Confused idealist to guarded optimist

A friend asked, “What’s the one issue you’ve changed your mind on significantly since you were younger?” I couldn’t stick with just one issue, so I wrote this up.

Below are a few of the things I can name as having changed positions on. Nearly all of them have been slow processes, and I’m not at ‘the end’ of those changes. I’m still uncovering bias that I didn’t know I had.

At 14 I was still a dedicated, born-again Christian. But I had a growing batch of doubts. By 18 I was a full-on atheist, but I was still convinced that the supernatural existed. It took me another 15 years to scrub that out. If things like telepathy actually do exist, we’ll eventually figure out the mechanism, and it will be comprehensible to scientific inquiry. Same for ‘spiritual’ experiences. I’m talking about things like overwhelming feelings of connection to the world, other people, and beauty. I now understand such experiences as happening in our brains as we process information about our relationships with other people and with the world around us. Doesn’t make them any less meaningful. I’ve come to see gods and demons as symbols our brains use to understand what’s happening to us. I’ve given up any need to find higher meaning. At our best, humans are our own higher meaning.

At 20, I thought that ‘the government’ (which I thought of as being monolithic and ‘out there’ somewhere, not as something that I was part of) was a bad thing in every case. I was convinced that people, given the right (non-governmental) organizing structures, would do the right thing. I was an idealistic anarchist-libertarian, probably. I no longer believe that. I think that people make rash decisions from greed and rage and fear and incomplete data. I’ve grown to realize that ‘the government’ is us working together to find a way to live together… it’s also, sadly, a way for powerful people to keep their power and wealth, which means that ‘the government’ doesn’t work well for the average person, but there’s no way that I can negotiate agreements with each person I deal with on a given day, so whatever happens, we need some sort of structure that we can use to set expectations and limit bad actors. I think that in every generation, some people are struggling to move our governing structures more toward fairness and others are struggling to keep those structures unfairly supporting them in their power and wealth. I don’t know what governing structure would be best, but I know that plutocracy, fascism, oligarchy, aristocracy, autocracy, and other forms of totalitarianism are not. I’ve seen that unregulated industry will poison the world, that unregulated bankers will rake all the profits into their own pockets, that, essentially, any group that can work in secret will eventually start doing bad things. Today I’m leaning toward some sort of utilitarian democratic socialism, something that may take another 500 years to figure out how to do properly, assuming there’s a human race in 500 years.

I used to think that I was one of the good guys. It took me a long time to recognize and admit that I was hurting people around me. It took me a long time to forgive myself for my mistakes, and realize that it’s not possible to go through life without hurting people. I’m still not good at admitting the harm I’ve done, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness. It was really hard for me to figure out that I’m easily swayed. I’ll do bad things if I’m surrounded by bad people. I’m closer to the guy I want to see myself as when I associate with people who are trying hard to be good people. It’s hard to admit that, because I’d like to be the true good guy, the upstanding guy, bellwether, the one leading the march toward fairness.

I used to believe that people could be just bad or just good. That’s part of the idealism I was raised to believe in. It took me decades to recognize that people are just people. Some really are bad people, but that doesn’t mean they kick every dog they see. Some really are good, but that doesn’t mean they never make mistakes or do selfish, harmful things.

I used to believe I was useless. I was always holding myself up against people I saw as icons, and was crushed to realize I’d never live up to those standards, whether they were successful with money, had physical skills, or did wildly creative things. Finding a way to give and feel good about the contribution is hard when you’ve been told since you were a kid that if you’re not the shining son, the star athlete, the top earner, the leader, you’re nothing. I’m glad that I can see my value now, and particularly glad that I’m not in (much) danger of overstating my value. I am who I am, doing what I can.

It seems I’ve gone from being a confused idealist to being a guarded optimist.

I’ve gradually learned to distrust idealism. To recognize that calls for purity are always misguided because humans are not pure. People have gone out in masses and killed other people for thousands of years under the banner of purity, and it’s all a lie. It’s an infinite regress of the No True Scotsman fallacy. But I didn’t end up in despair. That’s my guarded optimism. I keep finding people who struggle against cruelty and greed and rage, both in society and in themselves, who aren’t true believers, aren’t fanatics, and aren’t perfect, but who keep trying. They give me heart. They give me a bit of hope that we can find our way out of the dark and frightening forest of the childhood of humanity (if only we can keep from killing ourselves in the meantime).


Any group of people with power or authority, who are not held accountable in some way, will end up doing bad things.
If you see any group; cops, politicians, priests, judges, jailers, professors, doctors, dentists, business tycoons, psychologists, faith healers, karate instructors, whatever… anyone with authority over others… who is trying to ward off attempts to check on their behavior either is doing something unethical or are afraid they are.
It’s not as if people set out to do bad things, generally, but the first slip happens, and if there’s no blow-back there are fewer reasons to fight against that next slip. If there are rewards for slipping, then pretty soon you have institutionalized secrecy as a rule for group membership…

Trump… and a meditation on buying stuff to make yourself feel better.

Most of us know — or suspect — that we don’t always buy things because we need them, but because we think we’ll feel better/more complete. Advertisements and reviews can hint that you’ll be better looking/cooler/more manly/more well-liked (or whatever) if you just had this watch, or that jacket, or the new car, blender, book (OMG the promise of books…).

Then we buy it, and often experience buyer’s remorse, or just a vague sense that it  just wasn’t right. In any case, the promised perfect future isn’t here.

Most people either run out of cash to keep trying again or go deep into debt to keep buying more/ better quality/faster/bigger/more expensive things. Some people with more money actually buy stuff and then give it away soon after to make room so they can buy the latest stuff.

Some recognize the futility and try to find other paths to personal fulfillment, or try things like volunteering instead of purchasing.

These are really hard paths, not least because our whole society is set up to keep us hoping the next gadget or guru will be The One.

Even volunteering to help people can lead to the same disappointment; “oh, look, there are still homeless people, I’ve failed again.” (I’m not trying to discourage volunteering, by the way. 🙂 I just suggest that you meditate a little on why you’re doing it. Being really clear on your motivations will probably keep you focused for longer and prevent burnout. Heck, it might even keep you from being badly used.)

But now imagine that you are so rich that you not only have marketing people manipulating you to think “this is it!
you also have hangers-on manipulating you to keep spending money because their chance for wealth depends on you thinking that.

If you’re not particularly self-aware, it’s not even likely that you’ll recognize what’s going on.

It’s certainly easy to see this pattern in Trump. If he can just build the best resort, the biggest tower, the fanciest golf course… he’ll get the adulation and satisfaction he craves.

Picture Trump in 2015: his 70th birthday is looming. He may not have many years left. He has his name on towers, golf courses, luxury resorts. It’s all a bit flat.

He sets his sights on a new project; running for president. It’s absurd, over-the-top… it’s classic Trump. Ahh, now the hangers-on are really excited. This next vanity project is one that they can not only make serious money on, but maybe even get serious power, which is the ultimate prize at this level…

It’s easy to see Trump as a buffoon; it’s less easy to remember that nearly all of us have similar base urges; we just have more obvious limits. If you make $30,000 or $100,000 a year, you’re pretty likely to run into your limits fairly soon. If you make $10,000,000 a year, your limits are probably less obvious.

I’m not saying that understanding that we have something in common with this guy means letting him off the hook. We absolutely have to fight him; and even more importantly, we have to fight the manipulators who helped him get to the point of being elected as the President of the United States, but we should at least be aware of our similarities, even if… or maybe particularly if… looking in this mirror makes us uncomfortable. I suspect that it’s hard to fight efficiently and effectively if we are in denial about our own weaknesses.