Yes, it’s free for me to use, but the only way I can make any money from it is by affirmatively placing my work behind Medium’s paywall. For folks who don’t subscribe to Medium, should they stumble across something I wrote after they’ve already clicked on five other Medium articles, they don’t get to read it. In that scenario I not only lose a potential reader (though not any income because they weren’t subscribing to begin with), but any potential new readers I might have gained from the that person sharing my work. It just stops at the paywall.
If I publish outside the paywall, of course, anyone can read it and share it, and that’s great, except the part where I don’t get paid.
Then the question is just how much I stand to lose by not posting behind the paywall. And the answer is: Usually nothing. Prepare yourself to be shocked, but, alas, I do not command a huge readership. So the vast majority of my articles wind up generating me something between about 20 cents and a buck and a half every month.
That makes it sound like an easy trade-off. Do without the pocket change and potentially get your material in front of far, far more people! That’s the way to go!
Except! Medium isn’t going to highlight material that’s not behind its paywall, suppressing any “organic” discovery of my work by the platform itself. I’m also not going to get picked up by any Medium-based publications with their own followings.
Also! Once in a blue moon, one of my Medium pieces does strike a chord, either with readers or Medium editors, and it catches fire, generating tens of thousands of eyeballs and a little bit of extra cash for me. (Nothing that would ever change my life, but a nice little bonus.) This has happened to me two or three times, ever. I’d like it to happen more.
So I do really think that most of the incentives point toward posting behind the paywall. There’s more potential for Medium to promote the piece, other publications are more likely to pick it up, and a little lightning in a bottle can, once in a long while, bring a little attention and compensation. But I don’t know for sure that it’s the best way to go. I have no way to quantitatively determine what is the most “optimal” route for me, post by post, short term or long term.
For now, I’ll keep favoring the paywall, because I don’t know what else to do. But every time I click that box to make it a premium article, I shudder a little, wondering what I might be losing as a result.
You know the story. A system designed from its inception to favor empty geographical space over actual humans has allowed a minority of provincial, ignorance-celebrating zealots to utterly confound and rend asunder national civic life, their flames fanned by the opulent boor they have anointed as their messiah.
Innocents are murdered by a 17-year-old with an assault rifle, and they cheer him on. An infectious disease kills nearly 200,000 of their fellow citizens, and they deny the pandemic is even happening. Peaceful protesters are gassed, beaten, arrested, and disappeared, and they cry for more. The Postal Service is sabotaged from within in order to rig an election, public health agencies are disfigured into becoming the president’s public relations and propaganda outfits, while corruption and criminality are not only tolerated but boastfully flaunted from the White House.
Those with power who oppose any of this? They are concerned. They express their concerns in tweets. No one does anything.
Or, seeing that they can’t beat the fascists, they join them. I’m not talking about the Republican Party, which has had fascism in its DNA since the civil rights movement scared all the racists into the GOP. I’m talking about people who know better. People I have looked up to. People who think that the existential threat to civilization is not climate change, deadly pandemics, or authoritarianism, but being disagreed with. People who think that making sure a store window is never broken is worth flooding city streets with storm troopers to beat and detain dissenters. Sensing their positions of privilege might be even slightly encroached upon, they clutch their pearls and cry for their demagogue to protect them.
Equality was fine when all the “equal people” stayed down there.
There are so many of us who do not want this. It might even be most of us. There is a nation full of us. But we are knotted up with a wholly separate nation from an alternate reality, two countries existing simultaneously in the same space, as though by some feat of quantum mechanics. But the nation of madness, the one with the guns and the white supremacists and the storm troopers and the fundamentalists and the jealous privileged class, is the one in control.
Bizarro has Superman in an inescapable chokehold. We are trapped.
Don’t think for a moment that the denizens of the nation of maniacs don’t know this. They revel in it. Their hatred of difference, their intolerance of dissent, and their need to feel constantly victimized give them purpose and identity. They would have it no other way. A hostage-taker has no power without hostages.
