The last year has been the most dynamic and uncertain of my adult life. Through this period of societal upheaval, I have been fortunate enough to begin a new job, sustain a mature and fulfilling relationship, and expand my artistic and creative outlets through piano and generative art. After such a period of transition, I find it important to reflect on my evolving identity and assess my metaethical framework going forward.
I first will discuss my current philosophical outlook on life and its purpose, followed by an exploration of some paradigm shifts that took place over the last year.
Setting the Stage
At the beginning of 2020, I was stuck in a job that I loathed with no clear path toward a desperately needed change. This changed rapidly with an opportunity to make a drastic career shift, starting an ambiguously defined role at a small company. I choose to pursue this opportunity, reasoning that anything was preferable to my current misery, and that exploring a role fundamentally different from anything prior would yield an experience densely packed with new information about myself. Thus argued, so decided: I quit my job and leapt into the void.
This move coincided with the start of the COVID pandemic, which thankfully did not derail my work plans. The rest of the year transpired quite quickly, drenched in a combination of new excitement and consistent dread. As a result, I did not have much time to digest the transient period of my life and its implications, until now.
Building a Life Philosophy
My philosophical stance on humanity and our place in the cosmos is the following: From dust we were created, and to dust we shall return. In the end, nothing matters. We are victims of an unrelenting tempest called time, continuously and immediately destroying all that has existed or will exist. Death is neither a transition to higher consciousness nor a step on a journey to unembodied paradise or purgatory. Instead, it is an immutable period ending the epic of human existence.
It could be argued that while humanity’s extinction is an eventuality, a single human may still impact the lives of others during their life. It is possible to use the structures that are in place on a societal level to effect change those structures and hence those they impact. Indeed, for quite some time this loophole was the foundation of my ethical framework.
However, current societal structures are caught in an inadequate equilibrium state designed to benefit only those in power at the expense of everyone else. This applies on most levels of our social system hierarchy and renders using those systems to effect change in ways that benefit not the holders of power but the constituents of the system exceedingly difficult.
Thus, to effect any real change on a systemic level requires the common man to start climbing the arduous slopes of social and professional hierarchy, of which a summit only bestows eligibility for power, not power itself. However, from this lofty perch the man may be able to see a path toward change, although he will likely be incentivized to ignore that path if it does become clear. There is no alternative course of action when seeking to effect systemic change in a top-down manner.
Recent events illustrate this systemic dearth of incentive for change: travesties of democracy across the Western world fueled by an American propaganda state, a domestic and international shift from cooperation to competition, and a rapid acceleration in climate change unchecked despite mounting human tolls.
These events starkly illustrate the concentration of power in our systems and underscored my belief that to be able to change any of them, an ascension of the hierarchy is required. After contemplating this I concluded that I am not willing to blindly climb for most of my life and believe that such an act would legitimize the very systems I am coming to despise. Thus, I am left with the only possible conclusion: our systems are fucked beyond hope and the idea that I have been bestowed some unique ability to change that is little more than an erroneous extension of that most fundamental American lie, that anything is possible.
What I have written above could easily be misconstrued as an argument in favor of classical nihilism, but it is not. It is imperative to acknowledge the physical, societal, and personal factors constraining us, so that we may make decisions with the full information available. For me this includes acknowledging my unwillingness to work tirelessly in a system that I do not believe in, my inability to change that system, and the ultimate futility of our struggle against universal entropy.
This acknowledgement allowed me to better define my idea of life’s purpose and build a framework through which to make choices in accordance with that ideal. I believe that the purpose of my life should be to live to the fullest extent possible, and that time is the most precious of human commodities. I must relinquish the idea of grandiose stations in life, and any fame or notoriety after my last neuron fires.
My yet unrefined framework for how I define a full life includes the following aspects:
- Time should be spent on things that I find intrinsically rewarding, regardless of their worth to others. There need not be a reason for any action, besides the fact that it brings me joy.
- Time is squandered if there is no one to share it with. Relationships and people are important to me and add energy to my life
- Creation and consumption are both important and contribute to the building and maintaining of relationships, as common ground is essential for deep connections to others
- Work is necessary but should be allocated time in proportion to the energy to grants
- Do no harm: Selfish decisions should not cause direct harm to others
- Have skin in the game: I should directly wear the risk and reward of choices I make
- Make everything and everyone pay rent: Everything and everyone in my life should serve a purpose, and I should serve a purpose to them
- Maximize optionality: Unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, decisions should not constrain future states of the world or future choices
- Minimize maximum regret: Never put yourself in a position to ask “what if…?”
