The tragedy of ideals

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Human evolution might be thought of as two parallel streams: 1) the evolution of our reality and 2) the evolution of our ideals.

From the perspective of the history of humanity, the reality of our lives is growing ever healthier, less cruel, more compassionate, and more equitable. Poverty is at an all-time low. Life expectancy is higher than ever. The quality of music, literature, and other arts is perhaps better than ever. The use of slavery, torture, and war are at all-time lows.

Yes, there are periods of temporary digression. And yes, there are valuable aspects of our lives in the past that we’ve lost. But overall, over the course of centuries, life has gotten consistently better, more aligned with our values, more conducive to meaningful lives.

The trouble is, as our reality improves, as we move toward greater justice, as we grow more peaceful, our ideals and awareness expand and evolve as well. As we learn to solve the challenges in front of us, our eyes open to further challenges that were hidden to use before. Our conception of what is “good” itself grows and expands.

This is a good thing. There will always be another dragon to slay, another chapter in our hero’s journey. We will always have more to learn. We will always move ever close to peace, justice, and harmony.

But there’s a tragedy to this. Our awareness of the challenges we face always outpaces our ability to solve them. We always place our ideals ahead of us, just out of reach of our reality.

This makes the world look cruel, unjust, and deeply flawed regardless of the reality on the ground. It fills us with despair, pessimism, and cynicism because we choose to judge ourselves in relation to our ideals rather than in relation to where we’ve come from.

We choose this reality. Can we continue to evolve and grow without it?



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