The Only Thing We Have

What do we have?

We can all probably agree that when we hold something in our hand, we possess it. Otherwise, do we possess anything? Take, for example, an apple placed on a table. We may say “That is my apple,” or if we are speaking to someone who is a guest in our house, “I have an apple, would you like one?” referring to the apple on the table. However, if we are strict in our analysis, we, do not possess the apple on the table. To be correct, we could say, “there is an apple in the other room, would you like it?” The only time that we possess the apple is when it resides firmly in our hand, and even then, it seems as though, this fundamental notion of possession can be called into question. If we hold an apple in our hand for too long, won’t that perish as well? What is, is the driver of such change?

"The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things. The former manner of interpretation – more primordial, and less clearly understood – finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or – at a higher level of analysis – implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action. The latter manner of interpretation – the world as place of things – finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).” Pg. 15 [1]

“Unfortunately, this useful methodology cannot be applied to determination of value – to consideration of what should be, to specification of the direction that things should take (which means, to description of the future we should construct, as a consequence of our actions). Such acts of valuation necessarily constitute moral decisions. We can use information generated in consequence of the application of science to guide those decisions, but not to tell us if they are correct.” Pg. 21 [1]

If we look back to Jordan Peterson’s explanation of the world through myth, then life is a domain for action filled with objects. This idea implies that there is some space filled with things with which we can interact. We need a component in addition to an area to move about and be productive; this is known to us as time. We as humans have access to four dimensions since we can move in three directional space, and along a fourth arrow being time. In each of the three dimensions, we can move unidirectionally, meaning we can travel in any direction that we want. Time is a different character as opposed to space upon which we can only go in a single direction that never reverts under any circumstances. For this reason, it is essential that we consider the implications of such unidirectional movement and what that means for our lives.

Now, just because we can move about in any way in which we want throughout this space, this is not what happens. Returning to the first quote, we should note that we make decisions based on the value that we establish. We establish the importance of different objects and actions based on what others will think of us (social interaction) if we act a certain way, or possess a particular object. This notion is important because if we do not value something highly enough, we will not move in a direction that will manifest our goal.

“Action presupposes valuation, or its implicit or “unconscious” equivalent. To act is literally to manifest preference about one set of possibilities, contrasted to an infinite set of alternatives. If we will live, we must act. Acting, we value. Lacking omniscience, painfully, we must make decisions, in the absence of sufficient information. It is, traditionally speaking, our knowledge of good and evil, our moral sensibility, that allows us this ability.” Pg. 21 [1]

As soon as we act, we show that we have placed value upon something. By acting, we inherently are saying that whatever we are currently choosing to do, is more important than the set of infinite potential alternatives. This tradeoff is essential because it implies that we value all of the other options to a lower degree than what we are currently choosing. This choice is based on a great deal of assumption, which by default is necessary (limitations of senses, time and other resources). It is only through hindsight that we might catch a glimpse of whether what we chose was, in fact, the proper route and even then it is merely a glimpse.

Since life is a domain for action and the dimension upon which we make these decisions (valuations) is time, then could we not argue that it is, in fact, our most valuable asset? Looked at in this light, is time not the only thing that we possess or at least the medium with which we can create? Viewed in this light, it becomes clear that many of us do not act as if this is true. We should keep in mind that what we choose to do with our time, we deem to be the most important thing to be carrying out at that point. Here it is interesting to bring in a symbolic construct that humans have created and placed a tremendous amount of value on while potentially trivializing time.

We have created a relative valuation system for objects that we work with known as money. Initially, this was fostered as a method to place all traded products onto a level playing field. After all, in a bartering system, we would have to bring the product that we want to sell to the market and then bring all of the goods we traded for back to our residence. The creation of money allowed for all traded commodities to be levelized and the result to be a small, portable pocket of currency instead of a wagon load of produce. Because of the structure of the market, we have been able to establish relative value much in the same way we value other things through social interaction. We are willing to pay much more for a Mercedez-Benz as opposed to a Toyota because of the social status implications associated with the brand. The thing to note is that these are mental constructs that play upon biological instincts. By purchasing a Mercedez, we perceptually are raised in the social dominance hierarchy. This attribute is one that could potentially lead to a greater pool of mates. However, placing the most significant degree of value upon that one attribute alone, may not lead to the most fulfilling life overall.

