Is the world a prison or a playground?

Many poets and philosophers argue that life or existence itself is in fact suffering. We can understand this in the sense that as soon as we have a conscious observer that can judge a situation, we fundamentally have what is expected (beneficial) and what is unexpected (detrimental). As Shakespeare mentioned through Hamlet:

“Why, then,’ tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison.”

As soon as we can judge, we can label an outcome as unintended, or not what we wanted or expected. This idea opens the door to suffering. Suffering is like a carp in that it will grow as big as the container within which it is placed. Stated another way by V.E. Frankl:

“...a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.” [1]

So then, at various points in our lives, we all suffer. Knowing that it is inevitable should provide us with some solace. However, if this is the case, is the point of life to minimize suffering and maximize things like pleasure and happiness? Moreover, if so, what does that mean in our modern day society?

It may be useful to start this part of our journey with a discussion around consciousness and how it changes from the time that we are children to adults. One thing that most of us probably admire is how healthy children look upon the world with wonder, curiosity, and awe. A striking thing to note here is that most adults, seemingly more so in the west, do not look at the world with this same magical or mystical essence. Why might this be?

It is well known that when we are children, our conscious outlook on life is more like a lantern, as opposed to a focused flashlight. When we have a lamp of awareness, it spurs curiosity because we do not think that we know something. Curiosity, wonder, and awe provide us the ability to learn and assimilate new knowledge. It also promotes a sense of altruism:

“‘Keltner believes that awe is a fundamental human emotion, one that evolved in us because it promotes altruistic behavior. We are descendants of those who found the experience of awe blissful because it’s advantageous for the species to have an emotion that makes us feel part of something much larger than ourselves.’” [2] Pg. 373

As we grow older, and our diffuse conscious light narrows to a focused beam, we start omitting things from our awareness that at one time spurred awe and wonder. This narrowing of consciousness is a critical human trait. It helps us to become goal-oriented and goal-directed. Having goals as adults has been paramount for our survival. However, if we are not careful, we can become engulfed by this tendency toward selfish goal fulfillment. This self-centeredness can slip into our lives in many forms. The addict, for example, is consumed by the pursuit of the substance that allows him or her to escape from the unbearable present.

Addiction

Here the primary thesis of this article is implied by the title: “‘Do you see the world as a prison or a playground?’” [2] Pg. 372 If we see our lives as a prison, we will tend toward utilizing substances, people and situations to try and escape from the unbearable present that if allowed to, forces us to suffer. This pain happens when we end up focusing too much on ourselves and do not honor the social aspects of existence. We also tend to lose sight of the wonder that can slip in when we realize the limitations of our life as human beings. Let us first look at the definition of addiction and how it closely relates to habits.

“The line separating habits and addictions is often difficult to measure. For instance, the American Society of Addiction and Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry … Addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished relationships.”

By that definition some researchers note, it is difficult to determine why spending fifty dollars a week on cocaine is bad, but fifty dollars a week on coffee is okay. Someone who craves a latte every afternoon may seem clinically addicted to an observer who thinks five dollars for coffee demonstrates and “impairment in behavioral control.” Is someone who would prefer running to having breakfast with his kids addicted to exercise?” [3]

We could argue that any addictive action, coffee, cocaine, or exercise is an entirely selfish action if not kept in perspective.

“Addiction is, among other things, a radical form of selfishness. One of the challenges of treating the addict is getting him to broaden his perspective beyond a consuming self-interest in his addiction, the behavior that has come to define his identity and organize his days.” [2] Pg. 373

We can see from these quotes that addiction is not simple or straight forward. Starting from the very definition shows that perhaps most of the modern western world exhibits at least strong tendencies toward addictive behavior. This idea, in my best estimation, is due to how we treat relationships, communication and other people. We are fundamentally a social species. Our most valuable attribute is our ability to communicate and cooperate. We are slowly creating a world where that is less necessary. This crusade in combination with science, where we can “know” more things with “certainty” is rapidly explaining away the more profound parts of life such as wonder, love, and purpose.

It seems as though in modern times that we have become a hyper goal oriented species, especially in western society. Certain aspects of life should be considered deeply that at best generally are only examined superficially. Things such as wonder, love, and purpose are rarely spoken and if they are, do we know what such terms mean?

Wonder

Because we narrow our consciousness to pursue goals and leverage the tool of science, it seems that we tend to explain away the mysterious portions of life. If we take a second to pause and realize that we do know some things - yet what we do might be far more limited than what we would like to admit - we open a chasm. This chasm is the void through which wonder can seep.

“One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts. We should never forget that death is waiting for us.” [4] Pg. 28

We can take a simple yet profound example of something that can incite wonder. We as humans are not only conscious, but we are aware of being conscious. We can be mindful of being aware of both ourselves and a world that is vastly different than what we would associate with being us as “individuals.” We can also tack on the question of consciousness itself. What is consciousness? Why do we have such an ability? These are, so far, unanswered questions. We should note explicitly that the last word, question, is critical for the notion of wonder.