This is an explicitly selfish framework, driven by my own thoughts, feelings, and desires. However, the common connotation that a selfish action always harms other parties is misguided, or at least overly generalized. Being selfish is essential to learning ones’ self, without which I think any true happiness is unlikely. This is not to say that indiscriminate selfishness should be practiced, rather that selfish decision making is a tool to be used wisely as a selfish choice is not always a rational one. The reframing of the purpose of and framework for living life represents a large ideological shift, the compounding of many smaller questions asked of myself over the last twelve to eighteen months. A few of those shifts will be explored below to contextualize this section.
For most of my adult life, I felt that my goal was to dent the universe, self-defined as making a contribution to the fabric of humanity that would fundamentally alter the state of the world in some lasting way. My general plan to achieve this was to make a lot of money without “selling out” and using that money to further some to-be-defined cause.
I have since revised my opinions on this goal. My need to work towards some noble goal was admirable but ultimately misguided: I hoped that by some miracle a worthy cause would unveil itself to me alongside a clear course of action to achieve modern immortality. While this may yet transpire, it inverts causality by allowing the end state to constrain the intermediate states. I had to choose some goal or level of achievement and then figure out what I need to do to get there, rather than doing what I think is best in any given moment and seeing where that path takes me.
Practically, choosing a goal out of thin air (even if that choice is made thoughtfully) is difficult if not impossible to do originally and thus will result in setting sights on someone else’s version of actualization. The intermediate steps needed to achieve such a goal would then be oriented along a course of action that I chose but did not design. I foresee this veil of agency masking a lack of imagination leading to unfulfillment and searching in vain for something to fill the void. It was this epiphany that led to the development of the framework outlined above: Identify what activities and endeavors inject energy into one’s life and pursue those endeavors.
The assumptions leading to the identification of these activities should be monitored and updated when necessary, which may lead to revised activities or even large regime changes in personal prioritization (generally these would be caused by major life events). Each chapter of life will then be authored by the individual ‘following their energy,’ charting a path unique to them. Inspiration may strike and give birth to a chapter that will dent the universe, or it may not, but in any case the course will be one’s own. I believe that such a choice of path is as likely as possible to lead to internal peace and minimize maximum regret.
During the same period, I was undergoing emotional changes as well. My current relationship is unlike any that I have been a part of before and has opened my eyes to a large swath of the human experience previously hidden. The relationship is balanced, respectful, and most importantly almost effortless. This lack of effort allowed me to remove and overcome emotional barriers previously erected, leading to a higher baseline level of happiness, joy, and warmth in my life. That this is a good shift is uncontroversial, but it has also unearthed some important assumptions that required much reflection to reconcile.
First, that pain and suffering are the only purely motivating emotions, and that remembering and reliving such pain and suffering is essential to maintaining that motivation. Until very recently I believed deeply this was the case. Keeping the pain top of mind reminded me of the litany of things that I am determined never to become and provided a focal point for my personal identity (I was one who overcame). To this end I maintained stressed relationships with my parents, kept emotional guards up in private relationships, and dreamt of the day when all the pain would be worth it (this would, of course, be the day on which I dented the universe). Such a belief implies that all pain must be worth something, that there is some reason or order to the cruel world around us. It is this last point that forced my reconsideration, as I cannot rationally state that all pain must have a reason behind it. This renders the former assumption invalid as well, as my belief that pain was the pure motivator was predicated on the idea that there was inherent worth to pain.
Second, that pain legitimizes. I felt that due to my prior experiences I was entitled to take a unique, starry-eyed view of the world that for some reason I was special. This is not the case, as my pain is not unique and pales in comparison to the daily struggles faced by most on this planet. I think there is merit to the thought that common experience can legitimize subsequent interactions with others, and for this reason I am quite glad that I have had the experiences that I have had. I may be able to understand some problems like hunger, fear, or the cleaving separation of trust in family. This gives me perspective, however it does not make me special.
Finally, that one must be unhappy to be noble, that pleasure softens the spirit and quickens the disintegration of constitution, and that enjoyment of life means squander. This was deeply ingrained in my psyche as a rationalization for the prolific unhappiness in the world and my own prior life. Instead, I think that such an idea is perpetuated by the social narratives told by the aforementioned stations of systemic power to justify and legitimize society’s remaining shackled in those systems.
These assumptions were forced into relief as my relationship intensified, tearing down walls I intended to protect my motivation for life. However, acknowledging their error does not supply replacements for them. I do not yet have the answers for what should replace them, but I feel that a reorientation of my life goals will support a reorientation of my motivation sources. Living for myself and not for others means exploring activities intrinsically rewarding to me, activities that I hope require less co-opting of negative emotions to further. This is not to say that I should forget my experiences and feelings, but rather that I should not hold onto them indiscriminately because they provided strong motivation toward a previous goal.