Geek As Citizen: My Own Private IdaHell


Last week I discussed how trying to get to Heaven made us bad citizens.

Specifically, I discussed how there’s a desire to escape everything and reach some permanent paradise (that is never permanent nor really that great a paradise) that separates us from others. Relying on the unexpected tag-team of C.S. Lewis and the Buddha, I looked at how that desire to get to that special inner perfect area drove us onward yet disconnected us from others – and that getting to it was never permanent anyway.

Of course my intention was to look at how that was relevant to geeks.

My concern was that there is a distinct part of geek culture that focuses on the Great Escape, from the Singularity to the perfect job where you never work, that could disconnect us from our fellow humans and society. To try and get away and keep grasping the elusive ring, we missed what was important, and even in our success we became alienated from others. As we’re in an Age of Geek, it’s an important issue to address so we don’t become less human and worse citizens.

But there’s a flipside to this “Heaven Seeking” behavior that I’m sure we’re all equally familiar with. Some people are happy to have their own private Hell, and in some cases it’s easier and the rents are cheaper. Though we may not think of it as the same, it still creates social, emotional, and just plain human distance.

And we know hell all too well.

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Geek As Citizen: Imagine There’s No Heaven

Sky Clouds Heaven

When discussing Geek Citizenship and our involvement in communities, there’s something that comes up again and again – and not just in geek citizenship. It’s an issue that pops up repeatedly when you’re dealing with issues of people being part of society versus cutting themselves off.

The desire to Get Away To Where Everything’s Perfect.

It’s the idea that we’re going to someday be rich enough nothing will bug us (even if some things should bug us). It’s the idea that we can get away from those people or maybe even, you know, get rid of them or isolate them – and then the world is perfect. It’s the idea that there’s something out there that can solve everything and make everything great forever, and if we just keep at it and give up everything else we’ll get there.

It’s an idea of Heaven, and it’s not so much a theological concept as the idea that somehow we’ll reach a perfect state where it’ll all be OK.

This idea is not just B.S. on many levels, it’s pathological because it leaves us always running and manipulating and cutting ourselves off. In short, I’m saying Heaven is a pretty terrible idea, even when we gussy it up with economic talks and technology dreams. In fact, it makes us worse citizens, and I’d like to think we can do better.

Not Perfect of course. Perfect Is The Problem.

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The Six Realms of Existence And One Little Dog

Bhavacakra via Wikimedia commons
Bhavacakra via Wikimedia commons

Theres a concept in Tibetan Buddhism (and I think used in other Buddhist traditions) called the Wheel Of Life.  It’s a great mandala, showing the cycles of the world, clutched in the hands of Yama, lord of death.  It’s a vast, symbolic work that you could spend ages analyzing as it represents the sources of suffering, the nature of living beings, and the liberation off the wheel.

Most notable – and famous – are the various realms of existence portrayed on the wheel.  The lore states that there are six realms one can be born in:

Devas – The gods.  Beings who enjoy bliss and pleasure and power.  However, Devas do age and die, and their happiness often means they don’t develop wisdom or compassion.

Asuras – The Angry Gods, sometimes translated as “Titans”.  They conted with the Devas.  Powerful, fierce, and forceful they’re also jealous and paranoid.

Humans – That’s us.  We’re usually ignorant, but also are in a balanced world and state where we can learn wisdom, compassion, and get off the Wheel via enlightenment.  We’ve got anger and bliss and so forth, but it’s not overwhelming or crippling.

Animals – The realm of creatures of instinct.  Animals tend to prefer sameness, indulge desire, and often lack humor.

Hungry Ghosts – The realm of addiction.  Hungry Ghosts are mournful spirits haunting various desolate parts of the world, seeking to consume things they desire and unable to enjoy them.  Scary-looking, they’re rather pathetic creatures.

Hell Beings – The realm of fear and anger.  Hell beings are born to torment in this horrible realm.

Metaphysically it’s an interesting cosmology, but it can also be viewed as metaphorical – that these are different psychological states we can experience.  I’ve seen the psychological model talked about by a number of people, such as Mark Epstein and Pema Chodron; it’s really fascinating.

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