from The Psychology of Liberty
An Issue Of Time
Knowing ones value, trusting ones mind, and striving to have no pretenses are prerequisites for health in an advanced civilization. As discussed, the main aspect in these activities is high self-esteem, or more fundamentally, an enlightened self-concept. In order to value and respect others, we have to value and respect ourselves. This entails consideration of ourselves as worthy of respect and worthy of happiness.
An understanding of the dynamics of self-esteemwhat we can do to increase or decrease it and what it requires of usrepresents the functioning of a highly evolved state of consciousness. Again, a highly evolved state of consciousness in this sense, like many aspects of intelligence, is not something persons are provided at birth. It is something they choose to achieve, because their lives are important to them. At any point in life, we can decide to throw off the shackles of inertia and cultural norms that prevent us from experiencing more of lifes possibilities. And, of course, such experiences necessarily take place in time.
Time for individuals is limited. Cultures and civilizations may last for centuries or even millennia, but particular persons arrive and depart from these settings rather quickly. Given this, the basic idea of time needs to be correctly addressed. When people plead their cases about Our childrens future or Our grandchildrens future, they offer us a somewhat distorted time frame. Complex debates and arguments can distract us from realizing that time is of the essence for the individual.
In terms of our political and social future, crucial changes not only could happen in a few decades, but also must happen for us to benefit from them. (This of course is not taking into account the technologies that conceivably could enable our lifespan to be dramatically increased, such as cryonics and nanobots. For the time being, at least, thinking conservatively is probably wise.)
The ideal political philosophy would be mostly useless to us if it could not be implemented within our lifetime. The meaning it would have for future multitudes of the unborn distracts us from the urgency of our plight. Clearly, what is right for actual lives should be right for future lives. When it comes to the creation of a benevolent society of justice, objective law, and objective values, little matters outside the framework of present existence. In fact, to ascribe benefit or meaning outside this framework tends to miss the point. The self is the ultimate creator of all values.
In various peoples quests to implement many dubious programs of change, they usually leave this most important beneficiary out of the picturethe self. Only a person in the present can be interested in how society will affect him or her (or the planet, or future generations). What is of value to society is actually of value to the individual.
To see no personal value or gain in a changebe it political or otherwiseis equivalent to advocating self-sacrifice or self-surrender in the name of some higher goal. Yet, this is what we typically observe in todays politics: Everything for others and unknown people in the future is good, while most things for personal gain are either bad or guiltily avoided. The psychological motives really speak for themselves in this matter. Either a hidden agenda is present (in which purported acts of selflessness are being used as a disguise), or a lack of comprehension exists about the fact that all things begin and end with the individualnot with others.
Everyone has an interest in taking dramatic political and psychological steps forward. Such progress ought not be delayed until sometime in the indefinite futureor be advocated only by someone else. Excuses about why society cannot effect radical change in the present usually take on the character of rationalizations. Certainly they provide a type of security that cannot be found in taking genuine, logical action. Self-assertion can be challenging sometimes, but the price we pay for not asserting our noble desires and interests is big indeed.
In the name of It may be a possibility later, but not in our lifetime, we could trade extraordinarily exciting possibilities of sustained joy and expansion of awareness for their frequent antagonistssupposed comfort, safety, and security. These antagonists turn out to be merely self-defeating illusions. They often lead the human organism down the dismal path of repression and rationalization. As a result, the intense fire of youth for nonstop adventure becomes a hardly recognizable smoldering cinder. So long as one tries to justify such conditions, it cannot be rekindled.
We cannot alter the fact that we are aging. Although aging is a natural factor for all things, it is especially critical for living organisms. For nonliving matter, aging and weathering take place constantly. The arbitrary or structured organization of elements may take different shape and different form. But, in the end, nothing (no matter or energy) is destroyedalthough particular identities may be altered. For billions of years matter of the universe has taken on new positions and constitutions, but it has always been that which comprises the universe. The fundamental elements and molecules that form a living creature will also never be destroyed. They will only change their form and constituency. They will decompose into the random association of matter and energy that comprises any nonliving part of the universe.
The critical trait of living things is that their organization is not just arbitrary or haphazard. Rather, millions of years of selective mutation have molded them into complex designs. As noted before, there is nothing intentional about these designs. They have simply arisen from the laws of Identity and Causality: Due to the nature of combinations of certain elements (forming molecules and then cells, tissues, organs, etc.) in concert with their surroundings, life exists. And due to the nature of the composition of life and its constituent properties, it can only sustain itself for so long. Eventually, it again becomes the same random association of matter and energy. When an animal in the wild dies, for instance, its tissues are consumed by scavengers, ravaged by sun, water, and air, decomposed by bacteria, and eventually transformed to compostproviding sustenance for plants and trees and other life forms. Such cycles are unrelenting within ecosystems.
