Hurling through space, exactly thirty-six of Earth’s revolutions around the Sun have carried my consciousness to this very point. I thought it an opportunity as good as any to reflect back on the time I have left behind.
I am probably light-years away from the original point in which I started life, with the Sun itself, the Milky Way, the Virgo Supercluster all having moved a great deal in those 36 years, tugging me along with them. Me, their wondering, disobedient child.
It would be impossible to say how far I have floated since then. This is a loaded question due to the expansion of the universe and the non-locality of space. It becomes a whole lot more loaded if you consider those years are not the same years everywhere and are sometimes “stretched out” or “pushed in” due to gravitational and kinematic time dilation. “Where” and “when” are intimately related and even two parts of one rubbery thing.
These are things I didn’t know when I was starting out my intra-galactic drift, and are things I do know now, even though I know them the same way one knows about the white van appearing in Braveheart, or the fact that tigers have striped skin underneath their striped fur — this is not true of zebras, by the way.
There is “knowing” and there is knowing. The amount of things I truly know feels to be decreasing as I’m getting older, even if I “know” a lot more than I used to.
Besides, to close this matter of age and space, with our second child now having grown inside his mother’s body for 36 weeks; when and where do you start the count anyway?
One may wonder, how does the age stack up, 36yo? What are the odds of encountering a living 36-year old versus a 26 or a 46-year old person?
The data is easy to get: in many countries 36 is somewhat past the break-even ‘median age’ point, the age at which there’s just as many people younger than you are as there are any that are older.
The global median age is at about 32 currently, so globally less people are older than I am. In my country, Belgium, the median age is still a little higher, where I belong to the half-share of people alive under 41 years of age.
There are tons of people in the world. If you leave out bacteria, only ants, all fish, and cattle have a biomass that exceeds man’s. Interestingly, it’s a pretty close call as well among those four! There are about 350 million tonnes of human, and 3000 million tonnes of ant.
Humans are definitely the rulers of the Earth. The “virus with shoes” has triumphed and beaten all other species towards supremacy — if you leave out bacteria that is, who control pretty much every aspect of our lives and all other animals’ lives.
Unlike those three groups — ants, fish, cattle, — humans are usually extremely different from one to the other, genetically. This, with our geographically dispersed and recent progress, creates a large number of interesting cultures and cultural artefacts.
We are fortunate as Western Europeans to be able to connect to a lot of these cultures and their history at any time we wish. With the touch of a screen we can connect either passively or actively with anyone anywhere. We can travel to any destination at low fares. We can observe and understand cultural evolutions and create meta-cultures.
It’s quite disappointing that many people are not keen on repaying that favour, and still allow their own natural fears and discomfort with other physiologies or cultural traditions to win over common sense.
Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, … they are widespread nuisances everywhere that slow progress, cause numerous parties to engage fruitlessly into debates that should not exist, and cause them to create complex anti-structures. The recently introduced neo-vocabulary on ‘gender definition’ seems to me mostly reactive and frictional in nature.
I think it’s sad that so many are engaging so much energy for the mere goal of winning some intellectual debate, chasing that small dose of dopamine coming from a witty comment or the moderate success of an elaborate metaphor. We should do better and not allow ourselves to be carried away by these unhealthy triggers.
Wearing jeans or nylon stockings is a tradition that would have been very unfamiliar to many if mainstream media wasn’t able to convince everybody they were the normal thing to do.
Still, many people consider them a lot more ‘normal’ than someone wearing a piece of colourful woven clothing. Nobody knows how and where those jeans or stockings are made. They are made with man-made machines, by the thousands, day and night, and still are considered more ‘human’ to wear than an unusual hand-woven piece of fabric.
Please don’t assume I don’t like nylon or silk stockings, I am extremely happy they exist :)
I feel it’s incredibly clear from small behaviours like these that humans are very conditioned by what they know, and by what they are told to know, and at the same time we are ultimately not in touch with this conditioning. This allows us to be manipulated very easily.
