Category — The Meaning(lessness) of Life
One of the most significant reasons why our lives don’t look like we think they should is because we are paralysed by choice.
In our lives we enjoy an abundance of choice unlike all the generations before us. The variety of groceries, cuts of meat, vegetables and cuisines are many and varied.
There are seemingly infinitely many places where you can buy clothes and shoes, starting with the physical stores in your own town and extending to the far reaches of online shopping.
The large variety of topics to be explored and books to be read is so vast that you couldn’t cover all of them, or even most of those that interest you, in a normal lifetime.
The variety and amount of entertainment at our disposal, games to play, shows to watch, music to listen to, is also richly diverse.
And just think of all the places you can travel to; you might be able to skim the surface of many countries, cities and towns, but will you ever have the opportunity to know a place deeply?
This is exactly what humans have worked so hard to enable and what, for too many people living on this planet, is just a cruel, taunting dream. And yet the more there is to choose from, the less some of us seem able to choose anything at all.
Here I am, presently enjoying my extended hiatus from normal life, and yet I am often disgusted with myself at the end of a day because I feel I wasted an opportunity to use my time and explore something new.
I know right? What a problem to have!
And yet for me, and perhaps for many of you, the problem is real and it’s painful. There’s the sense that life is stagnating and passing me by.
I woke up this morning thinking about what I’d like to do with my day. Should I write more of my novel, should I read more of the three books I currently have going, should I learn a new song on the piano, should I watch more of The Wire, should I research more into the articles about ET contacts with ancient civilisations (that’s a story for another time)?
I feel a pull towards each of these, yet none stand out as where I want to put my focus for the day. And so there’s the possibility that I could spend the day avoiding doing anything at all. Instead, because I can’t choose, I might tend to surf the web aimlessly, watch pointless daytime TV, potter around the house or just sit daydreaming. The next thing I’ll know it will be time to start preparing dinner and moving on into the evening.
The same phenomenon occurs when eating out. I’ve come to love tapas style dining because I don’t have to choose one dish, but rather can taste and sample from a variety of smaller dishes. Growing up my favourite lunches were when my mum would prepare an antipasto style lunch of deli meats, cheeses, bread, assorted marinated vegetables, fresh cucumber and fruit. I can still taste it now!
You may not experience this to the same extent that I have been lately, but perhaps you can relate. Maybe during the evening you wonder what you could do with your time. Perhaps you have a pile of books waiting to be read. Maybe you’ve been meaning to do some more work on a creative project. Is it that you’ve been dreaming of finding out more information about a new interest or project?
Whatever thoughts and ideas spring to mind, they each likely pique your interest, but you can’t really decide on what to do and so you do what you always do. You choose nothing. You remain exactly where you are, in front of the TV, letting inertia win you over, and letting yourself feel disappointed and annoyed that you wasted another evening.
The same thing probably happens on the weekend. On Thursday and Friday you start fantasising about all the things you want to do this weekend. You want to try that new restaurant, visit that new art exhibition, try that exercise class, see a movie, catch up with friends, organise that cupboard, clean that room, finish reading that book and so on and so forth.
The thought of the possibilities excites you and energises you. But what is the reality?
Friday evening arrives and you decide you’re really too tired to make a start on anything tonight. Instead you’ll relax with a bottle of wine and a TV movie. The enthusiastic energy you felt has well and truly dissipated and your actions encourage the lethargy to settle in.
When Saturday arrives you likely sleep in and spend the morning pottering around, lazing with the papers, indulging in a long breakfast and doing a few chores and before you know it the evening has arrived once again.
The sheer number of choices you have given yourself for the weekend prove to be too many and instead of choosing just one, you choose none and allow the usual inertia to take hold.
So what’s the key here? What can you do to ensure you don’t spend your life disappointed and annoyed with yourself with a constant question of “What if?” flashing in your mind?
The solution is simple, but not necessarily easy.
You choose just one thing to focus on each day. For the weekend maybe choose two or three activities to involve yourself with.
Yes, but how do you make this choice you might be wondering? There’s probably a few ways to answer this, but here I’ll give you two.
