Friday, July 29, 2016

The Meaninglessness of Life

Because to think otherwise is, at best, socially frowned upon, the vast majority of us insist on believing in our "purpose". We then create a reinforcing delusion that some grand cosmic architect with perfect knowledge and foresight placed us on this terrestrial chessboard and said "Here - this is what I have in mind for you" - and then proceeds to invisibly guide our journeys.

The truth is that in very large degree (approaching totality) our existences are in the deepest sense of the word "meaning-less". And for the most part devoid of true joy. We may on occasion experience something we label as "happiness", but my strong suspicion is that this is nothing more than tiny deviations from an at best neutral baseline. And in the end, all but the tiniest sliver of us will be well and truly forgotten - lost to history for all time - within an eye blink of our passing.

As Lincoln famously and in retrospect ironically noted in his most famous speech - "History will little note nor long remember the words spoken here today."

This is in fact our fate.

Yet we are systematically conditioned from birth to disbelieve this fundamental reality. Perhaps there's a societal assessment that this is an unpleasantness not to be reinforced in genteel circles. Perhaps there is a widespread concern that some/many/most of us are not strong enough to accept this less than appealing prognostication of the arc our our brief period of animation. Or maybe it seems inconveivable that an impossibly unlikely confluence of events over billions of years would give rise to our existence, only for it to mean ... nothing.

And yet, I submit, this is the inescapable incontrovertible reality.

Consider this fact: according to the latest astronomical observations, our observable universe (which may be only one of an unknowable number of universes) contains 7 septillion stars. This translates into one trillion stars for each and every human being on the face of the earth.

If the existence of our life-sustaining planet is the proverbial "billion to one shot", this means there are one thousand such planets ... for each and everyone one of us.

Now imagine if you became the greatest person in the history of our world (choose your own definition of "greatness" - kindest, richest, most powerful, most spiritual - whatever you best relate to) - and then imagine that with that gargantuan achievement ... there are a trillion other lives in our universe that can make the same claim.

We are truly indistiguishible in this regard from the gnat we swat or the bacterium we kill with our antiseptic mouthwash. We are absolutely making a distinction without a difference to think of ourselves as on a different level that they.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I think we can all agree on two things.  For one, events like what just happened in Newtown CT (or Aurora, or Columbine, etc.) are horrific and despicable - we should do everything in our power to reduce the likelihood that they ever happen again.  And two, our founding fathers were extraordinarily brilliant and prescient, and the Constitution they constructed is a miraculous work that we are very fortunate to have as a foundation for this great country.

But if we are to do everything we can to reduce incidents like Newtown, we must face the fact that it's time to do something about our current interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Remember that when the framers ensured "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms", the most advanced guns were single-shot musket-like rifles.  Does anyone honestly believe that if they could see our country today and the proliferation of weapons like the Bushmaster .223 with exploding rounds or a Glock that fires five rounds a second, easily available to just about anyone including the clearly criminally insane like Adam Lanza, they'd say "Yeah, that's what we were trying to protect."?

Friday, November 21, 2008

What, Me Worry?

The current global turmoil has me turning to that sage oracle, Alfred E. Neumann, for advice and solace.

Like anyone else who is even remotely tuned into current events. I find myself frequently experiencing feeling akin to panic - like those one feels when a roller coaster drops and the laws of physics that applied an instant before suddenly seem to be invalidated.

Two thoughts snap me back out of this. The first is the wonderous opportunities that times of confusion and chaos present to all of us. When rules and paradigms no longer apply, when what came before is no longer a reliable indicator of what lies ahead - these are the times in which radical change can happen. These are the times in which fortunes are made. These are the times that history records as the turning points in the arc of humankind.

The other thought that breaks the coherence of panic is that it only feels like it does because what came before was different. In other words, if that which we currently perceive as challenge and uncertainty were commonplace, if we were used to it, if the past had been like this, it wouldn't feel so weird. The roller coaster sensation comes from the descent, and the descent comes from the starting place. But that starting place is in the past - it's history, gone, a quaint artifact of a bygone era. If we stay in the present, we stay in the land of wonderous opportunity. It is only our attachment to the past that creates anxiety.

