Updated: Apr 24
Except world peace. Try not to answer like a beauty pageant contestant.
We solve the world’s problems every week at Archer’s virtual cocktail hour. You’re welcome.
She started the practice in April to give us something to look forward to in the early days of lockdown and quarantine. Once we had a dance party to celebrate her birthday. It would be another month or two before we began habituating the Question of the Week.
Five or six Canadians Zoom for an hour on Friday night to chat, complain about quarantine and enjoy a drink or two while pondering a Great Question to keep our brains from joining our waistlines in mushing out.
Great questions in the past have included:
“You have a time machine, you can pick one thing in your life to go back to. Where, when do you go, and do you just observe it from afar or do you change something?” (This inspired my article The Worst Thing That Ever Happened To Me May Have Changed My Life.)
“If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”
“My misspent youth: Tell us, if you dare, about some youthful misbehaviour that either taught you an important lesson or was memorable in some way.”
Then we stopped thinking about ourselves so much:
“Is there a statue or monument you’d like to get rid of, or revise? What would you replace it with, or how would you change it to reflect more aspects of the story it attempts to tell?”
“Does free will exist? Is everything that happens determined by what happened before? Are our actions inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action?”
One conversation-provoking question was to imagine our ideal retirement community. Our ideas little resembled long-term communities today, places where old people go to play until they die. We imagined car-less sustainable communities, with great Internet access, and lots of resources to continue learning and pursuing one’s own projects. Libraries. Training centers. A diverse population different from today’s almost all-white LTC residents, taken care of until their end of days by non-white aides and caregivers who, at least today, may never be able to afford such care themselves.
Recently we wondered:
What ONE gift would you give to humanity, that isn’t world peace, and preferably doesn’t interfere with free will?
It turned out our ideas fell under a few highly cohesive themes.
Archer and a man who jokingly referred to himself as ‘The Emperor’ began with ideas that recalled two Hollywood movies. Archer named a Freaky Friday setup like the 1970s movie in which a mother and daughter exchange bodies for a day. Archer believes that at least once, we should spend a few days or maybe a week living in the body of someone quite unlike us for a brand new perspective.
The Man Who Would Be Emperor’s idea was similar — the chance to feel most of someone else’s reality through just a few seconds of touch, which reminded me of the Stephen King book/movie The Dead Zone, where a man returns from a years-long coma to find he has the ability to foretell someone’s future by shaking hands or otherwise touching someone.
Except in The Fantasy Emperor’s scenario, you would experience what it’s like to be that person.
Not only would you see life from a different perspective, but in the immortal words of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!
Sharing someone else’s reality includes what they think of us. Maybe we’re shocked to find we’re not ‘all that and a bag of chips’, as we might like to think if we’re inclined farther down the narcissist spectrum.
Or we might be even more shocked to find that others don’t judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
My own answer also involved the power of touch, but centered upon one’s self.
What if each one of us could experience five minutes of absolute, total peace — our fears, insecurities, and anxieties completely removed — and we saw the world clearly, for the first time in our lives? In other words, what if we lived for a few fleeting minutes the enlightened, joyful ‘clear seeing’ many Buddhist monks experience daily — and then, when it was taken away five minutes later and we returned to our now clearly miserable existence, we were told:
You can have that back again but now you must work to achieve it.
Most of us are simply unaware, or are too busy struggling to survive, or are too afraid, as a Christian psalm describes, to undertake a foreboding journey through the ‘valley of death’, the darkest parts of ourselves, to face the fears, insecurities and anxieties that keep us locked in an existence far less fulfilling and joyful than the one we might live.
Freedom to create and innovate
The Artist’s idea suggests one potential benefit that’s been floated as an argument for a Universal Basic Income. She would give humanity the opportunity to set aside a certain amount of time every day for some sort of creative project, and to be encouraged to spend it wisely, rather than, presumably, wasting time bingeing on useless time distraction.
It sounds a bit like Google’s ‘20% Project’, itself based on its predecessor, 3M’s ‘15% Project’, initiated in the years after World War II when 3M realized a company must ‘innovate or die’. It allows employees to spend 20% of company-paid time on their own projects, reasoning it will make them better, more creative, more innovative employees, and Google, by extension, a better company.
Just imagine if we all had 2–3 hours a day in which we actively engaged in a creative pursuit — writing that novel, painting, learning all six chords on the guitar, starting up your own business, writing that killer app, exploring a better way to streamline an old, kludgy manufacturing process.
The funny thing about imagination-capturing projects is they don’t depart when we have to go back to ‘real’ work. Our brains keep working on them, in the foreground if our ‘real’ work is the sort that doesn’t require much brainpower, and in the background if it does. Our mental downtime wastes fewer cycles on the externalities that annoy us, especially those we can’t change.
Fixing those externalities
Our nuts-’n’-bolts folks focused on global issues.
The Scientist believes overpopulation is our biggest problem and that reducing our numbers would increase environmental stability. One might observe the pandemic is doing exactly that. It’s hard to reproduce from six feet away unless you live with someone.
His partner, The Nurse, wanted to remove the desire to commit crimes from everyone, which would reduce a lot of global angst when everyone felt safe (and perhaps more inclined to take up The Artist’s 20% Project). She wondered if it might accomplish the opposite of her partner’s idea and drive up human population with everyone feeling better. Archer considered that feeling safe might make people consider more carefully having children.
Archer’s husband, a recently retired tech exec, wanted to give everyone free, non-polluting energy, but only after ten years’ preparation, to give people the chance to think about how to prepare for this future. The Man Who Would Be Emperor, living in dark times in the United States, commented it might just give people ten years to plan for how they might kill their enemies!
These ideas all integrate well with each other for a kinder, gentler world. Except, of course, for sustainably killing one’s enemies.
Archer’s, The Nurse’s, The Emperor’s, and my own ideas emphasize increasing emotional intelligence, compassion, and appreciating perspectives different from one’s own, all contributing to more peaceful individual existences. This will incline people more toward The Artist’s idea to make more time for creative, innovative pursuits. With eventual free clean energy provision, and perhaps a slow reversal of climate change (or more brainpower to plan better for the impetus we’ve created we are now powerless to stop), we would also work toward The Scientist’s dream of a more sustainable environment with fewer people vying for scarce or limited resources. And we’d have something else to do besides shag irresponsibly.
In other words, to quote an Internet meme I’ve seen:
What could we accomplish if we stopped being dicks for just, like, five minutes?
What would your one gift to humanity be? I’m curious!
This was first published on Medium in 2021.