I have had it with being a hostage. I want out. This isn’t working. And it’s literally killing us.
We need to acknowledge, as a polity, that these two visions of what a society should look like are utterly incompatible, and that those who wish to live in one cannot possibly coexist with those who wish to live in the other. If you believe in the inherent worth and equality of every human being, you cannot find any practicable common ground with someone who believes that people of a different ethnicity are subhuman or intrinsically criminal. If you believe that everyone has the right to their own beliefs about religion and that one’s faith should have no role in the operation of the state, you are not going to have a productive relationship with someone who is entirely certain that the creator of the Universe has commanded us to have one specific form of government dictated by this deity’s wishes. If you accept and rely on the mechanisms of science and evidence in matters of public health and safety, you are not only in conflict, but literally endangered, when trying to collaborate with someone who thinks science is a lie and that pandemics and climate change are hoaxes.
David Frum says President Trump’s divisiveness makes him a “secessionist from the top.” Responding to Trump’s convention speech, he writes, “Since we are two countries, we can have two sets of laws and rules: one for friends, another for enemies. … Two countries, two classes of citizen, two systems of law.” Trump’s America, Red America, is (and always has been) at war with Blue America.
Well, not if we walk away. You can’t have a war without someone to fight.
I don’t think Trump is a secessionist from the top, because he needs this civil war. His entire tribe does. But I want to deny them that. I say weleave.
Because a nation-state can’t actually function as though in a quantum superposition, I suppose some form of defined geography, some kind of political border, is necessary. So we retreat to the blue states with the most welcoming populations and the most room. Maybe it’s New England and the West Coast. Through overwhelming electoral numbers, we make our new nations’ dominant politics untenable for the regressivists still residing, until they decide of their own volition to get enlightened or get out. An authoritarian-loving Trumpist feeling out of place in the great West Coast American Nation can pack up and head for the fascist hills whenever he wants. Idaho is right over there.
Assuming they accept immigrants.
We can start over. We can start arguing among ourselves about policy. We’ll have free and fair elections to hammer out our various conflicts, and we’ll probably get really mad at each other about an endless list of things. But we’ll do it in a spirit that at least approaches good faith, based on the same shared set of facts and the same basic understanding that we’re all of equal worth and dignity.
And when we look over our borders, into the great span of land that constitutes our fascist neighbor, we may shudder at their fever dreams of manifest destiny, but then we’ll take a deep breath and feel that enormous sense of relief that comes from knowing that we once were trapped there, but now we are free.
I think one of the most courageous things a person can do is to love one’s enemy. That phrase, “love thy enemy,” can imply a lot of different things, though, so let’s parse out more precisely what I mean.
There’s a version of “love thy enemy” that I think is more like “tolerate thy enemy,” an acceptance that those whose interests are opposed to our own are, at the very least, entitled tohaveinterests and to pursue them. Right off the bat, that’s more than many — if not most — people can manage. For example, I find it very difficult to muster any sympathy for someone who would vote for just about any Republican for public office right now. I recognize that they have every right to support whomever they choose, but I think that choice is so deeply flawed and immoral that “tolerate” is about the best I can do. But “love”?
There’s another version of “love thy enemy” that is more akin to what I see from many religious conservatives, which manifests as a kind of paternalistic condescension.These poor, misguided people, they don’t see how much I love them and their immortal souls, and they don’t understand that all the things I’m doing are so they can get right with God.I suppose a conservative could turn this around and say that secular liberals are doing the same thing to them, pushing them to live under our progressive moral system for what we say is their own good. (Theycoulddo that, and they’d be wrong, but that’s another thing.)
Maybe in between these there’s a “love thy enemy” that is more hopeful, a kind of wish that one’s enemy will see how they are wrong (in wronging you, wronging others, wronging themselves), with a sincere desire that said enemy will become what one believes theycanbe. At best, it’s wanting something better for one’s enemy, but it’s conditional. To truly receive the love one has for one’s enemy, that enemy has to work for it and have something to show. It’s like love in escrow.
