Part I: Of Stuff and Persons Part II: A Free Prisoner
Part III: A Life without Distractions Part IV: On being Authentic
Part VI: A Good Person or a Good Life? Part VII: The Meaningness of Meaningness?
Part VIII: A Leap of Faith
Part V: On Crisis and Friendship
It is said that people are radical in their youth and conservative as adults. However, then people become radical again (or die). The culture savvy adult usually needs a crisis in order to mature and flourish into personhood. But much more than that, she needs a friend.
To be Human is to be wounded
I tried to prod Notme a bit more:
Me: “OK, so, let’s suppose I am a culture savvy adult, a happy thing in my prison. Maybe I’m even authentic. And then I encounter other people who Sincerely Engage with me. How do I then find Meaningness?”
Notme: “We have to deeply connect with someone (or with a group of people even if there are clearly different dynamics at play there). To deeply connect takes being both generous and curious. Generous with ourselves and our vulnerability, and with the other person’s vulnerability. And curious about the other–and with ourselves. This one cannot do from a position of insecurity–it takes courage! And it must be reciprocated. If the interplay between generosity and curiosity is allowed to continue, there is mutual sincere engagement, and for a while, we transform together. Then we are friends. We continually shape Eachother through our friendships.”
Me: “I always imagined that you connect with people who see you as you want to be seen. That there is a certain flattery in who we connect with.”
Notme: “Yes, there is probably an element of that when we first connect with people. But having someone see the sides one wants to be seen is not only flattery, it also enables those sides to flourish. A good friendship does this with us, thus enabling transformation. And different friends bring out and (trans)form different aspects of our person together with us. And there is a trust in friendship, when a friend is criticising us, we trust the friend enough to have the courage to listen instead of being insecure and defensive.”
tMe: “Are we friends?”
Notme: “I don’t know. I’m not sure you are open to transform.”
tMe: “Are you?”
Notme: “I think so.”
tMe: “I’m not yet convinced that people can change…”
Notme: “I do not believe people can help but change. The question is whether we take control over our transformations or not.”
tMe: “And how do we do that?”
Notme: “Well, through friendship, of course. But first you need to be open to change.”
tMe: “Fine, and how do you do that?”
Notme: “In my experience, after some time as culture savvy adults we typically run into some kind of existential crisis. After spending time in the comfort zone, the memory of the pain or fear of ridicule wears off and we start to question the roles we have taken (or been given) in society, whether or not these roles are in our power (or to whatever extent they are). Our job and career, friendships without meaningful interactions, the entertainment and all those things we may distract ourselves by, all start to seem pointless. The best thing we can probably do is to follow some dreams and experience how they fail to fill our lives with meaning beyond the point of romantic fulfillment and possible admiration from others. These were once romantic notions which we pursued, and they never manage to quite live up to our expectations. When we start to feel as if our lives are meaningless as we are forgetting the pain of not conforming, that is when we run into a crisis.”
tMe: “Then you become open for change?”
Notme: “Maybe. One out of three things may happen: either we start to reflect upon our lives and figure out what really matters, make changes and transform. This is a moment of Meaningness. When we are no longer held back by our anxieties but venture out from the comfort of our prisons.”
Then, at its worst and nothing helps,
Break as in rejoice the buds of the tree.
Then, when no fear no longer holds,
down in a glitter the twig’s drops plunge
forgetting being scared by what’s new
forgetting that they feared the journey –
feeling for a second their main security,
rests in that trust
that builds the world
Notme: “Or we replace the romantic goals we are striving for, the romantic notions that we have associated with our cultur-saviness and identity, by something equally romantic and thingifying.”
tMe: “Basically a midlife crisis? I thought the conventional wisdom with a midlife crisis is that we realise for the first time that we will die: our timeglass is half-empty.”
Notme: “Nonsense, we are no more or less aware of death when we are in our 30s or in our 60s as long as we are of good health. The identity crisis usually happens when we are middleaged because that is how long it takes to forget our anxieties and see through our nonsense romanticism.”
tMe: “And in this case it means something like getting a fancy car, a young lover, or do some adventurous travelling, or what not?”
Notme: “Yes, this outcome lacks Sincere Engagement even for a moment, it’s just striving for another attractive role within the culture motivated by fear of pain. It is somehow acknowledging the fact that the role that has been chosen for us made other roles impossible, and it is a way to explore those other roles. Not turning ourselves into persons but turning ourselves into different things.”
tMe: “Isn’t that also true for the the reflective meaningness you mentioned first? You conform to a role that’s seen like more authentic and meaningful, but that could be equally romantic, right? Only in a way which is perceived as more mature. Or you could become religious, right?”
