Looking out, looking up

While I don’t really consider myself a pessimist, I’m not not really sure that I’ve qualified as much of an optimist. For quite a while, I’ve self-identified as a “cynical optimist,” which I loosely define as “optimistic until enough people get involved.” And according to the Google search I just did, it is apparently a thing. If I’m being honest with myself, it’s a pretty disingenuous form of optimism, if not an outright self-defeating outlook.

I like to believe that things can get better than they are, but they aren’t guaranteed to be. I try so hard to be cognizant of the potential negative outcomes of something that I tend to overlook the potentially positive ones. It’s a self-defense mechanism; the more I expect things to go south, the more prepared I will be for when they do. It’s just logical, right?

Well, yes and no. Things can always go horribly, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t recover. Unless you’re actually putting yourself in physical danger, most mistakes and failures can be corrected and even learned from. Bank accounts, egos, and even social standing can usually be repaired with time and intention. This shouldn’t be considered carte blanche to make reckless decisions, but there’s a healthy balance to be struck between caution and risk.

Another mindset I’ve had for a while is that nothing matters. That sounds incredibly dark, but I mean it in more of an objective, universal, and existential sense — which isn’t as dark, but is perhaps not much better. In other words, things that people tend to feel matter a lot — individual decisions, emotions, even broad social problems — don’t matter relative to the infinitely grand scale of the universe. Think of it as a form of armchair nihilism. I liked this mindset because caring less about individual things freed me to focus on making more practical and productive decisions. It’s worked out pretty well so far, but I think there are some flaws with this mindset.

If nothing matters, even if you make really good decisions, you will completely miss the trees for the forest. A forest has more collective value than a tree, but it is inherently nothing more than trees. The individual trees matter; and if you disregard enough of them, you’ll have a pretty lousy forest. To bring this metaphor back down to Earth: Let’s say you manage the office for a company. It’s a business, and businesses exist to make money, so resources need to be invested for optimal return. You are in charge stocking supplies, keeping the space clean, and generally making sure that the place is conducive to doing work in. You don’t need decorations for the office. The walls don’t need to be painted. You don’t need plants. But these little things each affect the environment that the employees work in, and that environment affects employee morale. Better morale leads to better work, and the inverse is also true. The little things matter.

By taking a more holistic view of things and taking the time to consider and respect the details, you can make a much richer life experience for yourself and others. If nothing matters because relative value is effectively equivalent, then everything matters. By assuming the latter attitude, you’re more likely to make decisions that respect the value of a detail.

Lately I’ve been researching the origin of the Universe and life on Earth. It’s a fascinating subject and not fully understood. We have some broad theories that seem to hold up, but it’s still an unprovable mystery. One thing that scientists seem to agree upon is that the Universe started with the Big Bang, and all life on Earth originates from a single common ancestor. We know that for a long time there was nothing, and then there was something, and that something had to start somewhere. The something eventually expanded and became more diverse and wound up being lots of things, but after countless generations and changes, the fact remains that all of the things came from one. Therefore, are there actually many things, or is there just one?

We are all literally piles of cells that are basically little bags of chemicals. But if all of our chemical bags originated from one chemical bag, are they really that different? Is there a benefit to having an adversarial relationship with others? After all, our bodies are piles of trillions of different cells that only succeed because they work together. If we expand that symbiotic relationship from individual cell-piles to many cell-piles, wouldn’t that be even better?

You could make the argument that for one person to succeed, another has to lose. I think that’s a little naive; it implies that “success” is of a finite quantity and there’s only so much to go around. Success is only what we define it as, and we can define it as a thing that is reached collaboratively and shared. It’s a choice we can each consciously make. Even if someone else chooses to opt for the zero-sum game mentality, you don’t have to. You can choose to err on the side of optimism and make your decisions with the belief that things will be better because of it.

This is what I’m going to work on for 2018, and I believe that things will turn out better because of it.

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