The World I Want to Die In

Picture by David Denton

A Bucket List is about stuff you want to do or have done as an individual before your expiration date.

I’ve done plenty of Bucket List-worthy things — being the Guest of Honor at a Faculty Banquet at South China Normal University in Guangzhou comes to mind, along with eating snake as the professors watched approvingly. But while they sometimes make good stories, most of my cool personal experiences were never on any List and don’t provide any sense of purpose in life. I mean, is that It — Eating Snake for an audience of my peers?

Wanting to make a difference is how many people express their deepest motivation in life and I‘ve expressed my feeling that way too. It’s not the same as a Bucket List of personal accomplishments. It involves the idea of enduring outcomes in the world, which is always going to be a problem since there are no enduring outcomes in the world.

I was a little surprised that a phrase like, Make a Difference has an entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.

1: to cause a change : to be important in some way

Hmmm, Making a Difference sounds like an ego trip.

2: to do something that is important : to do something that helps people or makes the world a better place

That’s a little more like it. I’m sure it’s true for me that being important has something to do with my energy and drive, but it’s not the whole story and I’d much rather shift the important part away from me and onto the something-I-do, as definition #2 clearly articulates.

There’s still a lot of me me me though; like, I did that; or, I helped do that, but there’s also a focus on helping other people and making the world a better place, which sounds great until you think about it and quickly realize that

  • most people don’t want to be helped, aren’t good at being helped, and when they do want help it is extremely difficult to help them effectively; and
  • making the world a better place is a matter of significant disagreement with nothing close to a consensus on what a better world would be or how to build it.

I’m not feeling so good about wanting to make a difference any more.

No problem, I have no chance anyway.

Making a Difference Bill-Gates-Style

Unpacking Merriam-Webster’s common sense understanding of Making a Difference for what it actually represents shows the kind of narcissistic attitude and the hubris it takes to want the whole wide world to be a better place because of you. It assumes scale and significance. It has to be important and it has to be worldwide.

Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum people have explicitly stated that The Great Reset is about helping other people and making the world a better place. Whether the other people like it or not. Now that’s Making a Difference. I have no chance.

Making a Difference, ladled into me by well-meaning parents and a string of Influencers ever since, still has a hold. It’s loosening though, quickly.

Rationally, I know that every component of the concept becomes something I’m not comfortable with when I consider each one carefully instead of just mindlessly spouting a slogan that’s been with me since the 60s. I feel foolish for even wanting to put my stamp on the world in a way that could be seen from space or from centuries in the future.

As a semi-old person it is now obvious that nothing ever gets resolved, that you can never say, ‘there, that happened and it’s done,’ about anything more complicated than a baseball game — and sometimes even those results get ‘vacated’ years later.

I won’t see the Revolution, the Age of Aquarius, or the end of Kali Yuga.

I’m pretty sure I won’t see if the arc of history really does bend toward justice.

Climate disasters and the imperative to Do Something Before It’s Too Late seem close enough at hand that, who knows, maybe even semi-old people like me will see massive death and devastation toward the end of our allotted time, but still, what does that resolve? It proves that humans should have taken climate change more seriously but we already know that. Meanwhile, the story continues however it continues.

I don’t like imagining my children and grandchildren’s world with super fires and crippling storms while coastal cities I used to love are underwater. When visions like this pop into my mind, I don’t too engaged but I definitely notice them. These are non-zero possibilities I need in my mental models. Then I go back to whatever I was doing.

I’ve read science fiction for decades and most of it is either neutral or dystopian with regard to the future. Almost all science reporting in mainstream media is presented with a threat perspective as well, like the existential risk of of AI or Dr. Frankenstein’s gene editing.

It is difficult to imagine better futures in the same concrete terms that are easy to imagine as catastrophic scenarios. Buckminster Fuller made a serious attempt with his 1963, Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs, in which he determined that an equitable ‘Bare Maximum’ distribution of essential and enjoyable resources is possible. There is enough to go around.