I can't help imagining what an alien landing on our planet at this time might think. Here's a biosphere of abundance, a world dominated by a species that has self-organized to create great things - great structures, great art, great science and medicine, great societies. But for some reason, everyone is running around with their hair on fire. I imagine that the alien, with no connection to the past, would have a hard time figuring out what everyone's so upset about.

That alien would also likely perceive a bounteous world laden with opportunities - opportunities that are only the richer for the current disorder. And we could all see the world that way, right now, if we simply chose to.

Thanks Alfred.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Most Profound Moment of My Life (so far)

While reading Eckhart Tolle’s wonderful book, “The New Earth”, I ran across the following:

“Even a stone, and more easily a flower or bird, could show you the way back to God, to the Source, to yourself. When you look at it or hold it and let it be without imposing a word or mental label on it, a sense of awe, of wonder, arises within you.”

And I was transported back to the most profound moment of my life.

It was several years ago – I was participating in a particularly grueling, multi-day business meeting, being held at a dreary Hilton hotel in Rye, New York. The first day had started at 7 am and had run through to 11 pm with hardly a break. We were scheduled to begin again at 7 am the next morning. I arose that morning around 6 – still exhausted – and somehow got myself downstairs at about 6:30.

I was still groggy, and basically in a foul mood. The thought of eating didn’t appeal to me. I think I just wanted to get away from there. For some reason, I found myself drawn to the small, poorly-maintained patio off the lobby.

There were some old wrought-iron chairs out there, and I just went and sat in one of them. Not really thinking about anything. Just kinda there.

And then it happened.

Out of the corner of my eye. A light – just appeared. Well, a line of light. It looked like it was about two or three inches long. Thin as the thinnest thread, mostly white but with rainbow effects. And it danced – left and right, getting slightly longer and slightly shorter. Curving up and down just a bit as it fluttered back and forth. Kind of shimmering. It was so incredibly beautiful and so magical – I was just totally transfixed.

And I sat there for two or three minutes – just sat there letting it be, like Tolle said. And after a couple of minutes, my groggy brain cleared (or did it?) and snapped back to its usual self. And I realized that it was just a wisp of a spider web, catching the morning sun at just the right angle.

Just a spider web.

And in that instant of recognition, of naming, of imposing a mental label on what an instant before had been the most supernatural, mystical, thrilling thing I had ever seen … the beauty vanished as quickly as it had come.

Just a spider web.

And I got so sad. So sad that the beauty that had touched my soul was suddenly gone. So very very sad.

And then … I unnamed it. I let go of the label, the name … and the beauty returned. And not only that, but I noticed other things. Twinkles of light falling in parallel streaks behind the beautiful dancing line. A low harmonized hum – with a sharper regular cadence calling out over top of it. Layers upon layers of beauty. In this dreary garden, behind this dump of a hotel. Paradise.

And then the names came into my brain for each of these new awarenesses. Dew drops falling from leaves of trees … and the magic vanished. A bunch of insects buzzing … Poof! Gone! A single cricket chirping. Magnificence collapsed – almost violently – into the mundane.

But again, I was able to let the names and labels go. And again the beauty returned like a gift from another world. And I was able to play with the whole scene. Moving in and out of heaven at will.

And another thought occurred to me from nowhere. How wondrous it must be to be a small child, before the shackles of language entrap you forever, wandering through a chaos of strange and marvelous sights, sounds, smells. All without names or labels, not yet filed in handy boxes for easy reference. Living in a world constantly bombarding you with beauty.

And then it was 7 am. And the meeting was starting. And I had to go back to the real world. The real world. Whatever that means.

I’ve never been back there again. Not to that hotel, not to that space on earth that at once a dreary patio and a glorious paradise. And sadly never quite to that same place of being able to completely let the names and labels and thoughts go and just … be. Just be with the essence of it all.

But the memory of it remains with me, and warms my heart. And gives me hope. And somehow I’m certain that someday I’ll return to it. Maybe just for another couple of minutes. Maybe for a few return visits. And maybe … just maybe … to stay.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

What Unites Us?

I really enjoyed David Brooks Op-Ed in the New York Times today. With the announcement today that Tony Blair would be stepping down on June 27th, Brooks was reflecting on Blair's legacy, and noted that he will be remembered as an "anti-Huntingtonian". This apparently refers to the position taken by Samuel Huntington of Harvard, who asserts that that which divides the peoples of the world culturally presents an incredible challenge to inter-cultural interactions. Taken the next step, this infers that we really ought to stay out of each other's business - that well-intended actions that span these divides is as likely to produce unintended negative consequences as it is to achieve whatever positive outcomes may movitate them.

According to Brooks, the Blair counter-position lies in a belief that increasing global interaction and interdepence require us to call on our universal, shared human values, and that these can in fact prevail over cultural differences. And while we may continue to make ham-handed mistakes of catastrophic proportions in our cross-cultural interactions, the difficulty in engaging effectively across that which divides us by no means relieves us of the obligation to strive to do so.
In my personal journey, I have come to a strongly held faith that, while people on the surface may seem incredibly diverse, once one penetrates beneath the surface layers, our shared humanity makes us much much more similar than different. And in fact my personal experiences in cultivating relationships with those with whom I share little culturally have always borne this out. I'm convinced that, when viewed outside a cultural context, my life experience and that of, say, a Kalahari bushman, are essentially similar. We're both born as high-potentiality, unformed bits of protoplasm, with similar physiological infrastructure and innate capacities, into social networks that value family and community. We strive to organize and make sense of our lives and our environments by creating an internal operating system that is continually updated based on our experiences - creating layers upon layers of beliefs and assumptions that create the shortcuts by which we can constantly progress our personal functionality. (This is what we commonly refer to as "personal growth".) And I believe that much of what I and my Kalahari brethren experience as suffering is actually the result of "bad coding" - the 1/10th of a percent of our personal programming that is inherently dysfunctional, that which arose from unfortunate incidents in our past and/or our personal misconceptions and the innocently inappropriate beliefs and assumptions that made their way into our personal operating systems as a result. At our essence, we live, we love, we laugh, we cry, we grow and age and die, aware of our morality, wishing a better future for our children and generations to come - we are human.

And paradoxically, I hold if not a belief at least an aspiration that, as so often has happened in the course of human events, having a common enemy will unite us. As the world gets small and issues become not just theoretically but practically global shared concerns (e.g., global climate change, pollution, waning energy reserves, global terrorism and fundamentalism, risk of global pandemics, etc.), that the nuances that distinguish us culturally will be overcome by our needs to address the challenges that we share, those that threaten our livelihoods, well-being, and even existence without discrimination.

Those elements that distinguish us culturally, that seem so insurmountable when it comes to achieving global harmony, pale in comparsion to both the aspects that we share as fellow members of the human race, and the challenges to our continued existence on this planet. And though it seems to be human nature to seek out the differences that divide us, as globalization moves from a concept to a reality of everyday life, the opportunities to transcend and unite seem greater than ever. I choose to have faith in humankind and our collective ability to rise up and meet our shared challenges - and assert that those who choose otherwise risk authoring a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Recently I had the opportunity to visit Mumbai, India. It was my first trip there, and it was a real eye-opener.

The trip came up as a result of some consulting work I’m doing with a client who is looking to expand its operations there. It was a bit of a whirlwind – about 30 hours of travel each way for a total of about 72 hours on the ground. But what I saw left an impression that will stay with me a long time.

Arriving at Mumbai airport at about 1:30 am, it looked like any other airport in a lesser-developed nation. Kinda crowded, disorganized, a little run down. The first real shocker though was stepping outside. Even at that hour, the commotion was overwhelming – hundreds of little “autoricks” (three-wheeled, motorcycle-powered covered rickshaws) jostled for position while their drivers called out for passengers. And the pollution! Thick clouds of exhaust fumes, mixed with the smoke from household heating and cooking fires (that I later learned were fueled in part by dried cow dung), had my asthma in full flare in no time. Toto, we definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Fortunately it was a short (albeit chaotic, more later) drive to the Hyatt Regency, as modern and Westernized a hotel as you’d find anywhere. Check in was a bit of a hassle, but once I was in my room it could have been a hotel in any major US or European city.

