Really Making Sense?
How much of your life is dedicated to things you claim you have to do? What are your reasons behind those claims— that is, why must those things get done? Do those reasons fall to pieces when you consider them from perspectives aside from your own?
These claims can be made consciously or subconsciously. Perhaps you’ll never say that you have to go outside for a smoke break or that you have to stick a cookie in your mouth, but some part of your psyche will dictate that, indeed, you do.
Aside from pure habit or addiction, then, what are the most common reasons people give for having to do something? I suspect they are survival, money, and pleasing others, which, much of the time, turn out to be inseparable. In short, people think they have to please others to get money, and they think they have to get money to survive. I doubt I need to explain that this is the mechanism by which most (not all) people attain formal education and jobs.
But do those people then give a reason for having to survive? Could they even comprehend that issue if you asked?
Well, I could ask, doesn’t all this pleasing of others you have to do at least serve some higher purpose? No, they would say. Pleasing others gets me money, and that’s all I care about.
But why do you have to survive—for the sake of survival in itself? The Earth is not going to spin off its imaginary axis if you die, and even if it did, who would be around to care?
The recipient of this question could easily fall back on one of their other reasons for having to do things: pleasing others—their children, in particular. “If I don’t survive, the kids won’t either.” Okay, that one is morally tougher, but why do your children have to survive? Have you come up with a reason for their survival?
Ah, yes—again we can resort to one of our common reasons. “My children must survive so that they can make money, because that money will help me to survive in the future!” They will then proceed to say that their children will make this money by pleasing others, just as they themselves have.
So it’s an endless cycle. We must please others so that others can please others, and thereby please us in return so that we can continue pleasing others. Wow-zer.
Do You Really Know What You’re Doing?
Now, I’m not suggesting that you stop making efforts to survive—even if your only reason for survival is to please other people (such as your children). But I would like you to be aware of three things (1) the low-level motives you may be living based on, (2) that you can find motives beyond your own survival, and (3) that there are ways to please people, make money, and survive aside from those you currently follow.
I will discuss how you can achieve (2). By working toward (2) you will become aware of and fix (1) and better understand (3). I could talk about (3) directly, but the best answer to (3) varies from person to person, and you will find your best answer based on (2).
Got it, my darling?
There is an element of choice to each of these: if you want to be self-aware, endow your life with meaning, and do things differently than you do now, you must choose to do so. As a heads-up to what you’re doing at this moment, I’d say reading is not a bad first step in resolving how to go about these things.
First, let me take a step back and attend to the essence of Do you really have to do that? As is, the question isn’t totally complete. Basically, you can always correctly answer no to this question, based on the assumptions that (1) You don’t have to attend to any sort of abstract motivation to survive (i.e. you can survive for its own sake, without philosophy); (2) As long as there are other ways of maintaining survival, you don’t have to choose this particular option; and, (3) You don’t have to survive.
Thus, to get any leverage out of the question you have to ask yourself, In terms of what might I have to do this? In terms of survival, for instance, you might have to stay at your job if you don’t have any other viable ways of surviving (e.g. getting a new job, starting a business, going on welfare, trapping squirrels, etc.). It’s unusual, however, to have only one option that is accessible even to your current abilities-- especially when the question is so broad, such as in the case of survival.
You can, of course, make the question narrower by throwing in other criteria, such as, What do I have to do to get my house painted as quickly as possible? Painting by yourself with the single tool of a one-haired paintbrush probably will not be an option.
Before tackling the narrower questions, however, it’s wise to start broader and work your way down. So the question above this would be, Why do I have to paint my house as quickly as possible? Above that, Why do I have to paint my house? Then, Why do I have a house?
Along with each of those Whys, ask, Do I have other viable options? If you find that you do indeed, those options will pose a challenge to your Why. Perhaps you say you have a house because it is best for your children’s development, but you now consider that an apartment could serve as just as good of an environment for them (especially based on your vague definitions). If suddenly you don’t want to paint your house with the latest and greatest painting technology anymore, it may be that your motivation behind the intention was not intelligent (i.e. solid) enough.
Perhaps you start to question your motives for your other actions and desires now, and you realize that, for the most part, you have been going about life blindly and without intellect. Suddenly a swarm of options arises that you hadn’t considered before, and now it is clear that you’ve wasted your life answering to your motives (e.g. survival, pleasing others) in only one, perhaps heart-draining way (e.g. job).
But that’s probably not all. It probably also occurs to you that your motives are weak and ill thought-out. Why the heck do your kids need a good environment to develop in anyway—so they can please people and thus make money which will help you survive down the road? Maybe they’ll pay all the medical bills that result from having to be a debilitated elderly person? Don’t you have anything to care about but yourself, Buster?
