That One Time I Was Envious

This is a Thought Box essay.

1,350 words

tl;dr: identifying that I felt envy enabled me to reconcile with its source, and enjoy what I had accomplished. Incidentally, this post also contains a summary view of how I think political idealists should regard making public policy in a non-ideal context.


In late 2014, after my first book Climbing Olympus came out, I was having dinner in Harvard Square with an acquaintance that had just finished reading it. He generally liked the book, and, in the course of discussing its themes, commented that my homage to Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question” was delightful to read.

I said that I had read a lot of what Asimov wrote, but never “The Last Question,” a short story from 1956. The acquaintance gave me a wry half-smile, laughed, and said of course I had read it. I wasn’t annoyed with his insistence, just confused. I repeated that I hadn’t read it and asked him why he was so sure that I had. He simply said, “They have the same ending.”

Cut to later that night: the first thing I do when I get back to my house is pull up “The Last Question” on the internet and read it. After only a few minutes, I knew exactly where the story was going, because Climbing Olympus turns on one of the same central plot points. Here are the stories’ endings, with Climbing Olympus first:

“The void was darkness. And hollow. And then there was light.”

“The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos…And there was light.”

In both stories, technology enables humankind to achieve mastery over matter most famously characterized by Genesis 1:3 (whoever wrote that story got there before me and Asimov). The differences between the two are their intentions and themes, as well as the differences that naturally characterize a novel and a short story. But this comparison wasn’t the first thing I thought when I finished “The Last Question.” My thoughts were full of traditionally unprintable language.

I felt like I had wasted all the time required to write and produce Climbing Olympus, and that Asimov had beaten me to the punch by sixty years. I think that many people feel this, but usually before they attempt something, not after completing it. This feeling, envy, can be characterized like this: you observe a display of skill or intrigue, and then, feeling the desire to achieve the same, are immediately set upon by self-doubt. That person is so good, and they’ve been doing this for years already. You haven’t even started. What’s the point of trying to start now—you’ve already chosen other things to fill your life with, and that wasn’t one of them. In the case of “The Last Question,” I was envious that I had not written my story in 1955, which is both bonkers and bananas.

This envy and emotional inferiority are driven by nonsense: someone else has already done it well, so why should you even try?

The answer is clear: doing and being better makes life better. For you and those who surround you. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your abilities. That someone else’s abilities are more advanced (permanently or temporarily), or have been allowed longer to mature, is no reason not to realize your own full measure of strength, intelligence, and beauty. Life is full of surprises, too—you may find out that you had more capacity in a field or endeavor than you previously thought. But you must enter the field first.

After thinking about Asimov’s story for a few days, I finally settled on the view that I hold today: I’m proud of Climbing Olympus, and the existence of “The Last Question” has no bearing on the fact that I wrote my book and developed its ideas myself. If anything, reading “The Last Question” gave me a positive feeling of fellowship: here was another man who thought (somewhat) like I thought, and who wrote an excellent story that is now one of my favorites. I’m glad it exists.

This fellowship was similar to the feeling that you get when, in an epiphanic flash and communion with logic, you understand not just how to manipulate a mathematical formula, but to derive it: how and why it exists in the first place. Otherwise stated, my emotions had firmly aligned with the conscious idea that the achievement of another is beautiful, and that “…the sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others.”[1]

Even though I had written a book, envy would have robbed me of that pride and disallowed me to enjoy Asimov’s accomplishment. Only in a world where I recognize the beauty in the achievements of others can I enjoy the beauty in my own.

I had another incidence of this same “Last Question” phenomenon last year. For a long time, I was slowly systematizing my views on how one ought to think about making changes in public policy. My basic thesis was: if one had an ideal view of government, changing even one variable necessary to create the ideal would result in system-wide corruption. This new, un-ideal context would have to be approached in a different manner than the ideal.

As an analogy, think of a car: let’s say that you purchase a high-end sports car (the ideal), but then forces beyond your control exchange the sports car’s native engine for a tiny four cylinder. To function as well as possible, that altered car would have to be treated differently than if it had retained its original engine. Perhaps extra parts would have to be added, or others taken away. The same is true of government: if at least one variable necessary for its ideal is changed, the whole machine will function differently, and must be treated differently. All of this could otherwise be stated as: context is required to properly understand a situation and formulate responses to it.

As it turns out, this line of thinking is a rendition of The General Theorem for the Second Best Optimum, which was originally published in The Review of Economic Studies in…wait for it, 1956. I encountered this in the course of my general reading:

“The general theorem for the second best optimum states that if there is introduced into a general equilibrium system a constraint which prevents the attainment of one of the Paretian conditions, the other Paretian conditions, although still attainable, are, in general, no longer desirable. In other words, given that one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled, then an optimum situation can be achieved only by departing from all the other Paretian conditions. The optimum situation finally attained may be termed a second best optimum because it is achieved subject to a constraint which, by definition, prevents the attainment of a Paretian optimum.”

My reaction to reading this paper was drastically different than my first reading of “The Last Question.” I felt happiness and relief, not envy. I didn’t care that 1956 had struck again, I was just happy to clarify the problem that I had been working on, and to understand it on the level of derivation, not just manipulation. My post-Last Question introspection had shielded me from (and identified) reactive envy, and I readily incorporated the knowledge acquired from reading further about the theory of the second best to optimize my own thoughts.

My takeaway: I hope that others continue to achieve in every realm. Their achievement is a beauty to be enjoyed; makes my life better; and, in the context of my own accomplishment, generates fellowship and good will. The evaluative mechanism that permits me to enjoy my own work permits me to enjoy the work of others. To dispense with that mechanism in either case is to dispense with it in both. That I ever felt otherwise, even implicitly, was a curiosity I’m glad to have identified and reconciled.[2]

 

[1] Narrator (referring to Dagny Taggart) Atlas Shrugged (Part 1, Chapter 8, Page 237).

[2] Being envious does to emotions what definition by means of a negative does to concepts. Both envy and negatives exclusively regard what is not present, ignoring all that is. Since achievements and goodness do exist, envy definitionally denies the emotions any access to them.

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