Here’s a tiny question. Why should we do great things, anyways? As I’ve suggested in recent essays, here are some of the things we should be doing. Curing cancer (etc). Reversing climate change. Feeding the world. Ensuring every single child on planet Earth has a life-changing education and an income. And yet. Here’s, metaphorically, what we are doing: making apps that call on-demand butler masseuse dog-walkers for the coddled and the heartless…a little bit faster.
The question is: why?
Here’s my tiny theory. This is a golden age of the self — yet for that very reason, it is a dark age of the spirit. WTF does that mean? Let me put it thus. Guy DeBord and a very long list of Old French Dudes argued that modern life was a manufactured spectacle, and we are its mere spectators. Capitalism’s great flaw was that it turned us into zombies, brain-dead consumers, gawping, cheering rubes. Bread and circuses, right?
Wrong. Narcissism is the extreme sport of meta-modernity…and we’re not just spectators, we’re players in the game. We’re not watching the action, we’re in the middle of the scrum…competing furiously for the hearts, the likes, the followers…the bonus, the loft, the designer vacation, the model. Hence. Everything’s work, from work to play to love, and we’re in furious pursuit of the ultimate prize: ourselves. The Perfect Selfie, in the ultimate mansion, living the perfect lives, inabiting the perfect bodies, sipping designer cocktails with the Rich, Beautiful, and Famous, of which, at last, we’re a part.
So. Why should we do great things, anyways. What’s in it for me? I’m in it for myself, I’ve got to attain perfection, you remind me, an obedient rationalist, a perfect human calculator, not quite a bold captain of the human spirit, but more a cunning strategist of personal advantage.
That is why we must — not merely should, but must — do great things. For it is in their pursuit — and only in their pursuit — that we come to exceed the fast-shrinking boundaries of our own self-limited potential. So we do not merely settle for being mere strategists of personal advantage…stuck in the deserts of lives that feel meaningless, empty, pointless, arid — but grow to become defiant, dauntless captains of the human spirit, charting the shores of lives that matter.
Let me explain.
Here’s what your average first-rate economist might say in response to the question: “why should we do great things”? Spillovers, dummy. That is, great things spill over into benefits for everyone, unimagined, unplanned, unforeseen…and so everyone, including those who do great things, are better off.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s imagine that we went to Mars. We might have to make the ship a little biome, with it’s own sustainable sources of food, energy, fuel, medicine. Those breakthroughs in sustainable agriculture, energy, healthcare might spill over into the real world, powering generations of innovation by industry and academia alike. Hence, the simple principle: spillovers from great things result in better things in general. Think that’s science fiction? CAT scanners came from tech designed to look for imperfections in space suits…and that’s just one of numerous life-changing inventions that came about from doing the great thing of going to the Moon.
Now here’s what your average first-rate political economist might say in response to the question: “why should we do great things?” Institutional spillovers, dummy. That is, when we do great things, we must organize the effort, imagination, and people needed to realize them first — and thus, we are induced to pioneer new better ways of doing things. Let’s use the simplest, most foundational example. The surplus crop provided by agriculture gave rise, for the first time, to city-states…which in turn needed a more efficient way to govern themselves than clans endlessly, bloodily feuding over land. Solution: democracy. Democracy was, in a sense, a spillover of doing the unimaginably great thing of producing a surplus. I’ve oversimplified the example, but the principle is: when we do great things, we pioneer new ways to organize, which we can then use and reuse in our everyday, humdrum lives.
All well and good — and, in a sense, myopic. For I think there’s still more to the story of spillovers and great things.
What happens to us when we do great things? It’s not merely that our actions spill over. It is that we begin to gain a grounded sense of self. The limits of our selves are no longer the boundaries of our horizons. Our own insignificance, suddenly, is visible. Existence realizes it’s right order. Our things, titles, accolades are no longer the measure of our worth. We are no longer the point of us. What is? Our potential. What we may become.
And so gain what you might call a spillover in ourselves. Arrogance becomes confidence, drive becomes passion, pity becomes compassion, meanness becomes humility, mere ambition becomes courage. And so our lives finally gain the possibility to hold meaning, significance, purpose, happiness. We are no longer mere calculators of personal gain. And that is the central transformation that must happen within us if we are to live fully. For the simple fact is that no life can calculate its way to even a morsel of meaning, happiness, or purpose — because they are found beyond it in the first place: through love, defiance, imagination, rebellion, creation, awareness.
We must be awakened if we are to live fully. And it is great things that awaken to us our truest selves. Therefore, what we gain by doing great things is our truest selves. And the reverse is also true. Should we merely settle for soul-crushing, spirit-numbing mediocrity, the price is that we will never find the meaning, purpose, or happiness that we desperately seek. Not because we have changed the world. But because we have not even proven capable of changing ourselves.
So let us do the great things that the world so desperately needs. Let us disobey the algorithmic programming of the age of the self. And understand that a self is not just a surface to be prettily painted upon, nor a stone to be finely sculpted. But a slumbering being that must be awakened. If it is to know, not just as a glimmering dream, but as an endless way, the searing beauty and heartstopping fragility of the privilege that we call life.