But what about those higher motives, anyway? Let’s go out on a crazy limb and say that you can create meaning for your life which makes sense to you, and which provides you with strong, consistent motivation as a result. Won’t those motives still fall to pieces in the eyes of another person?
I would say, of course they will. But it’s not whether another person rejects them that matters as much as whether you do. You can flip between perspectives to evaluate your thoughts all on your own. It’s only when you do this that the current reasoning behind your life can really fall to pieces.
Killing My Belief System
Let me give you a hunky-sized example. Two years ago I believed that life was inherently wretched and largely meaningless: all creatures on the planet—including humans—were simply biological robots. The humans were programmed to think that they were something more than machines, but this was just a delusion necessary to the continuation of our species. Otherwise, everyone would want to keel over and die, just like I did. I thus attributed my misery to the misery of the world.
I knew I could try reprogramming myself to see the delusion as a viable reality again, but for what? I would rather die depressed and aware of the truth than go on living as a smiling, ignorant fool. The phrase Ignorance is bliss fired up rage in me (as much as a half-dead person can muster) because I hated ignorance; but, it seemed to be the key to happiness.
Before holding this wildly unstable perspective for long it occurred to me that my misery might not have been the result of the absurdity of life. Instead, it may be that life seemed so absurd and the world so damnable because I was miserable. I wasn’t fully aware of the implications at the time, but this meant that I was no longer a mindless object at the mercy of whatever may happen in the world of unpredictable, irrational objects around me.
With that, my entire belief system fell apart. I didn’t have a basis for being miserable anymore. I didn’t turn into Smiley the Clown overnight, but I knew I had to create and explore a new understanding of reality. A very interesting period of my life ensued, and what I am doing today is roughly the result of that exploration.
Why did I have to do reality-restructuring, you ask? In short, because I was in a place of almost total uncertainty. “I don’t have to do anything because I don’t have to survive” didn’t work because I could no longer be sure of that or almost any other statement. To me, the only viable option was to create a new model of reality. I wouldn’t have explained it this way at the time and I didn’t take time to write out in my journal why it made sense for me to do this. Things were happening way too fast: I had to keep learning, reading, and thinking. I was on the verge of a breakthrough.
I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t carefully consider why you ought to do something. In fact, it probably is beneficial that you do. But this was a rather exceptional point in my life: my most fundamental belief about reality had been overturned, and now my entire way of going about life was at stake. I’m sure I will experience other massive breakthroughs in the future, but I doubt I will experience anything quite as drastic as that. Then again, life does have a way of surprising us. J
To return to what I was saying before this anecdote, I should point out that it didn’t really matter that almost everyone around me thought I was ideologically mistaken and in need of psychiatric help. They could have explained to me how wrong I was until the end of time, and as long as I sat there, listening passively and letting a servant shove grapes in my mouth, I probably never would have changed a bit. I was locked into my current understanding of things, and that understanding could be changed only by my own insight.
I’ll mention that, with zero prompting from anyone else, I discovered that the philosopher Bertrand Russell (who I had referenced in a recent school project) wrote a book called The Conquest of Happiness. I found a free version of it online and I decided to read it, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. Perhaps some shred of my mind became rational and said, Hey, maybe you should test out these beliefs before you decide they’re worth ending your life. At least consciously I certainly didn’t think the book would prompt such dramatic changes in me, though I hoped it might give me a little something to live for—perhaps very gradual improvements over time (my expectations were blown away, to say the least).
If you’ve read much else I’ve written, you know that I still don’t think humans are what we appear to be on the surface. However, instead of being less than we think we are, I believe that we are more. Rather than nonconscious robots with the delusion of being conscious humans, I think we are conscious beings that have taken a human form (was that the best way to set that up? Probably not).
I think the container for this reality is consciousness. This means that reality is dictated by non-physical forces, and the physical events we see playing out are simply an extension of that (a nice, fun, tasty extension, at that). Instead of being at the mercy of random, immoral objects; and, instead of merely appearing separate on the surface, I think in essence we are part of the same whole.
Perhaps that was excessive, but the point of all that is to demonstrate that you can establish sensible meaning and thus motivations for your life. The choice to do this, however, rests ultimately in your hands.
This “sensible meaning” can also be called the context of your life (reality, if you prefer). If you’ve been following my recent belief experiments, you’ll notice that before I state the belief I’m trying to hold I state the context by which the belief makes sense. For the belief that My Body is Intelligent, the context states that “The human body, like many animals, has been around for a long time, and animals- who lack the intellect of humans- seem to have little hesitance about trying to meet their physical needs.” Based on this, the belief makes sense enough.
A context for reality, then, is based on one or more (not too many) assumptions about how reality works. The rest of your beliefs can be traced back logically to that one.
