Time, memory, and the pursuit of meaningness.
Wherein, during a conversation in the park, things melt
We were out for a walk, as so many times before, Notme and I, and a long time had passed since the last time we did. It was just the kind of a splendid summer’s day I enjoy so much, not a cloud in the sky. We were surrounded by an ever changing flock of joggers as we arrived at the meadow with the pond I had visited so often before. Somehow I did not enjoy it as much as I thought that I would, nor as much as I remember enjoying the exact same conditions in the past. Somehow it felt like a repetition.
Me: “When we age, time appears to go faster and faster as things lose their novelty. In the end we have experienced so much that we die from boredom. Dying of old age is a myth.”
Notme: “That is why people have children, to see the world anew through the eyes of the little ones.”
Me: “Sure. And then grandchildren. After a while even that is not enough to add novelty to the world. All you have left is nostalgia, nothing tastes good any more. And then you are bored and die.”
Noun: A longing for enjoying things once found enjoyable. E.g. Music.
Me: “We try to be happy, we want to be happy, but are ultimately unable to hold on to the happiness, and are left nostalgic, longing for the time when we were happy.”
Milan Kundera: “And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”1
Notme: “Bah! That’s only really a problem if you think happiness is important!”
Me: “Of course it is important! I mean, that’s what it’s all about. Everyone wants to be happy.”
Notme: “Happiness… What is happiness anyway? It’s a drug, that’s what it is.”
Me: “Listen, I’ve read a lot about this. There is a whole field of economics which describes itself as happiness research. For a couple of decades now they have been asking people all over the world how happy they are on a scale from one to ten. Then they try to see what it is in people’s lives that correlate with their happiness. They release the ‘World Happiness Report’. The country of Bhutan has replaced GDP as a measure of the country’s success with a Gross National Happiness index. You can learn a lot about what makes us happy from this research. It’s actually quite fascinating. ”
Notme: “Do you know what would happen if the researchers asked enough people completely at random? They would find that being high on your favourite drug is what best correlates with happiness. Does that mean that Bhutan should start giving heroin to their population? Huh? Does it?”
Me: “I don’t think there is anything wrong with understanding what makes us happy.”
Notme: “Sure. Except that it completely misses the point. If it was happiness we were after, drugs would be a very good option, we would all have free access to heroin and shoot it all the time. Or hook us up on neuro-stimulators that kept our pleasure centres in the brain perpetually active. In fact, that’s basically what we are doing already: We’re choking on happiness!”
Me: “Drugs don’t make us happy, we know that.”
Notme: “Oh no, drugs can make us very happy, at least for a while. A nice kick of pure joy. Drugs are just as meaningless as the happiness they provide.”
Me: “So you think we should take drugs?”
Notme: “Only if we pursue happiness, which I don’t.”
Me: “So, what should we pursue then, if not happiness? This meaningness of yours?”
Notme: “It’s meaningness that matters. “
We sat down on a bench in the shade which overlooked the pond and the picnic blankets beyond it. A jogger taking a break was feeding the mallards for some reason, while hip hop music was pumping out of her headphones.
Notme: “To lead a meaningful life means to be happy at times and sad at times, and content much of the time. One can lead a perfectly happy life, without anything meaningful in it what so ever. Happiness may come as a consequence of meaningness, but it is not the goal in itself. It is just that, sometimes a consequence of a greater goal. To pursue happiness is a shortcut which undermines the entire pursuit to begin with. By focusing on happiness we forget to look for the real deal–meaningness. It’s like watching porn instead of having sex–sex without intimacy!”
I don’t know why but I felt slightly uncomfortable by the turn this conversation had taken. I had an urge to use my smart phone, but there was no reception in this part of the park. Instead I let my friend’s words flow over me.
Notme: “To pursue happiness is to pursue the drugs of our minds, distractions that feed us in the moment. And when the moment has passed, we seek it anew, as an addict looking for the next high, no time to pause, to contemplate, always after the next rush, the newest song, TV-series, great deal, even book. Living in nextopia. That’s the risk of free choice; if we use it poorly we take short-cuts to the latest distractions instead of pursuing meaningness. Seeking distractions, pursuing happiness, it’s all pointless.”
Now I understood what annoyed me about the conversation: Notme was indirectly complaining about me and my outlook on life. I found her indirectness almost passive aggressive, but I did not confront her about it. Instead I lit a cigarette. Notme seemed to gaze into the distance. I looked in the same direction, but did not see anything in particular. Maybe she was trying to figure out which song the bird feeder was listening to so generously?
Me: “But what does meaningness mean anyway? And how can you tell the difference between that and happiness? After all, time goes the fastest when you are happy.”
