Mind Over Matter?

Can life really be cruel and yet worth living? That is the question I ended up with starting from a hypothetical situation. And I appreciate that the situation I will describe is contrived and artificial. I hope you can see that, despite it being artificial, the conflict it describes is real, albeit exaggerated to some uncanny essence.

Imagine a family with a two-year old child. Soon they will have to make a difficult choice… Their own child suffers from a disease that is at present incurable. It requires the parents to spend significantly more time and effort on their child’s wellbeing than they could have imagined. As war breaks out, life is thrown into chaos. The neighbors, who also have a two-year old and healthy son, are killed. Their son survives. The family does not have enough resources to care for both children, and are faced with an unpleasant outlook — one I decide not to spell out.

The reason I chose the title “Mind Over Matter?” is that I have an intuitive hunch about one major source of the dilemma humanity finds itself in at the moment. I suspect that most human beings fall, at least to some degree, on either side of how they experience contemplating such a situation.

Some people may look at this and recognize the tragedy in the setup, but also fundamentally accept that “these things happen” — not everyone can be saved, and it is best to make a hard choice, and move on. I would describe that as some sort of “naturalistic realism”. Other people will have an experience of such inner revulsion that they want to “rebel against nature”. Life cannot possibly be that cruel, and we must find a better solution, one in which both children survive. I would describe this as “visionary idealism”.

And I have a further suspicion: both kinds of attitudes are necessary — at the same time and integrated together — for life to flourish. Life, as a process, is demonstrating every moment that it is capable of overcoming incredible odds stacked against it. From that, it seems warranted not to give up on the ideal or vision that drives people to fight cruel and unfair conditions rather than simply accepting the status quo.

On the other hand, the best chance to influence reality is by understanding how it actually works, which requires to accept that not everything is possible — at least not right now. And that it takes some ingenuity to create a difference in how “the rules apply”. Otherwise, it is possible to get stuck in a nightmare of having to live in a world that seems undeservedly cruel and unjust.

So, how to overcome this conundrum? If I had to take a guess, and I was asked as a consultant by either side of what I suspect is a biologically rooted personality difference, this would be my answer:

The people who feel the cruelty of life as a source of motivation to work towards increased fairness and justice — particularly towards allowing every life to be as free from pain and suffering as possible — need to experience from people on the other side that their goal is worthy of pursuit. They need to hear something like, “we, the people who are primarily focused on what is doable, on what we can practically achieve, and who have less of an issue with the cruelty that is so painful for you, we promise you to work towards a world in which your pain (about life’s injustices) is diminished.” That is, people who are pained by an experience of the “naturally occurring injustice of life” need to feel understood in their quest for more justice.

And on the other side, the people who are, for lack of a better word, much more pragmatic about life, who accept that not everyone can be saved, and who sense that it is, in fact, a natural and healthy process for those elements of life that cannot survive a certain harshness of conditions to be pruned away, what do they need? I believe they need to experience a willingness of those on the other side to consider reality for what it is. Not to blindly accept it, but to show a willingness to look it in the face and not flinch away. In other words, no matter how visionary you are in your desire to achieve justice, it is important not to close your eyes when faced with some harsh truths about the present situation. Simply wishing for things to be different is not enough.

I truly believe that life’s magic — the ability to truly overcome situations in which a visionary solution seems impossible — happens when the will of overcoming is paired with a fundamental acceptance of the seemingly desperate conditions. That is where the surplus of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” comes from.

For now, it seems to me that we are stuck in mental models that do not allow people to see the possibility of integrating these two superficially incompatible perspectives. We seem to be clinging to a kind of linear causality by which only one of these perspectives can be true at the same time. Either people feel they have to fight for the seemingly unachievable in ways that are truly impractical, or they feel forced to give into reality as a set of conditions that cannot be changed at all, and suffer the consequences.

What I believe is needed is faith in that what seems impossible is achieved by life every day. Our collective history gives us all the clues we need: look at the reality we as humanity faced just a few generations in the past, and what is possible now. It seems so obvious that whatever opportunities we have in the 21st century would have been unimaginable to the common person as little as 200 years ago, and yet we now have them. And is it really that difficult to imagine that whatever seems impossible now cannot be achieved, so long as we can do both: keep the vision burning while working with what we have?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *