Friday, October 07, 2005

Add vice



For a 13th birthday present, a friend asked a collection of people to write something up for a gift book to give to her son -- the theme being "Life: Things I wish I knew." I batted around several ideas, but finally said "damn the torpedoes" and just went with a straightforward collection of advice even though much of it is obvious. I hope it's useful for him -- but, you know, I probably wouldn't have listened to me either. She said I could go ahead and post it since he doesn't read my journal, so here you go.

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Life: Things I Wish I Knew For DJ on his 13th birthday

Life...

it's big, isn't it. And yet, also so small. The universe, even just what we can see of it when we look out there with telescopes, is mind blowingly big compared to our little dust speck of a planet, and the time over which the universe evolves is astoundingly long compared to the time we have to live our lives. So, given that context, the only possible answer to the question of "Why are we here?" from an objective standpoint, must be "No good reason." People who tell you otherwise are either mentally ill (i.e. religious) or trying to sell you something.

But that same hope crushing answer, the realization that life, the universe, and everything in it is utterly devoid of objective meaning is also a liberation. For it gives you the remarkable choice to create the meaning in your own life. And whether you do it actively, or just go along with others and whatever you choose to believe of what they tell you, you do make it up yourself. Whatever matters for you will only matter because you make it. Over and over people will tell you what matters, but they're really just telling you what matters for them, and what they'd like to matter to you. Whether it does or not is completely up to you. And then, as you're dying, everything you've experienced, everything you are, decays to entropy and vanishes.

So, in the face of this reality, what to do? Meditation is an interesting exercise. To empty the mind and just "be," letting thoughts go by without grabbing on to them, without letting them matter, can be wonderfully freeing. I know it can sound silly, but really, I recommend trying it sometime. It's a way to attain inner peace. But, OK, then what? Even though it makes sense given the broader universal context of meaninglessness, spending your years just sitting around and attaining nirvana via peaceful meditation... is to deny our own nature. After all, we are animals, and we have needs and drives just as animals -- they matter to the same degree that our very life matters to us. And in fact, as humans we have the opportunity to be more than animals.

But lets go back to the living like animals part first. As animals, the physiological drives scream to matter. Try holding your breath for five minutes and you'll see how much it matters to breath. It's undeniable by any force of will. The other physiological needs, food, drink, sleep, etc., matter in the same way -- to deny them is to struggle in misery. But they also can matter in a way that's more subtle: satisfying these needs brings us pleasure. This indicates it's reasonable to accept any action that brings us pleasure as meaningful. This idea of attaching all of life's meaning to your own personal pleasure is called hedonism. And it makes sense to do this provided one keeps track of two things. The first, that pleasure and pain of experiences and their consequences must be weighed on your own scale through your whole life. The second, that some very subtle and unusual experiences can turn out to weigh more highly on your personal scale than you would think and differently than they would for anyone else. Life can get pretty complicated, even when you know what's going on, which you almost never do. But, OK, enough with this abstract crap -- how best to maximize the amount of fun you have?

People

For the most part, people suck. The average person is living their life simply by fulfilling their uninteresting low level drives, guided by a set of inaccurate notions they got from listening to someone else. It is possible though, with skill and patience, to converse with the average person and learn something from them. But, I think this is usually more trouble than it's worth. With most people you encounter, it's probably best just to be polite and move on. However, every once in a while you will find you connect with someone. You should be on the lookout for this -- it's very important, don't miss it. Usually this will happen when you're sharing similar experiences with someone else -- such as when you're at school -- but not always. When it does happen, try to stay in communication.

Friends

You see, we are social animals. We get a lot of life's pleasure from interacting with the friends we have, and feel lonely when they are absent. So it's important to find good ones, and to be a good one. If you do this well you will, over the course of your life, have a collection of people you can interact with and derive pleasure simply by being around them. It sounds weird, but it really does work that way. At the same time, you will also find yourself joining and leaving temporary tribes of people all the time. When you're with them, these temp-friends are good fun to hang out with. But pick a couple you really like to stay in contact with longer. A long history of staying in touch with someone who's cool ends up forming a valuable friendship. At the same time, tribes that seem strong and the all-important social concerns you have when you're involved with them can quickly vanish into nothing but vague memories. Keep this in mind when social situations are making you anxious -- things like earth-shattering embarrassments at school will end up not mattering in the slightest, as you'll likely be leaving the company of all but a few of those people before you know it.

Games

Playing games, including video games and board games, is an enjoyable way to spend time. This time is probably well spent if you're doing it with people you like. Even better if it's actually face to face. But if you're just doing it for the little kicks of pleasure you get from clearing each level, this time would probably be better spent doing something else. But hell, it's fun and not as harmful as other things that can suck away your life's hours.

