My younger brother once gave me a piece of advice that sticks with me to this day. I remember it had to be on a weekend because we were heading home from the grocery store. It was cool out, and raining, and there was a mist of breath collecting on the edges of all of the car windows. We were talking about something, I forget what it was, and he turned to me and he said, “You are not as smart or as interesting as you think you are.”
I know what you’re thinking, this sounds like a diabolical bit of cruelty from someone who’s close to me, but I don’t believe that he meant it to be unkind. It was his way of reminding me that we must retain perspective.
Keeping perspective can be a struggle. I think there is a tendency, due to the nature of human intelligence, to see ourselves as small gods, tiny creators and destroyers. Our personal view of the world is so all- encompassing that we never really see other creatures, even other people, with the same vivid detail or vibrant emotional overlay as we do ourselves. And it’s no small wonder that we adopt this godhood. Look at what we do, simply by existing.
The world itself exists without beauty or sentimental context. On its own it is just a collection of molecules, some animated by life, others not. But cast the human eye upon it, and there occurs a kind of alchemy; beauty is created. The eye of the human mind is needed to assemble all of that information into a picture rich with sentimental context and cultural overlay; the skin of the hand of the soul must brush over it before it takes on spiritual texture. And those contexts are where the beauty truly lies; not in the tree, but in the resonance of the union between human intelligence and the physical world.
We are so in love with the world that we have spent centuries observing it. We have created systems; first mysticism, then science, religion, and philosophy, to explain it and our own role in it. We have created incredible works of art that would not have been possible without the human context, and that would also not be beautiful without the human context. Chimps can learn sign language, and both chimps and elephants can paint (although the elephants seem to be better at it), but they are incapable of the sort of rich and nuanced communication that human artists have become capable of.
Religions; vast structures under which hundreds to millions of us agree on the shape of the inner landscape. But each one of us charts the details of that landscape slightly differently, and each one of us communes with that inner world slightly differently. Some sociologists refer to religion as a human universal, and contend that even those who claim no faith have areas in their brains devoted to this activity; still experience religious feeling and hollow feelings of doubt. Religion fueled some of our earliest accomplishments and so many of our most horrible atrocities. There is perhaps no one thing more uniquely human than the belief in, devotion to, and fear of a greater god… perhaps we fear one as terrible and as hopelessly flawed as we ourselves are. And yet, each one of us sees this very slightly differently.
So here we are, right around seven billion of us, each with our own individual perspective on the world; each with our own aesthetic and our own beliefs and delusions, wandering around with seven billion different stories rolling out ahead of and behind us like the sheet of some impossibly long roll of paper; one side indelibly marked and the other one intimidatingly blank. It can be so easy to only take into consideration our own cares and needs, and to view others as incidental to our own story. To retain as much goodness as we can, it is vital to understand that there is always someone better, someone happier, someone sadder, someone more successful, someone in more pain, than we ourselves are. It is essential to remind ourselves, once in a while, what very tiny gods we really are.
And not a single one of us as smart or interesting as we think we are.