The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


December 26, 2023

The Unexpected Good

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You would expect those on the leading edge of making the world a better place through breakthroughs in technology, science, and now the advent of artificial intelligence to be those with the most hope for the future. After all, are these not all at the heart of the accelerating progress we are making not only in these fields but in the alleviation of poverty, hunger, disease, mental illness and a host of other applications? This is the essence of their faith in “effective altruism” that is focused not merely on the present but on problems needing solutions hundreds of years from now. These are brilliant and powerful people thinking long term about the uncertain prospects of our planet. However, it seems to be the very people making the most of new discoveries and considering the distant challenges for an endangered planet while making life better for everyone are, ironically, themselves in deep despair over the future.

Mark Zuckerberg is building a 1,400 acre compound in Hawaii with 30 bedrooms divided among more than a dozen different buildings. They will be joined by a secret tunnel that leads to a 5,000-square-foot underground shelter that is protected behind a metal door filled with concrete. It will have everything necessary for surviving what is being called “The Event.”  “That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus or malicious hack that takes everything down,” writes Douglas Rushkoff in his book, “Survival of the Richest.” Zuckerberg is just one of several so-called “preppers” who are either readying themselves for a civilization ending cataclysm or, like Elon Musk and others, turning their eyes toward interplanetary colonization as an escape from a dying planet. Elon has said many times that humanity is doomed if we don’t colonize other planets - beginning with Mars. The prospects for the survival of civilization and humanity grow dimmer as the technological advances become even more sophisticated and promising. “My mission in life,” Musk writes, “is to make mankind a multi-planetary civilization for preserving the human spirit.”

They are not alone in their dystopian view of history and the future. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “Lord of The Rings” and “The Hobbit” shared the same view that mankind is not moving steadily upward and advancing into ever increasing prosperity - but with one important difference. 

Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory. 

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days - quite apart from torture, pain, death bereavement, and injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil - historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ‘causes’ and ‘effects’. No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success - in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.”

Read that last sentence again to see the singular difference between the long defeat and the ironic despair of Zuckerberg and other preppers. “Evil labors with vast power and perpetual success - in vain: preparing always only for the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.”

Yes, Tolkien believed the world moves, with only brief interruptions, inevitably downwards. However, this is not futile. Eventually, one day the ultimate eucatasrophe (Tolkien’s word for what first appears to be catastrophic but flips defeat to victory) will happen and good will inevitably triumph over evil, defeating it once and for all.

So, that is our work, isn’t it? It is why we do not give in to despair or are overwhelmed by the sum total of human misery and injustice that confronts us every day. Instead, without being Pollyanna or wearing rose-colored glasses we focus on the soil where the unexpected good will sprout. The Jewish proverb reads, “You are not required to finish your work, but neither are you permitted to desist from it.” We keep working in hope. We work in faith. We persist. 

What a tragedy that such God-given talent and creative genius displayed by Zuckerberg, Musk and others should lead to so hopeless a future. That is not our fate. Instead, we are the bearers and co-creators of God’s unexpected good. 

A note for our readers. 

Starting in January I will be publishing the blog monthly instead of weekly. 

Art by Kevin Moran

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