On this Christmas Eve and as a new year approaches, I wonder whether we can be the deus ex machina of our own lives. For what the very existence of the device implies is that there is a normal life, a standard way of being, from which an internal logic is derived such that an outside force is required to drive towards the outcomes we desire. But there is what is, and there is what can be. We all inhabit milieus and have a natural rhythm to our lives, we all have habits and so do the people who are our habits. A pattern emerges, a comfortable one. We run these grooves and they get deeper. But we also have agency – I won’t call it free will – but we have the ability to act, to be a player, to do this extraordinary thing that is so unexpected that in a story it might be considered deus ex machina.
A woman fights a bull to save a stranger’s life, a Frenchman walks a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers, a lone man stands steadfast in the face of an approaching tank, a senior admiral stands up and says this is what I believe. We share 99.99% of our genes and this capacity – not to walk across a rope but rather, to stand up and say I own my life. We give without credit, we forgive from our hearts, and we reach out even when we might get hurt. And more – we are at least in part socially constructed in a powerful way – our emotions and motivations and search for love and status and all the other things that make up the fabric of our lives’ experience are driven by people. That gives other people power over us, but it also gives us power over other people. Our ability to persuade, influence, create, share, this is not small, or trivial. In this, and with technology, we have the opportunity to shift the world.
I had an argument with a friend who said, “Who are we to push our views, to try to drive the outcomes we as individuals desire? Who are we to play God?” The Catholic tradition says that what makes us humans distinct from animals is that we were made in the image and likeness of God. I say we all stand up, we all play God, because the alternative is that only some of us do. As has happened over and over throughout history. I say we let all the ideas and people into the ring. Everyone gets to play. The only rule is that you have to treat others in the ring as players, as like oneself. We come together in this great clash of ideas – and love and friendship and feeling – and may the best man win.