Constraints can be cruel, arbitrary, stupid, unfair, unkind, damaging, crushing, painful, horrifying. The idea of wishing constraints on somebody (apart from unique situations where it would be obviously beneficial) generally seems like a hateful thing to do. And the idea of wishing constraints on yourself… seems like some sort of bizarre self-flagellation, or perhaps a manifestation of guilt, from enjoying privileges that others don’t have, and squandering them.
I’ve also often thought that we romanticize death because we don’t know how to stop it or fix it. As Asimov demonstrated with The Last Question, even if we figure out how to immortalize ourselves, we aren’t likely to figure out how to immortalize the Universe that we live in. We don’t know how to reverse entropy in the absolute sense– the Universe will die. Everything will end, as far as we can tell. So we romanticize it, with statements like “Death is the greatest invention of Life”. And there are all these interesting, nuanced points to be made– “so long as men die, liberty will never perish”, Charlie Chaplin said in his monologue in The Dictator. And Steve Jobs said, in his commencement speech,
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
And he goes on to say…
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”
I’m inclined to agree, though I wonder if we’d change our minds if we could actually escape death (if that statement were ever meaningful).
So it feels here like there are two sets of considerations– how to live knowing that we will die, and what to think about death if it were something that could be solvable (it doesn’t seem completely implausible, at least, compared to things like time travel).
I guess for the context of this vomit I’ll begin with the assumption that we have no choice but to die– it’s the likeliest outcome, so it’s worth preparing for. Death is the ultimate constraint, and we have to learn to live with it. If we are to experience joy, we are to experience it within the context of a looming death. That’s the big picture.
I wanted to think more about the little pictures though. Day to day life. Of living with constraints and working with them. In the context of these word vomits, I’m choosing to constrain myself to writing 1000 sets of 1000 words, just because. It won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and it probably won’t matter even in relatively smaller schemes of things, but it’s something I’d like to do. It’s a self-imposed constraint. But it feels like a constraint that will allow me to push myself further as a writer, to challenge myself, to grow and learn. And that’s a sort of joy.
Beyond the constraint of the word vomit project itself, I have the constraints of everyday life. I have work to do, and my to-do list is effectively infinite. I think everybody’s is. The list of books I want to read. The list of movies I want to watch. The list of people I want to meet and have conversations with and spend evenings with. All of these lists are infinite, and I’m constrained by the fact that I have 24 hours in a day, and some number of years left before I die.
If there is to be joy, it needs to be found within constraints. Despite constraints. And perhaps… FROM constraints. I’m just feeling that right now in this moment, even if it seems silly.
I wouldn’t wish damaging, hurtful constraints upon myself or anybody else. I don’t want to suffer crippling pain or loss, and I don’t want to have to go through those things in order to experience a more exalted existence. Though I think it’s definitely worth recognizing that people who experience pain, hardship, difficulty, etc do seem to do just that. There’s selection and survivor bias, of course. It seems probable that most people who experience ridiculous pain go on to perish or suffer immeasurably with nothing beautiful to show for it. It’s a small subset of people who thrive under that pressure and produce diamonds, and I’m not sure if the literature/evidence suggests that that’s a possibility open to everybody.
I must admit I do sometimes fantasize about experiencing some sort of crushing, painful loss. I do it as a sort of… thought experiment. I think about the deaths of my loved ones. I imagine getting into a car accident and being crushingly paralysed, disfigured, and so on. What will I do after that? If I can write, I think I’ll still write.
This whole thing got a little more dramatic than I wanted to go, but I’ll just go with the flow. I wanted to think about how… it often seems like we’ve been conditioned to live without properly recognizing or acknowledging the constraints that are already all around us.
I was thinking for a long time, why is it that so few startups or businesses etc seem to grasp the importance of solving one very, very specific problem very well? Why are so many people tempted to write business plans that are overly vague and generic, that claim to do all sorts of things? Why do we write that way in general?
My guess is that we were trained to do so in school. Teachers aren’t allowed to say, “write something that’s really moving and compelling, something that you really believe to be true.” That’s what people like Hemingway say, and they figure that out, probably, because they’ve been working at the boundaries.
Yeah, that’s my question– why is so much of everything so shitty? I think it’s because people look at the world with the wrong lens. And to go back to Jobs’s Harvard commencement speech– it’s obvious that he wrote those things at least partially because he wanted to tell a great story about himself and his life. It’s an exercise in myth-building. But the central idea– that he thought he was going to die, and he wanted to do something meaningful within that constraint– I think that’s quite legitimate.
