Time, the Rolling Stream

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

-Isaac Watts

A year is not a year.

-Venkatesh Rao

No question vexes me more each day of my life than the question of time and our mortal relationship to it. I last wrote about this issue three years ago to the day, which was my 29th birthday. That day could be said to be the most critical turning point in my life, the day that I decided–to borrow Emerson’s words–not to postpone my life, but live it already. I decided not to wait until circumstances were ideal to begin what I have long thought of as my life’s real mission. I decided not to wait until I had enough money, the right people, the right support. I decided not to straddle the fence of my calling anymore, but do what I couldn’t imagine myself not doing.

As Andrew Marvell wrote to coy mistress, I heard “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” and was determined to outrun it, even if for a short while. If I had known then the events that would unfold as a consequence of that truly fateful decision, I would have flinched–I would have hesitated. One of the blessings of human finitude is that we cannot peer into the future–we can barely peer into the past. We have only about three seconds at a time that we can live in the present and everything else is warped recollection or speculative fantasy. Thus, I did not have the opportunity to flinch. 

Primitive man, fleeing into the forest from a larger predator likewise could not foresee the snake or the spider in front of him due to the feeling of the warm breath of the lion behind. Likewise I ran away from the specter of death’s pursuit and into a forest riddled with snakes and spiders. The lion intends to eat us all–the snake bite merely needs urgent attention when it occurs. When we fully embrace the reality that time, like that ever rolling stream will bear us away too, we must resolve to act, to do something in the world, to make something of ourselves. 

Three years ago I was angry with myself for all of the time I had lost, all of the time I had wasted chasing things I didn’t care about in order to be thought highly of by people I didn’t respect and prove myself to people whose standards were not my own. Even as I had had the courage to strike out on my own and do my own thing from the time I finished university, I was merely taking a personalized path to someone else’s finish line. This may be the singularly most pernicious unacknowledged disease in entrepreneurial culture today. At the end, too many entrepreneurs are vying to win the same phallic measurement competition as the rest of the world, and are sacrificing their calling–and often their principles–in the process.

I was angry with myself for another reason, too–for all of the years I had lost not pursuing the kind of deep personal relationships and connections that can only be forged in and through the process of building real community. A life full of only fractured relationships, with no sources of healing, no mutual commitment to reconciliation is nothing more than a torture, and yet, we accept it as normal. So normal in fact that we fear the alternative–we look upon relationships characterized by honesty and acceptance with some degree of suspicion–even “too good to be true.”

I realized that most existential suffering in life is derived from these two phenomena–doing work that is out of alignment with our calling and broken relationships with other people. From within this personal hell and its attendant pain I determined to set out to do something about it, both for myself and for others. Such deep and fundamental pain can only be resolved by addressing the human spirit. It cannot be purchased or bartered for. It cannot be taught or even described. It can only be experienced–and if it is to become a new reality–practiced over and over each day. It must also be accompanied by an acceptance of a mystery, namely the mystery of the deep compatibility, even fraternity, between Self-Reliance and Community.

Only when we live truly to ourselves, embracing and loving ourselves and our uniqueness, accepting ourselves in our shortcomings and yet never losing the resolve to grow and change; only when we are clear about our individual callings and the sacrifices we have to make to pursue them–only then can we accept others for theirs. Only then can we relate to each other genuinely, without pretension or expectation or judgment. But the mystery flows in both directions, for our individual callings require the support of others to be realized fully. We need the ongoing support and influence of other people to become what we have the potential to become.

Here I do not mean superficial or two-dimensional “moral support” when we are depressed or encounter some obstacle, but a deeper, more committed form of support. We need the friction that authentic relationships engender in order to be dedicated to truth. We need to be constantly comparing our maps of reality if our understandings of the world around us are to be accurate enough to pursue and achieve our goals. We must be challenged every day by other people to maintain rigor in our lives–both in our beliefs about the world and in our interactions with it. To be open to challenge is to be open to growth–to be vigorously challenged is to grow vigorously.

We do not have these conversations very much in every day life. Questions of the “spirit” are almost taboo or off-limits, conjuring up ideas of religion or new age woo woo silliness. But the spirit need not be connoted with metaphysical claims. The spirit can be discussed without the need for heaven or God or gods or doctrine or anything else of the sort. The spirit, the mind, the psyche, whatever term one prefers to use, is the non-physical part of our existence. That part of our identity that we might not be able to easily define or explain, but we seem to know it’s there. The thing that makes me uniquely me and you uniquely you–the only truly private part of life to which only we ourselves have direct access.