Because that one assumption is a fundamental belief, you’ll find it hard to defy. If you try to believe something that goes against the fundamental belief, either that belief will fall to pieces or you’ll have an existential crisis on your hands.
At this point, I can entertain the belief that reality is purely objective for brief periods of time, but it certainly won’t twist my underwear into cool, twirly shapes. If I could think of a belief that would likely induce an existential crisis in me, I probably would have had that crisis by now (… right? We’ll see, in time!)
You don’t have to come up with your context (the meaning of your life) entirely on your own: I didn’t. I picked up most of my current beliefs by reading and then making conclusions about what I read. There are some that I just pulled right out of the text, though I have more doubt in those and they shall be subject to testing.
Overall, though, I definitely didn’t come up with subjective reality (the belief that consciousness is the container of reality) on my own. No way. From what I can tell the basic idea has been around for quite some time (try Ancient Hinduism?), though I picked it up through the not-so-old Stevepavlina.com.
I have yet to find a perspective that invalidates subjective reality. This is tough to do because subjective reality says that everything is contained within it, including denial of it. Of course, objective reality makes the same claim, but I have found subjective reality easier to comprehend, more motivating, and ultimately simpler (and we like parsimony in science, don’t we?). I should note that subjective reality doesn’t invalidate objective reality. It simply has made more sense to me that the former contains the latter, rather than the other way around.
You might think I cling to this belief system since it basically saved me from suicide, but if that was the only basis it had I don’t think it would prompt me to do something like create a website and write about all the things that I do.
Clinging to something because it prevents something bad from happening is a fear-based action. Fear motivation can get things started, but at least for me it’s not wonderfully sustainable. Fear asks, What can I do to get away from these bad feelings? This may lead to someone quitting their job, dropping out of school, or putting anything else they perceive as soul-sucking to a Stop. But it might serve as well at telling that person what to do afterwards, except maybe to survive, and then survive some more, and maybe take candy from babies while you’re at it.
I don’t mean to tell you that you shouldn’t use fear (service to self, which is the highest good) as your primary or sole means of motivation. If you try it out and it works for you, I wish you the best in your brutish though objectively-successful world. You’ll probably accomplish more by picking this side than most people do by choosing neither Fear nor Love (service to others). Through your selfishness you may even contribute more to the world than some people who choose Love, in which case I say, Damn, good for you. J
However, fear doesn’t work out so hot with me, and I don’t think it will with the majority of people the majority of the time, either. Survival of self for its own sake (yes, this includes the “for the survival of offspring” bridge) is a pretty fear-based pursuit, though it isn’t a particularly powerful one.
Perhaps part of what goes wrong is that these people try to squeak in love-based motives. But in terms of motivation, if your highest concern is your own survival it is probably indeed better to want to support your children so that they can in turn support you later on. This is in contrast to staying at your job of pleasing people to make money with the motive of serving your children because you love them.
I’m not trying to tell you that fear is ethical: I’m just explaining how it works.
To really be a darkworker (master of fear-motivation), though, you’ll probably feel inclined to do better than just scrape by. It’ll be in your interest to set your meanings and motives straight because you’ll find ways to survive more enjoyably in this world. Becoming a darkworker means you probably won’t stick around at your silly job anymore and decide how you’re going to paint the house. Instead, it might look more like becoming a big-shot investor, CEO, leader of a country. The people who do these jobs can just as well be lightworkers, though these occupations may attract more darkworkers than, say, soup-kitchen volunteers, veterinarians, and health coaches.
I know, these words sound like fiction, but the world is a stage, ain’t it? I think it’s a fun way to look at humanity, and knowing whether someone is motivated by love, fear, both, or neither (neither is unlikely) can tell you a lot about a person—possibly more than anything else can (maybe even their context? But that’s a stretch). This can tell you why someone does what he does and what he will likely do next, based on his present circumstances. You can probably take a good guess at many of the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings he experiences. If more people thought about motivation in these terms we might be able to speak volumes to one another about ourselves quickly.
To complete this point on fear vs. love, I’ll say that love makes sense from my context (primarily-subjective reality), whereas in a primarily-objective reality (people are separate, physical beings) fear may make more sense. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a subjective scaredy-cat nor an objective lover or sorts. As with you context, the choice is in your hands (mostly! Right?)
Perhaps there’s no need to go on about fear and love motivation here: you can read Enemies of Consciousness for some more on that (I will note that I first read about fear vs love motivation from Steve Pavlina, as always. I probably sound like I need to vary my sources a bit more, eh?).
How do I (Really) Do That?