There still is.

But that’s not what it feels like on the ground. It feels like relatively few people have more than they could ever need and most people have barely or not enough. I have no idea how I could ‘Make a Difference’ and change that.

I wrote to Buckminster Fuller in 1969 and said that his principles of anticipatory design science had deeply affected me, so could I bring my BA with Honors in Philosophy to Carbondale and work with him at the University of Southern Illinois? He wrote back that he appreciated my enthusiasm and I should use it to start my own project with my own friends.

So I did. Got off to a good start too. Pretty soon Making a Difference got all mixed up with Making a Living like it does for most people. The time I made a presentation to a roomful of Generals in the Pentagon wasn’t Making a Difference, just Making a Living. Great story, though, love to tell you about it sometime.

Scaled Back Visions

Making a Living takes up so damn much of your waking hours it’s easy to blame for not Making a Difference. One aspect of maturity that some people manage to grow into is a natural scaling back of what it means to Make a Difference. Merriam-Webster might say it has to be important, but everyone still gets to define what’s important in their own terms. If Important is totally local with no scalable ramifications, so be it.

Locally focused difference making is a smart strategy because tangible results sometimes actually happen. Results always take longer than expected, but small-scale local outcomes tend to become visible more quickly.

Unfortunately, just cutting back on scope and importance doesn’t solve the problem of wanting to make a difference. Even small-scale local projects usually involve working with other people, which adds time and conflict. Local volunteer organizations are often a running melodrama. When personal needs drive Making a Difference, usually not much difference making happens.

I’m not just scaling back. I’m giving up.

Making a Difference is not a realm where I can compete or where I want to compete. It is not a mindset I want to inhabit.

I am extremely concerned about a few of those who are fully committed to that mindset, like Gates and his Great Reset colleagues. I can describe their arrogant delusions of beneficence and the dark places I think their plans will lead us all. I don’t know what else to do about them directly.

The World I Want to Die In

Prek Toal floating village, author’s pic

Instead of trying to make a difference, I started imagining and thinking about the World I’d Like to Live In for the 3,000–5,000 day planning horizon I’ve chosen to operate under. I’m pretending I can start pretty much from scratch and visualize what that world would look like, or what different looks it would present overall.

I can be very detailed and explicit in this exercise because I am constructing it almost daily in Virtual Reality. I take part in Events that don’t exist in the other world and I relate to people in ways I had never done before until I started actively imagining the world I want to live in.

I don’t need to focus on the Great Reset to know that it is not a move toward the better world I am already experiencing in its earliest forms. The Reset’s Greatness is acknowledged as a move toward resetting Capitalism, so existing power relations can proceed more or less intact. A few people are arguing right now over who is the more and who is the less. None of them are trying to screw you. None of them care about you or think about you ever. They care about scoring on each other. You’re collateral damage.

Notice that and then go back to imagining your better world.

It is not important that you make it happen. It is important to clarify your own intentions. That’s where the stories you tell yourself turn into behavior.

The oldest story that we know of is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s about the psychopathic Ruler of Uruk who bullies his people and has sex with their daughters on their wedding night. I’m not making this up. A four thousand year old narrative would fit right into next week’s issue of People Magazine.

All Gilgamesh cares about is himself but the story takes off when he gets a buddy who can keep up with him and together they stop hassling Uruk and start Making a Difference on a wider scale. They cut down sacred forests. They kill the Gods’ favorite animals. They are totally badass and it catches up with them when the friend dies.

Here the story changes in spirit and tone. His mortality now painfully salient, Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with defeating death. The challenges he faces and overcomes are epic. Some of his choices are epic as well, like turning down a nice life and the love a good woman in order to continue his quest to live forever.

Why does a story like this get told and retold? People had to work really hard to inscribe it into clay tablets and it wasn’t tax records or business crap — it was and still is storytelling that mattered. It must have mattered to people in ancient Sumeria.