Additionally, for me, it is tough to wrap my head around the notion of strictly trading my time for money. In my opinion, this becomes like exchanging an apple for an orange. I know my time is valuable, but I don’t see a clear route for translating my time’s worth into a monetary value. Perhaps, this is my naivety, but something is unsettling about this notion. Money is an external, fictitious construct that exists because the overall group believes in it. It can flow between individuals and organizations. It does not have a finite deadline like my life does. My time is a reality-based thing that is particular to my individual experience. It does not go in reverse, and I do not share it strictly speaking with anyone else.

The critical question at hand is for what are we trading our time? This question can be formulated in many different ways. Are we spending our time with people for whom we love and care? Are we pursuing something that brings us joy in the process of doing it, or do we spend each minute of our working day counting the time until we can go home? Once we are home, what do we choose to do? Do we pursue all pleasures to their bitter ends, or do we determine that by delaying gratification the hopeful future will become better than the unbearable present?

The Facility of Time

What does time afford us? We can experience. What do experiences gain us? If we are astute, these experiences can provide us with new knowledge. Based on what lessons we choose to have will determine how our life unfolds. The thing to note is that we can influence the direction that we take in life. We can follow the simple road, view everything as black or white and do as we are told. We can also choose to step onto an alternative path, that of the hero. This less trodden path is the long, arduous, lonely and often dangerous one. This way leads to the discovery of the relative nature of valuation. This juncture is where we realize that science is a tool for analysis and quantification. It is not a tool for the assessment of moral judgments and actions. The choice here mainly boils down to how we handle fear and our willingness to face such a thing. If we have voluntarily and successfully faced fears in the past, then; as a result, we have overcome them. We realize that they are not going to kill us and become more willing to face them again in the future. If we continually chisel away at this innate fear, eventually we can meditate upon the most primal of all fears, death. There are two outlooks on death. Either we spend our lives in fear and resistance against this inevitable outcome, or we somehow walk toward it, accept it and even to a degree pursue it. Dealing with our mortality is the highest and toughest aspect of being human. We can choose to default to a path, a system that has been laid before us, or we can saddle the burden of the hero and take the journey to the promised land of freedom. This journey begins with questioning and an open mind.

The Group vs. The Individual

Understanding that there are two parts to the perpetuation of the human species might help us to gain a better perspective on how we should value time. There is the notion of survival that is baked into the feeling of loss that we experience as we realize that our time is passing. This need for survival, of course, is instinctual. However, we typically focus on the survival of the individual. What if we looked at our life as a chance to do something to better the group? That is to say, we as individuals have some particular gift, that if we take the time to develop and give entirely, we will benefit society in some way. This notion would contribute to the survival and perpetuation of the group.

There are two aspects to note here. The first is that by creating something great and contributing to the group, that aspect that we created, will live on as us, long after we pass. Secondly, the ironic part is that to create something truly novel and useful to the group; we must transcend the entire group structure. We must see the construct for what it is, venture to the edge, where chaos and order meet to find that for which we are looking. It is only there in the un-tame space that we might be able to straddle the rift between chaos and order. This chasm is the only place where new knowledge, where true creativity and novelty lie. This concept is the path of the hero or the warrior. The only way in which we can get to this point is to work on ourselves with relentless pursuit. We must look inside at the places which we least want to face because that is the fertile grounds for learning what we need to. The primary tool here is learning. We humans will always be fundamentally ignorant of how the world is due to our limited sensual perceptions and cognitive abilities. However, it is in our and societies best interest to seek and understand as much knowledge and wisdom as we are able. It is my opinion that there is no other way.

If working on ourselves and learning about the world are of such paramount importance, what should we be learning about we might ask?

To start, I am no guru. I don’t know what you should learn. I will present several things that I have learned, that helped me in the hopes that they will become like beacons in the dark, cold and lonely sea of knowledge. As with any beacon, you may choose to move toward them, or not.

Aspects of the Spirit

There is a spiritual aspect of humans. How we choose to fill that void is personal. There is some merit to any religions, mainly as a metaphor. Several key elements can be garnered from any traditional religion. They can be seen as acceptance, non-attachment, gratitude, unconditional giving, and love.

Acceptance comes from the notion that we must accept what has come and gone on this arrow of time. The past is set in stone and something we are not able to modify. Acceptance becomes the power that we have with which we can influence how we interpret such a bygone.

