As life proceeds, you collect ever-more interesting observations about how things work: things you cannot fathom in youth but which you gradually come to realize later in life.
People don’t tell you these things when you are young. What I’m going to tell you is supposed to remain proprietary information of people of middle age. But I don’t believe in proprietary information. Let’s just lay it all out.
Five Bad Things
- No one is ever wrong. People will defend an opinion or an action until the end, even if every bit of logic and evidence runs contrary. Sincere apologies and genuine admissions of error and wrongdoing are the rarest things in this world. Meanwhile, there is no reward for being right. On the contrary, people will resent you and try to take you down, which leads to point two.
- Excellence makes you a target of envy and can often harm your prospects for success. Meritocracy exists, and even prevails, but it is realized through your own initiative, and it is never just granted freely by some individual or institution. No one is consistently and unrelentingly your champion, not even your mom, as much as she loves you. All progress comes about because you alone push through the attempts of everyone around you to stop it./li>
- Average people will sacrifice every principle and every truth for the sake of security. This is because people, with very few exceptions, fear the uncertainty of an open and unknown future more than the seeming security of a known status quo. They will give up every right and every bit of their soul for the promise of security, even to the point of obeying wicked despots in every sphere of life.
- If you ever wonder why people around you are behaving strangely, or believing and doing seemingly irrational things, you can find the answer by asking the question: what’s in it for them? It’s remarkable the extent to which people craft their own opinions and decisions around their own desires and interests, regardless of considerations of truth, evidence, or logic.
- Absolutely no one can keep a secret. The more interesting the information, the more a person experiences a personal reward for passing it on. If you ever ask someone “can you keep a secret?” you should automatically know that the answer is no, unless the information is so boring that the person forgets it.
Five Good Things
- There are human miracles all around you if you only take the time and have a mind to notice. Human action is not scripted. Most people do what they want to do most of the time. And yet, it somehow all works together. People acting in their own personal self interest leads, despite their intention, to a lovely and orderly and even beautiful community whole. If you doubt it, look at the human traffic in a mall or airport, or cars on a busy highway. The question is not: why are there accidents? The real question is: why are massive pile-ups not the norm?
- Humans are survivors. Everyone faces seeming disasters in life: deaths in the family, divorces, job terminations, houses burning down. It’s hard to see beyond them. And yet, time marches forward, the past becomes data, and the future is open. We adapt, we learn, we discover a new hope, despite all odds. The truth is that you are in charge of your own emotions, decisions, and your own life. You can break free of a tendency to acquiesce to fatalism, but it takes courage, risk-taking, and a conscious act of defying what seems to be written.
- At some point in your life, your heart will be broken through some devastating betrayal and you will be tempted by the idea that love is not real, that it is a made-up delusion. This is false. Love comes in many forms and is authentic but always aspirational: a belief in the possibility that our lives can ascend beyond their purely material properties and touch something spiritual. You see love in trusting friendships, entrepreneurial drive, romance, and every act of faith that reaches for the evidence of the unseen. You can embrace it or not but it is always there.
- In childhood, we supposed that everyone around us was well-intentioned, but later discovered otherwise in adulthood. You can wallow in this or see beyond it. Most people, despite all foibles and failings, have a heart. Under the right conditions, most people are capable of being generous, empathetic, cooperative, and helpful. It is a huge mistake to overlook this fact of life. You can surround yourself by such people, be grateful for them, and let them inspire you.
- Powerful institutions can be scary and ominous, but look more closely. No power can ultimately rule this world. The promises of politicians, even the most powerful, turn to dust precisely because the world community of individual minds and intentions is too random, chaotic, and unpredictable for them to control. The kaleidic exercise of individual volition, distributed over all nations and peoples, will always and everywhere, in the long run, outsmart even the best-laid plans of any ruling elite. That is a glorious thing to realize. It gives you confidence in the future.
Thank you for articulating a very powerful truth about life. People are horrid, but people are also amazing. This comes through in Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty: the pioneers were often crooks who cared nothing for “society” and wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of other people to make a quick buck…but also ‘kind every day to one another and sympathetically responsive to every rumor of distress’. It’s hilarious the way she describes it, but also very inspiring.
This is how people naturally are if they are left to their own devices in a lawless society. Utterly selfish but also utterly kind.