into the woods? What will we leave behind?

I don't know.

...

If I'm overwhelmed and alone and don't have the skills to do the right thing, which mistakes can I get away with making?

If a friend hurts me because they were overwhelmed and alone and exhausted, how do I feel about that?

If I hurt a friend because I thought carefully and soberly through the tradeoffs, wrung my hands, but ultimately decided they were on the wrong side of a trolley problem, how do I feel about that?

I don’t know.

...

It's the end of the year. And here we are. And it's a reasonable time to want to make sense of things, to put the year in perspective, to ask "Which sacrifices were worth it?". It's a reasonable time to want to remind ourselves we're all on the same team and put the year behind us.

And... well, ultimately I do think we're all on the same team. I have guesses about which sacrifices were worth it, and which were not. But the fact is, I'm not nearly confident enough about any of them to justify them in a Solstice speech. And it's a complicated question, to ask "What does it *mean* for us to all be on the same team, if we have different needs and values and beliefs about what the right thing to do is?"

I’m moderately confident an answer exists. But it’s not clear in my mind enough in my mind to speak with conviction, and I don’t think Solstice is the place to argue half-baked musings.

I hurt people, this year. And I don't yet know which of those were mistakes, and which were the best decisions available at the time. I know other people who hurt each other, or who were quietly abandoned. 

A question looms, "How do we make sense of all this and find meaning and be a community?". And I wanted to have an answer I could give you tonight that I believed in, and I thought about it a *lot* and I tried and I'm sorry but I don't know. Yet.

This isn’t a tribe about getting to confidently know things together. This is a tribe about figuring things out. 

Sometimes, we need to walk through the darkness a while – neither entirely alone, nor entirely together, with miles to go before morning.

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