I’d like to share a story from my high-school days with you, and then a few thoughts that followed from it.
When I was in high-school, we had a fantastic teacher of Physics named Bernd. I loved that guy. Bernd would routinely organize extra-curricular activities to learn about science outside of the classroom. One evening Bernd took the entire class to the rooftop of the school building to use the school telescope. (It was a boarding school so it was legitimate for there to be school activities in the evening.)
He took us to use the telescope to look at the moon. (There might have been some kind of notable astronomical phenomenon happening at that time, I forget.) Since it was a wealthy private school, we had a high-end telescope with a myriad of dials to fine-tune the focus, zoom, and God knows what else. Bernd tuned the telescope carefully, and then we all lined up to look at the moon through the eyepiece. There were a few dozen kids on one telescope so we all had to wait for our turn to have 10 seconds to look at the moon before the next student would take his turn.
The funny thing, what I remember the most from the story is not seeing the moon, but what Bernd said before he let us use the telescope. This was not Bernd’s first time taking a class up to use the telescope, and experience taught him to give the following warning: “When you get your turn with the telescope, please do not touch the dials. There’s no need to fiddle with them. I already fine-tuned it perfectly. Every change you make will only worsen the picture and the students after you will suffer for it. I’m sorry that I have to give you this warning but for some reason people always feel the need to fiddle with the dials themselves regardless of the fact that the picture is perfect.”
That warning made me think. I think that there’s a lesson to be learned here that’s bigger than dials and telescopes.
People have an urge to change and to control, even if the change that they’re making is for the worse. They don’t care. The urge to feel that their actions have an impact on the world around them is bigger than the desire for the world to be in a good state. Not unlike a teenager spray-painting a tasteless piece of graffiti on a wall, people want to leave their mark, even if the world ends up uglier because of it.
It makes me think about all those people out there trying to change the world and make a difference. I live in a big, fashionable city in a first-world country, surrounded by people who belong to the wealthiest 10% of the world population. It seems that you can’t find a single person who doesn’t want to change the world and make a difference in some way or another. Everybody has their own pet causes. One guy wants to save the environment, one girl wants to stop government corruption, another guy wants everyone in the world to learn how to meditate and achieve enlightenment. Then there’s world peace, universal healthcare, helping people in third world countries…
Given that practically every person I meet wants to make the world a better place, and those are relatively wealthy people by world standards, you kind of have to wonder why the world didn’t become that better place already. In fact there seem to be more people who have a strong opinion on how the world should work then there are people who know how to live their own lives happily and be content with themselves.
Is there somewhere out there an evil, chubby, mustache-wielding cigar-smoking businessman who is sociopathically apathetic to all the bad things in the world around us and who cunningly sabotages our efforts to fix the world? I don’t think so. It’s all us.
I used to want to change the world too. I cared about education. I wanted to make a worldwide revolution in education, in effect doing something similar to what Khan Academy is currently doing, except it was back around 2006, when Khan Academy was just Salman Khan posting video lectures for his cousin. My partners and I made a nice pilot in Israel but failed to get funding and the project was abandoned.
Now I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to change the world or make a difference anymore. I still like helping people, but only the people who are close to me. I care intensely about my own life and the lives of my loved ones, but I don’t try to have an impact on the world outside of that tiny circle.
Now, this is the part of the essay that I’m not sure how to write. I know that by this point, many readers are going to be angry with me for suggesting that people who try to make the world a better place are in fact a selfish bunch who are just looking to get their own personal satisfaction. I can feel the angry comments coming my way.
But yes, that’s indeed what I’m saying: Almost all the people who are trying to change the world are in it for their own satisfaction, and they don’t care if the world ends up a worse place.
That one guy who meticulously collects plastic bottles to recycle to help the environment, bought a smartphone that was manufactured by children working in terrible conditions in a third-world country. That one guy who wants everyone to meditate and become enlightened went to a strip club and fed money into an organization that degrades women and turns them into slaves. That one girl who wants to stop government corruption has her money in a savings account that’s invested in companies that abuse the environment to make a profit.
People help the world in one way and then abuse it in 99 different ways. In fact the western man is a genius; he managed to rape the world while still maintaining that he’s the one trying to save it.
I know that some people are going to say, “Your story about the telescope is not a good metaphor, because while the telescope in the story was tuned perfectly, our world is not even remotely perfect.” To which I answer, why not? Why don’t you think our world is perfect? Because of all the suffering and ignorance around us?
What would a perfect world be then? If a genie offered you to change the world exactly as you want it to the smallest detail, what kind of world would you ask him to create?
Perhaps a world with no suffering at all? A world in which people of all countries can make a decent living, get free education, be always kind and supportive to one another, and never hurt or be hurt by another person? Did you ever watch a movie in which nothing bad ever happens? I never have. It’s notable that even in cinema, where humans can literally create whichever fantastic world they want, nobody wants to see a world in which there’s no suffering. Even movies intended for little children always have the character go through some kind of conflict or danger. The only thing closest to a movie with no suffering that I can think of is Teletubbies, and even that one has episodes in which the characters have to deal with some kind of mishap.
Without suffering there’s no point to life. Without a possibility of failure there is no excitement.
Then you might say, “well, we don’t want a world where there is absolutely zero suffering. We just want there to be less suffering than there is today.”
So clearly, there is such a thing as too much suffering. And as I elaborated above, there is such a thing as not enough suffering. So that implies that somewhere in between there’s an optimal amount of suffering that’s just right. Why do you think that the current amount of suffering in the world is higher than the optimal amount? The current amount of suffering in the world is lower than it’s ever been in the history of civilization. Why do you think that the optimal level is still lower than this? Are you such an expert on the workings of our world that you think that you know what the optimal amount of suffering is? Sounds like a monumentally arrogant thought to me.
So the argument that the world isn’t perfect is invalid.
What I take away from this is: Don’t try to change the world. Live your life. Be happy. If you’re reading this you’re probably one of the lucky few who are well-off enough to have an Internet connection, not to mention the fact that you can read, which already makes you more privileged than 85% of people on the planet. Have fun with the precious few decades that you have to live.
If you enjoy being an activist, if it’s fun and satisfying for you, that’s great, keep it up then. But don’t try to pretend you’re doing it for the world. You’re doing it for yourself, and regardless of whether it’s making the world better or not. It’s just how you like to live.