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New Year’s Question: Why Write/Read Substack Posts?
And other Meditations on Why We’re Here
Most columns written about the New Year are full of resolutions for how each of us can improve. I want to do something different here, however: provide some thoughts on why I (and others) write these Substack pieces, especially those of us who are doing it for free, which then bleeds into a more fundamental question I presume most of us ask ourselves from time to time, “why do we exist and what is our purpose?”
To state the obvious at the outset, Substack is a great invention, made possible of course, by the Internet. Substack is for writers what You Tube and Tik Tok (for however long it lasts!) are for creators with musical, athletic or artistic talents (none of which I have).
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Substack is a business, after all, and so its initial appeal had to be to writers of paid posts, since Substack earns revenues by charging authors 10% of their subscription fees. Writers who can successfully charge for what they write are those who have name recognition, most obviously journalists and best-selling authors, and perhaps other well-known personages who want to expand their audience through the written word. Or, in the case of some authors, to quit working for publications, and thus to quit the game of appeasing editors.
But what about all those people like me who write for free? Substack tolerates us, as it doesn’t directly make any money from us, presumably because the more writers who pen posts for Substack that are out there, the more likely it is that readers will find writers of paid posts, generating more subscriptions for them and more money for Substack. In addition, Substack hopes that some writers who start out free become sufficiently popular so that they might try offering a paid tier (indeed, many content contributors start out with both a free and a premium version, using the free offering as a kind of trailer to entice readers to pay for the premium content).
To be very clear, I never began writing with a monetary motive, and I do not intend to make a dime off my posts. Nor do I expect any indirect or collateral monetary benefits from writing them. I am now a full-time plaintiffs’ antitrust attorney and a part-time contributor to articles published or posted by the Brookings Institution, but I do not write anything here or for Brookings out of the expectation that my words will generate more clients.
To be sure, maybe I’ll get ideas for more books to write from writing these posts, but that is only because for me, as I suspect is true for most (non-fiction) authors, only by writing do I sometimes know with some precision what I think, since that is what putting words on paper (or typing them into a word processor, which is a lot easier) forces one to do. One of my favorite quotations comes from the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said it all when he wrote (in a 1918 Supreme Court decision, Towne v. Eisner): “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.” Or, put more pithily, as my former work colleague and sometime co-author Carl Schramm, frequently paraphrased it ”Words are the skin of ideas.”
Substack is great for authors who have thoughts and ideas they believe are worth sharing – though readers will be the judge of that (more about you soon) – that are not likely to be “newsworthy” or deemed appropriate by some editor at any given publication.
But why, you may ask, do Substack authors feel the need to share their thoughts? If those who write these posts want simply to learn what they really think, then why don’t all of us just stick to writing in a journal, as I suspect many readers of my age/vintage were trained to do in high school, as a way of learning how to write? Or as I guess some adults do now, or as many famous or historical figures have done throughout the ages (providing great raw material for historians)?
The honest answer, of course, is that writers like me, do not want to be the proverbial trees that fall in a forest, with no one around to notice. We want to know that someone is out there reading, even if, as here, we (I) receive no monetary compensation at all. It’s even better if something we might say makes some readers feel better, gives them some insight they might not have realized, some comfort in knowing that others out there think like they do. I will tell you that I have felt best the few times readers of my past posts have told me that something I said encouraged to take some step they might not otherwise have taken. Pure gold.
So much for Substack authors, what about you the readers? Why do you sign up and (hopefully) read what Substack authors have to say? I presume it is partly because the typical magazine article doesn’t carry the kinds of oddball stuff some Substack authors write. Maybe part of the reason is to find others who validate what readers believe, though I personally hope that’s not major reason, since all of us already live too much in our own “filter bubbles”. More hopefully, it’s because, based on the past posts of the authors you follow, that you believe there is a good chance that the next one will give you one or two thoughts, or some information, you might not otherwise have come across elsewhere.
Of course, writing is just one of many activities human beings engage in for pleasure, profit, or necessity (for survival). Indeed, each of us undertakes many activities during the course of each day, week, month, year and lifetime. Those activities also change over time. But ultimately, “time” for each of us is limited. None of us knows when our “limit” will be up. But at the dawn of this year, in between my 72nd and what I hope will be my 73rd birthday (and beyond that many more …), I am thinking more than ever before about that existential question I am sure everyone has pondered: why are we (meaning human beings) here? What is our purpose?
For those who believe that we’re all part of God’s plan, the answer is easy, of course. As mere mortals, who are we to question what we’re here for? God created us, he/she knew what he/she was doing. Whatever happens to each of us was meant to be. B’shert, as many Jews like to say (for some things, not all).
I don’t believe God has a plan for each us, however. There are just too many bad things happening to good people all the time, and throughout human history. Wars, accidents, diseases, the Holocaust, slavery, you name it. It’s impossible to believe that God would want to condemn so many, for no good reason, to such a bad fate.