In none of these variations is one asking anything of oneself. The onus is always on the enemy.
What got me thinking about this was a recent piece by Alan Jacobs, who I might describe as my cognitive hero. (His book is literally titledHow to Think.) There, he addresses white Americans who feel boxed in by the recent awakening for racial justice, anxious that they feel unfairly cast as villains and that, no matter what they do, they just can’t win. His response is to drop some Jesus on them. From Luke:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
It’s easy to feel love for people who are good to us! It’s much harder to affirmatively act on that love, to engage in the process of loving someone, even those about whom we care most deeply. But this goes much, much further. By these lights, we have to do more than justfeellove for our enemies, do more than just have sympathy or empathy with those who seek to do us harm. We have toactout of love for them. We have to engage in the process, the work, of love for the benefit of those who seek to make us suffer — and with no expectation or wish of anything in return.
I mean, holy crap.
That takes courage. A lot. It may well be beyond my capacity, I honestly don’t know. But what a thing to aspire to!
Now, there’s a spot where I get a little hung up. Here’s the end of the quote from Luke:
Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Shit. There’s that word.Reward. Barf.
Now we’re back into transactions. Engage in the utterly selfless act of affirmatively loving your enemy with every particle of your being, because in the end, you’ll get the big payoff from God.
If you truly believe with certainty that there is an afterlife, overseen by the creator of the Universe, that is available to those who meet the behavioral requirements of carrying out one’s earthly existence, then loving one’s enemy ceases to be courageous. It becomes an investment, meant to maximize the value of one’s biological retirement.
I love the idea of an ideal to which we can aspire, even if we can’t reach it. This is one of the things that distinguishes a belief in “making America great again,” which imagines that there is a perfection that has been lost and must be recovered, and the aspiration to form amoreperfect union, the unending quest of reaching toward something better than we have yet known.
When we act out of love for our kids, we work to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be, and there is no reward for us as parents. When we love our country, we engage in the work of shaping, tinkering, adjusting, experimenting, and improving so that it gets asymptotically closer to being that more perfect union, long after we’re gone and able to see any of the benefits of that work.
To love our enemy is to worktoward their benefit, knowing that they will never reciprocate. It’s remarkably straightforward. As Jacobs writes:
There’s a simplicity about this that’s immensely liberating. Just knowing what I’m supposed to do relieves me of the burden of worrying about other people’s intentions, other people’s morals.It doesn’t matterwhat their intentions and their morals are: my job is precisely the same whatever the state of their souls.
That’s utterly radical and almost unthinkably courageous. But to do any of these things because we think that after it’s all over we’ll get some sort of divine compensation, well, then it’s something less.
As I write this, the 2020 Republican National Convention is about to get underway. I do not believe I have the capacity to love those who will be responsible for whatever lies, hate, and rage will be broadcast. I expect nothing from them, but nor do I have anything to offer them. I wish I did.
I don’t know if John Lewis loved the men who beat him, imprisoned him, or spat on him. I suspect he might have. I can’t imagine having the courage to do the things he did without the conviction that he was performing an act of love forthem, as much as for those who were already on this side. Sure, as a Black man in America, he stood to gain from the advances in equality he doggedly pursued. But what he was truly winning was a new level of enlightenment for all of us, and all that he did and endured will reverberate long after him, long after anyone who is alive today. It wasn’t for him. It was for us, and yes, it was forthem.
And I don’t think he did it to secure his place in the great hereafter, either. I can’t know that for sure, of course. But from here, I saw the act of love without expectation of reciprocation. I saw radical courage. I believed.
I have trouble going to see theatre productions, because it reminds me of the work I want to be doing. What I ought to be doing. I want to be on that stage or directing the action, not just watching. Watching is what other people do, what the normals do.
I often feel the same way about music, though to a somewhat lesser extent. Listening to great music too often reminds me of the music I’m not making, the songs I’m not writing or recording or performing. Experiences with the arts that ought to, by all other accounts, be sublime, are all too frequently for me of alienation and regret.
