Just for this moment be in the present; you have the rest of the day to tell yourself the story of your life.
You are blessed and cursed to have found your meaning in the question of meaning itself.
Blessed to be motivated to take a journey of deepest discovery, not only of the universe without, but of the universe within.
Cursed to be born in a world of believers, who are constantly and continuously tricked by the illusion of certainty and absolute meaning.
You have, through much existential suffering and malaise, arrived at some profound insights: meaning does not exist without, but within. Believers believe in what you have found to be myths; believers implicitly believe in the immortality of their egos, which you have failed to locate in yourself; believers expect judgment from a cosmic judge, now, today, and at every instant in the future, and you have realized you are your own judge.
You were once a believer. You too believed in absolute cosmic meaning. You too assumed and behaved as if your ego was immortal. You too were constantly feeling judgment, worried and fretting over the standards set by your fellow believers, and by the ultimate arbitrator. Put that all together and you have a wonderfully adapted and adaptable foot soldier in any environment at any historical time. Self motivated and self monitoring. Guided by shared myths. An immortal soul assured of favourable judgment resting peacefully every single night.
But you were not a believer for long. Something did not click. Too many doubts led to too many questions which led to your lifelong search for meaning. And let nobody tell you this was an escape, bred of laziness, for the spoiled and weak souls; you have shed more tears, had more sleepless nights, agonized in both body and mind for hours and days, months and years, non-stop. You had to know. And knowing is never achieved without great cost.
You have truly lived as a restless and tortured soul for far too long. The illusion holding power over the believers was not quite powerful enough to hold you. And yet it was not weak. It clashed with your spirit, and created for you great tension and anxiety. You could not reconcile your experience in the world with your true essence. At times you lashed out, arrogantly pointed out all the faults of the universe; other times you turned your anxiety inward, assumed the fault must be in you, and lay for days in bed. You were never still, never at peace, never at ease; there was always tension.
And after all the struggle, which is still ongoing, you have clarified the old and arrived at many new insights. Meaning exists, but only insofar as a ‘mean-or’ exists. So it is right to say meaning exists in the universe, but wrong to say meaning is universal. The ego is an illusion, an amazing trick of the mind, and even if it did exist, it would not be immortal. And finally, after all is said and done, so to speak, there is no judge, no judgment, external to the one in our own heads.
Are these hollow truths? No. Do they matter? Yes.
If meaning is subjective then you have the power to create your own. If the ego is mortal then you should not sacrifice today, in the form of existential anxiety and fear, for the hope of a better future. And, most importantly, you are the judge of your own meaning and striving and deeds. You do not have to fear the wrath of some cosmic lawgiver. If you are true to yourself, and strive according to your own standards, that is good enough.
The world of believers is caught in a web of illusion that serves a purpose, one of which each is unaware. We are, after all, evolved apes running the software of the mind adapted for survival on the plains of Africa, in a world at a time far far removed from the one we inhabit today. And yet, that software has not been, could not have been, updated in all this time. For the updates of evolution take eons, and are never completed. And besides, evolution does not care about your existential suffering, or your search for meaning. Evolution is an amoral process, an algorithm. If you are successful at continuing the legacy begun by the laws of evolution, the grounds of your success will be selected. It really is as simple, and as amazing, as that. What better way for a highly intelligent, social, purpose-seeking, conscious animal to succeed in a universe without absolute meaning – where neither its ego nor its anxieties are worth a damn outside its own head – than to have that creature not only invent, but wholeheartedly believe in, a set of myths, values, meanings, governing rules and cosmic judgments, eternal rewards and punishments?
Believers have not suffered nearly the existential malaise and doubt that you have experienced. Of this you can be sure, because they are believers. That is not to say your path is in any sense better than any other. That is not to say you are superior in any way to anyone else. It is simply meant to illustrate that you are on a different path than most people. You were destined to discover these insights. And the path was hard, and will continue to be overgrown and poorly defined. Not many people have trodden this way. But those who have would make good company. In their presence, at least, you would not feel so alone.
You were born a seeker. You could not rest. Your doubt and anxiety fueled your journey. And you have uncovered some valuable truths.
