WARNING: This is a very personal essay that includes potentially triggering, childish views of an arrogant past!me, a lot of narrative, long literary tangents, and incredibly brash use of the Oxford comma. If you wish to cut straight to the useful parts, scroll down to Big Letter Headings.
For a long time I felt like my life suspiciously lacked any meaning. I looked at the people around me and shuddered with disgust: they were doing regular people things, like going to work, buying groceries, hanging out with their friends, and binging shows on Netflix.
This didn’t mesh well with my idea of what a meaningful-and-thus-enjoyable life looked like: a Sacred Pursuit of your Ideals, not settling for anything less than Perfection, giving it all to the One True Cause, Howard Roark style. My model of Purpose predicted other people to be unhappy, and at first this, indeed, was my assumption.
“God,” I thought, “these people must hate themselves, feeling empty and shallow like the dead husks of human beings they are.”
In hindsight, this was a blatant case of typical-minding, since, of course, my life was also a perfect fit for my description of their existence.
I have been waging a perpetual war with akrasia for many years now, drowning my consciousness in a never-ending stream… of… Twitch streams, reaching Diamond V in League of Legends on numerous occasions, masturbating a dozen times a day, and, yes, hating every second of it. That is, whenever I actually had the rare moments of awareness to notice what the everloving fuck was happening to my life, which usually devolved into a mildly depressed state coupled with idle suicidal ideation, until the sloppy swamp of distraction swallowed me back inside.
The people, of course, were happy anyways. Because people don’t care what other people think shouldn’t be so.
I remember one of the moments when I noticed the feeling of aliveness. Here’s a note from my Google Keep that I scribbled back then, right on the spot.
25/05/17 12:10 AM
I feel at peace. The storm clouds fill up almost every corner of the sky up above, leaving only a few blue spots out. The storm is in the air, too. The surrounding buildings, trees, cars are painted in muted, warm colors. All kinds of different feelings mix inside me, but there is one overarching theme. "This is life". The thought is reassuring, like the hand of somebody dear to you on your shoulder. "This is life".
My life was sprinkled with these moments, a pinch here, a smidgen there. The feelings were different: the quiet glow of pride after doing a complete clean up of my room was nothing like the overwhelming surge of joy that came from gazing into the eyes of someone very dear to my heart. In some of the moments I would also get the thought along the lines of “This, this is what makes life worth living!”, but it was a fragile feeling, and it would take no longer than several hours for it to shatter completely, turn into dust, and get scattered away by the metaphorical wind.
Remember when I said that the people were actually happy? Or, err, at least not as unhappy with their lives as they should’ve been? Realizing that was Stage Two of my Awakening. The disgust didn’t go away, it got redirected. Sometimes it would band together with righteous fury.
Now, at this point my childishness had rubbed off a little bit, and these thoughts were no longer endorsed. My S1 and S2 stood opposed to each other, clashing their weapons in a dance of an inner conflict. I was very embarrassed by my instantaneous emotional reactions and started developing insecurity around potentially getting branded as a narcissist. Adopting a charitable attitude towards others that drew on Nate Soares's ideas and DBT’s core assumptions turned out to be a good band-aid, but a band-aid nonetheless, a second-order imposition. The first response would still be disgust.
Some of my newer interests included stuff like meditation and phenomenology, which happily harmonized with my natural introspective inclinations. Wandering around in the Inner Cathedral of the Mind was engrossing, the path seemed to be full of ripe insight merely waiting to be plucked from the dendrite branches of the surrounding architecture.
At the same time, the periods of clarity and subsequent depressive episodes became more frequent, the distractions losing their power over me. I labeled the depressive feeling as “rot”, because it felt like lying down on hot sand in a desert, unable to move, the sun slowly decomposing your flesh, the maggots festering in the open wounds all over your body, the flies’ irritating buzzing penetrating your ears, the vultures circling high in the blue sky. Observing yourself withering away and doing nothing about it.
I came back to pondering the age-old question of meaning. Wielding my newly obtained tools and having blown dust off the old ones, I tried zooming in on the problem once again. What do I mean when I say that X is meaningful? What experiences does a meaningful life predict? When did I last feel meaning in my life? The answer was a series of mental experiences drawn from memories, a colorful variety of emotional impressions.
I sat with it for a moment.
Then another moment passed.
This felt utterly devastating. If Purpose was found this easily, in mere dishwashing, then I didn’t want to be a part of this atrocious monkey circus called the Human Condition. If optimizing for Meaning meant guiltless enjoyment of sleepover parties or solving math problems of moderate difficulty, then nothing had meaning, and all that was left is to calmly sit down and, trying hard to ignore your shaking hands, stare into the bottomless Abyss of Nihilism.
Unless, of course, I was missing something here.
And guess what?
The Bucket Error
In my model of Purpose, Ambition and Perfectionism equated with Meaning. The only way to live a worthwhile life, according to the model, was fusing with a Goal of Cyclopean Scale, then proceeding to achieve it or die trying. When reality turned out to be different, that was a massive hit to my epistemology.
Both Meaning and Ambition were important values to me, but now optimizing for one of them meant abandoning the other, a zero-sum game. Except that it didn't have to be one. In fact, trying to optimize for all of my values, including Fun and Friendship and Romance and Reading Haruki Murakami’s Novels Every Night, was more ambitious than just settling for mere Ambition, as paradoxically as that might sound.
Still, something didn’t feel right. A part of me still had the uncanny desire to sacrifice literally everything on the bloody altar of Raising the Sanity Waterline or something, it sought some kind of desperate finality. Which brings us to...
Howard Roark wouldn’t last a fucking year in the real world. If someone actually attempted to mimic his behavior and stay faithful to his value system, they would probably burn out completely in nine months or so, develop a crippling alcoholism problem, and get tortured by nightmares of, shivers, breaking their integrity by finally giving in and going to that night club to take part in, as Rand would put it, “...the jerky, disorganized movements of what looks like decentralized bodies”. Roark gets away with it, because he’s a romanticized hero, just like all the other ones glaring at us from TV screens or pages of novels. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you're made of flesh and blood, not paper and ink.
No, life won’t always feel like the rookie training timelapse sequence from Disney’s Mulan. If you go full self-sacrifice, you will die, full stop. Actual heroes don’t chase the bullshit narrative, they have a fucking world waiting to be saved. If this means tending to all your values in order to avoid burnout, then so be it.
Winning is the only thing that matters.
Winning is the only thing that matters.
Winning is the only thing that matters.