Shit, even listening to podcasts makes me feel like a slug.
The same can also be said for my experience of great writing, particularly novels, though I suppose a part of me. that I’m not cut out to be a fiction writer (I deeply hope this is not so), and am therefore not really failing any kind of personal expectation. Movies and TV rarely bring this kind of anxiety on, as they feel so out of reach as to be akin to wishing to be a professional basketball player as a 5-foot-5 sedentary dude in his 40s. A couple decades ago I harbored illusions of future movie stardom, but now I can watch Avengers: Endgame without that kind of psychological baggage.
And I think this might be why I’ve glommed onto video games at this rather unlikely period of my life. I’m by no means a “gamer,” but lately I’ve found my greatest moments of escape and enthrallment within games such as Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing, Civilization, and Skyrim. And I suspect that this is in large part because of the fact that I know nothing about video game design, nothing about programming or software development, nor even anything about how computers work at all. As far as I’m concerned, they all run on magic.
That utter separation makes video games safe. While slashing with a sword, casting spells, or cultivating my ridiculous fake garden in gamespace, I feel no pangs of remorse for the code I’m not writing. Video games are a place, an experience, I can enter and totally surrender myself to without placing any guilt trip on myself for the video games I never made.
But of course, they do have a lot of voice actors in these games. Why haven’t I gotten a voice acting role in a video game? I’m a total failure.
Thrown into the land of Tamriel, utterly ignorant of its peoples, politics, or cultures, everywhere I went I was met with suspicion or resentment. I wasn’t the only one of my kind, but apparently my particular race was in the minority here, or at least in the municipalities and wilds of Skyrim. With quite a few notable exceptions, most of the people I met would see my pointy ears and angular features and sneer.
I’m of course describing my early experiences playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a vast open-world role playing video game that’s been around since 2011 and has been available on a variety of platforms and consoles, including the most recent, the Nintendo Switch, which is where I discovered it. You can choose from a wide range of races and species for your character, including varieties of humans and elves, as well as as orcs and anthropomorphic animalistic species, and I chose to be a Bosmer, better known as a Wood Elf. I had been looking for a game to fill the void left when I had finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and playing as a sort of Link-like quasi-Hylian appealed to me.
I knew almost nothing about the game before I first fired it up. I had never played an Elder Scrolls game before, and knew nothing about them other than that they were fantasy role playing games. Skyrim throws the new player right into the thick of conflict (literally as a prisoner bound for execution) and little in the way of tutorial or introduction, so one is forced to fumble about from the very first moments, wrangling with an overwhelming array of buttons and menus that make little sense at the beginning. It didn’t help that I am woefully helpless in games played from the first-person perspective, and you can imagine my relief when I discovered (by mashing buttons) that I could toggle to third-person and more or less stay that way.
Beyond my hapless and frustrating orientation to the basic controls of the game, I was also overwhelmed by the deluge of stories being hurled at me from every character. Every warlord, guard, prisoner, and townsperson was eager to unload their most deep-seated grievances and ennobling dreams, and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about.
There’s an Empire, sure, got that. And there are local monarchs, and they don’t all get along with each other, and some don’t like the Empire, and some do. Fine, fine. Factional disputes, nothing surprising there. But what the hell, exactly, am I supposed to do? I became so overwhelmed, so quickly, that I summarily dropped the game for months before deciding to give it another shot.
I’ve come around, and while I’m sure I’m not yet near the game’s end (if there even is such a thing), I’ve advanced to incredible political heights, gained world-shattering powers in magic and combat, and become extraordinarily wealthy. I even have a lovely house and adopted two kids (Sophie, a real sweetheart, and Lucia the badass).
