As I grow older, I realize how some things are not how I expected them to be. It’s not that I learn new facts – it’s more on the level of experience, or intuition.
One new intuition is how much effort, attention and work is required to do something remarkably well. I think my intuition was off here because of school. In school, you don’t really have to invest extraordinary effort to get the highest possible results. It depends on the school, sure, but for the most part, just your regular high effort will do. You don’t need to really think outside of the box, invest too many extra hours, make yourself a better decision-maker, improve your own capability to prioritize etc. Usually, it’s enough to just study a bit more, and do a bit more in and after class.
This calibrates you to expect that doing really well in the real world is just as easy, and it’s not. At least it wasn’t for me. This isn’t really a criticism of childhood or school. I’m not about to go full boomer and say that “kids have it easy”. In fact, I don’t think that you should make school harder. You should probably change certain things, make other things more applicable to the real world, which may or may not include making it harder, but you shouldn’t just try to make it harder just because the real world is hard.
“Hell is other people.” Sartre meant whatever he meant when he wrote Huis Clos, but I’ll take this quote and let it serve as the starting point for another realization I had. (On that note, there’s something from college that I don’t fully remember but it goes along these lines: Roland Barthes, a literary critic, said that the author was unimportant in the interpretation of a text. The meaning is given by the reader. So I’m not really doing anything extraordinary here by taking a quote and giving it my own take.)
I used to work in a high school. I was an assistant – I worked with disabled kids and helped them go about their day. The job was terribly unsuited for my personality, and to this day I don’t really understand why I had it. I mean, I understand my reasons, I was terribly broke and needed the money, but I don’t understand how or why I was hired. I had (and still have) no qualifications to work with disabled kids. But someone decided that I was sufficiently qualified to work with a kid deep on the autistic spectrum, and then someone decided that I was also qualified to work with a wheelchair-bound kid with epileptic seizures and really extensive mental retardation. It’s not only that I had zero training or qualifications for such a job – I’m also not really a caregiver, personality-wise. It’s just not the type of thing I’m good at nor enjoy, as I very quickly found out. I still came to work though, and gave it my best to help these kids in their day-to-day, but it was just a weird experience overall.
Back to the quote. As I learned in school, both as a student and as an employee, humans build social structures. Take, for example, the notion of a country. There are no actual countries out there. These are mental artifacts. If you fly over all of Earth, you’ll see people living in their houses, talking to their neighbors, commuting to work and so on. You won’t see countries. You’ll infer the existence of countries from the behavior of people and from border-crossing rituals of verification and car searches, but you won’t see any physical countries. Countries are just common concepts we have – they are names for the types of behavior we expect. Birds don’t see any countries – they just see terrain. A bird doesn’t really care if it’s in Portugal or Spain. Except vultures, vultures don’t cross the border into Portugal.
Just like countries, schools are also these weird social structures that don’t actually exist. Schools are just a bunch of people going to a big building every day and sitting there for some time, and then going back home. That’s a low-resolution view. Let’s increase the resolution. You could say that most of the people that go to this building are there to learn about how the world works, and a tiny part of the people there are older and more experienced and explain to the younger people how the world works. But schools are so much more than that. They are inseparable from the weird social interactions that occur. Yeah sure, kids learn in school. What else do they do? They form bullying circles. They learn to fear authority. They do drugs. They pressure others into doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. They express or repress their sexuality. They participate in us vs. them schemes. They do others harm. They help others. They live through drama, some live through trauma. They start hating their immediate environment. Some don’t.
There’s a lot more going on than just going to a building to sit and learn about the world:
“The reason baboons are such good models is, like us, they don’t have real stressors,” [Sapolsky] said. “If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don’t mess with you much. What that means is you’ve got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop. So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They’re just like us: They’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.” SOURCE
And you might say: “Damn, that’s a pretty fucking grim way of looking at the world”, and you’d be right, it is grim. Evolution is a stupid, blind, optimization process. It’s Moloch. Nobody expressly wanted for people to make life difficult for each other, but there is no pilot in the plane. There is no God who planned out that a hyena should rip out the sexual organs of a still living baby antelope, while its mother stands on the side and is helpless to do anything.
Another quote comes to mind: “This world is cruel. It is also very beautiful.”
