Per aspera is actually the best way ad astra

There’s a theory called the “pump of evolution” that says mass extinction events were necessary for the rise of complex life, and eventually intelligence, although anyone who has spent more than five minutes on Twitter would seriously doubt intelligent life exists on Earth.

Simply put, without a slate-wiping asteroid, snowball Earth event or gamma ray burst every few hundred million years, life would get stuck in a comfortable equilibrium and stagnate. It is the disruptive, even destructive upset of predictability and stuffy routine that uncorks the full adaptive powers of the survivors.

Life finds a way.

The system – any system – needs external jolts to develop towards greater complexity, because it settles into “local optima” without them. This is a powerful idea that we can observe at work at different scales, including in the progress of human societies, and in an individual human life.

Consider, for example, the immense technological advances of World War 2, a true quantum leap. Germany in particular started it with biplanes and ended, a few years later, with jet powered stealth bombers that look more at home in Star Wars, and suspiciously like the first UFO sighting shortly after the war.

I am not suggesting that tens of milions of people were a good price to pay for rockets, computers, nuclear energy and medical advances. But it is what happened.

It works very much like that with personal growth, which in its true form is not a matter of reading narcotic motivational literature while sipping daiquiris, but of being reforged in profound psychological crises.

Massive, catastrophic damage in the short term might be the best way to maximise long term flourishing. Of course, that’s hard to sell to the parts of the whole that would not be making the cut.

It’s also an unnerving notion because it means that comfort is your enemy, and even in milder, tolerable, non-catastrophic variants, the road to anything good is sacrifice. Which is true.

So ask yourself: what is the acceptable trade-off between growth and comfort? Because there is always a trade-off.  How much are you willing to sacrifice to make progress? You are always sacrificing either comfort and safety, or potential. What ratio is right? These are important questions that you can’t dodge, because you’re always making a choice. If you refuse to make it consciously, you’ll make one by default that you probably won’t like so much.

It seems rather obvious that western societies, and many people within them, are erring far on the side of caution.

The idea of mild, unstressful, amniotic progress without anything objectionable or uncomfortable being allowed to happen is popular – and toxic at all scales.

Gain without pain has been the mantra for a while now, and it is wrong – deeply and tragically wrong at a basic existential level. Any sort of frustration, discomfort or contradiction is considered unacceptably offensive and intolerable. Worse, it is considered someone else’s preventable fault – a political problem that can be solved with placards, legislation and shouting at people, rather than an inescapable fact of the human condition.

The notion that any sacrifice is an unfair imposition that should be deflected by social and political means is a highway to hell, and to being petulantly horrible to other people.

The idea of discomfort or sacrifice sounds repulsive in the current cultural climate. But it is the only way to move forward, and the alternative isn’t getting the fruit without the struggle, the alternative is stagnation – ugly, wasted, fallow and vapid stagnation.

In such a frame of mind, not only is progress impossible, but even good things lose significance. It is the worst threat to the western mind this century (so far).

Don’t dodge difficulty at all cost. At the same time, you don’t want to break yourself, or sacrifice tens of millions of people to jumpstart progress, although it is worth noting that’s what happened in Star Trek – humanity becomes an objectionably utopian militarist-communist society only after WW3. So it seems we intuitively understand the principle.

Caveat: don’t dodge difficulty at all cost, but also, DO NOT BREAK THINGS DELIBERATELY thinking that will automatically improve anything.

Struggle is tempering, but too much struggle breaks you. What’s needed: the right amount, a temperance in tempering. There is no inherent value in suffering, it is only instrumental.

Do accept that things will get broken in the process of improving things, but do not seek destruction or pain for its own sake. This is very important! No senseless destruction or masochism, but neither avoidance of necessary and meaningful sacrifice. And when a crisis inevitably does strike – at any scale – make the best of it. That’s what small mammals did when the dinosaurs got done. And look at you now, all bipedal and sentient and reading sublime essays on the internet.

There’s actually a low-sacrifice way to significantly improve civilization.