History is full of smart people who believed that the universe, or at least its creator, started out as something fundamentally good. And plenty of smart people still think that, deep down.

Philosophers who discussed the so-called death of god were concerned with what to replace that goodness with, once our assumptions started to shift. That nice, warm certainty of fundamental goodness (even though based purely on instinct, it sure is pleasant to sit in) got replaced by an unknown void. Some thought that atheism meant nihilism; others argued that it meant we could define our own meaning. Like we had been doing all along, anyway.

But when that assumption of goodness falls away, when our gods die and leave us to watch over this world, there is a guilt that fills our hearts. Or at least it sneaks up in mine. A guilt that tells me I’m not good enough, that I’m not doing enough, that I can’t possibly solve all the problems.

We have been led astray by concepts of karma. Ideas of built-in balance. Thinking that we must rise to a certain standard to balance out the evils in the world, yet the only guaranteed balance in the universe is embedded in its laws. Conservation of mass and energy. The arrow of entropy. All else is flux.

We don’t have to let the guilt tell us how we fail to meet some impossible standard.

We don’t have to let assumptions about karma, fate, or faith dictate how we struggle.

I don’t care what you think about what lies outside our universe, an imagined next life. What we do within these ropes of reality, is on us. On me, and on you. But it’s not a pressure that should feed guilt. It should feed our cooperation.

The guilt that creeps in, to fill the void, is certainly powerful. It gobbles up our willpower, our meaning-making energy reserves. We must attempt to make our beliefs about our ability to change reality align with what we actually are. We’re humans. Limited, weird, flawed, gross hairy humans.

The guilt tries to ride us into the ground by saying we can’t solve all the problems. And it’s hard to ignore, because that formulation, phrased like that, is true. We can’t solve all the problems. We should not be ashamed. Only a god can solve all the problems, and for some reason, no gods have chosen to do so in our current reality. (Shucks.) We don’t need to put all the weight on ourselves all the time.

Inability to solve all problems is not the same as inability to solve any problems whatsoever. We can make small progress, still, always. We can do the best we can to improve things for ourselves, and especially others, since our built-in biases don’t generally lean toward helping people far outside our sphere.

If we are making our own reality worse, how to flip the guilt is even more clear. We can choose to say: No, I will not allow this to continue. And I can fix it, with a little help from my friends.

If we work to improve things, we raise the average. We don’t have to fix everything in revolutionary sweeps. I say, just try not to make it worse. When I do fail, instead of feeding the guilt, I try to learn from it.

I don’t have to feel guilty that I have failed to find the sword to cut the Gordian knot. For many problems, the knot is there for a reason. Slicing it would only make things worse. Imagined revolutions are illusory, real revolutions are dangerous. Imagined changes are ineffective, until you try them out. Slowly experimenting, slowly understanding.

You can’t pull at the knot all the time, certainly; we humans have to recharge. The guilt has a helpful component to it, deep down, prodding and poking at us. We can’t ignore the knot for too long. There’s the tricky balance we need to find.

It’s going to take a certain kind of tenacity to stick with this. Untying the knot and really understanding complex systems is hard. Meanwhile, we can’t let the guilt sweep us along into the whirlpool of apathy.

To quote David Deutsch, “There will always be problems. Those problems will always have solutions.” The solutions will be imperfect, and the cycle will continue. But as long as we don’t give up, crushed under the guilt cycle, we make those small steps, and the reality we all share gets better. Bit by bit.

Our universe didn’t start out fundamentally good. It probably didn’t start out fundamentally anything at all, morally speaking. That’s what we’re adding. The meaning, the understanding.

We’re not gods, we’re flawed humans. Don’t let guilt unbalance you. It’s not a tightrope. I think it’s a staircase, and sometimes we fall down. Take small steps. We got this.