The continued presence of racism in particular has little or not changed in the past 36 years I’ve been around it.
While there is a natural aspect to the fear of other races (let’s blame the bacteria for that, ok), the racism I see every day is usually related to either a sort of passive laziness or active greed where people from a largely comfortable economic position huddle together and find relish in attacking other groups that are less economically powerful.
It’s deeply shameful to act this way. I feel people who have a racist greedy agenda, should be punished much more severely than is currently the case. Usually there is at least some element of ‘fraud’ to any modern racism I’ve seen, and ‘fraud’ basically means you’re cheating the game and gaining favours or market position without doing any of the hard work or without any of the luck you normally need. We should punish racism the same way we punish fraud. We should also think about exposing the fraudulent actions underlying racist political parties more, instead of trying to attack their ideological points of view.
I also feel all global leadership should be diverse in gender, and race, before it is to be taken seriously, so as to avoid any fraudulence permeating to the top of society. Diversity will take time to grow from a topic to a triviality and it will take centuries to get there.
Do we have those centuries to work with?
Will climate change wipe us out and have our bones collected by the ants?
I do believe we will be able to manipulate the weather a great deal in the next fifty years, although managing the oceans and the socio-economical changes will be a tougher problem.
At 36 years of age it’s easy to fall into Clarke’s first law:
“When an elderly person states that something is possible, they are almost certainly right. When they state that something is impossible, they are very probably wrong.”
I honestly think it will be possible, but there will also be quite some disruption in getting there.
So, will it be possible without massive global scale war? I hope so but I do not feel that scenario to be the most realistic one.
For the past years I have grown more fearful of wars and large cohesive groups of people taking control of critical resources for a short amount of time. I have grown more fearful of cyber-war and currency meltdowns. I consider it my duty to protect the people I love from any bad effects, although I know if anything happens there will be luck involved. This is a somewhat stressing realisation, although the worries come and go with fleeting moments as well.
The situation in the United States has me worried, with the country losing not only its mask but its entire face, due to unfit leadership. I really hope this changes soon, and timely for when the world needs unity.
There is a good opportunity now for leapfrogging with technological advances, and I hope we will solve the energy and climate challenges with solid engineering. I do not share some climate scientists’ views that “we should have listened all along” to them. Mankind has always fixed things by engineering the problem at hand, never by anticipating a solution. I do not think we will ever get the maturity to plan ahead significantly, and if we ever will it would simply introduce a number of new problems to engineer around.
While I think humanity will be fine in the long run that way, I think it’s time for us to make some goals that have a one hundred or two hundred year runway of execution, and exceed one individual’s lifetime. I applaud the audacity of entrepreneurs driving us forward as a species, with a laser focus, but I think it’s a bad idea to try to shoehorn all initiatives into the next twenty or thirty years. It’s time for us to embrace death as a logical part of life and live beyond, making plans for the next centuries, and follow-through on them or steer them as we go along.
It would also be a really good time for aliens to show up and say “Hi, yeah, sorry for scaring ya, we got this thing to freeze all ya poles, just give us back Tom Cruise and we’ll call it even”.
There’s tons of cool properties about the number 36, all of which can with some effort be related to my life, as it is easy to relate anything to anything as long as you use some imagination.
It is the atomic number of Krypton, something which can easily be linked to my childhood fascination with comic books, if you know anything about the Superman universe.
It’s the angle you get in degrees when you divide a full circle by the amount of fingers on your hands, which I could relate to origami.
It’s the amount of ways you can throw two dice, it’s “100100” in binary, it’s the size of Euler’s very interesting 36 officers problem, it’s 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8 and it’s the size of the alphabet with all numbers.
It’s six squared, and six is quite an interesting number.
There is an incredibly powerful statement on the number six that has nothing to do with mathematics at all:
“Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”
Forgive William James the use of the word “man”, which actually referred to humanity in general more than is nowadays the case, but he struck a very interesting aspect of life.