Firstly, when considering your choices, see if you can tune into your instinct for which activity might hold the most interest for you today. Or rationally analyse which one would help you feel the best.
If you can’t rely on instinct or rationality then choose at random. Generate a random number, play eeny-meeny or pull an option out of a hat.
The most important thing is to choose something so that you end the inertia. Even if you start an activity and change your mind after 15 minutes and move onto something else, you will have ended your inability to choose.
Chances are that once you start making choices you will begin to naturally tune in to what you really want to be doing. Slowly you will realise just how many books you have read, paintings you have completed, new topics you have learnt, people you have met and activities you have enjoyed over a year.
As time passes by you will grow proud of what you have accomplished and the fabric of your life will seem amazingly rich. You will no longer go to bed disappointed and annoyed with yourself, but feel a sense of peace because you are being true to you.
So you might be wondering what I ended up doing so far today? Well I chose to write this post and once I’m done I will make another choice.
November 24, 2011 2 Comments
In Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, the character Roark talks to Wynand about what he calls the “second-handers”.
A second-hander is someone who has no real sense of self, but instead borrows their perception of self from those around them. Rather than being who they truly are, they instead adopt a persona according to what they think society and those around them would find pleasing and acceptable.
Sometimes these people are seen as altruistic, giving of themselves. In reality they don’t give anything as they don’t have anything of a self to give. Rather, they like to be seen to be selfless because they think they will find approval that way.
As Roark explains it:
“The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he’s honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he’s great in the eyes of others. The frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison. The man whose sole aim is to make money… Personal luxury is a limited endeavour. What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others. They’re second-handers.”
When you look around you how many second-handers can you see? How many young people can you see are in danger of being second-handers all their lives? How often do you think you might exhibit the tendencies of a second-hander?
Pretending to be someone you’re not so that you might gain respect or seem more likeable to your peers is amongst some of the most unhealthy behaviour that you could ever exhibit.
Adopting the lifestyles and habits of those that seem successful to you, without reflecting on whether any of it suits you, is probably setting you up for failure and disappointment.
Believing in philosophies and teachings without critical reflection may lead you too far astray and more lost and bewildered than you were to begin with.
Being you, being real, being authentic, is all that you are here for. If you forgo your sense of self in favour of blending in with the status quo, you cheat yourself out of your own greatness. Since there will never be another you, you’ve given away the one chance the world had to experience something uniquely you.
It’s easier to be like others. It’s easier to copy the lifestyles of those around you. It’s easier to adopt the thoughts, opinions, beliefs and attitudes of others than to get deeply in touch with your own.
Everyday, in almost every moment you have two choices. Be a second-hander or be you. What’s it going to be?
November 14, 2011 2 Comments
I’ve joined the NaNoWriMo competition this month and thought I’d share an excerpt from my writing, since this passage in particular has a lot to do with what I usually write about here.
For those who don’t know much about it, it’s basically a bit of a competition to see who can write 50 000 words of a novel in the month of November. There are communities all over the world taking part and it is the challenge I’ve set for myself this month. So far I’m actually a little bit behind but I’m not worried yet. Of course 50 000 words doesn’t make a novel, but the aim is to see whether you can maintain the momentum and just get the words down. If you can, then it seems like a pretty good sign that you’d be able to go the distance and write a full novel, or the first draft at least.
This is my first attempt at fiction and I’m posting a piece here just to keep you informed of what I’m up to and hopefully to give you something to think about in the passage below. If all goes well I might be encouraging you to buy a copy some time soon! The working title is Meaning(lessness) and hence the title of today’s post.
By the way, Lilla is a GP and Emma is a patient.
Well, here goes:
Emma also wanted to hear what Lilla might think about why she was going to see Mr Georgiou. She hadn’t told anyone yet that she was going to go and see a therapist or how she had been feeling. Coming here today was supposed to help her make it all real. She decided she would give Lilla a little more information and see how far this went.
“Jonathon Georgiou deals with existential problems and provides guidance for those who are vividly aware of the existential problems they face.”
Emma could see that this information had not enlightened Lilla any further and that in fact she was not familiar with anything Emma was saying. Lilla had twisted slightly towards her computer monitor, almost like a reflex, indicating her need to google everything that Emma had just said. But Emma continued.