For every beautiful sunset, there is a suffering being somewhere, slowly getting eaten alive. And for every poor, suffering being, there is a beautiful sunset somewhere. And this is also one of the terrible realizations that I had as I grow older. And worse still, there’s not much to do about it on a grand scale, since all the good things we want to keep depend on everything that’s bad and cruel. We exist within nature, and nature doesn’t care about suffering. Maybe one day we build a more gentle world, but now we’re still here.
This got dark quickly. I feel tempted to finish the entire article here, and just say “Happy holidays” like Robin Hanson did a couple of days ago, but I still have a couple of things on my mind. I feel that learning to live with how terrible things are, and still maintaining a positive outlook, is very, very important. Not just because of your mental health, but because the positive outlook could be the only way for things to change. Optimists may be severely miscalibrated, but their optimism pushes the world in the right direction (or at least it should do so).
Back to school. Social structures are fuzzy and loose. There’s an Overton window of what you can say or do in certain social structures, but I think it’s much more open than it seems at first. The key element is power. The more power you have (or are perceived to have), the more freedom you have. If you are able to say ‘no’ to things you object to, and not face unacceptable consequences, then you have a lot of power, and your spot in the social structure is much wider. THAT’S the reason why you should have an emergency fund, besides actual emergencies. If you know you have a year’s worth of money saved up, you don’t need to worry as much as the person who lives paycheck to paycheck. You have slack. You can say no. You can quit if your boss asks you to do something unethical. In school, you live under constant tyranny of the system (not just the teachers, but also other students). Apparently, you don’t need to go to school, but how many people in your school felt that school was optional? Not many, I’d wager. School feels like prison because you don’t really have a say. People with more strongly expressed fascist tendencies get away with micro-terrorizing other people. Consequences for such behavior are minimal. You have to learn to navigate this treacherous landscape, and that’s the part where school teaches you about the real world. However, there are some things that you can rely on in school: certain types of friendship, some cultural norms, slack, if you have any, support from your parents, power/influence you obtain within the school structure. And paladins. Paladins are few and far between but they exist, and their number is around 3 in 40 (experiment 18). Paladins are sometimes masked as warriors or rogues or wizards, but their inner paladin nature always shows in dire circumstances. These are the people who are brave enough to say no, even when they put themselves at risk, and to hell with the consequences. In school, they’re the ones who stand up against bullying. In real life, they may become cynical and refuse to act as paladins anymore, because they have seen the ugliness of the world, but they exist still.
Becoming a brave person who can say no is something I try to do. However, I feel like I’ve become much less brave than before. I don’t know if that’s just maturity, but I dislike it. I liked it better when I had the feeling that I could say ‘fuck you’ to anybody if that was the right thing to do. I’m more careful now. I haven’t faced a real problematic situation for quite some time, so I don’t know if I’ve changed for the worse. I hope I haven’t. I hope that I’m still brave. I’m getting a deeper appreciation of my own inner mental landscape. I think I’ve been ignoring myself for a long time, and ignorance of myself and the world was probably the cause why I felt so foolishly brave. This is another intuition I’ve come to, and the final one for this article. I’ve started to learn about and accept my own inner mechanisms. Just like a geologist surveys a mountain and studies it, I now try to be the geologist of my own inner landscape. I kinda split myself into components, with one ‘me’ looking at other parts of my personality as if ‘me’ wasn’t in my head, but an external observer. It could be the Zen meditation I’ve been practicing for 10 or so years, it could be depersonalization disorder.
For now, I just find that accepting major “flows” in my personality is a good way to go. As I mentioned before, I’m not a care-giving type of person. And that’s fine. I have an entire class of things that pulls me and absorbs me, and it’s fine not to do other things that don’t really ‘vibe’ with how I am. And it’s crucial to extend this acceptance to non-mainstream things, even to “flaws”. One of these non-mainstream things is my inclination towards doing things that are dangerous or not allowed. It’s not really something that you grow to be proud of, but a propensity for risk and risky behavior is just as valid as being risk-averse. It’s just how you are, and you shouldn’t – I shouldn’t – ignore or repress it. Looking back at my childhood, it was always there – my interests always had the same direction. And as I got to teenage years, status signalling became the most important thing. How I presented myself to others was important. And somehow, in all that noise, I forgot about who I was. So here’s to rediscovering that. Final quote: “Given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forgo it on your account, Marty.”