This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.
Bounded. Meaning requires us to have some sort of boundary or bond in order that we can wrestle and fight against them. In lieu of a deeper meaning in life the bondage of duty ties us to a purpose that suppresses the devil’s of our darker nature. This bondage attracts and focuses the minds attention, quieting that incessant voice that is so fixated on sabotaging noble plans made in faith. The bounding of time allows us to enjoy the free time that we do have for ourselves. Remove the bondage of our time and we wander aimlessly through the desert of our thoughts. Removing our bonds we escape the tyranny of drudgery only to find ourselves lost in freedom. In our dreary doing we can rail against the yoke of our necessity, whilst dreaming of a utopia of creativity and autonomy. We can feel righteous in our rejection of the herd, rejection of bondage, walking off with our head held high into the gloriously imagined future, free to craft a life that doesn’t require us to give up our dignity. As soon as we are confronted with this wide expanse of time we find that instead of relishing the innumerable possibilities, we are paralysed by them and those brightly lit uplands of our imagined future begin to be obscured by the brewing storm of our flailing ego.
The only cure for this to to struggle against the ego that wishes for the path of least resistance, for expediency! To remember there is a reason why so few people break from the herd, namely because it carries risk and difficulty, the difficulty that comes with fighting the devil in your mind, the devil that always takes the opposing view to any notions you might have of carving your own path, of truly living. Our inability to consciously live without distracting ourselves with soul sapping work and mindless amusements is a learned habit of existence that becomes very difficult to break. There is a comfort in giving up our agency and following the herd as it occupies our minds and absolves us of the need to take conscious action in our own lives, something which is a precarious and perennial balancing act. After years of conditioning from a school and employment system that is still predominantly based on the industrial revolution, it is no wonder that it is so difficult for people to live with true intention, despite all the modern conveniences that theoretically allow us to do so. To be able to create an independent, sustainable identity that is strong enough to withstand the buffeting winds of societal expectation and egotistical self-sabotage, to live a life of meaning and integrated truth, to be your own person, not anybody else’s, is the ultimate ideal.
The more science discovers and the more comprehension it gives us of the mechanisms of existence, the more clearly does the mystery of existence itself stand out
The universe is in our heads. The mind itself is our universe of experience with all the accompanying complexity, contradictions, wonder and awe. We create the ideals and meaning within that. Our mind within mirrors the vastness of the universe above. Similar to how we only know the small spec of space that houses our world, similarly do we only understand a small part of our minds. Our knowledge of experience is so limited to our immediate field of senses that we are blind to all the possibilities of different experience that lie latent within us. The complexity of the environment around us is filtered out through our evolutionary survival mechanisms, meaning that we only see a fraction of the world in our daily experience.
The brain has more connections between its 100 billion neurons and 40,000 synapses than the universe has stars. It is as though our brain is a small projector and all it requires for the universe to be fully rendered above us is an input that will illuminate this hidden wonder for us. All of the firing, connecting, suppressing, communicating, the storms and calm and synchronicity are the micro-equivalent of the cosmic weather that rolls above us. We have evolved over millions of years to be focused solely on what yields the most evolutionary benefit, filtering out all that is superfluous to our immediate gain, and as a result we have a very narrow focus on what the world is. It is a fascinating thought to realise that our lived experience is unique to us and that an aeon of experience is sitting, unbeknownst to us, within our minds.
The religious impulse and the enormous appetite for self-help must stem from the same part of the mind. If we can boil religion down to the search of and alignment with an ultimate truth that transcends our individual existence, then we can see how easily self-help literature can fill the gap of those who have left religion behind.
The fundamental essence of so much religious literature focuses on the way to live your life. Jesus offered his own life as an example for those who wished to enter ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. The most salient message from Buddhism is the path to enlightenment, with Nirvana the ultimate goal. In Chinese philosophy Taoism (or Daoism) means “The Way” which is visually represented by the line that splits the black and white hemispheres of the Yin-Yang symbol, a symbol that encapsulates what is required to live a life that is balanced and harmonious with self and community.
These religions and philosophies are very different in how they manifest and have influenced the cultures where they have become dominant, however what unites them is their talk of “The Way”, the path you should follow if you wish lead a good life.
