2015-12-14

It's Not A Perfect System, But It's The Only One You've Got



The old trick to gaming a roulette table is to place your bet on red or black, the odds of which are 50/50. Then, if you lose, double your bet in the same direction. If you lose that one, double that bet in the same direction. And so forth...

At 50/50 odds, you are bound to keep winning if this is your strategy, because your bet will turn out to be correct half the time. So, because you're doubling your bet every time, you'll always (eventually) win back what you lost, plus double if you just keep betting.

What this strategy requires is a bank account deep enough to carry the losses, no matter how big they are, and most gamblers don't have that kind of money. Also, casino owners aren't stupid; they're trained to spot this particular strategy, and when they catch you, they'll throw you out of the casino and bar you from playing ever again.

The casino always wins in the long run, and that's what I'm writing about today: house rules.

Know When To Hold 'Em

Politics in every country is like a casino: The only one with pockets deep enough to carry any loss and double down in the same direction is the house; the house always wins; and if you figure out a winning strategy, you can be security is on its way down and they're packing heat. In this Las Vegas analogy, there are two groups left unaccounted for: hookers and drug addicts. The hookers are the dancing girls the casino has tossed aside after getting what they wanted out of them for a few years; the drug addicts are what happens to us when we've been kicked out of every casino for playing a winning hand.

I'm not trying to be cynical, but at the same time, one has to recognize the nature of the world we live in. Each one of us is a tiny gnat in the annuls of the universe - a microscopic blob of ectoplasm with a lifespan so short that the gods don't even take time to laugh at us. Each one of our lives is utterly inconsequential, and yet so significant to us. That explains a lot of what happens in politics.

On some level, we must know how insignificant our lives are, because if we didn't, none of us would fight very hard to achieve anything. That sounds backwards, but it's not. Knowing that we are insignificant, we fight to have one small bit of legacy, something to live beyond our own tiny lifespans, and most of us never really achieve it. So, when one of us happens to come into a pretty decent situation, like an elected office or a directorship in some bureaucracy somewhere, most of us are willing to fight for it, on the off-chance that, somehow, we'll have some plaque hung on the wall somewhere - something that will out-live us a little while, at least until they refurbish the building.

So now we have means: the political system. And, we have motive: legacy. Now all we need is opportunity.

Know When To Fold 'Em

The opportunities usually come in small and petty ways. 

We've all seen the people working the counter at the DMV. Their souls have been ground down to the nub, they have no control over their own lives. All they have is a computer screen, a little web cam, and the authority to withhold your license for anything their direct supervisors can verify with a form in triplicate. If they don't fancy anything other than the keeping of their jobs then a slight delay in your paperwork is the only way these sad sacks have to tell the universe, "I mattered!" If they're ambitious, though, they'll search the minutiae in your file for something that requires a more obscure form. A few dozen of these per week, and they'll be fast-tracked to supervisor. So if you have to keep going back to the DMV every day for a week or two just because one of these rock stars is trying to make manager, that's a small price for them to pay for their legacy. Get it? They care about you, but they also want existential significance, and one can hardly blame them.

Don't get smug here. You're not any different than they are, and neither am I. The only difference is that we don't work at the DMV, and they do. And there are lots of DMVs all over this nation of ours, plus the ones in every other country out there. That's a lot of legacy to be dealt with, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. Every little counter where you have to show your government-issued ID or work your way through a canned series of statements before you can proceed on to the next counter in your life is another inflection point for mankind's competing legacies. 

And, ultimately, we all work at a counter.

There are two ways you can proceed here: You can keep stabbing back at your own insignificance, setting your fellow humans back fifteen minutes to fifteen years (depending on the counter), silently screaming at the universe, "I mattered!" and silently knowing it isn't true... Or, you can step away from the counter and let people continue on in pursuit of their tiny scrap of potential legacy. You can fight for your right to matter, or you can just get out of the way and let other people explore theirs.

Know When To Walk Away

No, you can't really walk away, because first of all you have to eat and earning money is how you accomplish that; but second of all, the entirety of human society is organized in such a way that you will be punished and ostracized if you openly admit that you're not really into shouting your existential vanity into the ears of anyone who will listen. (NB: I am writing this on a public blog.)

So most of us have to play the game, to some extent or another. That doesn't mean, though, that you can't walk away in a manner of speaking. If other people use their position "at the counter" to achieve some kind of legacy, you can use your position for nobler purposes. We can make the world a better place by being better people. So if you make life a little easier for the people who come to your counter, you can do your small part to enable them to achieve their legacies. You might be an insignificant piece of the universe, damn it, but you did what you could to prevent other people from being worse off having known you!

This is how we walk away. This is how we look at the human system into which we have been born and decide that it's a bad machine, but we can make it better. This is how we stop playing the petty and futile existential game played by others and we simply... walk away, leaving the world slightly better for it.

Know When To Run

I know what you're thinking: "What about my legacy?" Well, that's the tricky part, the final step in the process of giving yourself real happiness and real freedom.

The answer to your question is: You don't get a legacy. You get to be a better person, you get to make other people happy, you get to live life by a worthwhile creed, you get to look at yourself in the mirror every morning. But you don't get a legacy. 

We are mosquitoes, fruit flies, bacteria... we are tiny little piles of animated flesh. We live, we love, we produce offspring, we fight from the moment we're born, and then we die. If the world remembers you for longer than one or two news cycles after you die, god bless you, you lucked out. Beyond that, no one will care. It's not because they're bad or apathetic people, it's just that they have their own lives to live and there have been many billions of us who have lived throughout the ages. I'm sorry - you don't count much.

But this is a beautiful thing. You don't have to count. You don't have to be remembered. You don't have to have a legacy. If you live a good life, if you love your loved ones truly and madly, if you leave others' lives no worse than when you found them, then you will have pushed this tiny, insignificant species a few inches toward a better future. And that's the best you can do.

That's the best we can all do. So, let's do it.