I think beautiful things happen because people are mindful of constraints. We write better when we realize that readers are busy and impatient. We live better when we know we’re going to die. Maybe that’s why there are stories about angels and elves and heavenly beings etc being envious of man, who seems to live so intensely (at least, some of them do). If you’d live forever, you’d never really have a reason to do anything NOW.
I got the more big picture life-long perspective stuff out of the way in the last post, with death and life and all of that stuff. But what I really wanted to talk about I think, is what that looks like in daily life. I was talking to a friend (we’ve been friends maybe for 5 years now) and we talked about how we’ve actually been lucky enough to get quite a few of the things we thought we’d wanted, and yet we aren’t really that much happier for it. And in the toilet earlier I was reading How To Enjoy Your Life by Dale Carnegie (the joy of reading with constraints! :p), and he talked about how… the things to aim for in life are to get what you want, and then to enjoy that. And that only the wisest of people manage to do the latter. It’s consistent with Tony Robbins talking at TED about the science of achievement (lots of people manage) and the art of fulfillment (much fewer do).
I’d like to be reasonably accomplished and I’d like to be very fulfilled. I’d like to, as Robin Williams’ character said in that movie with the boys– Dead Poet’s Society– suck the marrow out of life. I’m very greedy in that regard. But this greed isn’t something that’s on 24/7. It’s itself constrained by tiredness, lethargy, a willingness to sort of give up, lay low, lie down and allow life to just happen. I’m too tired. I can’t keep pushing. I need rest.
There’s definitely a certain breathe-in-breathe-out, wax-on-wax-off taoist balance to that, but also I think… it’s a sort of energy problem. It’s a question of how much energy do we want to consume and how much do we want to expend? I’m going to get all bro-sciency here, none of this is fact– just hypotheticals. We know that human beings are fundamentally lazy. We don’t want to expend too much energy or effort. And this is understandable because for hundreds of thousands of years, the amount of energy we had access to was limited. (Constrained.) Today we have access to far more energy.
I’m thinking about this in a very literal sense– food! How much calories should a person consume and expend a day? What’s the difference between consuming AND expending very little, and consuming AND expending a lot? Suppose a person ate 1500 and expended 1500 calories– how would they be different from their twin brother who ate and expended 5000 calories a day? Physically, theoretically (with our oversimplistic calorie in, calorie out model), they should look similar. But I have a feeling the reality will be very different. “Energetically” they’ll be very different. The consciousness they’ll experience will be very different. Right? The lower calorie guy should be much more restful, he won’t move around as much. What does 5000 calories expended a day look like? Won’t you be able to do more reading, more working out, more playing chess (I remember reading about some chess grandmasters who lose a ton of weight during competitions, just from working their brains that hard.)
I guess… think about the difference between the average human and a performance athlete, and how that’s very obvious because it’s so physical, but then think about what it looks like in a mental sense. How a monk is different from (and/or similar to) a punk rocker. I have too many assorted thoughts right now to examine any single one too closely, but I’ll just keep running while I feel like running.
I’ve been eating better these past few days. I’ve been trying to have breakfast more. I drink a peanut butter / milk shake each morning, and it perks me up. It alerts my brain. It’s a level of awareness and clarity I didn’t have before. And I’m wondering what more could I do? What more could I access within myself? I don’t know. But I’d like to find out. I’d like to be more productive. I’d like to do more. I’ve always said these things, though there have been times where I didn’t feel them. There have been lots of times where I didn’t feel them. Sometimes I wonder if the only reason I write is because I want to remind myself, when I’m down, about what it’s like to be up. I want to hold myself accountable in some way, and I want to remind myself– look! Here there be global optimas! But I only see them when I’m mentally alert, clear, stimulated, deep breaths and endorphins and good stuff washing my brain.
Who would I be, though, without all the constraints and limitations that have made me who I am? I will never know, and I’m not too sure if that thought experiment will be particularly fruitful. That’s a meditation for a more idle time. This is an interesting moment for me right now, just to feel my thoughts coming out onto the screen, from my brain through my fingers. I’m in a relatively unique state, I’m very “good-anxious”. I’m not always like this. In fact, I’m almost a little sad how rarely I am like this anymore. I used to be more like this when I was younger, but I was also more hot-headed, less self-aware, more ignorant, less careful… so there’s a tradeoff. But I’d like to see more of this “energetic release” (broscience, I know. I’m using vague terms because I don’t know what the precise terms are. But I’m sure there’s stuff going on in my body and in my brain that’s a response to my different diet, to better sleep, and to me being more efficient at work that are giving me all these useful vibes that I’m going to learn to harness and use to my advantage).