“I’ve been feeling inexplicably down for months, and even years now. Nothing significant has happened. There’s been no death, no traumatic experiences, no loss of any kind. In fact, it is because life hasn’t changed that much at all that I find myself feeling this way. I’m depressed and I know it. It’s not a crippling depression in the usual sense, and most people who don’t know me probably haven’t even noticed. But I know that I’m functioning on some substandard level.”
Emma couldn’t believe she was explaining it, that the words were coming out of her mouth and were making so much sense. She’d rehearsed this to herself so many times, feeling the need to convince herself that what she was going through was legitimate and that it was ok to seek help. Even so, she hadn’t really expected that she’d be able to articulate herself so clearly, so matter-of-factly, here and now.
Lilla had turned back towards Emma unconsciously and was leaning forwards now, as if to make sure she didn’t miss one word of what Emma was saying. It seemed as though Emma had reached into the gurgling pit in Lilla’s own stomach and found a way to explain what was going on there. Lilla felt paralysed to the spot and at the same time wanted to press rewind and then replay everything Emma had just shared.
“At first I thought I was just tired and needed a break. Or maybe I just needed to change things up in my life. Then I started doing some reading and I realised that essentially what had happened was that I had lost any sense of hope. I used to feel life was going somewhere and now I know that really it goes nowhere. I suppose I used to believe that life was some sort of quest, and in childhood at least, it certainly seems that way. We have so many obstacles to jump, so many tests to pass; all in the belief that we are going places. It’s as if when you reach adulthood you suddenly feel stranded, like you’ve been kicked off the movie set that you thought was real life.”
Emma paused to make sure what she was saying was striking at the heart of the matter. Lilla was now sitting back in her chair with her arms perched on the arm rests, as if ready to spring up out of the chair at any moment. Lilla suddenly felt very uncomfortable and restless. She could if she wanted to, cut this appointment short and just write the damned referral. And yet, she couldn’t stop listening.
“I guess what I’m saying is, now I know for sure that life is meaningless. There is no quest, no journey, no meaning, no purpose. We’re all here by accident, that’s all. For me, this knowledge is a burden of huge proportions. It’s like I’ve been given this boulder to carry and for the life of me I can’t figure out what to do next. I’m just sitting here in the shade of this enormous boulder like I’m within its gravitational pull or something. I know logically that I can walk away, but I don’t know how.”
Emma looked at Lilla and found it odd the way she was sort of peering at her, as if suspicious and yet intrigued all at the same time. Emma had been expecting some sort of “Hmm, that’s really interesting”, but it seemed that Lilla was unable to talk.
“So anyway, apparently what I’m struggling with is how to get over this existential angst that I’m feeling. Existential ideas are supposed to be liberating yet I just feel imprisoned. I should be delighted with the freedom of choice I have available and the knowledge that life is what you make it. Instead I feel burdened. I’m paralysed. I can’t do it.”
If you have something constructive or kind you’d like to say then I’d love to hear from you
November 7, 2011 2 Comments
Around the world we are witnessing a growing movement of people, calling themselves the 99%, who are gathering together, occupying public space, in protest of the world we currently live in.
I’m not certain that these gatherings represent a uniform consensus of protest, but rather a general feeling that where we now find ourselves is unsustainable, unethical, illogical and generally unfair.
This goes back to what I was talking about in my most recent post, that there is a growing sense of discontent on the rise amongst many people in western society. There’s a vague sense that things aren’t as they should be and that the way we are living our lives has some underlying fundamental flaws.
I can certainly understand and emphathise with what people around the world are doing. The fact that people are gathering together to voice their dissatisfaction with the status quo thrills me. I couldn’t be more excited about this awakening of consciousness and this growing unwillingness to accept things as they are or how the powers that be have told us things should be.
And yet there seems to be some irony in their ambition.
