Meaning in the present moment

  photo via  The Bunny System

photo via The Bunny System

Roy F. Baumeister's illuminating article on meaning versus happiness shows how these two qualities often move in opposite directions. 

Happiness is a feeling state centred on "now". It's about getting the material goods that you need and want, your health, and what others do for you. Meaning comes from something entirely different: 

Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness... Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.

The difference is deeply relevant for writers. Awareness can't be turned off, and people who feel the world through a relationship between past, present and future are often left to deal with that perception in solitary and unconventional ways. Rather than a choice, the act of writing, painting, singing, or other creativity becomes an imperative. It reflects a need to bring all three aspects of time into a present moment. This is precisely what the Buddhist idea of living in the present means.

Living a meaningful life doesn't make happiness impossible, but it can be difficult in a perverse and self-reinforcing way. For a chance at happiness meaning makers need their contributions to be recognized and paid for accordingly, but that's unlikely in an economy that penalizes the pursuit of meaning.

We're forfeiting a critical opportunity. Global society's most pressing challenges demand long-term thinking and new solutions, collective solutions that connect our checkered past to a sustainable and more enlightened future. This is possible by valuing long-term meaning over disposable happiness. It's possible by empowering people who create meaning, and doing so would be a tremendous act of meaning in itself.


Bullshit job vs meaningful life

  photo via

photo via

David Graeber's essay on bullshit jobs is a masterpiece that demonstrates the pointlessness of most work, the psychological and spiritual damage this brings, and the way people are fooled into directing their well justified anger towards those who build lives of true meaning.     

The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on its hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the 1960s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinetmakers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish... somehow they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there's endless piles of useless, badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it's all that anyone really does.
I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Indeed. The piece could be dismissed as a hippy-fueled desire for a utopian "welfare" state where nobody works and riches fall from the sky. If its possible to have that, I say why not, but there's another way to look at it that can appease the most ardent pragmatist.

In a world of rising population and dwindling oil/resources there's one quality that we have in remarkable surplushuman creativity. It's the source of any true sense of meaning, and any intelligent economy, or enterprise, would maximize that quality not stifle it. 


Hypocrisy, heroes and environment

photo via loco

In a recent article in the The Guardian, North Face founder and environmental champion Doug Tompkins has expressed a hard line against technology, arguing that it is destroying the health of the planet and bringing an end to evolution itself.

My environmental sympathies are well documented, but Tompkins' brand of solution says more about him than the problem at hand. It can also be summed up with a single quote: 

"I did not want to compromise my engagement so I was forced to use the very technology that is undoing the world," he says. "I have a strategic embrace, not a substantive embrace. The problem is that 99.9% of the people in our own movement love this thing, they think this is going to lead us to the promised land. I have no such pretensions."

I won't try to dissect everything wrong with that statement, and admittedly I'm a bit awestruck that Tompkins, and Tompkins alone, possesses the wisdom and temperance to responsibly wield the destructive forces of technology. One ring to rule them all. Regardless, there's a deeper problem here than pure narcissism, namely that Tompkins' claim to authority is based on his position at the evolutionary peak of the system he's deriding.

Doug Tompkins' personal wealth numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars, all of which was generated through the tools of technological innovation and the petroleum economy. Tompkins encourages others to contemplate their cell phones, to see that they encompass every aspect of the system that is destroying our planet, yet he fails to run the same thought experiment on the products he created. Products like North Face jackets—mass produced with high-tech Gore-Tex and distributed globally with complete reliance on petroleum and computer automation. Tompkins lack of pretensions aren't relevant to his enormous role in the techno-industrial society he's criticizing and the massive wealth he's generated from it. 

What is relevant is that Tompkins has the good fortune to consider society's actions (in a relatively holistic way) from a world perspective. It's this type of perspective that leads to genuine sustainability, and the point he misses is that technology is enabling that perspective for more people than at any other time in human history, including Tompkins himself. Everything he has accomplished rests on the laurels of the high tech world. He claims we don't see the impact of technology because it's become invisible to us like air, but he's blind to technology's role in his own success.

Environmental destruction has always occurred. Jared Diamond's Collapse showed that many previous cultures were very good at engineering their own demise, without the help of the internet and tablet computers. Eliminating electronic devices isn't a sufficient condition for environmental salvation. In all likelihood it's not even a necessary one. The environment will outlast any folly humans can come up with. It may take it a million years for nature to heal once we're gone, but what does the earth care about time? Our challenge is our own preservation and that will only come as we collectively accept the natural world for what isan integral part of ourselves.

Tompkins deserves no criticism for his business success or environmental contributions, nor should his warnings be dismissed because of his personal hypocrisies. The criticism is that he's a paragon for one of the most poisonous and pervasive myths of the environmental movement—that the environment needs saving, and that he is the man for the job.


The searching desert

The desert is a place for seekers. 

The sands have always held corners of solitude where exceptional women and men renounce the world’s trappings and seek meaning through a deeper sense of self. I never sought the desert. Self-denial at that scale seems perversely indulgent. But the desert has desires of its own, and it surrounds the people it wants.  

Five years ago I returned to Canada from months of travel that covered three continents—winding through the deserts and plains of Sub-Saharan Africa and through jungles and cities of India and Southeast Asia. I spent a year paying for rent, food and the basics of a new home with credit during the worst of the downturn, only to liquidate it all and follow temporary work to Toronto. I watched my relationship with a beautiful, caring woman disintegrate and started over in an unfamiliar city. I invested what I could in my mind, body, and career, and found myself bankrupt for the effort. I exhausted my days in a poisonous job and spent my nights in an empty apartment. 

I did everything possible to create change. I searched for rewarding work, pursued new relationships, and sought new friendships. Will was the one resource I had, and I spent it until it too was gone. I found nothing. The desert had arrived, and it carried many lessons.   

Lessons about the futility of human effort after years of searching, talking and applying offered no opportunities for better work. 

About compromise, and the ways that poverty and financial stress leave a person living with little and choosing between unfulfilled needs.

About loneliness and the ways that material failure and the decision not to have children leave a man undesirable as a dating prospect. 

I learned about the differences between need and desire—about the ways that desire for success, pleasure and objects is fleeting, and how genuine needs for love, belonging and survival remain tireless through each waking moment. 

And finally, after returning to the west coast and losing my job promptly afterwards, I discovered how little I give a shit. 

I’m single, closer to forty than not, weighted with debt, and without assets. My decisions have been right but they've resulted in nothing. That's meant to make me a failure. I don’t buy it. 

There are two things that haven’t failed—my writing, and the desert itself. The desert’s chosen to make a home around me. So be it. I’ll scratch my words in the sand and see if they’re wiped clean by wind and time. If they’re not, then maybe they’ll draw in the travelers who walk the desert by choice, searching as they have throughout time, for their own true selves.