It’s amusing to me, Ha Ha amusing, again how I feel like I’ve blitzed through a vomit without really cracking into anything of particular value. But that’s okay. Right now I just want to keep moving.
Let’s quickly try and summarize what’s been happening the past couple of vomits. In the first, I got into a bit about how death constrains life. In the second, I thought more about food and mental clarity and so on. What happens next? What goes on next? What comes after?
I guess the thing I want to analyze– and I KNOW I’ve written this before– is that I’m allowed to be big. I’m allowed to be loud, aggressive, masculine. I mean, it might not be appropriate in every single social context, I’ll have to learn to manage it artfully and use it when appropriate, and so on. But I’m allowed to take up space. I’m allowed to eat twice as much as I usually do. I’m allowed to write like a fucking forest fire if I want to. It might not be appropriate for some contexts, but if I feel like it’s something that I want to do, then it is something that I’m allowed to do. The constraints of reality are to be respected to the degree that they cannot be manipulated. But the constraints of the mind are to be disrespected, challenged, played with, fooled around with.
I will not be constrained by the limitations of my childhood thoughts and habits. I want to be constrained by the limits of reality. It might be the case that it’s not actually possible to well and truly “live life to the fullest” in the absolute sense of the word. We do still have limited energy in some way… right? I can’t simultaneously be the most prolific writer in the world AND be a professional athlete… or can I? Athletics is a complicated business because there are people with superior genetics, and everybody does doping, and there are things about our biology that we cannor yet alter.
But what are all the other limits and constraints in my life that are self-imposed, that I can simply either blaze through with excess energy (I’m using that phrase instead of “sheer force of will”, because I think will is limited by hunger and blood sugar and sleep and so on, and you can often break a person’s will except in really ridiculously exceptional cases, which are exceptional in ways I think that we don’t fully understand yet, and can’t reliably recreate) Either blaze through with excess energy, or dismantle with careful analysis and artful application of force.
Well… okay. Remove constraints why? So I can fully appreciate who I am within the actual constraints of reality, rather than constraints that are self-imposed. If I write a novel some day, I want it to be constrained by the limits of print, the limits of the english language, NOT by the limits of my own self-doubt and so on. Bla bla yes self-doubt is to some degree healthy and inescapable. But you get the idea. When we live life constrained by mental thoughts (I think usually designed to keep us “safe” in some way, though this can be awfully perverted and damaging), we fail to appreciate the actual constraints of life… maybe? I feel like I’m grasping wildly at this point, so I’ll just drop it.
All of this is in a way a reminder that if I manage my energy properly, I can and will burst my dams and explore the region outside of the box that I’m currently in. And that feeling is exhilrating. Growth is glorious. Being able to do more is powerful. It’s joyous. It allows me to manufacture happiness in a way that pure introspection somehow was never able to. (Again I think this is something about how the subconscious is wiser than the conscious dares to admit. The subconscious knows when we’re full of shit. Maybe. The reality is probably more complex, the relationship between conscious and subconscious is definitely more complex. But I’m just rolling with it, again.)
For me to be truly happy, beyond just sitting and breathing and appreciating life, and being grateful and being kind and compassionate towards myself and all that good stuff (which is a huge thing that I could spend a lifetime getting better at), I think I also need to be honest with myself about my real powers and what I actually have to offer the world. And myself. I feel like I’m going to sleep well tonight because of all this writing I’m doing. This is the third vomit in a row, after me spending over a couple of weeks not really writing very much. Why am I writing so much now? Something clicked in my head. The situation seems appropriate. My wife is in the shower, I have some time. I want to squeeze the heck out of this unknown space of time I have, which I have to myself. Then I’d like to watch an episode of The Newsroom with her, sleep well, wake up tomorrow, eat a great breakfast and crush it at work. It is within my means to do these things, and I’d like to do them. And expanding outwards, zooming outwards. I have an unknown space of time left to live, and I’d like to squeeze the heck out of that, too. And I don’t mean that to mean some sort of obsessive paranoid overachieving, I mean… there will be restful periods, there will be great tracts of idleness, but it will be my choice. It will be me recognizing that that is what my situation requires. It will be me operating with the constraints of my reality, of my biology, of my circumstances… and not me dying a thousand deaths inside my head.
I’d like to say that I’d like to decisively eradicate that shit right now, but I know that the truth is that this is a fractal battle. I’ll have to fight it over and over again at many scales of reality, over and over again throughout the rest of my life. This isn’t something that is won overnight and kept for years. I have to keep going. But the first few times are surely the hardest. Or maybe not. Either way, tonight will bring good sleep. May tomorrow do the same. May I always have the courage and conviction to fight and earn my keep.