"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Opening Up to Paradise: My Journey to an Optimistic View of the Future
Exclusive to STR
April 2, 2007
There is nothing like dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow. ~ Victor Hugo
For most of my life, I believed that a healthy world – a world characterized by love and freedom, instead of by widespread emotional damage and tyranny – was an impossibility. Even thinking about such a world, much less longing for it, seemed a waste of time. There was nothing I wanted more, yet I could not get past the seeming impossibility of such a world.
Eventually it occurred to me that this was not a productive approach. I began letting myself think about the world I wanted, and forcing myself to see it as a real possibility. I let details of this world sink into my awareness; I thought through the implications of various aspects and approaches. I made the conscious choice to see creating such a world as a problem to be solved instead of as a poignant fantasy that could never be fulfilled.
I was surprised at how difficult this mental transition was.
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One immediate hurdle was the unspoken prohibition against even acknowledging the desire for a world of love and freedom. I firmly believe that a world of love and freedom is exactly what every person is born expecting and needing, yet taking the idea seriously is suspect; it is seen as a sign one has gone over the edge, or at least wandered too far from the beaten path. A sane person accepts the world as it is – a vale of tears – and does not expect this basic character to ever change. Or so common opinion has it.
That opinion seems understandable, and I had trouble with my own newfound and fragile optimism, which often seemed painfully unrealistic.
Trying to think realistically about the prospects for a better world, and for any role I might be able to play in bringing such a world about, quickly brought up doubts, objections, and fears. A few examples:
Such a change would take time; generations, most likely.
That meant I could never have what I wanted – not now and not ever. I'd be long-dead before success was achieved, assuming it ever was. Accepting this was difficult and took a long time.
It seemed delusional to think success at such a thing was even possible. Many others have tried and all have failed.
I was nobody special – not famous or rich or with fancy credentials. There was no reason to think I could have any effect on the world, much less the effect I was hoping for.
People would laugh at someone trying to "save the world" and it certainly wouldn't help that I was not an impressive, famous person.
Nor was I some Gandhi-like character. I'm not even always a nice person; I am sometimes insensitive or rude or otherwise far less than perfect. Neither saint nor superman; not famous or rich; not an established authority or someone with any detectable talent for promotion, I was – certainly when viewed next to such an epic task – pitifully inadequate.
Facing all that brought up an enormous amount of feeling, including the childhood horror of finding myself in a world where every person seemed insane (yet where noticing this was forbidden) and where history and contemporary news reinforced that perception. My parents had postponed starting a family while my father spent several years fighting the Nazis as a ski-trooper in the Italian Alps – in a war that killed over 50 million human beings, and during which death camps were being run by the bad guys, and in which the good guys – us, the Allies – incinerated entire cities full of civilians, mostly old men, women, and children. An early and precocious reader, I knew about Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and other nightmares of the war. I knew about the death camps. I knew, in short, and from an early age, that people in Germany, Japan, and in other nations, including my own, had planned and executed the gruesome deaths of millions, in massive firestorms, in orgies of mass-rape and mass-murder, in gas chambers, and in a hundred other ways. I knew that mass-murder was commonplace in history – history being, as Voltaire put it, "a tableau of crimes and misfortunes." Can one really know such things and survive? Can one overhear even a whisper of such horrors without bursting into tears or clamping down enough to bury one's humanity beyond reach?
That was only part of what kept coming up for me. Against the vast, ancient, and ongoing evil of this world, I felt pitifully helpless.
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Despite all that, I decided to act as if success were possible. I had to make that decision repeatedly because doubts resurfaced daily. "Ha! You plan to save the world – with what?" I have no answer other than the weak ones I give below, combined with my belief that it makes no sense to behave as if failure is certain.
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Learn as much by writing as by reading. ~ Lord Acton
With little else to draw upon, I focused on writing, and began a book project, from which I quote occasionally below. This helped me work through my feelings as well as forcing me to think and to research relevant topics.
Gradually I came to see that not only were there examples of successful wide improvement in the world, but that a specific tool was the catalyst for every such example. Seeing this requires a longer focus than usual, but once seen, the power and dynamics of the tool are undeniable. This was a galvanizing discovery, because it meant success was a real possibility.
