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A dreamer dreaming himself. Drawing by Brady Dale, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

Civilization is a wild dream

If you grew up middle class in America, then you faced a depressing tension that became more and more acute as you made your way through high school: what were you going to do with your life?

There's a good chance that you had parents who urged you toward some kind of "real job." That is, some known career in which other people that your family members knew were able to do and support themselves and their families. In fact, your parents probably hoped you would be able to move a notch or two above them on the whole socioeconomic ladder of life.

Today I'm reading Friedrich Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, for the first time, and it's largely about the tension between our civilized side and our animal nature. He largely seems to argue for more attention to be paid to the wild side, but what I really see here is an acknowledgement that art and creation arise best when there's a conversation between the more orderly and the wilder artist, between high craft and intense inspiration.

And here's what struck me: the realest of the real world is wild lands, the forest, the jungle, the untamed fields. That's the "real world." That's the world as we found it. The world before we bent our great brains to it.

I could see this argument sounding unconvincing up to this point. What makes the world of man any more or less real than the world of the squirrel, you might ask? And it's a valid critique.

Let me try to convince you but let me preface is by writing: orderly, rigid, structured civilization is the stuff of mad, insane impossible dreams.

Nietzsche said this, too. It struck me when I reached that point (very early in the short book), but he puts dreams on the civilized side of the dock, which seemed so strange at first because we think of dreams as so chaotic and wild. The dreamers are the intuitive ones, right? The ones who can't grapple well with the world of obligations and responsibilities and money.

But let's return to this idea of the parent talking to the child about the responsible, logical thing to do. What's the most boring thing we can imagine a kid taking on as a career now?

Let's say: insurance adjuster? No offense to folks in the insurance industry, but I think we can all agree that it isn't exactly an industry that's come to be known for raging keggers.

I don't even really know what an insurance adjuster does, to be honest. I think they are the person who decides how much money an insurance company should pay someone after something crappy happens to them. I talked to one on the phone one time and he was using phrases like "covered perils" and I remember just sort of getting lost in the poetic beauty of that term.

It was surreal to me that a romantic word like "peril" had somehow become a part of the jargon of modern life's dullest industry.

But insurance itself is surreal. It's mad! This notion that millions of strangers will throw money in a pot and share it whenever someone is in trouble. In fact, they will share little bits of their money every single day and they won't even know they are doing it. They won't even think about the money until they need it. They'll just keep throwing money it in and forgetting about it, until one day something crappy happens to them and only then will they ask for some money back, maybe more than they ever put in!

It's so crazy!

And yet were you — as an 18 year old — to tell your teachers that you've heard someone could make a pretty good living as an insurance adjuster and you think you might do that after high school, no one would look askance.

Now let's go back in time. Imagine you are a young man in the hunter gatherer era and you're studying with your father how to, I don't know, hunt mastodons or whatever. You tell him that you've noticed that trees seem to grow where their fruit falls, and you wonder if you could clear some land and grow a bunch of trees together in one place.

He would likely call you crazy. He might say: forget about trees, son! Stick to the spear! That's how I supported your mother and your grandfather supported your grandmother (also by making sure to find women who were good at finding the fruits of those very trees — that too).

An orchard was a mad idea. Hunting! That was a real job.

Do you see where this is going? At some point some young man in a little city had the idea that a few businesses could pool risk and everyone thought he was crazy. It took a lot of convincing. At some point that became the insurance industry. An industry so big and complex that there's companies who don't do anything but sell insurance to insurance companies. It's called reinsurance. It's mad that exists when you think about what it really is.

Before anyone points me to some book that explains that insurance didn't really arise like that and it was all much more organic and blah, blah, blah, let me press pause: it doesn't matter. Insurance is still mad. It's still a dream the squirrels would never even have. It's insane that it works. It's mind boggling that it's become dull.

Civilization is mad!

And yet today all these structures and institutions, as impossible as they may have seemed to Vikings or Vandals, are so boring. Young people talk about civilization as this great grey oppressive imposer of dull realities. And it is, but it's also an amalgam of unlikely hopes that became real.

Returning to insurance for just a little longer: The people who work in the industry are the most careful people, the most staid. They are not dreamers or doubters of the received wisdom. They are going along to get along. They are taking a reliable path to the economically stable and abundant life. Their biggest challenge is staying awake in meetings.

And yet they are living the manifestation of a dream of a madman from yesteryear. Someone told that guy it would never work, but it has worked so well it's dull now.

The dullest parts of today's world is the stuff of dreams building on dreams building on dreams. Of hare-brained ideas that actually worked.

The natural state, Pan's domain, is the world however you found it when you got here. It's not chaos that changes the world. Chaos leaves the world as it is. Order changes the world, and order arises from hazy, impossible dreams.

Today's tallest buildings are artifacts of dreamers who threw their parents into despair.

—Brady Dale
November 28, 2019

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