Nerds on Earth
The best place on Earth for nerds.

This Nerd Needs the X-Men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but He Needs Meaning and Purpose as Well

Sheltering in place for a month makes a nerd get existential. If I wasn’t already re-listening to the Cure albums of my teenage years before, I certainly am now.

Even as an introvert, I need other humans. We all do, and much more than us independent-minded Americans think. Us humans are social beings wired for community and connection. I spent hours reading X-Men comic books alone in my room when I was a kid, but my takeaway from those comics was always the spirit of friendship, the service and selflessness, and the sense of family.

Let’s come back to that need for connection after we’ve talked for a moment about modernity and the Industrial Revolution.

One of the most consequential books I’ve read in the last 10 years is Factfulness by Hans Rosling. The elevator pitch of Factfulness is this: Hans Rosling, a Professor of International Health, reveals ten instincts that distort our perspective―from our tendency to divide the world into the two camps of us and them, to the fear we feel after we consume media, to how we perceive the world as things always getting worse.

When asked simple questions about global trends like, “What percentage of the world’s population live in poverty?” us humans systematically get the answers so wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently out guess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

Using data visualizations, Rosling points out that the world–for all its imperfections–is actually in a much better state than we might think. Rosling doesn’t argue that there aren’t real concerns, only that when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.

Says Andrew Sullivan after a similar presentation by Steven Pinker: “I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness. There were no real trade-offs here; our gloom is largely self-imposed; and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.”

So, some professor writes a book about how our world is experiencing real progress, despite our feelings of doom and gloom. What does that have to do with us nerds?

Well, Rosling is a scientist and therefore implores us to use data and to think objectively. This is true from Pinker, Carl Sagan, and others as well. They are thinkers shaped by the Enlightenment and products of the Industrial Revolution.

That modernist thinking tells us that if children are hungry in Africa, then the solution can be found in science through genetic sequencing of plants to increase crop yields. There is truth in that.

The same thinking tells us that if humans are suffering from anxiety or depression, the solution can be found in science through pharmaceutical research. There is truth in that.

It’s the thinking that tells us that humans suffering from lack of housing or a shortage of material goods, can find a solution through supply chain logistics or construction innovations. There is truth in that.

I read Rosling and was heartened to see statistics that show fewer around the world living in poverty. And I find meaning through my day job, which blessedly is able to play a part in eliminating poverty and suffering here and abroad. But those statistics don’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, anger, addiction, and loneliness in an advanced society like the United States. We have so much, so why are we miserable?

The American response is to turn toward pharmaceuticals or shopping to solve unhappiness. The paradox with this of course is that numbing ourselves – either through shopping or nostalgia or substances or voyeurism or bingeing – doesn’t fully grapple with our existential reality or provide spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

Late-Enlightenment thinkers like Edmund Burke affirmed scientific thinking of course, but they went further and suggested that society is a “social contract.” Burke said (perhaps apocryphally), “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Indeed, we’re all in this together, whether our individualism acknowledges it or not. That in mind, Burke was a proponent of affirming virtues in society and of the importance of religious institutions for the moral stability and good of society.

Modern philosophers like Patrick J. Deneen say the same thing. Deneen praises the work of Rosling, but adds that as society has slowly and surely progressed, humanity has lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of joy than the earthly desires of a Kallax unit full of board games and a whole shelf of Star Wars Black Series action figures.

What, buying more D&D books isn’t enough?!?! Then how about a second season of The Mandalorian? Well, surely hours of Twitch or Pornhub will finally fill the emptiness in our soul…

Rosling and Burke can both be right, but Burke is deeper. In our present culture, meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants. But we are losing the concept of human flourishing or virtue apart from materialism, and that is driving us toward isolation.

And that’s the darnest thing during this pandemic, isn’t it? The wealthiest civilization ever to exist on planet Earth has been brought to a screeching halt by a minuscule menace. For all our prosperity and progress, our streets are now empty while we sit at home alone, numbing ourselves to the grief and emotion of having our life upended by a microscopic speck.

We are social distancing to save ourselves, but listening to Cure records remind us that we’ve been slowly distancing socially for decades. The tiny community I grew up in happily has crumbled. Institutions are less trusted than ever. Neighborhoods have had their shutters drawn for years.

Our society has been preaching the shallow things of consumerism for decades now, avoiding the deep examinations of virtue, service, selflessness, honestly, and a deep-felt sense that we are better together than we are alone. In that way this calamity has been clarifying to those truths.

My community is Mainline Christians, a collection of souls that includes Mehodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and more, who plant themselves center-left and a have a rich tradition of social justice advocacy coupled with a desire to largely mind their own business when it comes to politics.

Mainline Christianity views human desires and beliefs as unreliable guides to notions of good and bad. Values derive from a loving God, we believe, one who calls us to a higher and noble purpose of loving our neighbor.

In this way, us Mainline Christians believe, religion is not simply a set of beliefs, it is also a means of creating a sense of community, identity, and meaning through a call toward love and service.

I’m not your dad, so I won’t even begin to tell you what you should do and I certainly don’t want to proselytize. That wouldn’t work even if I was your dad, as we’ve already established that independence is valued above all in our culture, so you’d just slam you bedroom door in my face and crank Baba O’Riley because that 40-year-old song will really tell me where I can stick it.

Just today I’ve received 3 texts from friends and saw several messages in our Nerds on Earth Slack that shared television shows they were binging or video games they were playing to numb their boredom or provide a mental escape from the pandemic, some from yours truly.

I’m not sure sure that’s the catharis we need or that we are all really searching for, although I fully understand the sentiment of course. If all there is in difficult times is to seek distraction or to numb ourselves, then us humans have life figured out. We’re masters at that.

But I’m also wrestling with the fact that I desperately want this COVID-19 isolation to end, but I also don’t want to mindlessly drift back to the isolated ways that things were before. Instead, I want to take a lesson from Nightcrawler who gently reminded his friends that we can find a connection with something higher and more meaningful, if only we could find it.


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