A Good Life in a World of Distraction and Anxiety: A conversation in eight parts


Part II: A Free Prisoner                               Part III: A Life without Distractions
Part IV: On being Authentic                        Part V: On Crisis and Friendship
Part VI: A Good Person or a Good Life?    Part VII: The Meaningness of Meaningness?
Part VIII: A Leap of Faith

Part I: Of Stuff and Persons

To be Human is to be wounded

Some people in our town, those of us who could, had succumbed to the summer’s heat and made a habit of making the pleasantly air-conditioned mall a meeting point. Awkwardly I moved across the shiny floor knowing full well that just a few drops of water would turn the surface treacherous. Some days earlier I had injured the big toe of my right foot, and I was visibly limping in order to walk without pain. I could feel people watching me. To be wounded is to be humiliated. My friend Notme had already found a table at the noisy café on the mezzanine and waved for me as I slowly joined her. At the table next to ours were a couple of middle aged business people enjoying what appeared to be a business lunch. Part of me envied their moneyed confidence, another was grateful for the absence of dress codes in my life. At the table on the other side sat Cato the Younger, Sean-Paul Sartre, David Hume, and Nick Cave. I nodded in their direction as I joined my old friend. It had been some time since we last met, and even if I would never admit it, I was eager to tell her what I had come up with: That I had figured out what “meaningness” 1is. As I sat down she said:

Notme: “I figured out what Meaningness is! It’s easy! It means Sincere Engagement, in oneself, in others and in the world around us!”
I held back the urge to tell her that, ‘No, I figured out what “meaningness” is and you’re wrong’. Instead I said:
Me: “What does that mean?”
Notme: “Well, it means that we have to overcome our insecurities to find Meaningness, that’s what it means.”
Me: “Meaningness is to find Meaningness?”
She realised that she did not make sense and decided to start over.
Notme: “OK, to put it simply, it means to distinguish between persons and things. To not see and treat people as things but as unpredictable and infinite human beings; as persons. To do that we must also treat ourselves as persons.”
Me: “Or like things with personality?” She rolled her eyes.
Notme: “Personality isn’t the same as personhood. But Meaningness is really more than that: it’s a method, and the goal is the method.”
Me: “And how does that work?”
Notme: “So, what do you derive meaning from in life?”
I decided to try to steer Notme towards my answer.
Me: “Many people seem to think it is to have something meaningful to do, a job to go to, to fill your time with something, or to build a family and raise children. Or to nurture friendships.”
Notme: “Maybe. Maybe all of that can be meaningful. But it doesn’t have to be.”
Me: “Something which people often mention is that struggle is meaningful. To try to achieve goals and complete projects. And to grow as a person through the hardships you go through.”
Notme: “Again: Maybe. What you describe is happenstance, and I think agency is a necessary element of meaningness… No, listen: The goal is to treat people, including ourselves, as, well, people and not as things. Our social insecurity prevents us from this. We fear the pain of exclusion and humiliation. Insecurity is a very strong biological mechanism for conforming into a role within a culture; we conform to avoid the pain of being excluded. And a culture is basically a collection of mutually agreed upon prejudices about the world. And it is these prejudices that turns us into things.”
My injured toe was bothering me and I was trying to put it into a position so that it would hurt less.
Me: “Mhm…”
Notme: “But we cannot be humans without prejudice. We learn about our culture in childhood and in an adolescence which is governed by a sense of insecurity. And when we have learnt about our culture we become culture savvy adults, who know exactly how to behave in order to not feel social pain. We find comfort within a culture which we stay inside in a painless state. We become, in a sense, free prisoners.”

Yes surely it pains as buds are breaking
Why else would spring hesitate?
Why would all our heated longing
be bound in the frozen bitterbleak?
And the husk was the bud all through winter.
What is this new, that grinds and bursts?
Yes surely it pains as buds are breaking,
pain for what grows
                   and for that which encloses
Karin Boye

An impeccably dressed waiter came to take our orders. She eloquently recommended the lunch baguettes which I happily agreed to. I was very impressed by her professional, yet friendly, demeanor. Notme ordered the spaghetti.
Me: “But surely there’s more than a fear of pain that’s preventing us from seeing the humanity of ourselves and each other?”
Notme: “Yes, there is a power dynamics in the hierarchies of the culture savvy. There is a delegation of agency. There is much comfort in knowing your place and not needing to take responsibility for anything. Everything is someone else’s responsibility. Meaningness is a method for breaking out of this prison of ours. To investigate our insecurities and prejudice about ourselves and each other, to learn to be a person and not a thing, and to learn to see the person in Eachother. In essence to stop being a free prisoner.”
Me: “Free prisoners?”

Three types of meaning: Cosmic Meaning2, the Meaning of Stuff3, and the Meaningness of Life. The former, readily dismissed as irrelevant, was in fact historically disconnected from the others by the advent of modernity. The second contains all the prejudice by which the world becomes fathomable to us. These commonly agreed upon and emotionally charged meanings of stuff constitute the cultures within which we become, and it is by being savvy of these prejudice of our specific cultural context that we conform into adults. The meaningness of life comes from understanding Ourselves and Eachother as being different from stuff, beyond the happenstance of our nature and our nurture, as unpredictable and infinite human beings, as persons, and to transcend the necessary thingification inherent in our romantic cultural identities which to varying degree have been thrust upon us. This is the eight part conversation on how meaningness is found and not found and what some of its contexts and limitations may be. This part was the foundation, then comes the prison of our prejudice, followed by a discussion on what keeps us from breaking out. Part IV discusses how meaningness is in many ways the opposite of finding our true authentic selves, and part V is the closest we get here to an explanation on how we may actually break out of our prisons, together through courage, friendship and crisis. The last three parts are different levels of critique and discussions on limitations of these concepts. Is this a philosophy on how to be good? Is there an inherent contradiction in the very language used? In the last part the question is posed: What is the actual underlying ideology of Meaningness? Which will take us into further posts, time, energy and lust allowing… 

Next part: A Free Prisoner

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2017