The self-help guru steps in where the religious authority has departed (or was never present). They offer the promise of a heaven on earth through devotion to The Way they are proposing. The self-help author, whether it is fitness, business or the arts, talks in terms of a set of principles or a path that needs to be followed in order to begin achieving your dreams and living up to your potential. These stories are intended to be a collection of wisdoms designed to open your eyes so that you can see, find and then stay on the path to salvation (whatever that may be). No wonder the seeming inexhaustible appetite for self-help, these stories are ones that we have been telling ourselves since the beginning of time.
This fictional letter was written in response to a famous letter written by Hunter S Thompson to his friend Hume Loganin 1958. The original letter can be found here on the wonderful Farnham Street Blog
Your letter, of which I have re-read numerous times, has been an anchor to my thoughts over the past week. You write that only a fool would let himself give advice to another, I suppose only a fool would ask another man how he should live his life!
My letter to you is a reflection of my own dissatisfaction and so I took your suggestion and read up on Sartre; and Existentialism more broadly.
“Existence comes before essence.”
I suppose this phrase is an arc across what you wrote in your letter last week and which is the basis of, as you call it, your credo.
So, we have no core essence in us, no centring counterweight or default setting. We are simply the sum of our experiences and our perspective is coloured by all that we have known? Sartre found this a liberating thought as it means we are not constrained by who we THINK we are, or what we have experienced, rather we are completely free to invent ourselves and as such, carry a burden of responsibility to do so.
It is this burden on my shoulders, which has caused me to write to you and shamelessly ask for your help in bearing it! I have all the knowledge inherent within me to make a choice and yet I am asking you to help me!
I know you well enough to know you are convinced by Sartre’s belief and I want to be convinced by it too, however his nihilistic vision of humanity does leave me a bit cold.
This way of living requires an iron free will and the inner strength to be able to swim against the tide. If we are simply the sum of our experiences than that is our essence and our entire perspective, and the framework for which we make decisions is shaped by what has gone before. Whilst we have a certain freedom, we are not truly free because the decisions we make are based on the information we glean from the experiences we have and some of those experiences will have closed doors on us, for better or worse.
I like Sartre’s premise that we are unencumbered to choose our own morality, but I am not one hundred percent convinced that this individualistic framework for making decisions will allow us to make better ones. Isn’t that why I am writing to you? So your advice will allow me to make a better decision than the ones I have already made?
You say in your letter that a “man must choose a path that will let his abilities function at a maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his desires” and whilst I completely agree with this sentiment, I think that the handle for everything is in the KNOWING of what those desires are.
How can we truly know what we want? You say that the goal must conform to the man, that we must not adjust our lives to a goal which is ever shifting with our perspective, and yet our desires, the core of what pushes us to act as we do, is also constantly shifting. If we cannot pin down our desires, then we cannot set a path to achieve them and more worryingly, cannot maximise whatever abilities we have.
If we have no essence and are simply the sum of our experiences, then our self along with our desires is continually changing. The consequences of this is that any life we build for ourselves will be built on the shifting sands of our fluid perspectives.
This world view, depending on which side of the fence you sit, is a bleak one in my view. This hyper-responsibility that our true self is purely our own creation, ties in with the individualistic culture we live through. If there is no ‘essence’ to what it is to be human, then there is nothing for us to rally around, and yet we organise into collectives almost by instinct, because we want to be a part of something greater than ourselves.
It is because of this why I think we are more than the sum of our experiences. Our foundation is our heredity, all the way back to our ancient ancestors. I believe this heritage and the experiences of our ancestors and what they learned impacts how we behave in a way that is subconscious, but which we implicitly understand but maybe can’t articulate. Our desire to organize into collectives – religions, communities, families – stems from our universal ability to see a small part of ourselves in each other.
So, whilst we are free to choose and have a responsibility to do so, our choices do not exist in a vacuum and there are numerous factors which colour our judgement and constrain those choices. Despite this I know that we must make a decision, taking action despite the inherent uncertainty, otherwise we will be in the nightmarish scenario of having our decision made for us by circumstance.
Once again your letter has been a great totem for my thoughts and has allowed me to get these thoughts onto paper. I don’t plan on counting myself among the disenchanted for much longer, it is time to start connecting the dots.