But no matter how powerful I become, the attitudes of Skyrim’s people remain constant. There are the more cosmopolitan humans, including various aristocrats, artists, and many craftspeople and merchants, who largely don’t even mention my character’s race. (There is a measure of condescension at times, as when characters ask, “What do you want, little elf?” My character, unlike me in real life, is of above-average height.) But particularly in the political regions (what Skyrim refers to as “holds”) where there is antipathy toward the Empire, my elvishness engenders a good deal of hostility and mistrust.
And I really, really didn’t like that. Fairly early on in the game (or, at least as I experienced it), the player is faced with a decision: Will they stand with the ruling Empire or side with a faction of rebels, the “Stormcloaks.” Their leader, the Jarl of Windhelm, Ulfric, has recently killed Skyrim’s Empire-aligned High King, and aims to make Skyrim an independent state.
Which sounds noble enough, until you come to understand that the Stormcloaks consider Skyrim to be a land specifically for their particular race of humans, known as Nords. So-called Imperials are not wanted, and wanted even less are elves.
What’s that all about? I certainly didn’t know. But it’s not as though the game doesn’t give the player ample and frequent opportunities to find out. Apart from the many lengthy monologues from non-player characters, the game generously scatters books throughout the world that the player can read, a great many of which recount the history of Skyrim, its continent of Tamriel, and all its peoples. So if there’s something about Skyrim culture one doesn’t understand, it’s probably because one hasn’t done the research.
Regardless of the cultural context, this anti-elf bigotry did not sit well with me, and I decided that if the game wants me to pick a side, I’m naturally going to choose the side that welcomes my kind and doesn’t consider us invaders. Racist Stormcloaks, who might as well be wearing leather helmets emblazoned with Make Skyrim Great Again, could bite my Bosmer butt. I signed up with the Imperials, and through my bravery and astounding feats in the face of death, I rose to the rank of Legate.
Not too long after what looked like the final defeat of the Stormcloaks, thanks in large part to my sword-slashing and thunderbolt-zapping in the streets of Windhelm, I was trotting along some path outside the city and came upon a group of folks with a prisoner in tow.
Inquiring as to what was going on, I learned that it was a group of High Elves (a different race of elves than my own, but elvish all the same) getting ready to prosecute and execute a Nord human for the crime of worshiping the wrong god. The races and species of Tamriel (and its planet of Nirn) worship a wide variety of gods and demigods, and many Nords also worship as a god a human warrior from ages past named Talos. This mortal human does not qualify for divinity in the eyes of the Empire, who have made Talos-worship a crime.
And these elves, ostensibly “my people” from “my side,” were going to murder a guy over it. I intervened, the High Elf inquisitors tried to kill me, and I wiped them out. They did manage to kill the Nord prisoner during the fracas.
So here I was, a high-ranking officer of the Empire and an elf, having just killed a contingent of Imperial elves who were committing fascistic crimes against humanity (or Nirn-ity).
Had I picked the wrong side?
At the beginning of the game, I knew nothing. Trying to make sense of the world I’d been violently thrown into (I say “violently” because my execution was stayed due to a dragon attack on the town which allowed me to escape), I reached certain conclusions about the moral landscape based on my anecdotal encounters with the denizens of Skyrim. Those who were most hostile and prejudicial toward me because of my race were the same folks who were decrying the Empire and making common cause with Ulfric and the Stormcloaks. It seemed pretty clear to me that they were, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history. The Empire, from my limited understanding, represented the Nirnian version of enlightenment.
So what about those elves on the road? Why was the Empire violently weeding out heretics and making examples of them? That’s what the unenlightened rubes would do, right? Except nobody in Skyrim, save for overt villains and demons and the like, ever sought to erase me for what I was. They were rude, discriminatory, and belittling, but my freedom was never threatened. My life was never threatened. My labors were always compensated and my money was always good.
It occurred to me that I couldn’t remember why I was being carted off to execution at the beginning of the game. I remember at the time that the dialogue was such a torrent of unfamiliar names and factions that it more or less just washed over me as I worried about how to move around, attack, and navigate the menus.
