Dream/Reflection: The School of Humanity


Emotional Learnings, Artificial Life, and the Curse/Blessing of Homeostasis

[While back in my old college town for BioIT Boston]

1. The Dream

I am visiting my son’s high school.

It is both like and unlike the one he attends in the waking world.

There is some sort of field trip going on.

Most of the kids already left.

There’s only a handful of us on the final school bus.

One of the teachers is with us.

Thirty-something guy. Healthy. Ruddy face. Unruly blond hair.


The sort of person central casting would choose for a random counselor at a summer camp in California.

I overhear him as he talks to my son a couple rows forward.

Speaking obliquely, he hints that my son is almost eligible for some major award.

[This is where the dream — or perhaps my memory of it — gets garbled. And odd.]

The teacher starts talking to my son about the emotional and psychological hangups that kept him from doing his best work.

And the obvious next steps for dealing with them.

It is no big deal.

It is like discussing how to write an essay, or coaching a player to swing a baseball bat.

They have a culture, common language, and standard practices for identifying and working through issues like this.

My son listens appreciatively, and agrees with the teacher’s suggestion.

It is no big deal.

It is just common sense, after all.

Then I wake up

2. The Reflection

Two questions profoundly troubled me:

  1. Why isn’t there already school like that, where people naturally and casually work through their most limiting issues?
  2. Why don’t I expect there to be?

I studied at some of the premier educational institutions in the world.  

I attended some of the best evangelical churches in Christendom.

I have visited, learned from, and been blessed by wonderful theological seminaries and monastic retreat centers.

I never saw anything like that.

I never even imagined it was possible.

Much less that I should ask for it.


Like most highly-educated, upper-middle-class families we plan to send our kids to “a good college.”

This could easily cost half a million dollars.

They will gain useful skills, a prestigious degree, and perhaps even more valuable social connections and enculturation into the “movers and shakers” of this world.

If they are really lucky, at some time during their journey they may find a pastor, coach, teacher, or mentor who sits them down and has a profound conversation like the one in my dream.


Probably not.

Like me, they will probably learn how to succeed professionally.

But their inner demons will likely go unchallenged.

If not made worse.

And everyone would be totally okay with that.

Including me.


3. The Answer

I think I know why.

Everything that lives is governed by homeostasis.

Not just individual organisms.

Families. Nations. Corporations. Schools. Sports Teams.


In order to survive, there are certain things we absolutely must do, e.g.:

  • Consume resources.
  • Maintain boundaries.
  • Secure our environment.

These processes are too fundamental to leave to chance.

Or even to conscious control.

They must be deeply woven into our subconscious habits and reflexes.

Our nearly-immutable conditioning. 


If we forget to breathe for a few minutes.

Or forget to eat for a few days.

We lose strength.

We lose consciousness.

We die.

At which point nothing else matters.


Our bodies have powerful systems that keep us alive.

So do all our institutions.

We aren’t even aware of most of them, most of the time.

When we are, it is usually become something has gone horribly wrong.

Even then, we may know there’s a problem.

But we lack intuition about what exactly went wrong, and why.

Much less how to fix it.

Because it all happened at a level far below our conscious awareness.

4. Institutional Learning

Existence is hard.

And fragile.

I am fortunate enough to live in a time and place where human life is reasonably secure.

Most of us spend very little time worrying about whether we will be alive tomorrow.

Instead, we worry about money, or status, or achievement.

Which is indirectly the same thing.

Because those are what help us maintain the social standing that will keep us alive in the future.

At least for a while.


(Where I have lived and worked since leaving Apple in 2014)

Are different

Death is an ever-present, impending possibility.

Usually measured in months.

When I look at all the institutions we rely upon in modern life.

I remember that they too were once startups.

I know just how hard it is to breathe life into something like that.

Establish the core homeostasis that enables them to survive.

To thrive to the point where they rarely worry about death.

Just money, status, and achievement.


This is what I have learned:

  • There are certain questions you must ask.
  • And certain questions you must not ask.

Because survival is hard.

And not guaranteed.


There are certain things we absolutely must do.

And anything that interferes with those activities 

Or even threatens to decrease our ability to execute them

We must internalize a deep, visceral conditioning to avoid them like the plague.

Because if we fail even once.

For a few days.

Or even a few minutes.

We die.

And then nothing else matters.

5. The Bigger Lesson

This is the curse of modern life.

Which is inextricably tied to the gift.

We are blessed with an insane diversity of institutions.

All of them have internalized deep homoestatic truths that allow them to stay alive without any conscious thought

So they can focus on creativity, generosity, productivity.


I can sit here typing on a computer in my hotel room

Casually sharing my thoughts around the world

Worrying about abstract philosophical problems

Rather than where my next meal is coming from


Those subliminal girders that uphold us

Are also the invisible chains that bind us

There are certain experiments 

We have very deep and powerful motivations

To not even consider

Much less attempt

Example: “What if I stopped breathing for ten minutes?”

Creating a community

Like the one in my dream

Feels like such an experiment.

The Forces

Institutional inertia

Subconscious conditioning 

Cultural norms

That get in my way

Are the exact same things

That keep me alive

What kind of fool

Would I have to be 

To challenge those?


What kind of fool

Would I have to become

In order to win

Even if I don’t survive?

6. The Prayer

Lord Jesus, 

You told us to pray

To your Father

For your Kingdom to come

Your will to be done

On earth

As it is in heaven

I am

Only now beginning to understand

Why that required

And perhaps even led to

The fall of Jerusalem

The destruction of the Temple

The exile of the Jews

To be honest

I don’t know

If I am willing

To pay that price

To see your Kingdom come


I don’t have any better options

Than to trust you

And obey you

Because I trust you

More than I trust myself

And I know you love me

More than I love myself


I pray

Thy Kingdom come

Thy will be done

On earth

As it is in heaven.


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