13 November, 2017

Counting My Blessings

Yesterday, I was diagnosed with a long-term illness. It's not life-threatening, but it is a chronic condition.

This reminder of my own likely mortality has understandably put me into a rather somber mood. I find myself counting my blessings and reminiscing over the arc of my life.

I earn enough to be comfortable.

It feels a little weird to bring up money first, but income really does determine many secondary blessings—enough so that it is the primary blessing I think of. I haven't always had what I'd consider a good income, but my life has been much richer monetarily than most people in the world. On the global rich list, I've pretty much always been in the top couple percent, though that isn't exactly difficult to do if you're born in an industrialized country. (A salary of $25k is sufficient.) There were times that were hard enough that I dropped to subsistence levels, but I've always had safety nets of various kinds to support me, so I've always bounced back.

Today, I earn more than I ever have, and I have multiple safety nets surrounding me in the form of friends and family. I'm happy to be able to donate around 25% of my gross income to effective altruism causes even while keeping up the relatively expensive hobbies of board gaming and Switch playing, where I buy pretty much whatever I think I might enjoy.

I am loved, and I love in return.

Once food, shelter, and other necessities are stable, the next most important thing I notice is love. Companionship is important to me, although it's something that I've had some trouble with in the past. Two of my siblings live nearby, and another plays with me weekly online, so I'm able to maintain relatively close relationships with them all. I receive much comfort from the best of my friends and family, and am extraordinarily grateful to have them around.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when friendships were difficult to maintain for me. As strange as it may sound, I learned many lessons about friendship from the My Little Pony series. It's helped me to become a better person and allowed me to maintain friendships that I traditionally would have allowed to fade.

I am relatively healthy.

Despite my diagnosis yesterday, I have no reason to suspect that my chronic condition will cause an undue amount of discomfort in my life. I am luckier in this respect than I have any right to be. I spent thirty-five years without seeing a dentist, and was found to have no cavities. I've never broken a bone, nor had any serious illness in the past, other than a bout of whooping cough when I was a young child that left no lasting damage. Although I am apprehensive about my recently diagnosed condition, I nevertheless feel as though I've had a very long time to live in such good health, and am accepting of the health condition I will have to endure moving forward.

Culture surrounds me.

Although I ultimately realize that I am mostly ignorant of the world and of humanity's culture so far, I nevertheless feel a great debt to those that first introduced me to the field of philosophy. Before then, I was so focused on basic science, games of power and control, and shallow story-telling, that I did not appreciate what the world truly has to offer. But one by one, philosophy has opened my mind to fields I never previously would spare a thought to. Most important is ethics, and how it led me to the effective altruism movement, but also great literature, art, economics, history, and much deeper story-telling mediums, such as hard science fiction and rational fiction. Philosophy also helped me to realize the importance of the less deep, strengthening my appreciation for bad tv shows, infantile humor, and naive artistic creation, just to name a few.

I know I am but only slightly aware of the depth of culture that surrounds us. So many things exist that I know I do not know: the beauty in how to understand a rifle so thoroughly that one can tear it down and build it back up again in one's head; the sublime nature of artistic pieces in famous museums that continue to elude me; the workings of various biological systems; the rites of honoring a family tradition that has gone on for long before I was born; the joy that some claim comes from a belief in a higher power. And I'm certain that there must be unknown unknowns that I can't even imagine at the moment. Yet I still so fully appreciate the awareness that philosophy and a liberal education has given me that I wish desperately that others might receive the same sort of study, even if they plan on going into an unrelated career.

I am able to control and remember many dreams.

Perhaps it is because I gloss over poor details at the time, but in my own mind it feels as though I may construct stories of any type and any depth on a whim. No book nor movie has ever come close to the situations and storylines that I imagine while I sleep. While I enjoy my waking life a great deal, I also am extremely appreciative of my sleeping hours. There is much in my imagination that is seemingly able to reference more exactly and build upon more dramatically than any fiction I've seen from any other author. Of course, I recognize that this is because my judgment while asleep is less discriminating than when I am awake, and that there is a selection bias where the references I insert are always recognized by me, while the references other authors use may sometimes go over my head. Nevertheless, the feeling I have is that my dreams are superior, and that is what matters to me in the end.

I am a super hero.

At least I feel like one. I imagine the pride a fireman feels when they save a life, and I consciously attempt to attach that imagined emotion to the result of whenever I donate an amount equivalent to saving a life. It was hard to do at first, and it feels a little weird to talk about it to other people, but, in my private life, when I'm thinking just to myself, I make a point to truly embrace the idea that I have done an equivalent amount of good whenever I donate effectively. This brings me far more happiness and well-being than if I were to spend that money elsewhere.

Evidence points to an upward trajectory.

Yes, there are existential risks. But whereas very few worked on them in the past, the effective altruism movement is mobilizing better and more able minds than my own to work on these problems. Yes, they have an uphill battle, and, on the whole, my expectation is that there is more human capital working toward xrisks than are working against it. But the derivative is positive: we are doing more and more each day to make the world a better place.

Wild animal suffering is a massive problem. People are dying every day for stupid reasons. And yet I feel a Pinker-esque optimism about the trajectory of some of our finest thinkers.



As you can see, I have many categories of blessings to count. I know that much of this is due to the evolution of my ancestors; that the values I care about mostly come about from the replication of genes and memes that started long ago for morally arbitrary reasons. And yet I feel comforted nevertheless.

Yesterday may have given me bad news, but I am happy today.