Looking it up again for the first time in months, I was reminded that my character was bound for execution for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, rounded up during an Imperial raid on Stormcloaks. Because I had been in the vicinity, I was presumed to be part of the resistance, and therefore presumed guilty. On the cart to Helgen, where I was to meet my end (save for the dragon attack), I rode alongside Ulfric, the very man who I would fight to defeat and dethrone in the assault on Windhelm. My executioner was to be an Imperial by the name of General Tullius, the same man who would later give me my own Imperial rank. I fought literally at his side in Windhelm and helped him dispose of Ulfric.
I remembered nothing of the game’s beginnings when I was climbing the Empire’s ranks and winning its favor. (I was also busy becoming a powerful sorcerer and earning the title of Arch-Mage at the College of Winterhold, so I had a lot on my mind.) If I had remembered that I had ridden to my almost-doom with Ulfric, or that Tullius had summarily ordered my death based on false pretenses, I almost certainly would have made different choices. I’m not sure which ones.
But even forgetting all of that, I never really knew what “the Empire” was to begin with. All I knew was that it was not based in Skyrim, and, thanks to interstitial tips and backstory provided during loading screens, I knew that there had been a peace achieved between the Empire and something called the Aldmeri Dominion. A quick bit of googling told me that the Aldmeri Dominion is essentially an elf-supremacist superpower that won the right to stamp out Talos worship within the Empire as part of its peace treaty. Thus, the elven inquisitors I met on the road.
Digging further into various websites and wikis unearths a trove of material providing more history and context to the state of affairs for Skyrim into which I was dropped. It’s dizzying.
I didn’t expect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to be simplistic, and I knew I would need to make ethically and morally difficult choices. For example, I have, so far, totally eschewed the questline surrounding the “Dark Brotherhood,” a band of elite assassins, and I have merely dabbled with the Thieves Guild questline, mostly for the sake of building up in-game skills. On the whole, I have tried to make choices that are consistent with both my own values and what I perceive my character’s would be in this time and place. It’s fuzzy, but it’s how I’ve decided to play. (I may decide on a second playthrough to go a totally different route, and play as, say, a treacherous, murderous lizard-person.) And I’m not nearly done. My quest menu screen is still overflowing.
What I didn’t anticipate when beginning this experience was the incredibly rich worldbuilding that has gone into the Elder Scrolls franchise, and how it deeply informs the story within the game. It was easy to hate those provincial Nords who turned their stubby noses up at me for being an elf. I had no idea what might have made them hate elves in the first place. Knowing more about the history of Tamriel, about the conflicts between elves and humans, hasn’t excused their bigotry, but nor does it excuse the totalitarian crackdown by the Empire, nor the zealous intolerance of the Admeri elves.
They all have their reasons. They all have their motivations. They all believe they are doing what they must.
So what about this Bosmer living in a human realm that I play, this Arch-Mage and Imperial legate, this ex-convict who narrowly escaped a beheading, this conqueror and liberator, this slayer of dragons and deathlords, this father of two orphaned girls? What must he do, now that he knows a little more?
What must anyone do, once they know a little more?
If there is a point to being alive, a reason for existing as a self-aware organism in the Universe, it is probably to solve problems. I don’t actually think there is a reason for us or anyone else to exist, nor do I think that the Universe itself provides or requires any inherent meaning or purpose. But if there is any purpose, or if we can impose meaning post hoc, sans propter hoc, then I think the whole point is the solving of problems.
Let’s get this out of the way, just for total clarity: There was no “intent” on the part of the Universe or any other entity that a particular species (or any number of species) should emerge and go about the business of fixing things the Universe couldn’t fix on its own. That’s fantasy stuff. The Universe has no will, nor does it perceive that it possesses imperfections to be repaired. It doesn’t perceive anything, except inasmuch that the beings in it, and therefore of it, perceive things. But the fact that they do perceive anything is accidental, not purposeful.