Each path a life; the worn and barely used alike. The majority of your fellow travelers rarely, if ever, escape their guiding illusions, paths crisscrossing the world, forming wide corridors and highways of frenzied activity. They may have tread many more an empty mile than you, but in your stubbornness and reluctance to step off the curb, you have made the longer journey.
A sure sign of intelligence, maturity, and self-confidence is the willingness to change one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence and considerations.
Lifting eyes from dark,
Echoes in mind,
Empty of pretense,
Confident in not knowing.
Optimism seeking light,
Broken long dormancy,
Entering the world without,
Blinding, suffocating familiarity.
Same grey streets;
Same concrete buildings;
Same managed woods and rectangular fields and forgettable faces on Sunday walks on worn paths.
Same flow. Same responses. Same predictability.
Tender optimism. Knowing nothing. Utterly incapable of playing.
Words and ideas left unformed.
Nervous air from lungs passing silently through clenched and clenching teeth.
‘Why? Why would it change out there?’
‘It is here, in here,’ the boy said, pointing to his temple. ‘It has always been.’
…the shaking….the shaking….the shaking….
of a leg…
Most people, most of the time, have nothing to say.
Yet they talk!
How they beckon! – Join us. Come join us. Prattle prattle prattle. –
Words strung together, stretching back through ages. Narratives weaving, myths uniting. Layers and scales; minds to civilizations. One unbroken, unbreakable web.
Pretense. Opinion. Myth.
Words, words, words.
Nothing to say. Narratives left unformed.
A recent comment I found thought-provoking. Thoughts?
‘How you characterize ‘the crowd’ is your own, no doubt, and unique construction. The coils of belonging have already entwined your soul, as the baby is reliant on its tribe; you are a part of that crowd as seen by all others. The crowd is amorphous, bright and boiling and giving off heat, as the face of the sun is in no part of its being eternally fixed.
Oh, god, where would one be without the crowd!
And amazingly, each person is so arranged and constructed as to be a defin/ed piece having a separation zone, that event horizon, from the crowd, our individuality and aloneness, and across that electric zone we each give of ourselves for the lives of others and each takes the required food of life only others can provide. Small pieces, well and active and forward-looking, constitute the dynamism and vigour of the crowd.’
— Author (un)known
Don’t mistake the crowd for the truth; failing to fit in does not mean you’re broken.
Your horizons might extend further than your neighbour’s, your colleague’s, your friend’s; trust in your own eyes, let others trust in theirs.
With deference to Hamlet, might I add: there is also nothing either right or wrong, but truth to one’s self makes it so.
The greatest gift you can give another is a piece of your deepest self.
Not your time. Not your money; but something more precious still.
Is it understanding, or compassion, or attention that you offer? Is there a word bringing these together?
That piece you offer freely, that is the gift. You offer without reservation. You say ‘Do with it as you will’, though, of course, you hope and trust the other treads lightly.
And that’s the risk you take…
…and the pain you can inflict.
There is little to build upon moving forward when the second time around is the same as the first.
The ornaments look lovely but their pulling down the branches of the tree. – Cake, from ‘Love You Madly’
Here’s an experiment. Tomorrow, before entering the world, wear your hair a different way. Don socks that don’t match. When asked ‘how are you?’, don’t lie. Frown.
When the queen walks in, remain seated.
Be honest. Be yourself tomorrow.
Unless you are infinitely agreeable, unless your hair looks equally good parted, unless you are God, prepare yourself.
Prepare for the onslaught of thinly veiled snideness, disapproval, disdain; prepare for unsolicited opinions, for rolled eyes, for mockery; prepare for all the tools at society’s disposal to keep you in line. To hammer you to conformity.
You’re a glass half empty kind of person? You best have them walkin’ papers signed and stamped!
DO NOT ROCK THE BOAT!
You got that?
And always, always remember: FOLLOW THE CROWD.
I dare you: wear your hair differently tomorrow.
Woe the moment a material purchase becomes the highlight of your year.
Spent a lifetime talking to that metaphorical wall,
Beat my hands and head until they bled.
Through streaming tears pleaded desperately,
‘WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT FROM ME?’
Spent a lifetime talking to that metaphorical wall,
When I chose to listen.