So, as living organisms, our time on this planet is finite. By our nature, we have a lifespan. In recent centuries the achievements in medical science have helped extend the average lifespan enormously; it has more than doubled in the last couple centuries. Yet, our maximum lifespan (roughly 100-120 years) has remained basically constant over the last few thousand years. The infant mortality rate in most developed countries is lower than ever before. Many more people are alive now than just a few hundred years, or even decades, ago. These results of medical and industrial achievements are quite remarkable. In fact, if it were not for discoveries of vaccines and other medicinal methods, in addition to labor and time-saving advances in other economic sectors such as agriculture, most of the human race would not be here. How intensely fortunate we are to be able to take simple breaths of air.
Our conceptual faculty has endowed us with the ability to think not only in terms of our lifespan but also in terms of geologic time and the great events of the universe. Even though we can acquire fairly exact measurements of such things as the age of Earth or the distance to the nearest star or galaxy, to actually comprehend the enormity of these measurements is difficult. Even the long reign of other species (e.g., alligators or sharks) makes the amount of time that humans have existed appear miniscule.
From all this, we might begin to think that we are just a small part in the grand scheme of things. This opinion can even be found in various scientific writings. Some believe that humans are no more (or even less) significant than other species. Certainly, what we are facing here is an issue of perspective.
The truth is that human beings are as significant as they view themselves to be. Only a human being can formulate such concepts as significant. Also, only a human being can minimize the importance of itselfthat is, use its own unique tool of language to degrade its own relevance. We are definitely organisms capable of self-repudiation and all its consequences.
Still, time moves onward. Our biological clocks keep ticking. Yet we retain the ability to put knowledge about the universe, geological and biological time scales, into the perspective of our lifespan. This requires that we see this knowledge as a means to an end, an end that tells us that our lifespan is most pertinent. Regardless of past human accomplishments, or projections of future human achievements, the fact that no other age is as important as this one continually beckons us.
In an often subconscious effort to deny this fact, we can at times pursue a life of nonessentials. We can lose ourselves in our cultural environment, immerse ourselves in the particular ritual, custom, topic, trivia, or fad of the day. As noted, the tendency to think in terms of a collective groupa religion, business, community, or nationcan invite many social troubles. Finally, the inclination to see us as being just a small part of history can overpower the need to consider new possibilities.
At the same time, we can delude ourselves with the thought that we have all the time in the world. By living day to day and doing routine tasks, we can easily deceive ourselves with the belief that our life is going on forever. Our interactions with our surroundings can be so comfortable and familiar that we may tend to see life as just ordinary. If no one tries to shake us out of our lethargic model of living, so much the better, we may think. Yet, so much is still waiting to be discovered. Our existence should create wonder, not widespread complacency and acceptability of social norms.
Sometimes rituals, customs, and traditions distract us from seeing the issue of time clearly. They can be easy to maintain and difficult to stop and question. One just repeats the old and follows others. In a way, this bears resemblance to aspects of obsessive/compulsive behavior, in which one allows oneself to remain stuck in a certain mode of functioning. While ones capabilities are not being stretched or fully actualized, mental inertia can take its repetitive course. To stop and inspect what one is doing may seem impossible or become inconceivable, even though nothing short of this is required to overcome the behavior.
Just as the cessation of obsessive/compulsive behavior creates anxietybecause one thinks one is losing control of a highly controlled activitythe relinquishment of various unnecessary rituals, customs, and traditions (both religious and secular) can generate emotional resistance. Granted, unnecessary is sometimes open for interpretation here. Yet certain activities that serve as deficient substitutes for creativity, personal growth, and adventure, clearly reveal their unhealthy nature. In the search for fulfillment, we can find more useful and challenging activities. These are often incompatible with many traditions and practices; they ask us to look to reality, rather than to others (in order to direct or follow).
One thing that we must resist is a propensity to put off what could be done today until tomorrowor even for the foreseeable future. The undemanding allure of procrastination may seem to slow things down, but it lets time slip away even faster.
All of these psychological processes involving the issue of time can have calamitous effects on human history and human potential. Perhaps the greatest misfortune is that many do not realize this until it is too latelife is over for them; they have stepped into the void of nonexistence. And then the whole process starts anew, with new people and a new time period, but with many of the same beliefs and psychological disincentives and discouragements. If only the people for whom life is no more could speak their regrets. How persuasive would their words be?
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