By problem-solving, I mean something far more mundane, localized to the individual organism. One has the will to maintain one’s own existence because of the impulse, built into a being by natural selection, to seek out opportunities to overcome deficiencies, fulfill needs, create novelties, experience pleasures, and relieve suffering. Examples can range from achieving world peace to fixing a leaky faucet. From creating a great work of art to cleaning up a spilled drink. From being elected President of the United States to sending routine a work email. From filling one’s head with the knowledge gained from the reading of a book to filling one’s belly with a nice breakfast.
So what? Good question. “So what” indeed.
I first encountered this simple idea from a rather unscholarly source, Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F✻ck. It was quite revelatory in that it stripped away the various layers of made-up meaning we humans apparently need to heap onto everything. Manson’s point was more specifically about happiness, that rather than being a state, happiness is a process that comes from the solving of problems that a person wants to be solving. The anticipation, planning, and execution of solving those problems are what brings about actual satisfaction with one’s existence. Not glee or joy, per se, but contentment. Purpose.
In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that the Buddha already knew this. And while On the Origin of Species was still a good two-and-a-half thousand years after the Buddha’s time, his way of understanding human existence squares pretty well with what natural selection has wrought in us.
“Yes, as [the Buddha] said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied,” says Wright. “And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”
We have evolved to want to solve for x, to take pleasure in attempting to solve for x, and to take more pleasure in having solved x, but not so much pleasure that we feel like we shouldn’t now move on to y and z.
Despair comes from one’s problems being unsolvable or from having no problems that one deems worth solving. It’s always about pursuit of that which we do not yet have, be it material or informational. I was reminded of this again when reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in a passage from when Genry speaks to the mystic Faxe.
“The unknown,” Faxe tells Genry, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. … But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
Genry responds, “That we shall die.”
“Yes,” says Faxe. “There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer… . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
Purpose, meaning, contentment, all of it comes from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment business of solving for x.
Again: So what? I don’t know. But maybe I can work with that. Maybe you can work with that. At the very least, maybe you can find some purpose in solving for that x.
During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!
So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!
Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.
Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.
(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)
Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.
But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.
So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.
I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.
And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.
It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.
“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.
The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.
In case it’s not obvious, President Trump needs to resign. In order to make it easier, I have taken the liberty of composing his resignation address for him, delivering exactly the message I think he would like to have conveyed to the country as he steps down.
Mister President, I offer this text to you, and I invite you to deliver it as soon as possible.
Final Address by President Donald J. Trump
My fellow Americans,
Our beautiful country is being torn apart by criminals and terrorists that have overtaken the streets of our great cities, looting and murdering real Americans in defiance of our incredible police and our wonderful troops. These violent savages have been encouraged and supported by the fake news media and their enablers within the deep state that even now conspires to destroy our beautiful and amazing country and bring under the rule of globalist elites who hate our American values.
As liberal-Democrat mayors and governors allow maniacs and killers to pour into the streets, they have also oppressed the real American patriots who have courageously stood against hysterical and illegal lockdowns over the COVID-19 virus, which is now totally under control. Those great Americans have had to endure the humiliation and injustice of staying at home and being denied their Second Amendment rights.
I am so proud of the police, who have endured such hatred and violence, getting no support whatsoever from unAmerican Democrat politicians or the fake news media, which spreads lies about their heroism. I have done all I can as your president to support the police as they face down these terrorists, like Antifa, who are also terrorists.
But because of the lying fake news media, too many Americans now wrongly believe that the police and the great American Armed Forces are in the wrong, and the real criminals and terrorists are the heroes. Because of the disgusting cowards within the Deep State, dozens of former officials have corrupted themselves and turned against our country, denouncing the police, insulting the military, and viciously and unfairly attacking your president—a president who won the greatest landslide election in the history of elections against Crooked Hillary Clinton.
As I speak to you tonight, I am poised to once again win an even greater landslide victory over Sleepy Joe Biden, who many people are saying is not even alive right now. He might actually be dead. But this wonderful, glorious victory for our country is too much for the corrupt fake news media, the anti-American Deep State, and Antifa, who are also very, very bad. And despite the great efforts I and my administration have taken to bring peace and prosperity to our nation, too many people in our country have come to believe all these horrible lies, though many of the people who do believe the lies that I’m talking about are definitely illegal immigrants.
