Fear Order

Dear Reader,

On the one hand, there is a degree of egoism to writing here. If I'm honest with myself, I do want someone to see me the way I see some of the bloggers I read regularly. Even by writing this, I'm trying to recognize it in myself; but some small part hopes that by doing so the universe will vindicate my desire, will reward my coming clean.

Of course, this isn't how the world works. But there's this instinct in us, a drive to see this universe as something we can control in a meaningful way. I won't go so far as to deny causality or anything like that, quite the contrary; there's just so much causality running around that it's hard to make a particular dent. I don't know if the answer is to aim smaller or larger.

For most of us, of course, even that isn't really an option. We can only do what we can do, and most of that will probably be fruitless. Or maybe it's just me—maybe I spent so much time being taught to aim high that a realistic aim feels like settling.

Still, I know I'm not alone. I was listening to the Trillbilly Worker's Party this morning, and one of the things they discussed is a NY Times article about the “rise” of prophets within Christianity. While I agree with their skepticism, I think there's more going on as to the why. For a long time, I thought that the real problem with this kind of belief is that it's too easy for it to justify our worst impulses. But I don't think that's true—there's nothing easy about being an evangelical or anything else that requires giving up so much of yourself.

Maybe it really does all come down to narrative. We want to be able to tell a story about the way the world works that we can understand, when the reality is chaos. We devote millions of hours and billions of dollars as a species to looking for explanations. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, but we keep on trucking either way. Yet as we see just how small of a piece of the world we can really hope to encompass this way, we double down rather than accepting just how limited we actually are. It's not just the myth of the just universe, but the myth of the comprehensible one.

The answer isn't to give up entirely, I don't think, but instead to just do our best but accept that it won't always be good enough. More importantly, it's to understand that “deserve” has no place in the world. We can buy insurance, but must accept that this isn't a guarantee any more than we can be guaranteed to live to a certain age (or not).

In other words, it's time for us to cut ourselves and each other a break. The just universe fallacy is especially dangerous, because it assumes that people deserve what happens to them. The Christian view of divine judgment is just moving where the “deserve” part comes into place, but it doesn't actually have anything to do with morality in my view. You're still doing something only in the hopes of a reward (which is still better than not doing it, to be clear), but that's not actual selflessness. True virtue is doing things without expecting anything to come back to you, or doing it because someone has or will do something good for you “in return.” We've made the world too transactional as it is.

More to the point, a lot more of us would see that we can all fail despite our best efforts. By trying to put some notion of order on the world, whether it's physics or prophecy, we can too easily forget that none of these are up to the task. From there, it's a short road to seeing charity as being against that order.

Just another way our systems turn us into monsters.