June 7th 2006 Pragmatic Optimism

When I was in high school, I developed an (unhealthy) obsession with what I saw as the problems of the world. Disease, famine, murder, rape, war—all are pretty unfortunate things that happen in the world on an all-too-frequent basis. I thought that somehow, perhaps I could help rid the world of these atrocities—perhaps not during my lifetime, but at least get the ball rolling on getting rid of these terrible things.

But how? was the question. I wrote a lot back in those days; in fact, I aspired to be a film writer/director (even going so far as to help out a filmmaker buddy of mine—for free). I thought that perhaps, as a filmmaker, I could make great movies with great messages that could change the world.

A lofty and noble goal, to be sure.

A friend and I talked about pooling our money to buy a video editing workstation and some equipment in order to start shooting films. We would, of course, have a way to generate income (by filming and editing commercials and music videos).

Eventually, I graduated. The film business idea never panned out, but we had formed several bands to preach a message. A few months after graduation, I entered college as a freshman, majoring in English, with an emphasis on creative writing. I was still focused on film, but I figured the film training would come to me through my work with my filmmaker friend, and I could always study it in grad school.

The semesters dragged on. By the time I got halfway through my second semester, I took a step back and realized something: I wasn’t very happy. Partly that was because I didn’t spend a lot of time with people I really liked, but I also realized something bigger: I wasn’t terribly interested in any of my classes. By college, one should actually want to learn; I just did my best to avoid classes and classwork.

What really interested me was computer science. Computers are cool, sure, but the science behind them is especially fascinating (to me, at least).

I thought about switching majors, but then I thought: Am I wasting my talents and resources? Does computer science matter? Surely the humanities—art, writing, film, philosophy—matter—those things change the world? Sure, computers have changed the world, too, but in a good or fruitful way?

I decided to switch, but that thought always tugged at the back of my mind. I should be doing something that matters, something to change the world and the way people think.

Then I reached an epiphany of sorts, something that, in retrospect, seems so simple, the sort of thing everyone but me probably knows:

Happiness is what matters.

The world, as a whole, is a pretty nasty place. But it’s easy to make your own little piece of it a nice place. I realized that no matter how hard one worked to rid the world of bad people doing bad things, nature can easily off you—I could get hit by a meteor, for example. The world sports myriad ways for mortals to die.

And besides, if your goal is to stop murder, for example, one murder is all it takes to ruin that goal. (Of course, one murder a year, or only 1000 or even 10,000 murders a year, is still pretty good.)

Unhappy people can’t make the world a better place. Unhappy people can’t make others happy. Only content individuals can make life better for others. And life isn’t about the length—as they say in Fight Club, on a long enough timeline, everyone’s chance of survival drops to zero.

Lives should be measured by quality, not length. And thus, it’s more important to do whatever makes you happy—even if it’s seemingly insignificant. If you’re happy, those around you will be happy, too.

Imagine how much better the world would be if everyone just focused on their happiness, and the happiness of those who matter most to them. It seems selfish, but think about it: Everyone is loved by someone (“Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend”), so everyone would have someone looking out for them, all the time.

It seemed so simple, yet had eluded me for quite some time.

Of course, as I drove to work today, I thought, “Maybe it’s wrong to give up. A lot of people are good in this world—they don’t kill, rape, or plunder. Maybe we should keep reaching for that seemingly impossible goal.”

So maybe, ultimately, the best way to live is to do whatever one wants, but to always work towards utopia.

Call that a sort of “pragmatic optimism”, if you will. It’s good to edge the world towards a better place, but it’s not going to happen quickly, so you might as well make the most of it.