Burn out or fade away?

Burn out or fade away?

That’s really the basic question of life, isn’t it? We push hard, burn bright and flare out, or we don’t push too hard and manage to make it to an old age. Sure, there are a few, a tiny fraction, that are outliers- like tossing a coin that somehow lands edge on and balances. But really, Death comes for us all – do we go out with a bang or a whisper?

Our answer doesn’t matter to the universe; each of us individually are insignificant on almost any scale. History won’t care either. At best we’ll be names on genealogical trees and maybe leave some traces on whatever the internet becomes – just little fleeting needles in the ever-increasing overwhelming haystacks of personal data, social media feeds, and YouTube comments. The past is gone. The future is ultimately not ours.

You see, what we _do_ have is the Now, and we own that wholly. No one else, no entity of any kind, has ever had this moment in which we now live. And no person and no thing in the future can have it. Nor can they take it away from us. It is only each of us, in our own moment, who have any control over it. It is only we who can experience the Now, we who grasp it, shape it, taste it.

This is the miracle of our existence. Our lives are a string of momentary miracles, each bit a truly unique snowflake like no other, in a context that has never happened before and will never ever happen again. We each experience those moments in a way no other person does, in ways that no other person can ever truly understand. Every moment is a secret that the cosmos has shared with us and us alone.

The cosmos has left us these gifts, and moved on uncaringly. We don’t matter to the universe. No god, no process, no principle assigns our lives meaning. And with that ultimately comes freedom. We create our experience, and our meaning, no matter what we do. To experience life at all means creating unique moments, utterly unique and impervious to entropy itself. We cannot in fail at life, in any way. Our lives literally cannot be meaningless.

And this allows us to be bold. Maybe not always in the worlds of practicalities and logistics, but in our thoughts and experiences if nowhere else. This allows us to shine in each moment and leave a trail of singular jewels that no other process in the universe could ever hope to replicate.

So, burn out or fade away?



Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Perspective and the Big Picture

They tell us to look at the Big Picture. And in the 21st century, we are feeling the effects of technology giving us access to the Big Picture – we can collect and be presented data from all over the world and even beyond. It’s a constant flood of data that we feel we have to process and consume. We feel we have to be aware about it, have opinions about it, act to affect the Big Picture.

But we can’t affect the Big Picture.

This isn’t a message of powerlessness, however. I’m not saying we are resigned to our fate and we can do nothing about the world. See, the problem with the Big Picture is a lie. The Big Picture doesn’t exist.

The Big Picture is a dangerous idea. It makes us think that there is an overarching reality, that there is a single overall thing we call Life. We try to examine life, understand it as this amazing thing that we partake in. But we don’t partake in anything like that. What we think is the Big Picture is a sand-painting made up of the results of countless mid-life collisions and and multi-soul pile ups.

Here’s the truth: no one lives in the Big Picture. We live in little pictures. We live in little individual universes that are framed by our boundaries as finite beings. We live in little pictures that overlap with other little pictures, little pictures that collide with each other and bounce wildly back and forth like a mass of super balls dumped into the top of an empty elevator shaft. There are patterns, and global principles, and all that sure, but in the end, the universe isn’t a big thing, it’s a countless number of little things knocking around.

This isn’t about fatalism. This is an acknowledgement of the nature of the universe, so that we understand the power we do have and what we can do.

Because there is something that we do have enormous power over: our little pictures.

First, they say politics is local. We can’t direct other people’s universes, but we can steer our ship. And it is inevitable that we will collide with others. Some will be pirates, trying to loot what they can from you. But most will just be other people trying to steer their picture the best way they can. That means that the first thing that you can do is make those collisions count, to decide to lean back and forth in an attempt to crash into people in the best way possible.

Every bump is a chance to make the universe a better place. With every bump, we can try to do right by the other people around us – to give a nudge in the right direction, to be careful not to bump into their bruises and wounds, to learn something from running into each other, to help someone get on a better course.

Sure, we want to make the biggest changes we can in the world. But except in very special circumstances, we are all just bumping into one another. And if we don’t take care with those little bumps, we simply will never make any headway. This is the way that we have to combat the evils in the world – cruelty, racism, injustice, bigotry, greed, and everything else. It can’t be about the big gestures, because so little of life is big gestures. Rather, we fight against those evils with every little bump against another person’s universe, striving to be the best collision we can be.

That seems exhausting, but we also have the power to make it easier and more sustainable. Once again, it comes down to primary capability in life – the power to affect our own little picture.

You see, your picture may be little, but that doesn’t mean your picture can’t be detailed. The size of your picture doesn’t affect the resolution of your picture – how many pixels per inch that your life has. One of the ways you make all those collisions count is by making your picture the most beautiful, detailed, and meaningful picture you can.

“Arete” is what Edith Hamilton describes as the ancient Greek definition of happiness: The exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope. We’ve been taught that the world is a place of scarcity, and that we have to fight over the scraps. But the truth is that arete is an infinite resource. The possibility for excellence cannot be bought or sold, it cannot be taken away.

I don’t mean to trivialize the pain that a lot of people deal with every day, nor do I deny the tragedy in the world. I am not trying to imply that injustice isn’t real, horrific, and often overwhelming. I’m not saying that the world can’t break you.

But I am trying to say is that every little iota of arete, every little mote of human excellence is precious and beautiful and enduring. It cannot be corrupted by the darkness in the world, it cannot be destroyed. Every one you bring into the world is a mithril thread in the tapestry that sits in the frame of your little picture. Every moment of good in your life is a diamond embedded in the surface of history. And it doesn’t matter if that’s a small gem, or a gem covered in ash and soot, or one gem among many. It’s still a motherfucking diamond, and it is a part of your picture.

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

The Big Picture is a dangerous tool, because with it we can easily forget the power of the little picture we actually live in. I think that’s the biggest danger of the Internet age.