We take it for granted, much like oxygen. If asked about it, we’ll probably respond that it’s good, much like oxygen. Yet, much like oxygen, it ravages us.
When do we most appreciate oxygen? When it’s taken away. When we are gasping for it.
If you’ve ever run hard enough that it feels like your heart will burst, or you’ve been underwater long enough to fear drowning, the experience of oxygen being the most precious thing in the world is not lost on you. Yet we can’t will an appreciation of oxygen. We have to lose it first. It’s the deprivation that makes it valuable to us, not its presence.
Existence seems to be much the same. We can’t will a conscious appreciation of existence. Sure, we can reflectively notice it. We can state that we’re grateful for it. But when do we most feel an appreciation of existence in the way of the drowning person? Only when it seems it may be lost.
Fighting, violence, war. Adrenaline sports of all kinds. Jumping out of airplanes, climbing the face of a rock hundreds of feet up with little security if we fall. These are the times when existence is actually appreciated.
This is strange.
We take existence on its face to be something good. How many would willingly live an existence of simple monotony or a groundhog day in repeat? Wake up at 7 am. Shower. Brush your teeth. Dress. Eat. Commute to work. Break for lunch. Finish the second half the work day. Commute home. Eat again. Relax or catch up on chores. Watch TV. Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat.
I don’t know many people that take the above description as good. It is existence, but it sparks almost a sense of panic. A sense of terror. Is that my life? Is that all there is?
We immediately believe there must be more. So we search. We eat new foods, anything as long as it’s different from the last meal. We travel to new places, see new movies, try new hobbies. We have sex, take drugs, and drink alcohol. Anything to escape the consciousness we have our own existence for a bit. Anything to endanger it and force an appreciation of it onto ourselves. Anything to avoid the fact the existence is inherently meaningless.
Can we do anything else? I think so. We can lean into it. We can embrace and accept it. Life is short, meaningless, and very often extremely painful. So let’s not make it more so. We will die soon. Love as many people as possible. Connect with them deeply. Eat with them, sleep with them, and speak with them. Share existence together and have fun. Play more, work less.
Humans are very, very good at doing a few things. We create prosperity, which saves us time. We develop medicine, which gives us more time by extending lives. And we invent technologies that prevent pain and suffering.
Save time, gain time, prevent pain. That’s what almost every job, profession, career, or occupation does.*
What we aren’t so good at is actually existing and living with all this extra free time we gain for ourselves. We are never quite sure what to do with it. So I suggest more fun, less work. More love, less war. It’s a choice. Avoid boredom and destruction. Enjoy life, it’s not so important that we should take it seriously all the time.
Humans are the animal best at making meaning, of discerning cause and effect. The trees rustle. What does that mean? Could be a tiger. What if it is? The tiger causes the effect of death.
Is that a valid prediction? We aren’t sticking around to find out. Sticking around to find out ends us. Assuming the meaning of a tiger in the bushes we assign to the rustling sound, prevents that end. We survive for the day and live to reproduce.
This is a wonderful tool. This ability to assign meaning, to tease out cause and effect, and to predict based on these conclusions.
We’ve been called the “wise” animal and the “language” animal, but to be wise is subjective and language is not our sole domain. Many animals use language. Many assign meaning as well, but none quite as effectively as us. We thrive at it.
We also go crazy from it. We can’t turn it off. Everything needs a meaning. Our meaning making module, or MMM, is hyperactive.
There’s a drought. What does it mean? The gods are angry. Time to sacrifice animals or possibly even other humans. That will cause them to be appeased and result in the drought ending. Did it work? One time… Let’s continue with it just to be sure.
I failed my final exam. What does it mean? I’m a failure. Stupid. Incapable of being successful in life.
My partner cheated on me. What does it mean? They don’t love me. I’m not good enough. I’m lacking.
None of these statements are logically correct. Droughts don’t mean angry gods. Failed exams don’t imply stupidity or failure. Affairs don’t have any logical connection to one partner’s feelings about the other. Of course they could. Which is part of the problem. Just because they aren’t logically connected, doesn’t mean our hyperactive MMM isn’t correct when it begins to believe these thoughts.
These leaps of meaning have catapulted us to our apex position on the planet, but they’re also largely responsible for a majority of our everyday suffering. We can learn to fight the leaps, but often they’re reactive, happening before we even consciously realize it - like mistaking a rope in the corner for a snake.
If and when we do finally figure out how to be mindful of our MMM, the problems don’t end because others continue to let theirs run wild. And when our entire generation figures out how to quiet it, we die, and the entire process has be learned again by the next, younger generation which will be captive to their MMM all over again.
It seems to me that much of maturing and coping with life is simply figuring out when to listen to the voice in our head trying its best to extract meaning. Sometimes it’s worth listening to and is correct. Sometimes it’s just a chattering stream of nonsense. Knowing the difference is huge.
*More on the Occupations
As mentioned above, it seems to me all the occupations (ways of being occupied) are concerned with really just three things - saving time, extending time, or preventing pain. Beyond these occupations we have callings, vocations.
This is my favorite definition of prosperity and comes from Matt Ridley. Prosperity is the opposite of poverty. It is the ability to save time, as opposed to self-sufficiency in which one must do all work themselves. Doing everything oneself is the mark of poverty. As societies develop, they become more prosperous. This is marked by an explosion of specialization and trade, where one can purchase nearly anything they want from others, saving the time it would otherwise take them learn and produce it themselves.
This is largely the domain of medicine and public health, but anything that wards of death for longer than traditional averages would fit here. Laws, regulations, policies. Security, police, and military. All of these things lower the chance of a person losing their life prematurely, thereby giving them more time to exist.
Not much difference from the above category, but certainly distinct. Many occupations will overlap between the two. Perhaps occupations like psychiatry make for exemplars, in which a person is not necessarily at risk of early death, just living in misery.
Vocations and using time
Of course, not every “job” will fall into the above. Some jobs are done regardless of the prosperity or security they bring. Artists are perhaps the finest exemplar in this category. However, artists clearly operate differently than many of the other jobs listed above. Many people are lawyers because it pays the bills. No one goes into art with the expectation of retiring early and in comfort. No, these types of “jobs”, if we can call them that, are done because they are what we would all do if we had only pain-free leisure time to use. Performer, artist, entertainer, sportsman, musician. There’d be no point in existing at all without these. These are the activities that allow us to both recreate and renew ourselves. A sense of joy, love, and levity are often attached to them not wholly distinct from the activities that many of us could never even hope to be paid for - sex, eating, sleeping, and relaxing with a good book or cup of coffee.
The only reason I can see for us not using much more time with these jobs and activities is that we are nearly always obsessed with meaning making or running from existence as described above. Our anxieties constantly push us in wrong directions, feeling an urgency for something we can’t quite put our finger on. This anxiety is in the end hopefulness. Hope that we aren’t the animals we are, that we can be better than we are. That we are ideal. Giving up that hope, becoming hopeless about who we are, can itself be liberating. We are animals. We aren’t perfect. But, we can love and we can be joyous, hoping for nothing more and nothing higher.