Heed not too quickly the disapproving gaze, it may be the clearest proof yet you are on the correct way.
I’d rather fail a thousand times, before succeeding at something I despise.
There is plenty of interesting science demonstrating that we choose, subconsciously, fractions of a second before we are consciously aware of the choice. And yet, test subjects are adamant, they freely, consciously choose.
These results are interesting, but are not, to my mind, necessary to dispose of free will; the concept itself is logically unsound.
Consider the problem philosophically. Ask yourself why you would choose one choice over another? Keep it mundane: fish or pasta for dinner. Look closely enough and there will be a reason. You feel like fish. You had pasta last night. What is the reason? Now ask yourself, why would that reason decide the matter? Why would it matter that you had pasta the night before? Is it because you are a person who likes culinary diversity? Have you decided pasta is not healthy two nights in succession? Are you watching your starch intake? Regardless of the answer, you are guaranteed to settle upon a reason.
So, you are the type of person who decides by reason. Why are you that type of person? Why do reasons matter to you? (Could it be because you are part of the universe? And to act in any way requires a cause? Yes, even the statement ‘because I felt like fish’ is a reason; feeling is causal). Did you choose to be a reasonable person? Did you choose to feel that way? And if the answer is yes, why did you choose to be reasonable, why did you choose to feel that way? What would it be like to exist and to act without reasons and feelings? Is that even possible? (I think the answer is clear).
And let us suppose you are unreasonable. Let us say you actually take great pleasure in being absurd. You do everything contrary to good sense and what your gut tells you. Is that freedom? Wouldn’t identifying the opposite of good sense be the first step, and once you have identified that you proceed accordingly? Haven’t you just substitute a good cause for a contrary cause? Aren’t they both causes? Have you actually found freedom here?
Or suppose you really have no preference. Let us admit that the choice between fish and pasta is truly a stochastic one, a flip of the coin. You need to eat, so the question of freedom does not live or die with the need to eat, but with the choice of food. Yet. if you choose by the flip of the coin, where is the freedom in that? In the absence of any preference, any reason, you leave the choice to fate. Your choice is no longer a choice.
‘Choice’, or better, the illusion of choice, depends on the state of your brain before a choice is taken. What are the impossibly complicated environmental, cultural, genetic causes that set your brain in that state before the choice? Did you freely choose each of those states? (As if that were possible). For each one of your behaviours, your choices, there is a cause, a reason, you were not free to choose. That is because each of those causes and reasons had, in turn, a cause and reason for their existence. Take this truth and work step-wise backwards to the womb, and you can only conclude the person you are and the reasons you decide upon to act are the result of causes completely beyond your freedom to choose. And not only your freedom, but the freedom of your mother, of your father, of your grandparents, of their parents, of the common ancestor of chimps and humans, of the common ancestor of mammals, of its ancestor to all animals, of the organisms straddling the eukaryotic and prokaryotic divergence, of the first self-replicating molecules, the precursors to life, of the molecules composed of the elements from the exploding stars of the galaxy, of the galaxy, of the universe, of the freedom of existence itself.
Logically, the concept of free will makes no sense.
By showing up with hope to help others, I’m guaranteed that hope is present. Then my own hope increases. By creating hope for others, I end up awash in the stuff. – Anne Lamott
ILLUSTRATION BY ELEANOR DAVIS
Read her beautiful article in National Geographic’s October 2018 issue.
What did you want to be as a kid? I ask you – myself – what did you want to be as a kid?
Did you want to be a slave to your obsessions? To your insecurities? Did you want to feel trapped inside your own mind? Did you pine to be, just simply long to be, an outsider, misunderstood by others, misunderstanding them in turn? Did you wish to lose yourself?
If not these noble dreams, then what?
Maybe you didn’t formulate it. Maybe you failed to think it through. Think of it at all.
Youth was great. We were the lucky ones. I was a lucky one.
Strength of spirit and endless optimism and boundless hope. Enjoying life as it came, sharing experiences with friends and family.
Hikes and canoe trips and watching TV on Mom’s bed.
Oh, the antics and joyful shit devised with friends!
