To what extent should we care about anything beyond ourselves?
I’ve been having this argument/discussion with a coworker for almost a year now. Usually when we’re trying to think of topics for debates or speeches, he comes up with very topical, everyday life ideas and I start talking politics or greater questions about humanity.
Our respective arguments boil down to:
His: I only care about things that immediately concern me. I can’t do anything about bigger political or philosophical issues so I don’t think about them. (When asked what he thinks about going into space, he says) I don’t.
I’m less and less sure what mine is.
I just saw Arrival, which is a linguistics sci-fi movie about trying to communicate with an alien species with whom we have nothing in common. The main character throws everything she has into it, appearing never to question why it’s important to make contact in the first place. Of course it’s important, isn’t it?
Just like, of course it’s important to explore space. Of course it’s important to think about what the ideal form of government is. Of course it’s to think about why it’s important to think about these things.
I think this also touches on why it’s important to make art, or to pursue our passions instead of the most secure jobs we can find (he and I disagree about that a lot, incidentally), or to spend our time looking at and listening to beautiful things instead of stripping our lives down to efficient components of work, sleep, eat, reproduce.
I guess one possible reason is–because we can. If we have the capacity to express ourselves abstractly through film or painting or music, and if we have the capacity to explore our solar system and hopefully one day our universe, wouldn’t it be a waste not to?
That reason feels kind of lazy to me though, so: another possible reason is practicality, in two ways.
First, talking to my friend just now, her argument for why caring about space is important is that explorations in extreme places have local effects. When we work hard to do something that seems outlandish–like land on the Moon–we develop technology that becomes part of our quotidian lives. So in direct reply to my coworker’s point, issues about humanity really are personal issues if you follow them long enough.
Second, and maybe more abstractly, concerning art, who hasn’t seen a movie or listened to a song and felt less alone? Or felt comforted? Or excited and inspired to make their own thing?
It’s like when a teacher encourages a quiet class to ask questions because guaranteed, if you have a question at least one other person in the class has that same question so you’re helping more than just yourself if you raise your hand.
If you create your own art, it could reach other people’s lives; if you look at other art, it could reach your life. And it could mean something. It could mean the world, even.
I really see his point about being concerned with what’s around us and just working our steady jobs as best we can. Society needs the dedication of people who stay in one career and give themselves to it completely, as my coworker does.
But we have the potential for so much, as individuals and as a species. It seems a shame not to realize that potential.
And no matter how much we try to put away our feelings sometimes, we do feel things. Even if you keep your head down and work and don’t think about these bigger things, one day you may fall in love and it may go wrong, and you may find books of people who feel the same things and you may feel like what you’re experiencing isn’t so bad, or is at least survivable. Or maybe the reason you fell in love in the first place was a song you both listened to that brought you together in a way that your own words couldn’t.
In the end, I suppose I’ve got two arguments. The first being, as individuals, through art and science we have the potential help all of society–through really practical ways like the development of new technology, to really emotional ways that improve the quality of people’s mental lives.
And the second, a bit contrary to the first, is: honestly, who cares why it’s important? If you ask me what the use of all this is, I can just as happily say there is no use. The idea that something has to be useful is silly. Sometimes things can just be beautiful. Or passionate. Or thrilling. We can explore space just to explore because it’s exciting to see where we live. And we can spend a day in an art museum instead of repairing the kitchen sink because we want to see something lovely or challenging or awe-inspiring. Maybe there’s no greater purpose to all of that, in the end, and maybe there doesn’t have to be.
In writing this I not only failed to answer my own question, but I raised even more problems to think about. But I suspect this isn’t the kind of question that can be answered in a really satisfying way. I also suspect I’ll keep thinking about this with the kind of energy and dedication I should put in to remembering to pay my electricity bill.
If you have your own ideas about this, please drop me a line, send a carrier pigeon, or take out a newspaper advert: seeking people who seek meaning; overly practical people need not apply.
I’m also thinking about this in connection with my own… art? I don’t even want to call it that because it seems to presume so much, but by my own argument even me, taking these small pictures, constitutes something important in the world. I don’t know that taking pictures of small alleys in Taiwan will do anything for society, but it seems important to find out.
In the meantime, these thoughts are a work in progress, so please watch this space.