Where is Zero?

One of the peculiar things about New York City is how tall the hotdog stands are. They are nearly as tall as the Empire State Building! They really are; the top of a New York hot dog stand and the Empire State Building are both about 6,357,000 meters above the center of the Earth.

There are a lot of things that can be distinguishable, or not, depending on where we put the zero. If the zero point is at the center of the earth, you can’t tell a hot dog stand from a skyscraper, but if you put the zero at ground level, you can. This same principle applies to a lot of things such as the distinguishability of males and females, the importance of humans being 98% genetically similar to chimpanzees, or anything related to racial differences. If we analyze the totality of the personalities of males and females, we are all nearly identical, but if we ignore all of the common elements of our humanity, men and women are very different.

I think this same principle may apply to how people feel about the issues of justice and inequality. Some people think the world is fundamentally just, others think it is fundamentally and thoroughly wicked. Much of that difference may be what people suppose to be an appropriate comparison, the zero point for calculating the difference between what the world is and what it should be.

One very common world view is that what we should have is utopia, so the zero point is a society of perfect abundance and harmony. If that is zero, then our current society is intolerably negative. Others look to the past, or to other parts of the world, as see that most of humanity, for most of history, has lived in misery and conflict. From that zero point, modern America is clearly positive.

One of the most ancient religious principles is gratitude, and I think that so many world religions have inculcated gratitude for so many centuries is that a position of gratitude really does make one happier. Gratitude requires seeing your accounts as having a positive balance, which ironically, means that the natural state of the world, the kind of world that we ought to have , is much worse than the one we’ve got. Likewise believing that we should have utopia might lead to optimistic striving, but more likely just makes you miserable. So, I think it is much healthier and happier to put yourself on the high side of zero.

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