Philosopher, cognitive scientist and pompous atheist (there aren’t to few) Daniel Dennett once said in a lecture that the secret of life is finding something that is important to you and then dedicating your life to it. The straightforward, matter of fact manner that Dennett reveals this profound truth downplays the difficulty of fulfilling one half of that maxim: discovering what is important to you. We can create a hierarchy of categories based on how people address that question.
1. The Vacuous
Examples: Reality tv stars, Professional athletes, Jeffrey Dahmer, Bay Street traders
Some people pursue things that have no intrinsic value or deeper meaning – the car collector (or sub in any other materialistic vice) and the sadomasochist are only following through on Dennett’s suggestion!
2. The Indicisive
Examples: Look behind you!
Some people can never make a decision, while others are forced into one by circumstances. At this point cognitive dissonance can take over and you’d never realize it. Your dreams are put on the back burner, if they resonate at all, and you go forward with what life has given you.
3. The Compromiser
Some find a dream of their impossible to pursue and have to aim for something more reasonable. This begs additional questions about how to judge what is realistic, and whether someone can settle for something less in life and still live knowing they gave up what meant most to them.
Following on that, I’m not a Romantic. A certain measure of compromise is essential if you are going to pursue some supreme good. But that compromise should never come at the cost of a life-long pursuit of that supreme good. Strategic retreats may be essential, but surrender cannot be an option.
Personally, I am turning over a new leaf. Maybe there are elements of all three of the above personalities in me as I am moving away from the responsibility free, moderately ascetic lifestyle of the prolonged adolescence typical of the 21st century adult, to a more financially secure place in a workplace with a career culture.
But I’m looking on the bright side of things. 2011 has brought a lot of things to light. Scratch that. There were a number of things I already realized years before that would have gave my life more meaning if I believed that I could pursue them to any reasonably successful end. It was only this year that I decided to go forward with them and see where, if anywhere, it takes me.
And though I’m not in my ideal job I do believe that I will still be able to follow through with some of what matters to me most. The job itself will provide me with the type of sustained analytical challenges that I have not had since my grad school days, which on its own is a good thing.
Beyond that, what really matters is what I do in the hours that I am away from work. Spending that time pursuing what matters most to me is vital if I’m going to build off this recent success. If I fail to do that, then I’ll regress back into the two profiles above – something I can’t let happen.
4. The Archetype
Example: Daniel Dennett (even if he can be an ass sometimes!), many writers, artists, philosophers etc.
Ideally we would all marry our intellectual/soul-gratifying pursuits with our financial livelihoods. Who wouldn’t want to make a living pursuing the one thing that gives them most meaning? Of course this scenario is incredibly rare. Those that reach this “marriage” don’t deserve our envy, as that would suggest a level of resentment. They deserve our undying admiration and support. Even those whose financial and spiritual livelihood are one and the same will have stressful days and may be tempted to lead a different life. We can’t let that happen. Strategic retreats are reluctantly acceptable, but defeatism is not.
This leads to what is really a second component of any definition of the meaning of life: helping those around you reach their dreams. Pursue your own dreams but understand that their is an intrinsic value in helping someone else reach their own. It is a shame when someone gives up on something that they love the most, no matter how modest, for failure of receiving a little collective encouragement from those around them. But this is a double-edged sword – pure altruism is equally tragic as it entails the complete sacrifice of one’s dreams, the cost of which is immeasurable.
But we still haven’t settled on what is worth pursuing! Thankfully Professor Dennett provides another worthwhile consideration, something that I plan on touching on regularly in the coming months/years: the pursuit of knowledge and the problems associated with it. Consider this:
“One of the best secrets of life: let your self go. If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size… for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.”
There is much that can be written about the above. But it’ll have to wait. The importance is that through sickness, chores and the stresses of a first day at work I got something down, even if not well considered or well written. It is a precedent for my new life…
Well, hopefully not the shitty writing and high school level approach but…