Only people matter
Or why I do the things I do.
This will be a significantly more loaded and sentimental rant than it is usual for me, and I’ll touch some topics that may be triggering for someone going through rough moments. If you don’t need any extra sadness or anger right now, feel free to skip this essay.
In 2019, my father suddenly died. He was very healthy and didn't have any medical condition. His heart just stopped working one day.
And there was that. There was nothing we could do, nothing we could blame, nothing we could learn from it. Except that, this can and will happen to any of us. It’s one of those mysteries of life, you know, that the best thing about it is that it can stop at any minute, or some bullshit like that.
As you can imagine, his death sent all of our world into chaos, especially my mother, of course, but also me and my sister, who suddenly lost one of the fundamental pillars of our life.
My father was that person in your life who would always be there. He didn't always agree with my choices, but he always supported them. And he always put himself in my shoes.
He wasn't the most careful speaker. He could really make you feel like shit sometimes, because he would tell you the things he thought without any sugarcoating.
And I would get angry at him, but it also was, in a sense, extremely refreshing because you would always know what he was thinking about, and whether he thought something you did was great or not, he would tell you.
So, he passed away, and there was no lesson to take from it, other than life can be as long or as short as it can be, and there is nothing you can do about it. So deal with that however you have to.
I mean, I've had loved ones die before. I had grandparents who passed away when I was a kid, and I felt sad about them, of course, really sad. But as a kid, I was mostly sad because everybody around me was also sad, and it was hard for me to comprehend why, but I just knew sad was the right way to feel.
However, my father's death was the first moment in my life where I felt this indescribable pain that is almost numbing, that you basically think your capacity for feeling has been all but obliterated, that your feeling sensors have been overloaded, and that you will never be able to feel happiness, or sadness, or anything else again.
That's not true, by the way, as many of you will know. You do get to feel happiness again. In fact, the two most joyous moments of my life so far have been after my father's death, when my two daughters were born.
So yes, you recover. But you also get scarred, and those scars do teach you something. For different people, these will be different lessons. For me, the most important lesson I took out of my father's whole life was this:
Only people matter. Everything else is secondary.
Here's what I mean by this.
We do almost everything we do, from leisure to work to destiny, because we think they are meaningful in some sense. More often than not, that meaning comes from this notion that something is bigger than us and that something matters.
So we say the community matters, and we’re doing this for the sake of the community.
Or we say the company matters, the product matters, and we're doing this because we want our company to succeed and we care to make the best possible product.
Or maybe we say the country matters, and we’re doing this because we want our country to grow and flourish.
Or sometimes, we may even say that humanity matters, and we do this because extending the light of consciousness into the universe is essential.
Whatever floats your boat.
The point is, we create concepts that give meaning to the things we do. And then, what usually happens is these concepts will get a life and an identity of their own and we will forget that all of these big, important entities are just collections of people. A community, a company, even a country, or the whole of humanity is just a group of people with somewhat common interests.
We create these concepts, and we ascribe them meaning. And then we say we're doing things for the sake of the community, the sake of the organization, the sake of the country, when what we really mean is we're doing it for the sake of some specific people.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in taking a group of people, putting them under some kind of abstract collective entity, and then reasoning as if you were doing things for the collective rather than for the individual people. It makes sense, because sometimes you don't even know exactly who those people are.
They can be your students, they can be your co-workers, they can be the readers of this article. They can be children in a faraway country, or they can be all people on the planet who care about some specific idea.
The harm comes when we forget it’s just people all the way down. There are at least two reasons why this is dangerous.
The first is when this collective entity gets so diluted and so abstracted away that we forget who are we doing the things for, and we end up doing things for the wrong reasons —or for no reason at all.
The second is that some people will attempt to hijack that concept and ask you to do things for the abstract collective when what they really want is for you to do things that benefit them.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
The first kind of danger is best exemplified in big, necessarily bureaucratic organizations that are, in principle, benign, but then bureaucracy grows so large that everybody ends up doing things just because they must.
I work at a university, and I'm sure everybody there will tell you that the things we do matter because we do them for our students and colleagues. And those people matter.
But then you get this bunch of bureaucratic stuff, that, to some level, makes some sense —like methodological paperwork, and reports, and summaries of those reports, and balances, and meta-reports— at some point, you start asking who am I doing this for?
Your boss will tell you the administration needs this, or the ministry needs this, or the academy of whatever needs this. But at that moment, you may ask, well, who exactly is the administration, the ministry, the academy? Are there actual people in the administration whose lives are better because I'm doing this?
Maybe, because they have to make some tough decisions —they have to allocate resources or decide what to prioritize— and so their jobs are easier and better because I'm spending time doing these stupid reports and balances? If that’s the case, then doing them may make total sense. Those people matter, and they care.
But oftentimes, if you follow that chain of thought, you will realize that there is nobody at the end of the chain. It's just a circular fucking chain.
These people receive these reports and balances and just send them to someone else, who sends them to someone else, who sends them back. Nobody at any point will read them, arrive at some enlightenment, and take some action that will transform something that will make somebody else's life or work better.
Everybody is working for an abstract system, and nobody benefits. No one at that point cares, so no one matters.
Examples of the second type of danger really abound. In the corporate world, you will often be asked to do something for the sake of the company, the product, or the customer.
And then you can ask, but who is the company? Is it me and all of my other co-workers? Or is it just the people at the top, the people at the board, who profit ultimately from my work? Am I doing this because it serves the users of the product? Does it really make their lives better? Or are we doing this simply because someone will profit from those customers and give nothing in return?
But by far, the most prevalent example of people hijacking some collective concept for their own benefit is in politics. Politicians will often claim that something must be done for the sake of the community, for the sake of society, or for the sake of the country. But if you ask around and dig deep, you will find that this only benefits their partners and patrons.
So, what I'm going to do about this is try to be as conscious as possible of the people behind the collective abstraction. Who am I working for? Make sure I do everything I do because I believe there is someone who matters, someone who cares.
When I spend time with my family, my friends, or my little girls, instead of doing something “productive”, it’s because they matter more than anything else and because they care about me spending that time with them.
When I teach my classes, I spend nights and nights not with my kids but in front of a computer reading and writing, I do it because my students matter, and my students care about those lectures and classes.
When I write papers and go through the hops of the academic publishing video game and have to please editors and reviewers, I'm doing it because I think there is somebody, somewhere, whose life can be improved down the road when this technology or this idea gets applied. (Or is it?)
When I write educational articles in this blog, spend tens of hours making sure the content is approachable but still technically accurate, and then publish it for free, I do it because I think you matter and you care about this stuff.
But if I think something I'm doing, whether it is some dumb, bureaucratic, or enlightened bullshit, doesn't benefit anybody that matters and cares, then I'm simply not gonna do it.
I don't care who gets annoyed and I don't care if it threatens my job or my career. This is the most important lesson I learned from my father and the best way to honor his life.
From this day on, only people matter.