A General Philosophy of Being Dazzlingly Alive
AWM #72: Wish to be the opposite of a rock that does nothing 🪨
The one-line description of Atlas of Wonders and Monsters has been, for several months, “Let’s be dazzlingly alive.” Like all good mottos, no one quite knew what it meant at first, especially not me.
Now, drawing from my last two posts, we can glimpse the beginning of an answer.
Two weeks ago, I argued that non-existence is the greatest evil. Last week, I built upon this idea to make a pronatalist argument: to maximize goodness, we need more humans overall (or at least, not fewer). This week, I want to generalize this principle.
To a first approximation, a general philosophy of being dazzlingly alive can be stated as: Just do something, anything, for Christ’s sake!
I do mean it quite literally. Most of us don’t do much. We do the bare minimum to keep ourselves alive and enjoy a few luxuries — and those luxuries are often passive ones, like TV. We work, because we have to, at things we don’t like that much, and even then a significant part of our work time is spent on idle procrastination with our phones. We browse social media, but we prefer lurking to posting anything. We order takeout or eat at fast food restaurants rather than cooking elaborate meals. In short, we consume, rather than do.
I’m depicting a deliberately bleak image here. Lots of people, fortunately, manage to escape this hell. It isn’t even hard. You can pick up an artistic hobby. Host parties. Use social media actively instead of passively. Build things. When you get more ambitious, you can launch a company, become a professional artist, create and manage a community, or explore scientific mysteries. There’s no shortage of things to do.
(And I want to leave “having and raising children” out of this post since I talked about that enough last time, but obviously it’s a pretty good and common example of doing something!)
Yet, despite the vast number of things we can do, far too many human lives end up looking like the bleak depiction. Why? Reasons abound. We’re tired. We’re stressed. Life is complicated. We have a whole bunch of issues that need to be taken care of before we can even dream of doing: poverty, family problems, disease, war, and on and on. These are all valid excuses — but only so long as you don’t abuse them.
There are several ways to make sure we don’t abuse our excuses. One is to do things anyway, however small. Doing things is actually a skill that develops over time. You won’t get everything perfect at first; you’ll do things inefficiently, and perhaps cause a bit of harm; but you’ll get better. Another way to escape the dark pit of repeated excuses is to commit to doing things once your issues are closer to being resolved. Say, for instance, “Right now I’m in a tough spot financially, but as soon as my situation is more stable, I will do X.” (And then actually do X when your situation improves.) Yet another way is to spend time with people who do do things, and encourage them.
Obviously — tautologically, even — all of this is easier said than done. But it is the moral choice.
In several of my latest essays I have been thinking about good and evil. This is a gigantic topic that philosophers and theologians have spent lifetimes pondering. And it’s fine to ponder! It’s good to try to identify the greatest good, and attempt to make it a reality. If you’re already an ambitious doer, then by all means you should read books about moral philosophy and become an effective altruist or something. If you’re already in the business of slaying dragons, then it’s worth finding a dragon worth slaying.
But most people aren’t even close to that level. Most people don’t really need to worry about doing good.1 They need to first worry about doing something. About being the opposite of a lifeless rock.
Exist furiously. Reject non-doing. Live dazzlingly.
Of course you must avoid doing obviously evil things, but that’s pretty easy for most, since these things are unambiguous in a lot of cases. Once you start doing things, if it seems like it might be evil, then it’s a good time to reflect. Not even starting because of some vague fear that you may cause harm is not a good solution.