“So a question is really one of the forms in which wonder expresses itself. One of the reasons that we wonder is because we are limited, and that limitation is one of the great gateways to wonder.” [4] Pg. 21

This idea of questioning, in my opinion, is the central tenet that makes dialogue so important. It is in light of the discussion that we can question and be questioned. This activity helps to set the bounds for our thinking and our action. If we walk around questioning, then we will soon realize that we know far less than what we would like to admit. This concept is both frightening and liberating. It’s like thinking that we are on a large cruise ship, but after some time of questioning, we realize that we are only on a small lifeboat. The boat is small and nimble but is highly susceptible to being tossed around by storms. Life is a series of storms whether we like it or not. What could help us through such storms time and again? Love?

Love

Love is perhaps the highest quality of human existence. To truly love another is a long and complicated process. We must first understand and love ourselves. From there we must realize that what we know of another will always only be a map, even though, their inner landscape is like a real city. This concept is to say, that we are only able to know another tangentially through verbal dialogue and that their internal landscape is far more expansive and complex than what we can ever grasp.

Additionally, love can seep in when we cultivate wonder. After all, it is tough not to love a situation that is shrouded in so much mystery. For example, how did we get here? How did it all start? Why is there nature? Why is there seemingly some hidden order embedded in this thing that we call life? Let us look at how a psychologist and a philosopher look at love.

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” [1]

“The truth - that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” [1]

“The most important thing to focus on is how you should be. That is really mindfulness of presence. All intimacy, love, belonging, creativity, is not when the grubby little hands of our functional minds get into the mystery, but when we stand back and let the mystery be, become enveloped in it so that it extends us and deepens us.” [4] Pg. 53

So then, perhaps when we loosen our grip on the logical scientific part of our brain and begin to realize the world for what it is, wonder can appear. If we find wonder in the simple things, perhaps our lives will become filled with more awe. From this wonder and awe, maybe love is born. After all, have we ever fallen in love with someone who has not inspired wonder, awe or curiosity within us?

Now, if this is the case that our highest order of business is love and as Viktor Frankl suggested the love for another shows them what they should be doing, and vice versa, then perhaps by giving and receiving love it is much the same as finding our purpose. After all, it has been suggested that real and lasting fulfillment and happiness come from two components, love and work. Perhaps our highest calling is to align and find love of work. If this is the case, we must discover our purpose so that we are being pulled toward our destiny instead of being pushed or worse yet, dragged.

Purpose

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment, it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” [1]

This quote echoes Nietzsche’s statement about a man who has a why can bear almost any how. The frightening aspect about purpose is that it is relative and if we are not careful it can become arbitrary with degradation to fatalism, or nihilism. The perplexing point about purpose is that it is relative and that we can, at least somewhat, define it in our context. We as humans are problem-solving machines. As stated earlier, existence is suffering because it is a continual stream of problems. It is for this reason, that our life’s purpose is to in fact solve these issues as they arise, that is to say, face them head-on.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” [1]

It makes sense to me that we struggle with purpose because we have changed our view of the community. It used to be a close-knit organization of people that had to cooperate to survive. We now don’t directly need people to carry on. We can go for days or even weeks without interacting with another human. This way of life is not suitable for our psychological well being. Additionally, we are a node in a much bigger network of humans. If we lose sight of this, it is challenging to affix meaning to one’s life. Viktor Frankl once again says it very well:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself--be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” [1]

Move Forthrightly into the World

So then, if finding awe, love and purpose are so paramount, where do we start?

“This collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.” - James Baldwin

We must first move forthrightly toward the discovery of who we are as individuals. The best way to do this is to as Jordan Peterson says, watch our actions. Our actions will tell us what we stand for, not our words. From here we can decide if this is the person that we want to be. Once we have settled our internal score and can fully accept our inner landscape with all of its errors and shortcomings, then it is time to move into the external world with the same fortitude. We have two choices at this point. We can cower from the things that we fear, keeping them in the unexplored territory, or we can slowly and progressively start to face them. This notion can be applied to pursuing our purpose in life because after all, if we choose those things matter, then everything that we do matters. If that is the case, then we must take responsibility for our actions, and if that is true, then we will feel fear of potential failure and ridicule.

“If you are not willing to be a fool, you can’t become a master.” - Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan Peterson also mentions the importance of choosing the appropriate load and bearing it. If we do this with the mindset of “Pursue what is meaningful not what is expedient”, then this simultaneously will provide us with purpose and a pathway forward on which we can confront our fears.

In the end, the importance of purpose cannot be overstated. If we realize that the reality within which we live is an extraordinarily complex network that consists of many nodes - ourselves being one of them - then we can begin to see how our actions affect others. If we are addicted to some behavior, and as a result, solely focusing on that action, then we can begin to see the negative effect that it will have on everyone around us. It is not until we are willing to take responsibility for our actions and to open our arms to the community at large that we can step out of this hole. Once we accept responsibility and devote ourselves to something larger than our self-centered focus, then we are propelled toward that goal and away from our destructive and addictive tendencies. This concept is why it is paramount that we shift our perspective from feeling like we are in prison to being on a playground filled with wonder, awe, joy, love, and purpose.

Citations:

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

[2] M. Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Penguin, 2018.

[3] C. Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business. Doubleday Canada, 2012.

[4] J. O’Donoghue, Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: In Conversation with John Quinn. 2015.