So, to answer the question of Do I really need to do that? Intelligently you must do this: set a context for your life which makes sense to you. “Makes sense” means that, at this time, there are no gaping holes (fallacies) in it as far as you can tell. To do this effectively you will have to examine your current beliefs and probably change at least a few of them. To do this effectively, you will need to expose yourself to a variety of perspectives. If the only perspective you can take is the one you’ve always had, you will have no basis for examining that perspective.
In short, read, talk to people, and seek out new experiences (they don’t have to be wild, though wild is fun). These things can get you far. Then, take a look at yourself and think.
Now, I know this doesn’t sound like a quick set of tasks. That’s because it isn’t. Creating an intelligent context will probably take you a while, especially if your current context is mostly made up of socially conditioned beliefs and you haven’t really examined these beliefs before.
Really: don’t get upset if this takes you a long time. It took me over a year and a half and many attempts after first reading Pavlina’s How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes to come up with an answer that stuck for more than 48 hours (for clarification, your context is what determines what your purpose potentially can and will be).
I know that flies in the face of the article’s title—I don’t think it has to take that long. Perhaps my age (18) plays into that somewhat (but I’m doubtful).
Remember that your context (and your purpose) can and probably will change, at least to some degree. But I think for most of us it will be easier to make changes to our context than to build it from the ground-up for the first time. After you build your context consciously it will be much easier to keep track of your beliefs and how they change, so future changes to your context probably won’t surprise you too much (the key word is too).
Again, I know this may sound like a lot of not-easy work, but I assure you it can pay off. If you want clarity, if you want something you can really stand for, and if you want to feel in charge of your life at all, I think this is a great way to go.
Right now, I’m on Day 11 of a 30-Day Trial in which I write and post a blog article everyday. If asked, “Do you really have to do that, Kim?” I could easily say, Well, no—of course I don’t. It might not please or displease too many people at this point, and it sure as hell won’t mean the different between life and death.
But the question of “Should I write today?” doesn’t come up much. When I do ask it the response is more of a feeling than some logical response-spitter (you know, the “voice in your head.” No, not the demon—the other one). I get a feeling of fullness that I interpret as, Of course I will write today. It will be nice… Maybe even wonderful. I can do a lot of good things with that writin’, ya know.
To be a tad clearer, I feel this trial is useful to me in reinforcing the idea that This is my work, improving time management (how fast can you go?!), and generally building my discipline-muscles. More importantly, it challenges me to work on fresh new ideas (well, relatively) everyday, clarify my beliefs, and to present that work in such a way that it can help other people. Doing this everyday quickly makes it clear where I can use improvement, and the ideas come to me more and more easily. I genuinely feel that this is the best thing I can do with my time right now—especially if I do my best.
A part of motivation is momentum: the more you do something, the more likely you are to do it. That’s why it can be so hard to Stop what you’re doing sometimes and examine whether your actions are actually intelligent.
At this point it’s hard to say whether my context has correctly led me to this 30 day trial or whether my context is correct at all. The thought of having to write is repetitive sometimes, but it’s hardly anxiety-provoking (unlike the thought of having to do tasks I abhor). Nevertheless, I’m sure that in time I will find flaws both with writing and with beliefs, and I will make changes accordingly.
A few mini-notes: (1) Make sure to ask the question of your feelings as well—not just your actions. At its essence, Do I really have to do that? asks Do I really have to believe that? From that question you can derive, Do I really have to think that?, Do I really have to feel that way?, and Do I really have to do that?
It isn’t just what you do that matters: it’s who you are. What you do is a part of who you are. If you want to do different, be different. This means that your beliefs, thoughts, and feelings must change as well as your actions (and your motives).
(2) Even if you are unlike most people, you’ve probably conned yourself into thinking that you have to do a lot of things that are, in truth, silly and unnecessary. So even if you aren’t motivated by surviving, making money, and pleasing people, perhaps you are motivated by being different for its own sake. This motive can certainly be interesting in practice, though for your own sake you might like something with more substance than that.
And even if you think you aren’t motivated by any of those four things, it may be that you are anyway. Keep your eyes on yourself. You might be surprised at why you do what you do.
Go to school… Go to work… Take care of the kids… Go to the ugly cousin’s birthday party… Blow the last five paychecks on Christmas gifts… Degrade yourself so you don’t look self-absorbed… Run that race even though your ankle is in agony because you thought your coach might not like it if you didn’t (be injured for 3 weeks as a result). These things are all fine and dandy if they’re chosen within an intelligent context. Just keep in mind that rationalizing and coming up with a solid-sounding reason on the spot (e.g. “I don’t work just for money… My company helps the world by giving people tasty sugar-water!”) are not the marks of intelligence.
So, you can continue believing that you have to do all these things, but, well, you don’t really have to do that. J
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