This doesn’t mean, as it means for some, that God doesn’t exist. To me, it only means that God is not active. We all know that life is full of randomness, at least at the “micro” level, namely what happens to each living thing at any moment in time and, indeed, throughout all their lives. I cannot believe God directs all this traffic, or even occasionally intervenes (or not). Humans may like to think otherwise. It is the reason many of us pray after all. I am more comfortable with Rabbi Harold Kushner’s (he of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People fame) explanation for prayer: that through prayer we call upon ourselves to have the strength to deal with the randomness in our lives, not because we (should) expect God to intervene on our behalf.
The fact that life is random at the “micro” level, however, does not mean it is completely random at the “macro” level, however. There are “laws” of nature, which over time clever humans have been discovering – biological (natural selection) and physical (laws of motion) – although biological scientists and physicians are far from having a complete understanding how the human body works, especially our brains, while physicists still have not completed Einstein’s quest to discover a “grand unified theory” that explains all forces at work in the universe.
Human history in one sense is about how humans, over time, have continued to discover these laws. But these laws of nature have to come from somewhere, just as something had to start the “Big Bang” that launched the creation of everything in the universe thereafter. I can’t find any other satisfactory explanation for this other than that a higher force, namely God, did all this. But that’s it. Nothing more.
Though laws of nature, to my mind, have a Divine source, humans determine how they play out over time. Human history is chock full of examples, and it might take forever to write them all down, but this list is just a very small sample:
--From one recent biography of Dwight Eisenhower (by Jean Edward Smith) and the terrific trilogy about FDR at War (by Nigel Hamil), it is clear that both Generals George Marshall and Eisenhower vociferously urged FDR to attack Germany in 1942 across the English Channel, and that Winston Churchill urged him to do the same thing in 1943, but that FDR resisted them all. Instead, he sent our forces to Africa first because he knew the US and Great Britain were not ready to crush the German army in either 1942 or 1943, and that had we tried, our troops would have been slaughtered. And the US might not have defeated Germany! FDR single-handedly changed the course of the War, which forever changed the world thereafter (of course, looking further back, what if Hitler or Stalin had never come along….? It is difficult to believe that someone else would done the same horrific things they did).
-=-From multiple books written about the history of electricity, specifically the war over whether the electric grid should have been built using direct current (DC), as urged by Thomas Edison, or alternating current (AC), as urged by Nikola Tesla, Tesla’s view won out, largely because Tesla had developed an induction motor that worked on AC. Had Tesla not come up with that invention, it is not clear the US and the rest of the world would have embraced AC, which was far more efficient in electrifying just about everything (at the very least, Tesla’s invention dramatically accelerated electrification).
--In more recent times, consider these what ifs and how one person’s decision in each case has had huge impacts in our lives here in the US: if James Comey had never had his second press statement right before the November 2016 election, Donald Trump very likely would not have won; if James Clyburn had not gone all-out for Joe Biden before the South Carolina primary in 2020, Biden very likely never would have been the Democratic nominee and now President; and if Kevin McCarthy had not gone to Mar-a-Lago after condemning Donald Trump right after the January 6th insurrection, Donald Trump’s political career very likely would have been over (putting aside what is likely to happen to Trump after his likely indictment for any one of a number of possible criminal offenses).
--The people of Ukraine would not have suffered at the hands of Russia if Vladimir Putin had not singlehandedly decided to invade (and likewise, Putin may already have won his war without the courage of a single man, President Zelenskyy, who has rallied his country and armed forces, and much of the world).
Now, one could say that every one of these events, and surely many more where one person’s action or invention changed the course of human history, don’t amount to much in the broad sweep of the earth’s history that has roughly another billion years to go. Put differently, all such events can be viewed as mere hiccups in the playing out of the law of natural selection. Still, there is no denying that actions, decisions and invention of individual human beings have had huge consequences for billions of people along the way.
Where is that “way” going? What is God’s ultimate plan, assuming he/she had a “plan” once the Big Bang set everything in motion? Quite clearly, none of us will ever know.
All we do know is that each of us is plays a bit part in the evolutionary process, and that each of us passes the proverbial baton or torch, from one generation to the next, whether or not we have our own children. That is because there is one other thing we know: although we may or may not have a “soul” independent of our bodies that somehow how lives on, here on earth or in the heavens, each of us has (hopefully positive) impacts on others, in the past, now and into future, ideally well after we die. Just as each of us has memories of our own parents, relatives, friends, colleagues, and many others we’ve never met but admired that stay with us after they have left our worlds.
Indeed, alone among all living things here on earth, only humans are aware that there is a “history” and that the length of our lives is limited. Knowing this, all humans desire to be remembered in some fashion after they’re gone.
How is it that we have that knowledge and desire? Again, I can find no other satisfactory explanation than to say that some higher force, God again, gave humans this knowledge and desire. I cannot fathom how these traits materialized somehow through natural selection.
So, looking to the new year, just as we do every year for as long as we’re alive, we each want to continue having positive impacts on others while creating memories of us that others will have while we’re alive and hopefully will have once we eventually are no longer here. These are the same reasons why I write Substacks, and I believe why, at least in part, other authors or creators do what they do.
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