In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

The Undisguised Consciousness

“The unreal disguise of consciousness serves only to emphasize to me the existence of the undisguised unconsciousness.” Fernando Pessoa wrote this in The Book of Disquiet as he reflected on the way that people thought about and moved through the world around him. What Pessoa noted is that we act and behave as though we are consciously making decisions and guiding our lives while in reality we are often driven by unconscious forces that we are not aware of. For Pessoa, life was an every day struggle. He did not live in desolate poverty or have anything particular terrible happening in his life, but was cognizant of the stories people told about their lives and existence, and he could not bring himself to believe any particular story.

 

It seems like most people, most of the time, are not actually that considerate of the world around them. If we all were more considerate, capitalism would not be elevated in the United States to a quasi-religious stance. We would be able to take action on climate change. We probably would spend less time watching what celebrities were doing, and more time participating in a sport rather than watching and talking about other people playing a sport.

 

“Occasional hints that they might be deluding themselves–that and only that is what most men experience.”

 

I have been thinking about consciousness and our experiences quite a bit lately. In Considerations, Colin Wright encouraged us to think more deeply about world, and to see things beyond our initial reaction. Rob Reid has talked to guests in his podcast After On about the reality that our brains don’t sense the world as fully as they potentially could. There are senses we just don’t have that we observe in other living creatures. And in The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which being deluded about reality can be an evolutionary advantage for us.

 

Most people that I meet don’t seem to be interested in thinking beyond their initial reaction to the world. Most people don’t really seem to consider the fact that they have a narrow band of senses through which they can experience the world. And most people don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we evolved to have an inaccurate picture of the universe because it helped us be socially deceptive. But I think it is powerful and important that we recognize how much is going on beyond the recognition of our conscious self. We should strive to have a full existence that helps encourage flourishing for others as well as for ourselves. We should strive to see reality for what it is, and cut through the stories we tell ourselves or that others tell for us. The more considerate we are, the more we can open others to the same reality, and hopefully start to counteract the unconscious immediacy of our reactions to the world which is encouraged by social media and indeed by our brains’ very nature.

Time For Ourselves

Early in the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a story is recounted and includes a conversation between two people about time. The story specifically looks at how we think about our time and the story we tell ourselves about our time. Jumping right into the middle, the story goes:

 

“Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.” The story continues,
“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

 

I really like this story because it shows how much our understanding of time is influenced  by the stories we tell ourselves. There truly is not anything that breaks up the segments of time that we have throughout our days. There is no real barrier that we transition through as we go from one hour to the next and even real demarcated time shifts, like the shift from day to night, are gradual without an exact point where one can say, we have officially moved from day to night. With our day, we simply transition out of daylight into twilight, and then from twilight into night, and at a certain point we can all agree it is night time, but not at a specific identifiable point. What is more, the time of day at which these transitions occur constantly changes, not adhering to the stories well tell ourselves about 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m. or 9 p.m.

 

Recently I have been focusing on the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we create for ourselves as we live our lives. I am fascinated by the fact that the reality we experience hinges on the interpretations and experiences we have within that reality. We construct narratives and stories that fit what we want to be true and live within these stories. Time is just another example of how the stories we tell impact the way we experience the world. Our views and perspectives of time take something that is truly concrete and fundamental in universe (even if not fully understood), the phenomenological ordering of events, and creates stories and structured ways of perceiving it.

 

Allan is simply pulling back the stories he tells himself as he goes about his days. He has recognized that there is nothing that determines that something is time for him versus time for anyone else. There is simply the moment and his experience and consciousness. That time is his as long as he does not try to force the time to conform to a specific narrative. Recognizing the power that narratives hold in our lives gives us a chance to feel more free as we recognize which parts of our day and existence are built from concrete facts and empiricism and which parts are built by our interpretation, imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves about what everything means.