Up and to the Where?
The idea for the title of my site as well as the best description of my life philosophy I’ve read so far originally came from a post of Tim Urban’s I read a long time ago. The basic premise (though he does a much more wonderful job of explaining it and you should go read it now) is that as humans we are somewhere on the spectrum of consciousness. This somewhere is likely higher than that of a beetle’s, and considerably higher than that of a plant’s. But that’s only what’s going on below - what about above? Well, we don’t know - like the classic saying, does an ant in a colony have the slightest conception about the construction of a ten-lane superhighway next to it? In the same way we may be staring at a higher form of consciousness in our daily lives and completely miss it for what it really is.
So that’s a bit depressing - what’s the upside? The difference from where we are now to the next “step” may be absolutely massive - but what if we were to split it into smaller, sub-steps? It becomes a little more approachable. I think everyone has those moments in life: where we come close to seeing a peek of the big picture. For some it might be caused by comparing the length of a single human life to the age of the universe. For others, the miracle of life: everything starting with two cells and continuing a beautiful continuous unbroken chain going back millennia. Yet others might marvel at how little anyone actually understands the complex economic and social systems we’ve constructed - but how everyone pretends to. Or by contrasting the sheer number of human beings on the planet with the imperceptible fraction of them I’ll get to meet in my life. Sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon marveling at how light breaks through the dark storm clouds, in complete awe of the timescales and processes involved in its formation. Or taking in the absolute vastness and complexity of natural systems on the planet: energy and weather systems that make jokes of our most powerful modeling abilities. Standing in the crowd of a concert, feeling the perfect synchronization and connection between the singers and the audience by way of simple vibrations in the air. For me, it’s moments like these that reliably give me a reality check of precisely how tiny, inconsequential, improbable, and fragile my entire existence is.
That reality check is the closest thing I can imagine to a mere hint or shadow of the perspective a higher consciousness might have. A peek that might be nothing compared to the actual thing - but it’s more than the wake-work-eat-relax-sleep-repeat haze I find much of life passing me by in, hard as I try to be present. And in those brief moments I experience a humility and wonder beyond anything else I know. I am reminded of all the other species on the planet and feel compassion and empathy for them. I see people struggling to take care of their families, trying to do what it takes to protect the ones they love most and understand how I would do the same in their shoes. The incredible souls in the world sacrificing their comfort, safety, and security for the sake of others. And I can only see the beauty in it all. A beauty and order that language fails to describe but math, art and music do a better job of conveying. That against all odds, I - a collection of atoms consisting mostly of empty space - has the chance every single day to experience and explore this incredible universe. To know what it is to laugh, to cry, to feel, plan, love, create, enjoy, and build. And that I might perhaps connect with another human being and share with them a fraction of the joy I’ve gotten lucky enough to feel fills me with immeasurable excitement. That death is merely part of the cycle of life and that my atoms may someday be a part of any number of points of life in the future. And that the only logical thing in the face of all these realizations is to enjoy, celebrate, and try my best to preserve that beauty.
Eventually, like all such experiences, the view fades. The sun sets, the song ends, the gliding eagle disappears out of sight. Hunger, thirst, random memories, tiredness, or a distraction sets in and my mind goes back to its usual game of worrying about things beyond my control. However: what I do get to keep is a slightly clearer picture of the path that led me to that vantage point. Sometimes, that path involves helping others and giving my time to them without expecting anything in return. Others, it’s a Wikipedia binge starting with some random topic and ending with the big, perhaps forever unanswered questions. Yet others it’s simply laying on the roof of a houseboat looking out at the stars and feeling tears starting to well up at the potential of exploring and colonizing them one day. And so I do my best to follow those signals, like a moth to the flame. With fewer preconceptions and judgement. More acceptance, curiosity, and humility, and most importantly: love.
So, tying it all up again - why Up and to the Right? Because it’s a reminder of the direction of progress, my own and humanity’s at large. Like a compass heading; a sign of which way to go - but not a destination in and of itself. A route that may have ups and downs requiring continuous course correction as new information is acquired and understood. The direction towards the next step on that “consciousness staircase”. And a reminder that any data is only smooth from far out - up close it is an inconsistent, noisy, and unrepresentative sample of the bigger picture.
Over time I’ve found various other descriptions of this feeling as described by people. To some extent I view religion as an organized attempt at finding, cultivating, and sharing that love and beauty - but an attempt that so often ends in only more pain and division for those involved. I believe many of us experience this feeling with our own distinct perspective colored by our unique life experiences, dreams, and memories. And that’s precisely what makes it so wonderful to hear about other people’s moments - it’s the closest thing to see seeing reality through another person’s eyes. In the words of Alan Watts, “you are the universe experiencing itself”. Kurzeasgt calls it Optimistic Nihilism. Tim Urban calls it Truthism. Carl Sagan calls it spirituality and that’s the one that resonates most with me. Like many things, labels are only useful in describing and grouping similar things - and I’m learning that the most special things in life are also the hardest to label, explain, measure, and categorize. They just are.