“In various quiet nooks and corners I had the beginnings of all sorts of industries under way- nuclei of future vast factories, the iron and steel missionaries of my future civilization. In these were gathered together the brightest young minds I could find, and I kept agents out raking the country for more, all the time. I was training a crowd of ignorant folk into experts – experts in every sort of handy work and scientific calling. These nurseries of mine went smoothly and privately along undisturbed in their obscure country retreats. Unsuspected by this dark land I had the civilization of the 19th century booming under its very nose!”

Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court


“It’s not about how long you stay in a place, it’s about what you do while you’re there and, when you go, is that place any better for you having been there.”

Chris on Northern Exposure


For a race of people who seem to relentlessly pursue ‘living in the now’ and maximizing pleasure in the present, we are surely an unhappy group. It should make many of us wonder why.

From a meta perspective, one could argue that our ideal is incompatible with industrial progress and industrialization. From a mesa perspective, it could simply be the constant friction between the ideal and reality. So, let’s stick with the latter for a moment. There is a reality of progress and that is, well, its relentless energy constantly grinds against the present reality. That constant grinding is a reflection of the tension of people relentlessly holding on to ‘some vision of the ideal’ despite all the signs and warnings reality continuously gives us. This oddly seems to feed a sense of powerlessness. As reality becomes more and more obvious the freefall from the heights of the ideal to the material reality is horrifying. And yet day in and day out we look around at a rude, restless, world and continuously try and replace it with polite order and machines hoping to force reality to reflect more our ideal. Unfortunately, our world is an intricate semi-organized urban/rural/industrial/agricultural society of which the machinery of its collective existence encourages us to have an image of humankind in the grip of uncontrollable forces. Once again, we are faced with another conflict of reality. Industrialization, once associated with movement and noise, has entered another phase of industrialization, technology, but one in which eliminates all evidence of any of the frenzied chaotic movement and clamor that we have always associated with industrialization. Once again the silence is horrifying and yet wherever there is noise we begin believing there must be a problem – quite the paradox. Maybe worse is that this silent machine simultaneously works against our dreams and simultaneously enables our dreams which creates even more tension/conflict. I’d suggest this is a battle between reality and imagination, progress and the ideal. And throughout, humans being generally an optimistic bunch, we hold on to the simple-minded notion that everything can be right again and can be made right again. We work harder and harder to fix things that we just can’t put a finger on. As we work, we grab onto a temporary feeling of relief that maybe we were on the path to some solution and the hope of a lasting possibility. The ideal can never be let go no matter how harsh reality suggests we should let go. It is almost like The Great Gatsby when Nick says “Gatsby did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the Republic rolled on under the night.” And maybe that is where living in the now runs into the most issues. The imagined versus reality. Or continuous efforts to banish facts in order to maintain faith in the ideal. It is the relentless tug of the possibility which simply makes optimizing the present so difficult.

Solving this, making “that place better for you having been there,’ is harder than one may think because the fact is that humans depend on filtering out a certain amount of things in order to make sense of the environment, i.e., where they are. We boil things down so that we feel safe. We reduce things to some version of ‘perceived best certainty’ (which does not equate to “better for having been there”). In addition, it is a basic principle that people generally fear what they do not know, but, in particular, we fear the perfidiousness of other people. All of those things ‘reduce’ the space we are in, reduce the present, and reduce any chance of bettering the space for someone following. Reduction should not dominate the space as we define it.

Which leads me to social cohesion.

Because these things dominate the definition of our space, we will typically gravitate towards who we know and what we know and, well, staying in place. To be clear, part and pieces of that are good, but we need to acknowledge the need for some boundaries in social cohesion. That being said even the boundaries which we erect for the safety of who and what we are should be permeable boundaries. What I mean by that is the boundaries have an infinite amount of doors in and out. And this is where the present comes crashing into the conversation. For if you have ideals and yet you are trying to maximize the present who owns the right of the space or the time or even the present, who even owns the doors? For it is within the space where the ideal becomes inherently social and not individualistic. And this is where “better for having you there” resides, for ‘you’ is not an individual but rather a collective. It is this space in which maximizing the present and reaching for the ideal is always about all about keeping a balance between what is built and what is grown, the architect and the gardener. Negotiation, compromise, genuine empathy, in an embrace of other people and their ideas all of which creates a daily testing of boundaries among people. Sure, there will always be tension between private benefit and common good, but social cohesion exists because of a meaningful and moral intent for progress and it is actually progress, not inertia, which promotes a sustainable social identity. Some of this may sound silly in the crazy hectic nonstop 24/7 world that we live in. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that loneliness is not just the absence of meaning, but just as much can be found in the absence of company. What I mean by this is that you can feel alone on an empty street just as you can feel alone on a crowded street with busy people going here and there. Yeah. With no social connection we find ourselves in a bubble of isolation even when surrounded by people. To be clear, connection is simply the first step toward community and collective good, but without it there is no community or collective good. Anway. It is at this point it’s quite possible that someone seeks meaning by trying to maximize the present – as an individual. That is simply a fool’s errand and it does not really offer a true path to “making that place better for you having been there.” Once again, without connection one can never truly maximize a situation nor do they improve their chances of moving any closer to the ideal nor do they really have an opportunity to make where they are better for being there.

Which leads me to what is “under your very nose.”

The truth is the design of life always embraces a larger, more complicated and complex, order of experience than simply living in the now, i.e., in the place you are. And while making most of the present certainly does need design – a larger structure of thought and feeling – that thought and feeling should embrace an ideal of, well, the future. That may sound contrary to what I was suggesting earlier, but maybe having an ideal in mind is the key to making the most of where you are, with what you have, and who you are with. Maybe that’s true because where you are is of the time, of the mind, of the body, and of the connections to some community which, in some form or fashion, has an eye on the future. Think about that a bit because reality should not cause alienation to the ideal, in fact all reality should do is make possibilities gather up its pragmatism friends as the engine for progress toward those possibilities. For it is within that time and space in which energy is converted into action, positively affecting the environment to propel us, collectively, toward progress and the ideal. My point here is that we should never divest ourselves of the ideal, just as we should never divest ourselves of reality, and maybe that is the point. In order to live in the present, you must use reality to edge ever so closer to the ideal. Day in and day out, small step or large step, and ‘maximizing a place’, edging closer and closer to your ideal. It is quite possible I am suggesting a life within which you never reach a desired destination, but maybe that’s what making the present world just a little bit better for whomever may follow behind is all about. So that maybe they could possibly reach the ideal destination. Ponder.

“want to be remembered just as someone who did whatever she could, with whatever limited talent she had, to move society along in the direction I would like it to be for my children and grandchildren.”


Written by Bruce