One thing seems to unite all of these terrible people, whether they are the fake news media, the Deep State, the perpetrators of Obamagate, the bad people who invented the coronavirus hoax, the corrupt Democrat politicians, or Antifa—who are very real and very dangerous and are very much a real thing—is their hatred of Trump. They know that it is your president who truly has the love of the American people behind him and that it is Trump that can crush America’s enemies. Usually these people are a sad, sad mess, but their hatred of your leader, me, Trump, has made them more dangerous than ever.
And so, in order to save our beautiful country from being totally, totally destroyed, I have decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. Effective 12:01 AM, one minute after midnight tonight, I will resign the presidency and transfer the powers of the office to Vice President Mike Pence.
This is an incredibly sad moment for America. As I said, I was very much looking forward to defeating Sleepy Joe Biden in every single state, except those states where illegal immigrants are allowed by corrupt Democrat governors, like that woman-governor in Michigan, to vote illegally over and over and over. But I probably would have won those states too. But because the American people, real American people, love Trump, America’s enemies hate you. They hate you so much that they have done everything they can to bring down the president you love, the most popular and respected president in history. Me.
Antifa is also doing all these terrible things.
But because I love this beautiful country so much, the best thing I can do is step away from the presidency so America’s enemies will no longer have Trump to obsess over. My good friend, Vice President Mike Pence, begged me not to do this, and it was really beautiful, the way he almost cried, but held it back, because he’s such a strong, strong man.
I am one hundred percent confident that after I make Mike Pence president, which I can do, that he will go on to defeat Sleepy Joe Biden and his corrupt friends. If Sleepy Joe is even still alive, which some people say he is not.
I hope that by taking myself out of the spotlight, the new administration will have the space it needs to crush America’s enemies, who of course will be confused and panicking because of what I have just done. While out of the spotlight, I will of course continue to fight loudly and strongly against all those who seek to destroy this country, like, for example, Antifa.
I am sad, very, very sad, but also proud to be stepping down on a high note, when I have the greatest approval numbers and greatest ratings in history. The Trump administration has been the greatest and most successful administration, ever, and there will never be another President of the United States like Trump.
May God, who has always been on my side and been very proud of me, bless the beautiful United States of America.
As of about 10pm Eastern on June 3, 2020, here are a few things I think need to happen to push things in the right direction, in no particular order:
Mark Zuckerberg should resign from Facebook. The United States is in its worst moment of crisis in generations and Facebook, the most powerful outlet of information in the world, is complicit in bringing us to this point. Zuckerberg has proven time and again that he is incapable of either grasping the damage Facebook’s business model has done to society, nor of developing the conscience or empathy required to do something about it. I have no illusions about “shutting down Facebook,” as it is too much like a public utility, for better or worse. Rather, the wretched man who has enriched himself by giving growth hormones to misinformation and incitements to violence needs to walk away. He is a cancer on democracy.
The New York Times editorial board, every single member thereof, should resign in shame over the publication of Sen. Tom Cotton’s celebration of fascism, itself an incitement to additional violence against black Americans. From propping up the phony justifications for the Iraq war to treating the Hillary Clinton email controversy as the defining scandal of the 2016 election, this group of quislings has utterly failed this country. Let this be the last time.
Speaking of the catastrophe that was the Iraq war, President George W. Bush has made some kind noises about unity and ending racism, and that’s all well and good. But the only truly useful thing he can do at this moment in history is to go in front of the cameras and endorse Joe Biden for president. If he’s not going to do that, there’s literally nothing he has to say that is of any value whatsoever.
The above also goes for Mitt Romney and any other Republicans of national prominence who have any shred of conscience or patriotism left in their tattered souls.
Democratic leaders in Congress should…do…something. Anything. Fucking christ, something.