The next morning we headed out for our client’s headquarters about noon – many Indian businesses keep later-than-normal business hours to accommodate interaction with European and US operations. The drive to the office was another new experience. First off, not surprisingly they drive on the left (British colonial heritage I suppose). Well, sort of on the left – the reality is that lane markings, where they exist, are taken as a kind of a suggestion, not meant to be taken too seriously. Along a downtown thoroughfare that in the US would be two lanes in each direction, you might see autoricks as many as five across in each direction, constantly maneuvering for position. Not only that, but they are competing with pedestrians walking alongside and sometimes up the middle of the road. And these pedestrians might be accompanied by goats, cows, or even elephants.

The sides of the streets are lined with storefronts – just concrete block shacks, really, opening out onto the street. One might be selling cigarettes, the next groceries, the next might be an auto repair. People are milling around everywhere, doing business, moving from place to place. And behind this row of storefronts is an entire community, living in shacks with corrugated steel roofs. Children, elderly people, dogs, all huddled together in the most densely populated living conditions I’ve ever seen. No plumbing, and mostly no electricity, except where the more industrious types have hooked up to power in nearby buildings, stringing cables precariously over the rooftops of this shanty town. The conditions are, by any western standard, truly terrible.

And yet, the people seem to be very well adapted. They just go about their business, be it running the bicycle repair shop, or hauling wood for the fires, or fetching water, or laying bricks. In some respects I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by this – it’s just what life is like there for them, I suppose. But I found the spirit, industriousness, and resiliency of the people really inspiring.

Once we got to our clients’ offices, it was pretty much like any other business environment. Many a little more densely packed than a US office, maybe the building exteriors were a little dirtier owing to the pollution. But a desk is a desk, a computer is a computer, and people were getting down to the business of business. The office workforce in India is made up of generally very well educated people, working for a small fraction of US wages. As an example, an entry level job requiring a basic college education, that might start at $45,000 in the US, pays about $5,000 per year in India. It doesn’t take much figuring to see why the economy over there is booming. Especially since just about everyone speaks English, making it easy for them to work for US and British multinationals.

As the telecommunications infrastructure in India continues to improve, and prices continue to drop, just about any kind of office work can be done just as effectively over there as over here. We visited a large subsidiary of an investment bank, where professionals with advanced degrees were doing equity research, foreign exchange settlement, and derivatives pricing – again, all at a fraction of US wage rates. You wonder how long it can continue, before the price of labor gets bid up to the point that the arbitrage opportunities go away. But a lot of people are betting that it’ll last for a while – bets that take the form of dozens of new office towers, rising like stacks of chips in a casino. India’s wager on the global economy is paying off big-time, and it looks like their run will continue for quite some time.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Embracing Uncertainty

All we know for sure is that we don't know for sure.

Over a decade ago, a dear friend gave me a copy of Margaret Wheatley's masterwork, "Leadership and the New Science". I remember reading it for the first time, my mind practically exploding with new ideas - to the point that I could only go for a few pages at a time, and had to stop to reflect on what I had just read.

Facing a long series of plane flights, for some reason I was inspired to find my old copy and bring it along for the trip. I hoped that this second reading, after so much time had passed, would offer some of the thrill of the first. I'm 50 pages in and definitely not disappointed.

One theme of the book is the interplay between "things" and their "relationships". Wheatley characterizes Newtonian thinking as being focused on "materialism and reductionism" - isolating things into discrete elements that can then be examined and described as independent items. She refers to "new science" as that collection of disciplines that represent "... underlying currents [that] are a movement towards holism, toward understanding the system as a system and giving primary value to the relationships that exist among seemingly discrete parts". As an illustration, she shares a quote attributed as an ancient Sufi teaching that "You think that because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and".

What I've read so far has made me think a lot about things that appear on the surface to be paradoxes, or dualities, or forces in tension that seem to want to be balanced. Having grown up as an engineer, it's natural for me to look for answers, to seek solutions, to boil things down to distill what appears to be the root truth. But what I've learned is that certainty only comes in stick figure form, that anything that's worth thinking about is too rich to be distilled to simple elements. There is no either/or, no truth to be found at either end of the spectrum. Anything that appears to be forces in tension resolves not in either direction, but in a new vector that points to an unseen and larger force.

In this respect, certainty is not something to be sought out, it is an enemy to be avoided. Seeking answers is a path to insignificance - seeking questions is a journey to be embraced.

May you live in perpetual confusion and disorder, for here all that is beautiful awaits. And here you may find the truths that cannot be known with certainty.