One of the greatest standup comedians of all time divorced himself from the world. George Carlin found peace of mind by sitting back, as he said, without a stake in the outcome. He chalked up his strategy to this:
“When you're born in this world, you're given a ticket to the freak show. And when you're born in America, you're given a front-row seat. And some of us get to sit there with notebooks."
Carlin had a notebook like few others. In his 1992 special, Jammin' in New York, he joked about environmentalism, “The planet is fine. The people are fucked... the planet isn't going anywhere. We are. We're going away. Pack your shit, folks." Reflecting on this bit, in an article titled Morality, the Zeitgeist, and D**k Jokes, writer Nick Simmons pointed out, “In any other context, suggesting that the extinction of all humanity just might be a good thing would, safe to say, probably not inspire applause. But somehow, Carlin made even this quite literally inhuman point of view--sub specie aeternitatis--not only palatable, but preferable.”
Whether or not you agree with divorcing yourself from the future of the planet, or that global extinction is palatable or preferable, the sheer idea of sharing your reality is important. Because we all have notebooks now.
The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley considers this phenomenon the reason for the progress and prosperity of human beings. Our world has evolved at a blinding pace because we’ve learned to embrace and exchange our specializations. We’re no longer forced to be self-sufficient in ideas or inventions. We progress from the incremental offerings of billions of other people every single day. Yes, billions.Ridley called idea sex - when ideas meet and mate.
Think about it. There are tons of bits in all the things we enjoy every day. You couldn’t possibly build your own Ford F-150 from scratch, fueled up with unleaded gas, crankin’ Whitesnake through your speakers. You couldn’t offer your sweetheart the option of eating Italian rigatoni, Japanese sushi, or Indian biryani, hot and ready to inhale in under an hour. And don’t think for a second you could read this sentence without millions of people constructing laptops and smartphones, maintaining wifi signals, and running electricity easily and everywhere.
Beyond the physical trades of goods and services, idea sex is important in weaving the tapestry of our cultural world. We have the ability to imagine what reality looks like through someone else’s mind just by digesting their ideas. You could watch Carlin’s 1999 special You Are All Diseased and shift your perspective to what his mind might be like. Even though he has been dead for years. Or perhaps you can see the world through your neighbor’s eyes. Or your parents. Or even Trump, if you also imagined avoiding exercise and conversations with minorities your entire life.
On the flip side, progress never ends and the work is never done. We have so much access it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking our version of reality is the truth. This is why we need to document it all. We need to keep swapping our notebooks.
Just this week I experienced glimpses into the lives of a few people I barely knew and it moved me. Tim died of a heart attack, suddenly, and at the age of 34. He had a wife and two children. Jason spilled his guts on social media about how medical bills were crippling him as he fights the cancer out of his body. And through those glimpses of reality, both Tim’s family and Jason’s friend were able to crowdfund more than $5,000 each to help life go on.
There is amazing good that can come from sharing your reality. Even the dark-edged Carlin said that “if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist. And I would admit that somewhere underneath all of this, there is a little flicker of a flame of idealism that would love to see it all change. But it can’t. It can’t happen that way. And incremental change, it just seems like the pile of shit is too deep.”
While it might seem like everything won’t change fast enough, sometimes we can be surprised. Sometimes good people you barely know can reach out and help you get through a tough time. Sometimes someone can see your reality and approvingly nod, and that’s enough.
The truth is we’re all inside the freak show, reporting on the madness. We are in this together, exploring what this life is all about. And, perhaps, when it comes down to it, we just need to scribble in our notebook and share.