Notme: “The goal can hardly be to make time pass as fast as possible! You can be perfectly happy for a month, and it felt like a day, or you can be deeply engaged in something for a week that will change who you are forever, and it will feel like a year. Nothing makes the hours pass as fast as deep engagement with something (or someone) new. And nothing makes the weeks pass as fast as habitual repetitions.“
Me: “Nah, life is like a plaster: rip it off in one go and have it over with. Routines, habits, and escapism seem perfect for getting us there as quickly as possible. There is too much boredom to have it drag on for too long.”
She ignored me.
Notme: “Moments of deep engagement stick to our minds and memory, those moments stand out. Moments that are more significant are remembered when they have passed. Even if those moments flew by while they happened, they elongate in retrospect. In contrast, moments filled with habitual repetition, as slow or fast as they may seem in the making, hardly leave any mark at all, and hence all but disappear in retrospect. A day of boredom may seem like forever, but is quickly forgotten. Therefore it is easy to mistake novelty as something important, since the new stands out in retrospect in a similar way as what is deeply engaging. And we get sidetracked into a search for novelty, looking for nextopia. But novelty is not the same as meaningness. What has meaningness will retain it when revisited, mere novelty will be lost.“
Georges Bataille: “In common conditions, time is annulled, enclosed within the permanence of forms or of changes which are foreseen. Movements inscribed within an order arrest time, which they freeze in a system of measures and equivalences.”2
Me: “I don’t know about that, some of my fondest memories I have are of the routines I shared with friends and partners, or family while growing up. In a way, it’s the ‘habitual repetitions’ that make up those memories.”
Notme: “A habit is a way to do something without wasting energy and attention. A good habit may therefore work as a vessel to be filled with meaningness. Is your fondness for those memories due to the routines themselves or what you associate with them?”
Me: “I’m not sure I can separate one from the other. I like my routines. And what does that have to do with being happy? Time goes fast when we are happy, and slow when we are bored, right? So, fast moving time is a good thing!”
Notme: “To live is to travel in time, a second per second, but time is only linear in the moment it happens. Its passage is experienced through the memories that are left, at a pace set by what remains. The passage of time occurs in the retrospect. To remember is also to travel in time.”
That reminded me of something that happened to me once when I was a teenager and at a disco. I clearly remember time slowing down to an almost standstill, as a fist occurred in extreme slow-motion in the periphery of my field of vision. The fist went on and hit me hard on the head. It was weird, because despite the fact that it was moving so extremely slow, I did not manage to evade it. Is that how it happened then, or is it only how I experience it in the retrospect? Was that a very meaningful moment then?
A similar thing happened to a child named David Eagleman. He stepped too close to the edge of a roof under construction and fell. He was so fascinated by the experience of time slowing down during the fall that he, as an adult, decided to investigate what happens in such a perceived life threatening situation. He designed an experiment where he equipped the brave test subjects with a perceptional chronometer, a device which looks like a wrist watch but flashes digits so fast that they are only just barely impossible to make out. The theory was that the test-subjects, when placed in a perceived situation of mortal danger, would experience time as going slower, and then be able to make out the digits on their perceptional chronometers.
He equipped his test subjects and made them do SCAD-diving. It is like bungee jumping, only without a cord (you land in a net). The experiment was successful insofar as it led to insights in what happens when time is perceived to slow down. None of the test subjects were able to make out any of the digits on their wrist watches. When asked how long they thought the three second fall was, the test subjects would guess on average 30% longer than that. They would accurately guess the time of other people’s falls, but their own would have elongated. So it seems that during the fall, to them time did not slow down, only in retrospect did the event seem to have taken longer than it actually did. Eagleman’s explanation: In such important moments the brain stores more memories than usual, which, in retrospect, makes time seem slower.
Chris Marker: “Moments to remember are just like other moments. They are only made memorable by the scars they leave.”3
Notme: “The pursuit of meaningness is connected with the pursuit of time. The difference is that the latter we pursue like a lioness an antelope, the aim is to kill and devour it. To this effect we surround ourselves with entertainment and distractions. TV-shows designed to distract us from doing anything meaningful, perfectly crafted to make the weeks disappear. We read novels designed with the only quality that we cannot stop reading them because we need to know what is going to happen next, instead of caring about what we are reading right now. TV-shows, movies, books, etc. designed to grab our interests without giving us more than escapism in return are just as meaningful as drugs, and their appeal is very similar. These are the things that make both the hours and the weeks pass by without notice.”
Me: “So I shouldn’t watch so much TV? I shouldn’t read thrillers? That sounds too boring to me.”
Notme: “The quality of an experience is not measured by how happy it makes us, neither by its ability to alleviate us from boredom, but by the shape and the depth of the mark that it leaves, and mere entertainment leaves no marks. If the only mark which is left is that of novelty, this mark will fade when the experience is revisited, the novelty will be lost. If this was all we sought we will lead the bored life of the nostalgic. And time will go faster and faster as we age, novelty lost.”