In Melbourne, the Occupy Melbourne group have set up a “tent city” where people have been occupying a public square for some time. Authorities are saying they cannot stay there indefinitely, and that ultimately as they continue to disrupt the lives of others, they will be told to move on. Those in the protest say they won’t be leaving until those in power start to listen. (Update: I’ve just seen that over the weekend the occupy groups in Melbourne and Sydney have been forcibly broken up and moved on by police. In Melbourne in particular, the force used by police has been reported as excessive, with many protesters suffering injuries. This is something worth pondering in and of itself.)
From my perspective, asking those in government (or even in the opposition) to take notice and effect change is utterly pointless. The 1% of those holding the wealth and the power across the world include the ruling governments. Or at least this seems to be the case from my vantage point.
What fails to be acknowledged in movements such as this, is that we all have had a part in creating the world we live in. The governments we have elected have been shaped by us, we have not been shaped by them. The insanely wealthy CEOs have become so following the direction of the 99%. The developing world exists not just because of the 1% but because of us all.
The other day I said to my husband that I’m ashamed to be a human. I said that if I get the chance to meet some intelligent aliens, I’ll volunteer to go with them and that I don’t want to be associated with the rest of the human race. It was an outburst, but it holds a lot of truth for me. My husband was puzzled and bewildered as to how I could even say such a nonsensical thing! To me though, with all of our collective intelligence, I find it unfathomable that of all the permutations of society that we could have created, this is the system we came up with.
The society we live in doesn’t work. You might say that it mostly works, but to me that means it doesn’t. There are people in power trying to fine tune this and reconfigure that, but it seems obvious to me that we need a complete overhaul and a new vision of a world and society for everyone.
As an example, The Venus Project is one idea of what this overhaul could look like. I’m not saying that this idea would work, or that it’s even the best idea. The fact there are people out there imagining a new style of existence gives me hope that the best of what we have to offer still has a chance to come to fruition. Our current set up (the 9 to 5, transport, industry, food, commerce, politics, religion, all of it) is unimaginative at best. Of all that we have available to us, the fact that we continue to bumble around in this system should be embarrassing to you too.
The 99% asking the 1% to change is nowhere near radical enough. It’s also completely ineffective. It’s like wanting your partner to be someone they’re not and asking them to change their personality, all the while not realising that it’s you that has to change and walk away.
It’s the same with our current societal structure. It’s a waste of time sitting around, waiting to get attention from a group of people we have enabled. Nothing real can be achieved this way.
So what can we do? It begins with our own behaviour and where we apply our focus.
Each day we choose to participate in the society we have created for ourselves. If we change the way we participate, we will begin to change the structure. If we don’t like the establishment of big corporations, then we should stop buying what they sell. If we live our lives as consumers then we are advocating this current society with our actions and choices. If we instead decide to strip our lives down to the essentials we could then have ample financial resources to invest in what is important. Instead of enabling large corporations, we could enable women in developing countries, or scientists, or inventors, or artists, or engineers.
We have the knowledge to develop amazing and transforming technologies. These technologies could rapidly and successfully change the structure of society as we now know it. And each of us sitting here in the 99% have more power than we realise.
Asking the 1% to change their ways makes us the victim, when truthfully we hold the power. Maybe we just don’t fully realise it yet.
In Australia voting is compulsory. Most people then vote for the least worst option available. Imagine what would happen if everyone showed up to vote and cast a blank vote. How much more clear could we make it that we no longer choose the status quo?
The awareness being created by the 99% is an essential first step. But these voices need to be giving people a direction and something tangible to hold on to. We won’t all wake up tomorrow and suddenly the world will have seen sense. But every choice you make has an impact on the society in which you live.
Think about what sort of world you want to live in. Think about what sort of world would adequately reflect the best of the human spirit and intelligence. Once you have this image clearly in your mind begin to change your actions in ways that support and reflect this vision. And remember, the 99% can be rid of the 1% anytime they choose, but it is a result of your choices.
October 25, 2011 5 Comments
In conversations with friends recently, and the usual philosophising that goes on in my mind, I’ve been observing a struggle between wanting more and having enough.
It wasn’t so long ago, maybe just a generation ago, that having one house, one good car, solid appliances, a few special outfits and a couple of healthy kids was considered having it all in life. Throw in a few local holidays and it seemed that the general populous of the western world were content with their lot. Perhaps this is not true at all and it only seems as though this is how things were, but have a chat with your parents and I’m sure you’ll find this is close to the truth.