It is something that permeates us all in our daily interactions, regardless of their depth or scope.
I still struggle a lot with it, especially with the important people in my life. The ‘science’ behind conversation and personality traits gets you only to “knowing” without knowing.
It mostly takes patience, calm, and positive energy to not fall in the trap of talking with and to only two of those six people, and to try to find a balance in all of them when conversing about difficult topics. Even if the other person isn’t able to share your patience or energy.
The past year has been one of most challenging years for myself in terms of human loss and not being able to fight the odds of ‘making right’ with people. If you have a current conflict going on with someone, consider the six people present in it and not just the one or two in your limited emotional view.
With that and with my thirty-six years I’d like to leave you with some things I’ve learned in this journey so far. Some of which definitely belong to the “knowing” category where I still struggle hard to do right by them, and will probably do so for the remainder of my life.
- Read good books.
Don’t read non-fiction books about life, and don’t read things like ’36 things you should know about life’. In fact, why are you reading this? :)
Some books are just re-iterations of the same catch-phrases. They grow popular nowadays due to viral and non-critical sharing. Don’t waste your time with them, just read the titles and back-cover and move on.
- There is no such thing as “old music”. Listen to Bach and work forwards or backwards, listen to horror-core, listen to ethnic music.. Listen to a lot of music. Don’t let anybody tell you how to listen to music, however. If you want to listen to the same part of the same song a hundred times in a row, do it. Sorry if you’re deaf.
- Learn about meditation and thought control, even if you are not successful at it, at least learn to know the techniques exist.
- Manage your time properly. Don’t stay in bed.
- Learn how things work. How does a door-key really work? Learn it, so you can tell your children. The world is more fascinating the more you understand it.
- Be honest to your children about everything. Everything. The cow they’re eating is dead and killed by humans. You don’t know if there’s a heaven, even if you believe there to be one. Tell them you don’t know some things.
- Talk to children as you talk to adults. Use full sentences and sometimes use words they do not yet understand. Never underestimate children, they are probably less distracted and more observant than you are.
- Exercise your body, make sure you stay healthy and have periods of unexpected energy. Compensate unhealthy binges with periods of healthiness. If you never have energetic periods, you’re probably doing something wrong or there may be a problem you need to check out.
- Identify addictions. Phones, alcohol, drugs. Be honest to yourself when you are addicted. What you do from there is your move, but never ignore addictions. Any negatively reinforcing spiral will always start with denial.
- Manage your expectations about life.
- Consider your mental health the same way as your physical health and seek support if you are struggling. You will fail, more easily, and more frequently than with your physical body, expect this to happen.
- Never underestimate others and how good they can be at something. You only ever see the tip of the iceberg.
- Learn at least these Buddhist wisdoms from the Dhammapada and ideally get the whole book — it is small enough to memorise:
“The one who has conquered himself is a far greater hero than he who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men.”
“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.”
“You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts you make your world.”
“Many do not realise that we here must die. For those who realise this, quarrels end.”
“The one who keeps company with fools
Will be sorry for a long time.
It’s painful to live with fools,
Like being always with an enemy.”
- Celebrate other people’s success. Be happy that there are good people, use social media to your benefit to follow the stories of great, interesting, audacious, or just comforting people. Avoid bad and skewed media.
- Think carefully about dying one day. It will give your life more meaning.
- Make every day a good day.
- Learn something new every day.
- Break your heart daily over something of beauty.
- Become your own best friend. You will have falling outs with yourself, you might have uncomfortable times where you feel you scarcely know the person you are.
Ultimately, you are all you really have and we are born alone, die alone, and are alone most of our journey. (Hunter S. Thompson)
So make sure to have self-respect and reconcile with yourself at every opportunity.
That’s a lot of text, and it feels rather belligerent — I feel like Baz Luhrmann in Wear Sunscreen — so I’ll call it quits.
I love this line by Frank Zappa to round up everything in their chosen order of importance:
Well, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.
I’m looking forward to the next 36 years!