Roughly half the messages we receive about life suggest that we should think more carefully about ourselves. The other half say that we will feel fulfilled and happy only if we think primarily about other people. Is either true? 

Well, obviously, up to a point, both are. We are born with a survival instinct which, if nurtured properly, will help us stay safe and overcome the problems we all face, perhaps even for the whole of our lives. But life is not just about survival. It may have been three hundred thousand years ago when the neighbours were inclined to eat your children if they were hungry. Civilisation, even with all its flaws and quirks, has moved on a bit since then. We just eat the goat’s children and the fish’s offspring now.

So thinking about ‘them’ has yet to include creatures other than humans, except in a way which makes them sentimental human substitutes. That’s not very fair to people who treat their animals kindly but it’s more than fair to those who regard them as humans with fur. Back to the people bit. Who comes first – us or them? If you’re looking for an answer that provides an incontrovertible process you’ve come to the wrong place. No process can substitute for thought when it comes to relationships whether personal, professional, mechanical or international.

Let’s deal with the ‘us’ first. We look after ourselves extremely cavalierly. Our body is a physical structure. It needs maintenance. However, we pile work onto it, force it to eat too much of the wrong things, skimp on the discipline of exercise and blame the doctor when it goes wrong. Then we load it with chemicals that work in the short term but kill us in the long term. And that’s only half the problem. We let our minds titillate us to a point of self-disgust. We renew the traumas of childhood to excuse ourselves for poor behaviour, we ignore the beauty and care around us for a fix of drugs or 50% more alcohol than we can handle and all for a hangover pill in the morning. Before a court dealing with human rights we would be in prison for twenty years.

We do some things that are good for us. Games, sports, volunteering to help others physically and mentally, creating ideas and putting them into practice is all part of a good life. Thinking in order to decide who we should become is a contribution to society far beyond our limited ability to implement it. All development of humans can be credited to thinking.

So where do ‘they’ come in? Right from the start, I should say. Competition to come first should never exceed determination to be the most helpful to others. However helpless our lives become – and they do that for all of us at times – we should never miss an opportunity to make ourselves better. Oops, I thought we were talking about ‘others’? We are – and that’s the point. What makes our lives most rewarding is universally and unequivocally what we do for others. Not the transaction of a good deal but the gift of a hand when no return is expected or wanted.

If all this seems a little obvious perhaps it is time we reconsidered it in terms of our own lives. It’s not the morality of a religious text, it’s not the ritual of a group of like beliefs. It is the common sense we now need to allow ourselves to be ourselves in the face of AI. We may have developed AI to take over from humanity. AI may be the work of a power beyond us. Our species may have come to the end of its term – species do, sooner or later. Or it may be the challenge to let humans prove themselves.

That’s the way I prefer to see it. Our scientific and technological genius has led us up strange paths, quite alien to our natural habitat and way of life. Can we handle what we have invented? Maybe and maybe not. Certainly we will need to cooperate if we are to do so.

The next four generations will determine it. In my own line we already have three of those generations alive and learning. I may not be here to discover if we succeed.

But at least I can encourage you to have a damn good go.

Good morning

John Bittleston 

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That’s how we learn.

22 July 2023