What scale would you use to answer the question, “Why are you here?” where why means for what purpose? Here in this place right now, or here in your current situation this season, or living on the planet at all, ever?
For me, for many scales, these answers have recently changed very quickly. I live somewhere new and most of my habits have been forced to adapt. This new setting has encouraged me to examine my life by the largest scale. To look not at what I want to do tonight or this weekend, but at what I want my situation to be ten or twenty years from now, or further. Where do I want to be in the world as well as what person do I want to be in the world? And how do I get there?
Like most people I dynamically create assumptions about where I’m heading from day to day, without paying much attention to the why. So what’s interesting now is realizing I can take control and change the result. It feels like knowing there’s an extra line of text beneath the words I’m reading, and I’ve suddenly remembered to read it too.
One of the most obvious and most difficult to remember truths about living in human society is that every other person in the world has an intelligence and interior thought space as elaborate as your own. Every time you feel no one can be as daydreamy, as crazy, as complicated as you, you’re wrong. They are.
Or they aren’t and you’re the only creature in the world with the capacity for real doubt, real guilt, real examination of everything you do, good or bad. An extension of Solipsism, the belief that only your own mind is sure to exist. One soul among robots. The only visitor at Disneyland.
Which is worse? Being no more or less important or interesting than anyone else, with enormous capacity for helping each other (yet you don’t, not like you could) and equally enormous capacity for destroying each other which you likely do on a regular basis without realizing? Or, alternatively, being utterly alone in this place with no chance whatsoever of empathy or connecting with another living being because they’re all automatons and you’re the only one with a true mind?
I have no idea.
Last night I considered a post about regret, but this morning the moments and scenarios that taunted me had been blunted and softened by sleep. Thank goodness. Late-night memories of what we can never change are the most potent torments a brain delivers to itself.
This morning, enjoying my well-rested distance to the things I had or hadn’t done, I investigated the psychology of regret. An article in Psychology Today claims that regret is useful for young people as it allows for future correction. The less opportunity someone has to fix things the more likely that regret will transform into damaging negativity and stress. Yet cultures that already allow for less choice, due to arranged marriages or an otherwise more prescripted life structure, apparently have relatively less regret than those with more personal freedom of choice. Imagine that: freedom to regret.
Years ago I heard a Buddhist comparison of the peaceful self to a blue sky. The clouds might come and cover it up, but it doesn’t permanent marr the blue sky behind. This was a comfort to me when I was trying to be more mindful and generally failing. At least that failure wasn’t forever. The regrets I have are the opposite. They’re forever failures. But I’m still reassured by the idea of a blue sky unmarred by what went wrong. I know I didn’t mean to fail, and if nothing else is perfect my intentions surely were.
No need to mention how well paved the road to hell. That’s a different metaphor.
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
In Star Trek: The Next Generation Jean-Luc Picard tried to explain this to Data, and it’s interesting in this scene that the stand in for ourselves is not Jean-Luc, the human, but Data, the android. We sympathize best not with the example of our species, but with the outsider looking in, trying to understand. No doubt we try to understand ourselves far more than we exist in a state of peace with whatever we are.
I reencountered this quote while searching for the philosophical or psychological term for the feeling that no matter what you do, you’re wrong. I found objectivity, which is the concept of something being true even outside subjective bias. And I found qualia, or quale, that are instances of subjective experience like a headache, the colour of the sky at day versus night, or the sound of a clap. (Not to confused with the sound of one hand clapping, a favourite Zen koan.)
None of this is quite what I mean, which is standard for human communication, as Data must learn. In fact there doesn’t seem to be a real term for what I mean, although as far as relationships are concerned there is an internet full of advice to decide if you’re in a bad romantic relationship depending on how often you feel wrong. I’m certain you could learn just as much about your relationship from how often you feel right, or at least more right than the other person, with the desire to point it out.
In late 2003 I walked into The Royal Museum in Edinburgh, what is now The National Museum of Scotland. The first thing I saw was a Nisga’a totem pole. I recognized it easily, as I’d just moved from British Columbia and everything that didn’t fit in my backpack was waiting for me back there in Nisga’a territory.
No doubt B.C.’s totem poles are internationally interesting and probably everyone who travels finds connections to their home. But my first few months in Edinburgh were magical to me, and there were several things that pinged the “It’s a sign!” part of my brain. Carl Jung called it synchronicity, when events seem meaningfully related but are not causally related. He wrote, “it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity.” For me, at that time, everything from the job I got to the guy I dated seemed right and inevitable and interconnected with everything that had come before.
It’s a comforting feeling. Rather than constricting, it’s reassuring to see “evidence” that there’s a plan or a design and it’s working as intended. Yet the idea that my life has been planned or designed by anyone other than me is the opposite of comforting. Suddenly I feel trapped and rebellious. I can only conclude that if synchronicity is indicative of a real underlying force in the universe, I’d rather it stay underlying. The less I know, the closer I stay to that mysterious balancing point between freedom and inevitability, the happier I am.