Larger than life media superstars like Gilgamesh, hero of our first story, are projections of deeper forces that influence all of us, that we’re all connected to. Gilgamesh just shows us an exaggerated form that we can take personally or keep at a distance (story says he was 18 feet tall, wtf does that have to do with me?).

In a somewhat surprising plot development, Gilgamesh does have the chance to live forever, more than once. But he turns it down and then loses it, (to a snake). He seems unclear about the very concept he is so obsessively devoted to. He wants to return to Uruk in victory, but by the time he gets there, he is no longer the force he once was and he has lost track of any purpose.

Our current version of The Epic of Gilgamesh has no Hollywood ending. A thoroughly depleted old man sees the outlines of his old city off in the distance and it looks pretty good to him. The end.

Redemption? Finding acceptance at the end? That’s one interpretation, maybe the primary one, but I don’t see it that way at all. I see Gilgamesh acting like a mindless schmuck his whole life and I’m sorry about his friend dying but even that didn’t knock him out of his self-absorbed maniacal behavior.

To me, The Epic of Gilgamesh isn’t just the first narrative — it’s the first cautionary tale. People went to the work of inscribing it because someone felt it was that important.

Even if you’re 18 feet tall with all the power of Gilgamesh or Bill Gates, making a difference based on your power, your will, and your mono-focused quest for personal immortality probably will not end well.

I was taught to feel separate from the world, that the world is here for me to exercise my freedom on, to make my mark on. Even though there are plenty of obvious reasons not to buy into the Special Separate You conditioning, I did. Now I just don’t.

Partly it’s how I spent the Year (and counting) of Covid and partly it’s everything else that got me here, including a long-term meditation practice. It’s not something I’m finally resigned to. It’s what I have naturally become.

The pandemic has accelerated my growing awareness of being bound up in a biosphere of life with a noosphere of mental activity all the way down to the propagating wave fronts that interfere and make things appear to be.

This world right here, right now, today, is the World I Want to Die In. Call it self-brainwashing, willing the obligatory or whatever term you choose. This is the world I’m in and I can’t make it different and I can’t help but make it different, which come to the same thing.

Like Gilgamesh, I have lost best friends. Unlike Gilgamesh, these experiences did not make me try to defeat Death. They also haven’t reduced me to the point of desperately seeking solace. I don’t know why the Kaiser Oncologist telling me I had cancer made me want to take a deep dive into cancer, and death, but it did. I volunteered with the Kaiser Hospice program a few days later and just kept doing it.

I’m presumptuous enough to think I can have a relationship with Death. Like all relationships, I need to be vulnerable and I need to care. Our relationship expresses itself in many ways. I’m open about me and Death. My wife knows.

Gilgamesh had several chances for happier endings. He outraced the Sun and made it to something like the Garden of Eden, where he found excellent companionship. It’s pretty obvious the Sumerian authors were making sure everyone noticed the path not taken.

But Gilgamesh never joined the human race, never even noticed the rest of us. I can’t think of one generous thing he does in the entire epic, even though other people constantly do generous things for him. It’s not like he doesn’t see any examples of caring or compassion.

When you see yourself as part of life, not in the business of extracting things from nature for yourself, you naturally want to do things for other people. It doesn’t happen from deciding you want to be more that way. It happens from exercising your attention and awareness carefully over time.

I’m writing more freely and as a result more vulnerably now than ever. I still think I’m just getting warmed up, I still think I have better work to come even though this keystroke could be my last one but as it turns out, so far, it wasn’t.

I will ‘go gentle into that good night,’ not when I’m ready, but when it is time. Dylan Thomas was writing about his father, not wanting him to let go any sooner than he should.

I work for my son. I’m following in his footsteps by leading meditations and connecting deeply with people in virtual spaces that he created or led me to one way or another. This work helps me notice what is important and what isn’t. What helps build new worlds, worlds I’m ready to die in.

I also write an occasional e-newsletter on Sub Stack

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos