Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

Incantation 3 — Okay, Compared to What?

Microcosmographia lxiv: Incantation 3 — Okay, Compared to What?

Microcosmographia is a newsletter thing about honestly trying to understand design and humanity.

This most powerful incantation may be my most important discovery of 2021.

Any judgment you make, especially about yourself or your situation, must be in comparison to something else. Explicit or not, you hold some model to measure against.

Let’s take an easy example up front, from my dear friend and Microcosmographia narrator Jon Bell. I have a tendency to complain about Apple software design and quality, and Jon has a tendency to challenge me in a way that I interpret as, “Okay, compared to what?” Honestly, who is doing a better job than Apple at these jobs? While taking into consideration all the variables needed to deliver such sophisticated products to such a vast, varied audience? Of course, no one is. I was once again comparing against some imaginary ideal in my mind (perhaps against the imaginary ideal of Apple media event keynotes), instead of against anything that has ever existed on this planet. Another way of phrasing it is “what should they have done?” And if you have a better answer than people who have this as their entire job, you could probably have a successful career in the industry! (That’s not meant to be dismissive, it’s meant to be inspiring — come and help us make it better!)

So it’s a helpful way to reconsider complaints you might have about anything — a product, a person, a place, a global geopolitical stae of affairs.

What happens when you apply the question to yourself, and your own life: “Okay, compared to what?” If you’re dissatisfied or ambivalent about something in your life, what life with actual evidence of existing would be preferable? It can be invigorating to march down a list of possible answers, starting with the most unrealistically lofty.

That last one, the first time I successfully held it in my mind and took it seriously, led me to an experience I am pretty comfortable labeling 見性 kenshō — the zen concept commonly translated as “recognizing one’s original nature”. At the most basic level, you’re made of perturbations in a pure field of consciousness. “Consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways.” Getting to the point where you can really believe that, even just for a moment, and then compare it to everything you get to experience, regardless of its positive or negative valence, comes with a dang boundless sense of gratitude and love. This sure does make it easier to remain patient for the crucial five extra seconds you need while interacting with a four-year-old who needs to brush his teeth, or to part ways with a video game collection you’ve spent twenty years accumulating. And even to at least survive in the face of greater challenges than those.

Thank You and Be Well

This one took a while but I think I am in a bit of a writing golden age, thanks to a mutually creativity-nurturing friendship with Jon Bell. These letters are fodder for the Anatomy, which you can read; and I’m also making unprecedented progress on the Labyrinth, my complementary fiction writing project, which you can’t. I’ve even written a non-zero number of poems of late.