Of course one main reason that consumerism was less rampant and pervasive was because there was a lot less choice in what you could consume. Advertising had its limits and social technologies barely existed. When you bought something it was generally made to last, rather than to be upgraded within 18 months.
Whatever the reasons, it seems clear that what constituted the good life not so long ago is now considered, at best, the OK life. Unless people are constantly upgrading what they already have, there is an undercurrent of discontent rumbling just below the surface of their lives. Maybe you feel it, I know that I do.
I like to consider myself a pretty self-aware individual. I like to study my motivations and feelings and analyse what’s really going on. Personally I know that when I feel the urge to upgrade and to start looking for something better, newer, fancier, it’s to avoid the realities of my existence. Sounds deep doesn’t it? But I’ll bet there’s a little bit of this going on inside you too.
Take for example buying and having a house. These days real estate agents advertise what they call “starter homes”, houses that will be ok as a first home, but aren’t your ultimate dream home. In Perth at least, these houses are internally the size of houses that used to be perfect for an average sized family (although they don’t tend to come with the big backyards anymore). Once people start having children they deem these houses to be too small and they’re off to find or build their mini mansion. When I look at all the houses that have been left vacant by the financial crisis in the US, what strikes me most is the sheer size and scale of these homes, and it seems obvious that such lifestyles were unsustainable.
So why do people feel the need for large homes, or a new home, or a better home? Is it a real need or a perceived need? I think we can agree it’s most likely the latter. Once people have spent weekends and dollars on renovating and styling their home, they enjoy it for a brief period before they begin to feel the rumblings of discontent. It’s a discontent with life and a lack of meaning and fulfilment. Yet, because it’s such a vague and uncomfortable feeling, without a tangible means to be grasped, it gets manifested as an external need. Turning your discontent into a dissatisfaction with where you live means that you now have a tangible problem to solve. Plus, solving it often takes months and years to accomplish and so you put the rumbles at bay for a significant amount of time. But they’ll be back.
I heard Whoopi Goldberg say yesterday that in the next few days the world population will hit 7 billion. This got me thinking about all the people having large families. In the western world we have a choice about having children and we are more informed than our counterparts in some of the developing world. As someone who doesn’t want any children I of course find it difficult to understand why people want to start a family and how they decide how many they want to have. In Australia at least, there seems to be a phenomenon amongst the wealthier families to have large families of four children and more. I can’t help feeling that this is akin to wanting to upgrade your house.
From my perspective, and this may be controversial, it seems that every time you have a new child you start a new project. As your other children are progressing through the stages of childhood and growing up, the rumblings begin where you realise that the energy and effort you’ve expended on raising children will no longer have an outlet. The meaning you’ve given to your life will now need to be reassessed and reimagined and it all starts to feel uncomfortable. Having another child will postpone these rumblings until a later date. Defining the meaning of your life through your children is another problem entirely.
Instead of looking for more creative ways to establish a meaningful existence and thinking about our impact on the world as a whole, we take the far easier path of busying ourselves with accumulating more.
I want a new phone, a new car, more shoes and pretty outfits like most people do. And yet I’m also very aware that when I feel a strong need for any of these, there’s something else going on within me. The best purchases I’ve ever made were ones where I was detached from the outcome, where I didn’t feel I really had to have it, and had no emotional attachment to the outcome.
When I start to feel that I need a new house or a new phone and I start imagining what my life will be like when I have it, I recognise that I’m thirsty for meaning. The rumblings are strong and yet the thought of trying to tackle something so abstract as meaning brings great discomfort and a manic sense of urgency to create change. While I don’t know what to do just yet to stop the rumblings entirely, the awareness is enough to stop me going too far into the spiral of consumerism and wanting and needing more.
Do you notice any of this in yourself, in whatever form it might take? Can you identify that really you are experiencing a more desperate need to live a life that is personally meaningful, yet are at a loss of how to go about this? Next time you feel the desperate urge to upgrade or consume see if you can be aware of the rumblings.
October 20, 2011 2 Comments