You may ascribe it further, higher metaphysical qualities or merely see it as the collection of our thoughts, perceptions, and desires–it matters not your particular definition. We do not have to have the same one. Indeed, we certainly and almost by necessity cannot have the same one. We cannot even understand each other’s definitions of it fully or accurately. It is central to our existence and experience of life. And yet, we have no place where we can discuss such questions openly or honestly.

All of our institutions demand of us some sort of orthodoxy. We must believe certain things or deny certain things. We cannot wonder too openly about certain questions in intellectual circles without being deemed anti-rational. We cannot question too openly certain doctrines in religious circles without being deemed heretics. Our institutions purport to love truth, but they are less in love with its pursuit.

This is what rankles me about the movements to have “church for atheists.” It really is church. Certain ideas are ok and others are not. Just like religion.

But I also think I’m not alone in seeing that exclusive attention to the spirit and spiritual growth neglects the fact that we are not spirit and body as separate entities, but our minds exist in the context of our physical bodies in a physical reality that puts certain demands on us in order to survive. We have to eat, wear clothes, have shelter, and so on–the rubber eventually does have to meet the road.

It is easy to pursue a life of the mind in abject poverty. It is easy to pursue a life of wealth and pleasure in abject poverty of mind. But the full experience of life is only achieved with a complex and nuanced understanding of the deep interplay between the physical and the spiritual. 

Everybody understands this at some level, whether they acknowledge it or not. Everybody feels impoverished by the inadequacies of one or two dimensional living–the ignored calling, the broken relationships, the lack of contemplation, the dearth of action.

Even in the most ideal of circumstances it is difficult to pursue all of these things. It is nearly impossible to do alone. Ultimately this is why I founded Exosphere–to have a place to pursue these things with other people. I wake up every morning dedicated to the work to make it become a force for social change the world over. The world has had too many small ideas in recent years. It is time for a big one.

That brings me to my other thought on Time. While it is certainly the case that death comes to all, and Time is its agent, the most important development in thought I have had in the last three years, is that we have a lot of control over how Time comes to collect its due. I am forever indebted to Venkatesh Rao for his book Tempo, and for his insights on time in general and in particular that “a year is not a year.”

All of my anguish over lost years, my own Proustian search for lost time has fallen away by understanding the power of narrative time. Indeed, the last year of my life has felt longer (in a good way) than the other 10+ years of my adult life combined. I have experienced more, achieved more, and seen more facets of my work grow organically and unaided by me in 12 months than in the previous 120, far more than I thought possible. We can indeed make up for lost time. We can reclaim those “wasted” years, but we have to think about time differently. 

We have to understand our experience of time and reality with new intentionality to maximize whatever literal units of time we have left to live. Since few of us know that number, we can construct for ourselves new narratives that will allow us to experience more, achieve more, and most importantly, enjoy more life than we may even have left. 

We can cheat death, even if we cannot escape it. 

We cannot reverse the flow of the ever-rolling stream, but we can row against its current. 

For all of you who are rowing with me at Exosphere, thank you for your support, for helping me grow, and strengthening me to be more than I could ever have been on my own. We have countless not-years ahead of us to keep disturbing the universe, and I know I couldn’t possibly be in better company.

In Praise of Redistributing Wealth

Wealth in the world is unequally distributed. That, at least, is a demonstrable fact. What is a matter of debate, however, is whether wealth is fairly distributed. For all but the most callous Ayn Rand sycophants (yes, I’m a libertarian who doesn’t like Ayn Rand), the “Nays” are likely the winning side of this proposition as well. If anybody in the comments section wants to present a cogent case to the contrary, be my guest. For everybody else, we must move from the apparent economic injustice in the world to viable solutions to it.

(Soapbox thought: We should learn to distinguish between fair and unfair means of gaining wealth. Hard work itself is not sufficient to gauge whether or not one came by their wealth honestly. There are many people who have worked very hard at screwing over other people. Goldman Sachs employees work very hard, I’m quite sure, but that doesn’t make their wealth honest. After all, I understand that mafia bosses work very hard and long hours too.)

