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


Part I: Of Stuff and Persons                   Part II: A Free Prisoner
Part III: A Life without Distractions      Part IV: On being Authentic
Part V: On Crisis and Friendship           Part VII: The Meaningness of Meaningness?
Part VIII: A Leap of Faith

Part VI: A Good Person or a Good Life?

Once upon a time our land was ruled by a queen. She had three children. The oldest child followed the queen’s every bidding and listened to her every word with grave seriousness, for she worshipped the queen as a God. And the queen was pleased. The youngest child infantilised the queen for she saw her as an old hasbeen who did not understand today’s world. To her face, she told the queen what she imagined that the queen wanted to hear, while behind the queen’s back she was only heeding to her own wants and needs. And the queen was pleased. It was the middle child who troubled the queen, for this child treated her as a person. And the queen was discomforted, so she banished her middle child. And so on and so forth. And so the queen-thing lived happily ever after.

To be human is to be wounded.

There was a noisy argument at the next table. The business people were very angry at our waiter for some reason. It upset me, how could they behave so entitled, ours was a great waiter, and they probably made her monthly salary in a couple of days! I was considering telling them a well chosen word or two, but instead turned back to my friend.
tMe: “So, does Meaningess make you a better person? Better than all the people that treat themselves as things, are they then lesser than those who treat themselves as persons?”
Ntme: “No, we are all persons. Just more or less driven by our insecurity. Meaningness is not absolute. In that sense there are no such thing as better or worse people, just more or less driven by our insecurities with more or less awareness of it. But we all have insecurities and we all have prejudice.”
Cato: “For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already … similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.”1
tMe: “Reminds me of what Socrates said, that people are not evil only ignorant.”
Ntme: “But that is contradictory. How can ignorance excuse anyone with a decent internet connection? No matter how much information is available to us, and how much knowledge we possess, we may still be insecure. Meaningness is an attitude, which we can have with or without knowledge, so ignorance does really not have anything to do with it. It sounds as arrogant as talking about the unthinking masses, or such nonsense.”
tMe: “So we should feel sorry for bad people?”
Ntme: “No, we should certainly not pity anyone at all! On the contrary: We need to treat everyone as persons, especially those who treat themselves as things, and that means that we have to hold them responsible for any harm they cause!”
tMe: “So what are the virtues of Meaningness? Insecurity is the vice, right?”
Ntme: “I don’t know, never thought of it in those terms, seems to be missing the point… It’s not about virtue or vice, it is not framed in that language and does not attempt to answer those questions. To come up with a set of virtues would only be another romantic goal to thingify ourselves by. Why do you ask this kind of questions?
tMe: I guess I’ve been reading too much about the ancient Greeks lately…
Ntme: “Maybe you should no.”
tMe: “Maybe you should.”
Ntme: “Yes, maybe.”
tMe: “Anyway, let’s reframe the question thenI think that what I’m asking is: If you sincerely engage in yourself and others, is it still possible to do harm? To be evil?”
Ntme: Again, ‘Evil’ is a term I would not use, it is too relative in too many ways. However, there are different ways to inflict harm and to hurt people, both socially and physically. Either you do it with or without intent, with different levels of awareness of the consequences of your actions. And we all participate in political and social systems which are harmful to some people to some degree, so we are all implicated. It’s unavoidable. So, no, sincere engagement is not a recipe for being a ‘good’ person. But it does signal an attempt to being a person, and as such being responsible and culpable. And hopefully it is a way for finding meaningness with eachother.”
tMe: “Ah, I see… So it’s not a recipe for being a good person, but possibly for living a good life!”
Ntme: “Hmmm… yes, maybe.”
I suddenly noticed that the bill was placed in a small black faux leather folder in front of me. I mean, this impeccable waiter–how good can one be at one’s job! While Notme was talking, I opened the folder to glance at the bill. Something was not right, I looked closer. We seemed to have been overcharged by quite a bit, for many items that we had not bought at all. I turned around to look for our waiter, she was at the other end of the mezzanine, she turned her back towards us. Not to cause a fuss, I put the amount into the folder, it had been a pleasant experience after all. I returned to the conversation with no idea what Notme had just said.
tMe: “OK, so answer me this: Why are romantic ideas and ambitions such a bad idea? To have a project, to strive for a goal, can’t that in itself be a source for transformation? Doesn’t that challenge your prejudice?”
Ntme: “Sure, it may.”
tMe: “So, isn’t that a good thing?”
Ntme: “Not if our goal is itself formed by our prejudice and romantic aspirations. So if we are Sincerely Engaging our prejudice, our romantic aspirations will also be challenged and the goal will disappear. We are really separating between two kinds of projects here: those with goals and those without. When following romantic aspirations we want to transform in order to stop transforming, engage so that we may one day stop engaging. But that is to also become a thing again. And once the goal is reached? It will never live up to expectations and eventually disappoint, and we realise that it was the process of getting there which felt meaningful. But if the goal stems from our prejudice, so will the process, we start to make compromises, do things not for the sake of doing them but for the sake of reaching that goal, we start to use people as instruments for that goal, which is cynical and insincere.”
tMe: “But you have already said that sincere engagements don’t happen by themselves, don’t you need to put yourself into situations where you challenge your prejudice and your comfort? Can’t these projects then be a way to achieve that?”
Ntme: “Yes, we need to put ourselves in challenging situations, but not into projects based on insecurity.”
tMe: “That sounds like a paradox. What you are saying is that in order to get rid of our insecurities we need to be rid of our insecurities. And you keep saying that you need other people to achieve it, aren’t you treating them like instruments towards your own goal then?”
Ntme: “I do not think there is a paradox here. Yes, the goal is goalless transformations. But is that not a different kind of goal, than say, becoming an Olympic gold medalist? Meaningness is a statement about projects, rather than itself being a project. It is a method.”
tMe: “That doesn’t make sense. Why can’t you just admit that Meaningness can be treated like a goal to strive for and get over the idea that there can’t be such a thing?”
Ntme: “Because that’s what Meaningness is all about: that there is no goal to strive for, to do that would be insincere, and demand cynical compromises! It is the method and the process which is the goal.”
tMe: “So there is a goal! And you need to make compromises then also, right? And quite big ones at that! You need to give up on your painfully achieved comfort; your identity and aspirations, maybe the ones you’ve had since childhood! Are those not also compromises?”
Ntme: “…”
tMe: “Isn’t Meaningness what you think of as the good life? So shouldn’t you wanna strive towards this? For example to make sure that you’re in situations that enables sincere engagements with yourself and other people? Or to get away from situations that forces you to be cynical? And if you make sure to be surrounded by people who challenge you, don’t you to some extent also use these people?”
Ntme: “And I would challenge them, if I engage with them sincerely, so they would also use me. What you say seems to stem from an individualistic idea of a good life, but Meaningness is built together.”
tMe: “Even so, it is a goal with compromises.”
Ntme: “Maybe… but I am not convinced. ”
It certainly seems as if tMe has a point here, doesn’t it? It almost becomes a logical contradiction, like claiming that there is no absolute truth. Is that an absolute truth? The goal is a goal-less project…

Next part: The Meaningness of Meaningness?

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2017