More thoughts on life.

Preface:  //This post is long, and for that, I apologize.  But, it has been very important for me.  I think that it actually reflects a lot of thinking that I have gone through this year, and I want to thank my friends for constantly talking to me about all of these things.  This is only a first, somewhat edited draft, and I am looking for feedback, suggestions, and criticism so that I can make it more useful.  This isn’t supposed to be intellectual as much as important, and reflective of the purpose of a college eduction.  In this post, I heavily quote from David Foster Wallace’s speech, In Life and Work–though I quote many parts of the speech that are directly relevant, I highly recommend that you read the article before reading my post.  It will help contextualize his quotes, and give you a much greater appreciate the second time you read them.

David Foster Wallace double majored in Philosophy and English at Amherst.  He was a severe depressive–and brilliant.  In one of the most beautiful speeches I have ever read, he wrote that,
“Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.”

Often, we get stuck in a mode of thinking that leads us to depressed and angry thoughts;
“The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones…”

I know exactly the feeling.  He offers an alternative;
“Thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.”

In this next passage, I heard Rorty and Ross;
“Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The first time I read this speech was at the beginning of the year, when my close friend Josh Rosenberg showed me this speech.  I loved it the first time, but I didn’t take the lesson to heart.  As DFW says himself, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.”  In the rest of this post, I want to explore Wallace, Nietzsche, and neuroscience to try to reinforce various perspectives on the importance of taking advantage of our Will to Power.

DFW wrote that “This is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

I want to focus more and more of my education on this problem: avoiding unconscious, zombie-like contingency.  Though I feel like intellectually I have a strong base in knowledge, I feel like that has failed to transfer into actual changes in my being.  I want to talk to you a little about many questions I have, and some possible solutions that might be helpful for them.

I want to continue by looking at the phenomona of “First World Problems”

Urban Dictionary defines first world problems as,  “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”

I imagine this to be when we are depressed when the iPod breaks, when we go to a boring party, when the cafeteria has bad food, or any of the other “trivial” problems that plague college life.

I very often complain about things that result from expectations of perfection.  Be it women, my studies, friends, and tons of other various things, I end up complaining a lot.  I have thought about this a lot, and I think it primarily stems for a desire of perfection.  Instead of ever being happy with my position in a status-game, I always want something more.

DFW: “If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you”

In my own less poetic language, I want to share with you a really funny thought experiment Andrew told me over Thanksgiving goes as follows.  If someone gives you a Snickers bar, you just gained a dollar of marginal benefit.  If someone gives you a choice between a Snickers bar and a package of M&Ms (valued at $.75) then the Snickers bar only provides $.25 of benefit in comparison to your other choice.  More choice makes us experience less benefit.
(On a related note, there is an interesting Ted Talk by Barry Schwartz on choice, and how choice can be bad.  His metaphor is that a “fish bowl” that constrains us in choices, can sometimes be good. )

There are certainly many benefits to a wealthy, industrialized country–but it also has costs that I think DFW explained beautifully.  I will examine a few possibilities for coping with these costs.

One cost related to Schwartz’, is the quonundrum of utility maximization.  I see two primary problems with utility maximization: 1) understanding what utility is [how to weigh it, what to prefer], and 2) understanding the costs associated with calculating utility.  Together, these problems create a situation where certain individuals, in certain circumstances, are left in a “quonundrum” (see Ross Gordon’s first post).  A quonundrum is a situation where certain complications involved in decision making processes make it impossible to coherently justify an answer to a problem.  Though I lack an answer to all, or even most quonundrums, I think that Randall Collins has some helpful advice.  I think his solution for firm optimization can also be applied to individual choices.

See Wiki: “The word satisfice was coined by Herbert Simon. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations”

I think that the point of satisficing in our personal life is that satisficing requires a general shift in the style of judgment making.  It wouldn’t be easy to switch to this system, but if it was possible, it might be preferable.  Most of the literature on satisficing is related to firms and businesses.  I hope there is another term in psychology that reflects individual satisificing mechanisms.

This might help resolve certain quonundrums by reminding us that the goal of decision making process isn’t certainty, but rather making a decision that allows us to be happy and move on.  When in a quonundrum, we assume that there is a right answer–we are often essentialists when it comes to decision making.  Satisficing is useful for certain quonundrums because they can show us that both courses of action have merit, and that we should be happy either way.  I need to look further into the question of whether we can be satisfied with mere satisfaction.