Shooting hoops outside and swimming in freezing pools. We didn’t need vacation. I didn’t need vacation. It was all – all – right there.
No. Not all.
I remember like yesterday walking my street alone, or with a buddy, in the early morn, on the way home. Sometimes drunk, yet always completely sober. And dreaming of nothing, and of everything. This, this whole world was mine, and I loved it, and it loved me.
The stars were so bright on these nights. And when not, then only for the light of the full moon, lighting the gray road and loose stones of the shoulder.
Yellow dashed and solid lines. Black threads of tar filling cracks. Can you feel it? The roughness of the asphalt and the gummy tar and the smooth paint of the dividing line as you slowly jog barefoot down the middle of the road?
This was my road, illuminated by my stars, and the moon, the moon was my deepest friend, my….confidant. And I was so aware, so very aware, of myself, and my feet on the solid ground.
The houses housed guests asleep in my world. I was content they were there. Live and let live. And they let me live.
As did my mother. She let me live. And my father. He let me live. Hell, they encouraged it…life…and me, in whom they had faith. And my sister too. Perhaps she came to see I was a viciously free spirit, stubborn, passionate. Arrogant. Oh so arrogant! Not with aggression, nor malice, nor sickening self-pride.
But arrogance in my optimism and self-confidence. And why not? For me, I was the king of my world, this sleeping, trodden street.
On my road. On my road. Arrogant happiness and naivety. Walking on my road. Ask me anything. ‘What would I like to be?’ HAHA. What a silly question. Can’t you see, I am content right here?
What did you want to be as a kid?
In all honesty: nothing precise. Nothing defined. The wind perhaps. Yes, that’ll do.
I wanted but to remain in that blissful state, forever.
It was all right there.
And now the roads are all foreign. The stars, well they don’t shine as bright. And my feet don’t trust the shifting ground.
I say live and let live, but I don’t understand the rules of life.
And I have a family, kids, a wife. I have a job, a car, responsibilities.
Football games and bush-craft.
And I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.
Well, maybe one thing: to have it all as I have it now, but to have me included. Yes. Me included.
But who am I? I am here, in this form, behind these walls, writing these words. But a part of me is back there. On that road. Where it all made sense.
A part of me walks that road every single night.
A part of me has never left.
Optimism. Unbridled hope.
What do I want to be?
My answer: nothing. But to have that peace again, in whole. To see those stars again, as bright. To be guided by that moon again, back home. To find me again, barefoot, on solid ground.
I am going to make you see the world as I do, even if that means beating it into you.
Arrogance is bad. Arrogance grounded in ignorance is even worse.
Independence may be a defense from the truth, a form of self-righteousness and silent arrogance.
Don’t seal yourself from the world, and claim superiority.
We may be our own worst (or forgiving) judges, yet removed from the tempering wisdom found only in human contact, our judgments lack facts.
A mind turned inward fails to recognize its reflection in the arena of social interaction.
The eye can’t see itself.
No one is an island.
Don’t hide behind clichés to justify yourself. Don’t blame the craziness of this world for your crazy actions. Take some goddamned responsibility.
Yeah, this life is crazy! Simply acknowledging that does not excuse your craziness, does not give it justification, does not clear the path to forgiveness and understanding.
Let me tell you, you don’t bring order to a chaotic world by increasing the chaos. There is no second law of social thermodynamics, wherein your personal order is attained at the expense of increasing social disorder.
You decrease overall chaos by first dealing with your personal chaos; get your own house in order before throwing yourself into the gears of the universe.
See it for what it is. That is the first step. Selfishness. Insecurity. Anger. Aggression. Weakness. Immorality. Willing blindness. Self-deception. Denial. Deceit. Lying. Obstruction. See it for what it is.
What is your role? Take the lead in judgement upon yourself. Develop some moral fortitude. Admit and attempt to remedy your mistakes. Few of us are so far gone that we can’t be pulled back from the abyss. Give yourself that first helping hand. Surely you must know, if anyone does, your actions are wrong, hurtful, dangerous, destabilizing. You simply have to ask yourself: ‘how would I feel?’
How would I feel?
How would you feel?
Bring some order to this chaotic world, and with humility and honesty, answer that question.