synthetic zero

November 24th, 2009

Okay, so some people were concerned about my tweeting about “devoting my life to protecting everyone from me and people like me.” This is along the lines of some things I’ve written recently regarding virtue, but I thought I’d explain a bit more for those who may have been worried. I suppose, like Magda O, I have a certain degree of self-objectification, and in my case that takes the form of ruminating about how strange I seem to be relative to the way most other people seem to me to be. One of these strange things is that, while I have a strong desire to be helpful to people and the world, and I consider this in some sense the reason for my existence of my life, I really don’t have a strong feeling of sympathy for people. In fact, I’ve often thought that I seem to have many of the symptoms of sociopaths, in that I don’t have a strong response of sympathy for others. I also wonder regularly why it is I don’t actually go the route of most sociopaths and actually actively harm others — in fact I go out of my way to protect others — I believe it is because I also don’t have much of a feeling of sympathy for myself, either.

That is to say, in general the whole question of whether I ought to behave in a way which is for the benefit of others or not isn’t a question of feelings but rather a matter of something more akin to awareness. That is to say, I think selfish or criminal behavior is stupid, pointless, and based on lack of awareness. That is to say, it requires a strange narrowing down of focus to the point that one is obsessing over what is, for me, just minor details of the overall situation; i.e., one’s personal gain, and so forth. However, because of my general lack of sympathy I can very much understand the thoughts and motives of the criminal, of the sociopath — I just think their vision is small, limited, in a word, kind of dumb, not to mention inept. To be excessively concerned with one’s self-advancement is, in a sense, akin to being excessively concerned about the welfare of, say, a little doll that you made in the image of yourself; i.e., a kind of odd displacement of effort onto a toy version of yourself and the world. This isn’t to say I value the welfare of others more than my own; I certainly value my own welfare about equally with others, though it’s better to say that I think of myself as actually not separable from the whole context in which we are all embedded; ultimately, the universe. Since the focal nexus which one might call “me” is closer to the things people might ordinarily call my “self”, obviously I do take more care of things related to myself; that’s how it has to work for everyone. But I don’t, in principle, think it’s interesting or worth my time to focus too much on the welfare of what one might call my “self” excessively more than others. I find thinking about and working with the fabric of the larger context of life to be far more exciting and interesting. And it is this which motivates the extent to which I am altruistic, not a sense of sympathy as it is, I think, with a lot of people.

I do think, therefore, that what people call virtue is generally speaking a good idea, but virtue as it is usually expressed is in terms of rules we “should” follow and they tend to be rather rigid and overly simplistic, whereas I find real virtue is far more subtle, flexible, varied, and context-dependent, and to the extent I am virtuous it is not because God told me to be virtuous or because of some punishment or reward in the afterlife, but rather because it is more interesting, satisfying, and rich to live in accord with life in its largest and most vivid and present sense.

I am, in the most precise sense, inextricably interlinked with my context and ultimately, the entire universe, so why should I care excessively about the little nexus called “me”? I care about the vast network which sustains me and everyone and everything, its beauty and its function inherently is the source of value and beauty. Value and beauty are not absolutes but rather a function of this inconceivably vast network of life. Being in our lives in the fullest and largest possible sense is, I think, the most satisfying way to live, and certainly the most fulfilling.

But in some sense my lack of sympathy gives me a very cut and dried orientation towards life, where life and death don’t really have the same charge, I think, that they do for most. I mean, I am concerned about death like everyone is, but I don’t obsess about it; I try to avoid causing harm to others, but for the reasons I note above, not out of either a sense of following rules or because I am trying to be “nice” or out of feelings of sympathy, but simply because it’s the way that seems most sensible given our existential context. Oddly enough, though I lack sympathy for others, I do feel a tremendous amount of love — a very different thing.

But I can easily see doing whatever needed to be done if I felt I had to do it, and in that sense I feel an affinity for the criminal; I always identify with the heroes in movies who were once big criminals (or the criminals who realize “the error of their ways”) — or monsters who have decided to protect humans instead of killing them (like Wesley Snipes’ character in Blade, or other vampires who have become popular in recent films, books, and TV shows). But it’s not just others I want to protect people from, it’s also that I want to protect people from myself, because I know, deep down, in my heart that it’s a hair’s breadth that separates me from these others; I have violence, criminality, and so forth, in me, I just keep it under control. I am protecting you from me, at all times, even as I try to protect you from other things that might harm you. That’s my strange feeling, most of the time in my life. I may look cuddly and cute, and some people think I am, but that’s really just on the surface. To the extent I seem cute, I suppose it’s because I don’t worry that much, compared to most people, and thus I have a somewhat jovial attitude most of the time. Basically: I’m (nearly) always happy. But deep down, as I’ve said before, my interior world is quite bizarre, both friendly yet in many ways rather cold (though again: filled with love, oddly enough). It’s funny how people who just meet me sometimes think I am innocent (as I wrote about before), but others who have known me longer, or who are perceptive about this aspect of me, sometimes admit, half-jokingly, that they occasionally daydream that I might kill them or something (even after years of close friendship!) But you don’t have to worry — much — because I’ll protect you from me, as well, and I’m pretty good at doing that. Not totally perfect, but pretty good.

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one response to this post:
  1. Dan McGuirk says:

    Yes, I read this before, and it turns out I lost all my feelings of sympathy, thanks mostly to you and Tainer, and now you’ve left me out in the cold… but hey, that’s alright. I see others’ pain, and it seems meaningless, but I think I can still act with natural appropriateness. If not, you’d better start defending the world from me, if you still can.

    Hmm, that sounds disturbing, but it’s not really that bad…

    January 17th, 2010 at 2:48 am

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