Notme: “Sure, and then we settle in a more comfortable prison than before… ” She became quiet.
tMe: “Ok, you said there were three outcomes, you mentioned meaningness and midlife crisis. What’s the third?”
Notme: “It’s what happens when the first options are not available to us. If we are kept in a perpetual state of insecurity, there will never be room for reflection. Or if our transformations are kept from our control. This is put into systematic use both in workplaces and in society as a whole. For example, if the hiring situation is uncertain, and people may get fired at any time, or the promotion criteria are kept vague, people tend to conform to the culture of the workplace. Or if our financial future is uncertain, we may have debt, dependents and no guarantee for a good pension plan, or maybe we are just poor, this creates a financial insecurity which makes us unlikely to reflect. It sustains insecurities. Or you may be in a context of rigid hierarchies.”
tMe: “So in a society with large financial inequality, people become less reflective?”
Notme: “Of course! The risk of being reflective becomes much greater.”
tMe: “Also, if you have dependents taking a risk doesn’t only mean a risk for you, but also those depending on you financially, right?”
Notme: “There is always some punishment for breaking the norms of a culture. So then, if we reflect on our lives despite this, instead of transforming we develop a cynicism. We do not change anything except the attitude by which we do things, and a cynical attitude is the polar opposite of Meaningness; we know that what we are doing lack meaning and purpose, but we still do it out of fear for what the alternatives would entail.”
tMe: “What about depression? Isn’t that when you feel that all is meaningless?”
Notme: “Yes! If we do not manage to distract ourselves in this cynical state, we become depressed. Or depression may be the first outcome of a crisis that later leads to meaningness.”
tMe: “Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rhye, who thinks everyone is a Phoney?”
Notme: “In a way, but he was an adolescent watching the fake way the culture savvy adults were behaving. His perspective was from the outside, he had not conformed into the culture he was observing.”
Nick Cave: “But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from the known person to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognise the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person?”1
Notme: “Often the crisis is triggered by an event out of the ordinary shaking us out of our comfort, such as a break-up, a death, or children moving out of the house.”
tMe: “Do you think Meaningness helps against depression?”
Every year, one million people commit suicide.
Ntme: “Yes, I know it does, from my own experience. I’ve been depressed several times and it took me into different directions. Then I had an existential crisis which lead me into this search for Meaningness.”
I surprised myself by saying:
otMe: “I know what you mean. When everything seems meaningless, when food lacks taste and you don’t see colour anymore… or I mean, the flavour and colours are there, it’s just that you don’t care. Same for people. That’s when you also start to look for a way out, try other things and crave some sort of meaning. Tried to be “cool” as I saw it, since I was a pretty dorky teenager, tried to live up to those ideals. Some deranged idea of masculinity, seeks confirmation from men through women… It’s sick, I know… Spent most of my spare time and money in bars… Alcohol makes me feel good about myself.”
Nme: “What about your job? I thought that was going well?”
notMe: “No, that wasn’t going anywhere at the time…”
me: “Didn’t you have friends?”
netoM: “Not really, I mean drinking buddies I spent time with, not people I cared for.”
MNeot: “Because you did not let them care for you, or because that’s how they were?”
etoNeM: “I guess it was mostly me, they probably were closer to each other. Maybe… And they all had partners. I tried a relationship too, I mean, romantic couple-relationship, but I think I just wanted one so that I looked good… to fit in and feel normal”
I was short of breath, and blew my nose.
Nemnot: “What happened?”
emnoNet: “Of course she broke up, who can be together with someone who doesn’t care?”
meM: “… and the breakup took you into a crisis, right?” I shook my head.
enotM: “No, that came later… After I moved.”
mNote: “Yes, moving can also force you out of your comfort. Have lived in many countries on several continents, so I know this feeling of belonging everywhere and yet not quite anywhere.” With a sweeping hand gesture: “I must confess I still don’t feel much connected to this place despite living here for a few years now.”
Nostalgia is a longing for the world in which we became culture savvy, for a comfort no longer available to us. And were we to return to the place of our becoming, it has changed and there is no longer comfort available to us there.
MoNtem: “Taken away from our context, we find it hard to experience comfort, which adds to the sense of insecurity.”
teMmNoe: “But it also helps us see our insecurity, right? I mean when you are in an unfamiliar place, it becomes noticeable?”
enMetom: “Yes, but it only translates into Meaningness if we are open to it. Open to embracing the discomfort. Curious about where we are, who we are there, and whom we are there with.”
I took a deep breath and collected myself.
tMe: “Anyway, you were saying about Meaningness? Does it make you better? As a person?”
To be Human is to be wounded.
Next part: A Good Person or a Good Life?
TT, Thinking of Things, 2017