More than anything, satisficing would require a change in state of mind.  It would require that we think about decisions, not in terms of opportunity cost, but rather in terms of absolute advantage compared.  When offered a choice between two candy bars, we should view the Snickers as $1 (1 Util?) of benefit, and the M & Ms as $.75 (.75 Utils?).  The other choice might psychologically predispose us to feel down and upset, but it seems that when making rational decisions, we should try think like satisficers, rather than maximizers.  This seems to be along the lines of what DFW argued.  We constantly need to remind ourselves “This is water, This is water.”  We need to force ourselves to push our expectations of others to the extreme–limiting our practical application of labeling others.  Its hard–maybe impossible–and might not be for everyone.  But if you are like me, maybe you will give it a try too.

The second possibility for coping with certain “first world problems” is to affirm life in a Nietzschian sense.  Nietzsche argued that the harms of life are always worth the experience of living (let us at the very least assume he is talking about the harms of a First World’er).

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “A person, for Nietzsche, has a Dionysian attitude toward life insofar as he affirms his life unconditionally; in particular, insofar as he affirms it including the “suffering” or other hardships it has involved. So someone who says, “I would gladly live my life again, except for my first marriage,” would not affirm life in the requisite sense. Thus, we may say that a person affirms his life in Nietzsche’s sense only insofar as he would gladly will its eternal return: i.e., will the repetition of his entire life through eternity. In fact, Nietzsche calls “the idea of the eternal recurrence” the “highest formulation of affirmation that is at all attainable” (EH III:Z-1; cf. BGE 56). Higher men, then, are marked by a distinctive Dionysian attitude toward their life: they would gladly will the repetition of their life eternally.”

I have always taken this argument half-heartedly.  Today, I finally understood why it is useful.  I don’t know enough about psychology to explain why this is true, but I think that I have learned.  I think that the combination of Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power, and Eternal Recurrence will ultimately bring us to the same conclusion as DFW.  Nietzsche reminds us that the “freedom of the will” is an “expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition, who commands and at the same time identifies himself with the executor of the order–who, as such, enjoys also the triumph over obstacles, but thinks within himself that it was really his will itself that overcame them.”  I think that Nietzsche is often, unfortunately, interpreted as saying that our will to power is our desire to overwhelm and overpower others.  Though this interpretation can very well be accurate, I don’t think it is useful.  Rather, I enjoy interpreting Nietzsche’s will to power to be synonymous with the will to overcome determinism–the will to make something of oneself.  Or as DFW said, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

I think that Nietzsche and DFW are in agreement–the most useful function of the will is to create meaning.  Nietzsche stresses how doing so will allow one to embrace all of life, and DFW reminds us that if we don’t constantly will that we will have no will to life–and might end our lives.  They are describing different sides of the same coin.

Let me begin by explaining a few simple instances of ways that we can use our will to improve our lives.

1) Smiling!  In certain circumstances, choosing to smile makes you happier.

2) Surrounding yourself with happy people

Nicholas Christakis, a doctor/sociologist at Harvard:
“While there are many determinants of happiness, whether an individual is happy also depends on whether others in the individual’s social network are happy. Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people.  Emotional states can be transferred directly from one individual to another by mimicry and “emotional contagion,”17 perhaps by the copying of emotionally relevant bodily actions, particularly facial expressions, seen in others.18 19 20 People can “catch” emotional states they observe in others over time frames ranging from seconds to weeks.17 21 22 23 For example, students randomly assigned to a mildly depressed room-mate became increasingly depressed over a three month period,24…The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people.”

These are two places to begin.  For me, they will represent the first step into a long process of embracing life.  Given my pragmatic view of truth, it seems that the best choice to make is to affirm life–to create meaning from that which lasts: especially people.  I don’t know if it is coincidental, but the things that fail to bring me happiness are almost exclusively status-games.  Though grand expectations of future rewards is often enough to make me continue running on my rat-wheel, thinking more and more about this makes me think that so much of my life is really just running in place.  (Brian: I begin to agree more and more with that chubby philosophy who hates exercise)

DFW wrote that

“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”

Society has a tumultuous love-hate relationship with cliché statements.  On one hand, they express great truths–and on the other, (despite their overwhelming nature in the public consciousness) they often fail to motivate action.  DFW reminds me that “Clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”  This is certainly true.  But, their usefulness only comes about when we consciously remember the truths.  When floating in the subconscious, they sink beneath the surface and fail to promenade in our daily conduct.

DFW begins his speech by telling an amazing story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

He ends his speech on the same note, reminding us that the most obvious, cliché statements that are absoultely obvious evade our recolection.  The truths we know fade away and melt–the only way to keep them around is to keep willing them into being.

“It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

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