For many people, the ‘obvious’ solution is the forcible redistribution of wealth by the State, employing its police powers and geographic and constitutional monopoly on violence.  This, they say, is a fast and effective means of achieving the desired ends. Unfortunately, history has shown it to be neither fast nor effective, and every time it has been tried, it has brought with it ruinous consequences, unnecessary repression, and economic destruction. Everybody has become poorer as a result. Even the “soft” socialism of post-World War II Europe and America, which have taken a Fabian approach to statist wealth redistribution, are seeing the fiscal consequences associated with such an approach. The 1960s and 1970s in America and the 1980s and 1990s in Europe proved that oppressively high marginal tax rates always lead to GDP stagnation. The alternative approach, deficit-financed redistribution is now proving itself to be even more disastrous, as we watch Europe and the American States implode under the weight of their entitlements (by this I do not only mean transfer payments like welfare, social security, and medicare, but in-kind entitlements such as public education and health care).

What is worse, wealth distribution hasn’t really improved. It has shown itself to be a persistent, sticky problem that does not respond easily to policy pressure. Soviet guns and gulags couldn’t equalize wealth. Public education and welfare haven’t been able to equalize wealth. The traditional approaches seem to have failed in their goals, not to mention the unintended consequences that have followed. (If anything, we have witnessed redistribution in reverse, from the middle class to the wealthy, particularly the financial elites. This is thanks to Central Banking and un-tethered fiat money creation, but that is another topic for another day.)

This does not mean, however, that we are doomed to a world of gross inequality. There are certainly elements of society that would prefer us to think this is inevitable, and far too many libertarians have accepted this premise as not only an unalterable reality, but an optimal one. Unquestionably, wealth and income inequality will always exist. Each human being is a unique individual with unique and individual talents and abilities. We are not capable of being the same, and it should not be desired to be so. Inequality is not in and of itself the villain. The problem is when the manifestation of inequality means that billions of people in the world live in abject poverty while others live lavishly.

Fortunately, we have a way to fight this that does not require wise and enlightened policies from government (since those are unlikely to be forthcoming) or the largess of multinational corporations being bequeathed sanctimoniously to the downtrodden. No, we have at our fingertips the tools and ability to lift ourselves out of this world of massive inequality and to redistribute wealth from the ground up without destroying any in the process.

This tool is entrepreneurship, and with the advent of the Internet Age, it is available at unprecedentedly low barriers to entry and to literally billions more people than have ever truly had access to it in the past. Unfortunately most of the people in the world don’t know how to use these tools effectively, and the current system of education exacerbates this reality. Entrepreneurship doesn’t mean the lone, Rand-inspired capitalist shrugging the Atlas and accumulating as much wealth as he can get his hands on. The romance of rugged individualism is dystopian and counter-productive, because it discourages vast swaths of potential entrepreneurs from starting out.

We are social creatures, we are diverse and unique individuals but who all have an internal desire to be part of a community (I do not mean a town or place, but in the way described by M. Scott Peck). Removing entrepreneurship from the context of community has tended to relegate the practice to the few driven egos (which I do not mean pejoratively) who can handle striking out on their own, more or less alone. Entrepreneurship means much more than that. It means groups of people taking control of their lives and their destinies and supplying their own needs better, faster, and cheaper than multi-national corporations can. In making such attempts, they will undoubtedly innovate their ways to solutions that can be packaged and sold to other groups of people for whom such a solution means they can concentrate on solving other problems. There is no requirement that such groups of people be organized around a capital-centric model of ownership. The Mondragon Corporation in Spain is an excellent example of a labor-owned cooperative that has achieved scalability.

Entrepreneurship increases the world’s wealth while simultaneously redistributing it. Entrenched corporate interests are effortlessly dismantled by the power of competition and consumer preference, when they are allowed to operate freely. More importantly, though, it is done without violence or the use of force, without malice or theft, and without the overreach of statist redistribution mechanisms. Where the State has no way of knowing who came about their wealth fairly, and treats all wealthy people the same, the market distinguishes between those who are meeting consumer needs and those who are taking advantage.

We should embrace the redistribution of wealth–it is something sorely needed. But we should seek means of fostering it that are voluntary and bottom-up rather than forced and top-down. One injustice cannot be remedied by another.

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