Why low-faith people struggle in a high-faith world
This post is much more negative than the way I usually think about people, but given that these thoughts did occur, I figured it would be better to capture them in full force and interrogate them afterwards, no matter how unpleasant they might be, than to deny them out of fear of social sanction ("can't write stuff like this on the internet, nobody will hire me" etc etc).
You can't just flip a switch on positivity. It needs to be a sustainable system.
If this concerns you for any reason, tell me. I guarantee we'll get a fruitful conversation out if it.
I think most institutions are shit.
Families are shit, companies are shit, governments are shit. Most parents love their children and hope for the best for them more than anyone else in the world ever will. People don’t even wish your children ill; they are simply indifferent to whether they win Wimbledon or roll into a ditch. Most founders love the idea of their company more than any of their employees ever will; most managers love their own comfort and career aspirations more than they love their teams. Most politicans love themselves far more than they love the abstract idea of their country or their values. Even religion and cultures can’t keep hold. Priests grapple with their own emotional turmoil and allow it to override the morals they claim to have dedicated themselves to. Most activists and people with strong moral judgements are hypocrites of one kind or another. We all kind of suck.
The best institutions that we’ve been able to come up with so far - democracy, free markets - are simply ways of organizing this self-centeredness and selective blindness to our own flaws in ways that result in the least amount of death and violence.
Of course, this is all for good reason. History is the ugly story of broken institutions banging into each other, running the gamut from well-intentioned hubris to downright murderous intent, with the resulting outcomes being impossible to tell apart in many cases.
One thing I’ve been told repeatedly in my career is that I don’t start with trust, which then leads to anger, a questioning of everything, and a lack of ability to buy into the idea of the company. This would not be a concern in and of itself, but is problematic for what then fails to manifest: a relentless fervour for work which rises above all other competing priorities. I assume that most managers are incompetent because they care more about the banal and petty circle of their own well-being - and perhaps that of their immediate family - than they do about shaping the organization that dictates so much of my conscious life. I assume that every rung of hierarchy is motivated to extract as much value as possible from the rung underneath it, within the constraints of maintaining the status quo. A company does not provide you with dinner and health insurance because you are family to them. A company provides this because you are a free market agent and if they are not careful, you will leave to go work elsewhere.
I once read a paper on inter-generational trauma in children of first-generation Chinese immigrants living in Western Canada. In simple terms, the Communist party fucked up their parents, and then this kind of fucked up the kids. You can’t help but feel angry when you read something like this. For a real exercise in feeling pointlessly angry at the stupidity of human consciousness, check out Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone - the story of the Chinese famine from 1958 to 1962, when a spectacularly dysfunctional set of humans with terrible ideas starved 36 million people to death. Imagine the respect and admiration that we have for say, Semmelweis or Pasteur for their contributions to the germ theory of disease. Isn’t it so cool that the work of a few motivated people could enable so many more generations to live, find small enjoyable hobbies, flirt with cute baristas, fall in love, marry, have kids, assemble Lego cars, and enjoy peaceful Sunday mornings at the zoo? Now take that ever-expanding circle of love and invert it into itself, turn it all dark and stupid and nasty. Isn’t it amazing that the thoughts of one asshole of a man (whose picture still hangs above Tiananmen) could fuck up so many endless generations into the future?
When you are embroiled in dysfunctional institutions as a child, the optimal strategy - indeed, one that may be necessary for survival - becomes to question and undermine the supporting structures of that dysfunctional institution. The highest survival rates during the famine were found in the families of party officials, and among the families of kitchen staff - a statistical anomaly that should not have arisen if we assume that they all been living loyally by the maxim of “to each according to his needs”. Note that the pinnacle of economic and cultural success in China, even to this day, is not to climb to the top of the Chinese economic and cultural hierarchy, but to escape it - to make enough money within the constraints of this ugly Communist-market hybrid monster to buy a one way plane ticket to (insert Western liberal democracy of choice) and never look back. Even if that means going from being a doctor to cleaning hotel rooms. Better to live on your knees than to die on your feet, right?
If you grew up with emotionally unskilled parents, questioning intent and pushing back on demands for your investment (emotional, financial, or otherwise) is not only a wise thing to do, but necessary. (Though you also can’t hold it against someone for being emotionally unskilled if their primary concern as a child was to not starve to death, just as it is unreasonable to expect someone to be charming at a dinner party if they spent their childhood with no control of their vocal cords). Anyone who blindly accepted CPC ideology in 1950s China would have worked themselves to death, and 36 million did. Likewise, blind acceptance of parental beliefs and “wisdom” - when the parents dispensing said wisdom are dysfunctional themselves - would be emotional seppuku. Check out some of the stories in r/RaisedByNarcissists or r/AsianParentStories. Sure, some of them are the grumpy ramblings of a 12 year old who just wants their curfew to be later. But some of them also describe emotionally incompetent behaviour that, if manifested in friend or partner, would be immediate cause for severing the relationship. And indeed that is what many do. The problem, however, is that once you learn emotional relief can be had by simply distancing yourself from one set of humans, you start trying that trick with pretty much everything else - and that is a quick path to loneliness.
Turning away from a dysfunctional institution in favour of more functional ones is a recipe for recovery and growth; turning away from functional institutions that sometimes manifest flaws is a recipe for nihilism and isolation. The struggle of being a low-trust, low-faith person is that you often cannot see the difference.
Western liberal democracy is a high-trust society, and its actors - whether companies, families, or a hopeful date that you met on Tinder - are constantly looking for investment. If you want to be an emotionally impenetrable asshole who doesn’t form bonds because you’re actually scared shitless inside, nobody is going to stick around and try to melt through your layers of ice. There are too many fully-thawed, perhaps never-frozen, emotionally healthy folks out there who are ready to go all-in and build things. They are psychologically skilled and considerate. They have endless depths of patience and a heart as big as the sky. They understand the value of a relationship. They can appreciate the little beautiful things in life because they aren’t so wrapped up in themselves. They are the real winners of Western liberal democracy, and they represent the best of us.
What would it cost to join them?