I went to the Science Museum today, and it sucked.
It sucked so hard. There was an exhibit about how we get the salt we use to salt our roads, and one where some people had cut a stove in half. It looked like half a stove.
Anyway, while I was moving through this garbage educational prison (in comparison to the City Museum in St.Louis, a museum so insane and amazing it’s practically worth flying to) I found a chart of relative brain sizes.
And, let me tell you; humans are killing it.
It seems weird to brag about humanity. It’s much more common to point to our flaws, such as “destroying the entire planet” and “not signing Lev Novak to lucrative endorsement deals.” But even our problems are understood within our humanity. That humanity itself deigns to hold itself to higher standards is itself a reflection of what we, as people, are capable of.
We can be better than we are.
It’s easy to focus on the negatives. This comes from two angles. The first is cynicism as self defense – humans suck, nihilism acceptance, blah blah blah – which is used as a cop-out. To be blase and pessimistic about humanity and society is a cop-out. Yes, the larger world can be staggering, sometimes terrible, often impossible to parse. But within it, there are complex, beautiful people, each living their own lives.
You can’t save the world, but you can make your corner of it nicer, really and truly. And if that doesn’t sound like a worthy goal, you need to narrow your vision to the applicable and the true. Big ideas are important, but they don’t excuse you from the glories of small actions.
The second reason to be negative about the broad is it can make you seem sharper, in the specific. People generally feel the need to make themselves feel more special or unique by fighting against a perceived, common status. It’s also co-mingled with the desire to prove and show off a new understanding or idea, and putting it down as public fact is the first step to owning it yourself. You can even see me tentatively trying it in this very article. That’s pretty human, but it’s worth being conscious of.
It’s understandable. You need to shout to the abyss something about yourself, and doing so in comparison (The world is X but I choose Y) is a valid and fair way to do it. But don’t pump yourself too full of pride or the rest of the world full of scorn. There’s complexity and beauty in everyone and there are causes that bring about the effects you sneer at. To separate yourself and your opinions from the broader, living truth is self-selective ignorance.
That’s good news, really. The same reason why bland, beige patriotism is weak is the same reason that 9th-grade nihilists are wrong; things are complicated. We understand that things are complicated when it’s good; why can’t we accept that for the bad?
For example: everything you view as terrible is a sign that something can be improved. Room for improvement is a promise for more, for better, and we, in our urge for immediacy, forget it.
The capacity for human improvement is what I learned from the museum. Because, even as I’m bored in a hall of knowledge, sneering at a $1.79 banana (seriously, museum cafes?) I know that we, as a species, are always looking for more. We’re trying to improve, to find, to discover and learn. And even as we fuck up, the recognition of fucking up steers us subtly towards the better.
Even if only by process of elimination, we’re getting there.