Non-attachment is another facet of time in the sense that all things are impermanent. This idea goes back to the example of the apple in the beginning. If we are attached to the notion of a juicy red apple and we hold onto it, we will never experience the pleasure of the fresh fruit because after some time it will surely rot.

Gratitude is the ability for us to not take things for granted. We have heard the cliche, be grateful for what you have. This platitude is correct, and it has a real impact on how we live our lives through the transformation of our attitude. In these statements, there is no suggestion at this being an easy idea to carry out. It is often called a gratitude practice because it does take constant effort and training of the mind to become generally more grateful as it goes against our survival instinct.

Unconditional giving is an interesting aspect. Giving with conditions sets us up for failure. This idea is to say, that if we give a homeless person a sandwich under the condition that they will be grateful for it, we can quickly become disappointed. This approach can be extrapolated to anything. Think about the last time we helped a colleague or family member. If we support them with the idea that they will pay us back in some way, whether it is monetary, or a thank you, then we automatically set ourselves up to become bitter, angry and resentful when this does not happen. A final aspect here is a psychological term called the helpers high. If we choose to give unconditionally, then we always gain. If we become acutely aware, we will realize that we feel good every time that we provide. This concept is at the base of compassion.

The last topic in this series is love. This notion is a desire that resides deep inside of all humans, the longing to give and receive love. This mechanism is how we survived. Unfortunately, in our modern day, we have been told that we need to be a, b, and or, c to be worthy of love. This valuation is not true; in fact, the converse is. We must be unapologetically ourselves. We must be willing to be authentic and vulnerable to achieve deep and meaningful love. This approach is the most frightening path of all because we each harbor the primal fear of not being worthy of another's love. The more that we hide away from others, the more likely that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Power to Choose

We tend to manifest the locus of our focus. This statement would lose much of its power if it were to become divorced from the why. There will always be good and evil in the world. There will still be bad times, times of chaos and disorder. After all, we would not know the light if there was not contrasting and unifying darkness. With that being said, when the stormy seas of life are pushing us to the brink of capsizing, let us keep one thing in mind, our power to choose. Let us take a poignant lesson from the concentration camps:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” [2]

In the end, we hold power to choose upon what we spend our time focused. Our brain is an extraordinarily powerful device that tends toward creating that which it is focused. We are unusually complex pattern recognition and deciphering machines. The patterns we focus on become the maps which drive our behavior (put very simply).

So, if we tend to leverage that which we focus on, what might be critical to keep in mind? If we take the stoic approach, they will meditate on death by keeping in mind a Latin phrase “Memento mori” or roughly translated to “remember you must die.” This concept is not to be interpreted as a morbid or fatalistic viewpoint. It instead provided a sense of urgency. So then, perhaps if we keep this in our field of awareness, it will provide propulsion for us to go out and pursue that which we would like to create. After all, what are we more afraid of dying, or having never truly lived?

We should keep in mind that every journey beings with a single step. We must not become overly ambitious and try to eat the entire elephant in a single bite. No, we must delay gratification and plan out our route. We must strategically begin eating the elephant one single bite at a time. If we do something every day, then after some time, we will have done quite a lot of that thing. If we take a single bit of elephant every day, then after some time, we will have surmounted the task.

A final word of caution deals with the notion of balance. Let us think of ourselves as something like a battery. If we drain the battery, it has no use. We must do things that fill us up such as eat properly, sleep enough, and move our bodies. If we are wise and lucky enough, then we can align our work to something that provides energy to that battery instead of draining it. Do keep in mind something that my graduate school cubemate said to me “Long hours and hard work lead to more long hours and more hard work.” This phrase can be read as less is more.

Basic Conclusions

We as humans value objects and experiences. These range from dogs versus cats, to religion versus atheism. We must take care to thoroughly consider the basis of our assumptions for the interpretation of the world upon which we have formulated these approaches. We should also take note of the complexity of our strategy as this has to do with the overall richness and quality of our life.

We pass through time, and continually approach sets of tradeoffs. We must balance the delay of gratification (pursuing a goal in the future at the expense of suffering the unbearable present) to that of feeling happy, joy and pleasure at the moment.

Time can be viewed as a most precious commodity that is loaded onto a one-way train. We should act diligently to take care, cultivate mindfulness, foster curiosity, and sustain a sense of urgency.

Citations

[1] J. B. Peterson, “Maps of Meaning,” Maps of Meaning. pp. 19–217, 2002.

[2] V. E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.