One of my favorite writers is Rob Brezsny, the author of the Free Will Astrology column that runs in a number of alternative newspapers. Rob’s primary philosophy is the idea of “pronoia,” the opposite of paranoia: the belief that the universe is constantly conspiring to benefit you.
As much as I love his horoscopes and in spite of my secret love for all kinds of feel-goodie, hippie, new-agey stuff, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this tenet of Rob’s. In light of the constant barrage of bad news we get and crises erupting across the planet, it feels a little overly sentimental to insist that we are, in some way, being looked out for.
But over time it’s occurred to me that the real reason I struggle with Rob’s philosophy is not because it requires the belief in some deity or downplaying the suffering of others. It’s because it’s so obviously, overwhelmingly, and immediately true.
Let me give an example. I’m drinking a cup of tea as I type. If I wanted to, I could completely ignore the cup of tea and go on typing. But if I really look at the tea and think of where it came from, the processes in place that have brought me this thing that benefits me are somewhat astounding.
First of all, there’s the glass of the cup. Who dug the sand and melted it down and manufactured this glass so I could drink out of it? Who designed it, who drove long distances to deliver it to me so I could have it? Who packaged it in a warehouse, scanned it, entered data? As for the water, who dug trenches and laid pipes and engineered a system such that I can press a lever seven stories above the ground and have fresh water materialize before me? How many scientists and chemists and activists have made it such that I can get potable water? Who cultivated, harvested, and roasted the tea leaves? How many generations of observation did it take to discover which plants did what to the body? And how is it that I can literally press a button on a glowing machine the size of a book and have boxes of tea appear with my name on them in the building where I live?
Are you getting my point?
Is it not almost tiresome to fully consider the origin of things, to really look at an object for the phenomenon it is?
Perhaps my problem is that I took Rob’s assertion in a way that was too abstract: I was thinking of unexplained coincidences—miracle healings and money falling from the sky– ordained by distant cosmic forces, as opposed to the much more obvious fact that virtually every object I touch is saturated with the ideas, expertise, labor, and effort of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Something as seemingly mundane as a CTA bus is a feat of engineering, requiring the input of hundreds, for the benefit of thousands more. This is not the universe in the sense of glowy nebulae and distant galaxies, but the universe in the sense of that which is, that which exists right now. The whole body of human knowledge and the concentrated efforts of people everywhere.
There are books on my desk next to me, and I can tell you, after a taste of working in publishing, that no book is merely a book, it’s a collaborative effort of dozens of people. Of course you have the author, with their lifetime of reflection and experience and education, and in a small way you have the contribution of everyone they’ve ever come into contact with. And then you have the work of editors, and copyeditors, and typesetters, and printers, and designers, and reviewers, and on and on down the line. If the flurry of activity that goes into producing a book is a symphony, then the authors may play lead violin, but they are backed up by a whole orchestra. There are times when my work feels inconsequential, but I have to remind myself: I may be playing the triangle, but I’m still playing my notes in a piece that reaches many, many people.
Of course, I’ve limited myself to just material objects so far, and all of the input that goes into them. What about all the services people provide? Just try to think of everyone who’s ever driven your taxi, swept your street, taken your blood pressure, served your dinner, scanned your groceries, cared for you when you were a child. And what about all of the people who have ever cared for those people? The symphony of human activity is enormous and it benefits you constantly. And even it is only a tiny subset of the grand opera of nature, which allows it to exist in the first place.
Certainly there are people who do work that others don’t value, or that doesn’t feel beneficial. But even they pour money back into the system. Certainly there are negative, destructive, oppressive forces in the world, which cannot and should not be ignored. But why have we gotten so good at ignoring, as Rob Breszny likes to call them, the thousands of things that go right for us every day? Might we not be more effective at reducing the negative forces in the world if we gave a bit more attention to the abundant benefit we derive from society and nature? Although at first I thought this would involve conjuring belief in something wild and fantastical, now I think it’s more of a question of merely observing reality: all of it, not just the parts that make the news.
If it seems too far out there to believe that you are the constant beneficiary of nature and the world, I would suggest zooming back in, looking up close. Look at the food you ate today, and the conspiration of nature, technology, industry, and your own culture and education to bring that meal into being for you. If you can read this, you can do so because of time and energy that was spent by others, teaching you how to read, and the technological phenomenon of the internet. If you find it silly, it’s because the miracle of your functioning brain allows you to measure up what I say to your own wealth of properly functioning memories. Look at your clothes, those results of generations of textile and design and manufacturing knowledge. Talk about seeing the universe in a grain of sand. Choose one detail, and look at the input required to bring it into being.
On that note, with a wave of gratitude toward the plants and farmers and engineers and shop clerks who brought it to me, I’m going to go make myself another cup of tea.