Me: “Ah, c’mon! It’s not that bad to binge watch several seasons of a TV-series, or lose oneself in an entertaining novel. Or even do some drugs! I even enjoy feeling the ache for a cigarette when I haven’t smoked in a while, and then I certainly do enjoy the satisfaction of dragging the first warm smoke into my lungs. Are you saying that the pleasure I get from this is meaningless?”
Notme: “Imagine how much more you would enjoy heroin then. I can imagine ways in which the use of drugs has meaningness, but it’s never in the drugs themselves, nor in the happiness they provide. For example, smoking cigarettes can be a strategy for socialising and a context for interpersonal connections. That is also true for the drugs of the soul we call entertainment.”
Me: “It just sounds very boring to me. When I come home after work I’m too tired for something intellectual.”
Notme: “Something doesn’t have to be boring just because it has meaningful content, quite the opposite actually! Just like habits can be a vessel for meaningness, so can entertainment. However, much entertainment produced today takes short-cuts to our emotional responses without containing any meaningness. Then, what is left is shallow and empty, mere opiates.”
Me: “Fine, but sometimes I’m too tired after working all day and I just want to space out with some mindless meaningless TV. Sometimes I want to relax with a drink and mindless banter with a friend after a long exhausting day, and not always get stuck in these conversations with you.”
Notme: “In that case, maybe you should rethink your job situation.”
Despite my annoyance with Notme, I was starting to enjoy the conversation, far removed from any artificial entertainment as we were, just two friends in the park philosophising and discussing. And obviously the exchange left a mark within me, since I am able to narrate it here to you. But how accurate can my memory of it really be? Is it not inevitable that in my retelling of the occasion I also enhance its value, somehow turning myself and Notme into characters in some sort of escapism of nostalgia? Was the weather that day really so perfectly pleasant? Was all this taking place on one single occasion, or have I somehow condensed many conversations into one? It’s as if in the retelling I turn it into a conversation between Me, Notme, and I–and now you as well.
Notme: “Are you so afraid of elongating the hours that you no longer have the ability to be bored? There are always shallow distractions to dissipate any boredom. Boredom has the potential to be a great transformative force, a motivator for meaningful activity, to search for new paths, to seek out new company, to make changes in one’s life. And you only have one life, remember. Instead, we distract ourselves because we can. Only those of us with a propensity for depression can reach the state of undistracted reflection, for which simple boredom would otherwise suffice. Ironically, depression renders us without the initiative to use boredom as a vehicle for meaningness.”
Franz Kafka: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy[…]? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”4
Notme: “If we try to pursue happiness before all else we soon start to treat each other as drugs as well. We don’t need friendships and companionships to make us happy. We don’t need each other to get distracted as you seem to think. We need to deeply engage with each other. When we confuse friendship with familiarity, when we don’t engage meaningfully with our near and dear, our very essence becomes repeated habits, and the sea within us freezes to ice down to its bottom. This makes both the hours and the weeks pass by without notice. And we die scarred by but a few moments.”
Me: “Let’s get ice cream!”
We went and got ice cream. Each conversation between people who engage in each other and each other’s ideas have the ability to transform us, and this was, without me really realising it, one such conversation. Even if the frozen sea of habits and strategies for existence within me were not exactly smashed by an axe, they at least started to melt a bit as I was struggling to eat the ice cream faster than it could turn into liquid in its cone in my hand. What Notme told me, and was still to tell me, would stick and grow within me, and slowly but steadily make me realise that there is more to life than happiness, because there is more to life than meaning. There is meaningness. But in order for me to start to understand what exactly meaningness is, I first needed to start to better understand who I really am. I had to understand my own insecurities which I had built as a wall between me and any notion of meaningness. I must allow myself to transform. What do you think, reader? How important are distractions and escapism? How important is it to get scarred by the moments we go through? Are you, as Notme, grappling after an axe for the frozen sea within you?
Next Episode: (trans)formations–On being a bit of filth
Question: A recent scientific report seems to dent the notion that happiness makes us healthier. Instead the researchers found that meaningness has a much stronger correlation for health (at least when it comes to gene-expressions). If the pursuit of meaningness does not turn out to generate health, will that make it any less desirable?
A description of the report by Esfahani Smith in “the Atlantic”: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/meaning-is-healthier-than-happiness/278250/
David Eagleman describes and links to many of his time perception research on his homepage: http://www.eagleman.com
Listen to Radiolab on how memories work. They explain how a memory become malleable the moment we try to access it.5 http://www.radiolab.org/story/91569-memory-and-forgetting/
Esfahani Smith wrote another article on the same theme earlier. Having a baby does not make us happier, but it makes our lives seem more meaningful:
Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (on which Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” is based):
Film (26 mins.): http://vimeo.com/42460300
English Script: http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~felluga/sf/ScriptLaJetee.html
World Happiness Report 2013:
The concept of Nextopia was stolen from the economist Micael Dahlen who wrote a book with that name in 2009. The book investigates the consumerist obsession with what comes next.
TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.