The task of dramatically changing the world for the better – specifically, of replacing neurosis and tyranny with love and freedom – only seems impossible; change happens all the time and large shifts in the character of society have occurred repeatedly in history. Using the correct tool makes success a reasonable possibility:
"A task this large requires appropriate tools. Because we are trying to change the thinking and behavior of millions, we need a tool that works on that order of magnitude. We need a tool that works across long spans of time, because the job will not be done in a few months or years.
"Such tools are available. They are called paradigms."
It matters a great deal whether a paradigm is usefully accurate or not. As with any powerful tool, paradigms can be dangerous, and the results of badly (or purposefully) inaccurate paradigms are often horrifying. I have written about the need for accuracy in social-political paradigms, especially, in a previous column.
When selecting or designing a paradigm for a specific task, clearly understanding the goal is important. My goal was, and is, a healthy world – a world characterized by love and freedom. The details of such a world do not concern me; healthy people might arrange their world in a variety of ways. Certain broad characteristics are essential, however. For example, early experience has a powerful and life-long impact on adult character and behavior, so loving and respectful treatment of the young is critical for creating a healthy world:
"Specifically (and to say it again, for it cannot be said too often): linking treatment of the young – of pregnant mothers, babies, infants, and children – with the character of the world at large in the minds of people everywhere, will lead to positive changes in attitudes and behavior.
"Over time, those changes will improve the world.
"Save it, perhaps. Not in an afterlife, you understand: here on Earth. A world of healthy, loving, compassionate human beings would be nothing less than the Paradise that every human infant, and every not-yet-deadened child yearns for – and has yearned for, since the beginning. There is nothing supernatural about the concept; nothing unreal, nothing beyond what we see in a truly healthy family or in the eyes of a loved and loving child."
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An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come. ~ Victor Hugo
What else might be important to create and sustain such a Paradise? The simplest all-inclusive formulation would actually be a single word: "Love."
Everything necessary which seems "additional" to love is implied in the nature of love itself: freedom, respect for the rights of others (including of children), compassion for those who suffer, and more. Love is an incredibly dense and complex idea, implying much that can, and much more that cannot be, well-described in abstract language. Despite the accuracy, suitability, and completeness of the term, "love" is open to wide and often-bizarre misinterpretation* because love is in short supply, and is thus often poorly understood.
Expanding the definition to "love and freedom" clears things up dramatically; in particular, it suggests that imposing "compassion" by the coercion and violence of the State might not be optimal – more than "suggests" so, in fact, but "freedom" is so often misunderstood that what is heard by many is the merest whisper of the idea. Freedom, like love itself, is in short supply, and is relentlessly mis-defined by the media, by governments, and by other "authorities" of every type.
Adding detail in hopes of communicating more clearly, while still trying for compactness, I came up with a list of seven points:
The human world is as we make it.
The character of each adult is largely shaped in the earliest months and years of life.
Consistent love and respect given early in life create healthy, loving adults who respect others.
Any person or group which improves the lives of pregnant mothers, infants, or children contributes to the goal of a healthy world. To a lesser extent, improving the life of any person contributes to the goal.
Enough healthy, loving adults will make a healthy, loving world.
Freedom is a necessary part of love. Unfreedom (coercion) is abuse; it erodes and destroys love.
Change happens when enough people share the necessary understanding.
Supporting and promoting that set of ideas is what my writing, in these columns and in The Paradise Paradigm, is all about.
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* An especially horrible and dramatic example of the misunderstanding (and/or misuse) of the concept of love was the Spanish Inquisition's torture of "heretics" and the burning of them at the stake, which were justified by "love" in this fashion: the heretics were not only headed for an eternity of torture in hell already but were leading others astray, endangering the immortal souls of neighbors and friends. Driving the demons out of the heretic by torture (and obtaining a confession in the process) and then burning the heretic alive in public not only might cause repentance in the heretic (which could keep him or her out of hell) but saved possible future victims from being led astray by the heretic. It also drove home to everyone the dire consequences of straying from Church dogma, again potentially saving souls. Thus, torture and gruesome murder by fire were justified as being in the service of "love and compassion." More earthly and less pious reasons for torturing people, burning them alive, and (not incidentally) confiscating their property, were at work as well.