Drugs

From what I've seen, these aren't as nasty as some people say. Of course, I stay away from them because they fuck up your head. I like to be able to think and act as best I can, and all drugs can wreck that, permanently. They will also all make you feel bad when you're done with them, and they will make you want to have more. It's a nasty trap I've avoided by just not messing with them. But if you want to play with it, they probably won't kill you. Just try to know what you're doing and what the consequence will be, and actually make the decision. Usually things like booze, pot, and television will be offered in social contexts. If you've decided to try it before hand, make sure it's in a good setting and with people who don't suck. Avoid people who like it too much -- they make horrible friends. And if you've decided not to mess with some substance, just casually decline it if it's offered to you. I've been around lots of drugs my whole life, and it's never hurt me socially to turn stuff down as long as I'm not a jerk about it, even when I thought it would.

Competitive sports

For some reason, people get obsessed with team sports. I think it's the vestigial tribe mentality embedded in our subconscious. Anyway, even if one has no talent for it and it seems intimidating to try, they do end up being more fun than you think they will. Playing on a team can be emotionally exhilarating. And you can make friends that way. Usually these friends and the memories of the all important games will be gone with the end of the season, but it's still good physically, for socializing, and just for feeling good.

Personal sports

This is a totally different subject. These are great because you get to be good at something all on your own. It feels really good to do something physical well. Whether it's running, rock climbing, swimming, surfing, snowboarding,... these things are fun to do, good for your body, and help clear your mind of whatever troubles you have (see the section on girls). Best just to jump in. Search out what you like to do, and do that as much as you can. Don't bother too much with training, just play.

Books

Reading is absolutely the best way to quickly get to know the universe you're in. There are so many ideas and so much of people's lives just waiting in books. Reading is also purely enjoyable just as an experience. It's best to jump between different genres, novels, comics, philosophical works, biographies, research articles, etc. Make an effort to branch out and read stuff you're not sure you'll like, and pick people you think might have read good stuff and ask them for book recommendations.

School

School is good for pointing you at a decent set of books. It's also good for being social. And if it doesn't utterly suck, school will help you learn things like writing and math that will be good to know about later on in life. It will, of course, take all your time if you let it. Don't let your schooling interfere with your education -- try to balance out school work with other stuff, such as your own projects, hanging out with friends, and playing outside. But doing well in school can lead to a very easy and good life, at least it has for me.

Fighting

If your school is near as bad as the average, there are fights and bullies. These are to be avoided. Usually, the best way to avoid a fight is to not open your mouth when confronted. At least that's worked for me. If you cannot avoid getting into a fight, hit as hard as you can. In the real world, running away works great. In school... running away usually means you'll be marked as a target and get confronted the next day. Even if fights at your school aren't a problem, I'd highly recommend a martial arts class. It pays off. Pick some effective and weaponless style of fighting, like boxing, kickboxing, or Tai Kwon Do, and find a teacher who has students do sparring. The hardest thing in a fight is to have the confidence to attack -- to actually hit someone as hard as you can, in the right place, at the right time. It takes an incredible act of will and the only way to build up to it is to practice. Fighting is something you shouldn't do, but that you should know how to do. The knowing helps with the not doing, since when you're staring someone down and know you can hit them if you have to, they can see that in your eyes.

Girls

The first thing to know about girls is that they don't know what they want. They think they know what will make them happy, but they don't. The second thing to know is that you don't know what they want either. But, with experience, this will change as you get older. At least you probably know what it is you want. Sex. But that's not actually all you want either, you just don't know it yet. The absolute most fun you can have with girls is to be friends with them and do stuff together. Good things to ask girls to do: work on homework together, go get food somewhere, go on walks, play games, doing sports together, shopping somewhere interesting, amusement parks, music events, shows, etc. Asking girls to go do things with other friends is often easier. But never treat it like a date. "Dating" is evil -- it's a set of high pressure circumstances for mate selection, and you want to get around all that. If you make it clear from the beginning that you're just wanting their company as a friend, whether it's true or not, you will not have to worry as much about romantic pressure.

Now, once you're hanging out with a girl, pay attention. And have a good time. Talk with her, about anything and everything. Make and hold eye contact with her whenever you get a chance, and try to feel how she's feeling. Also, figure out if you really like this girl well enough to kiss and spend a lot of time with. If you don't think you do, stick with being occasional friends. Listen to what she says, and how she says it. Try to tell, by what happens when you're looking at each others' eyes and not talking, whether she's wanting to be with you as more than friends. If she doesn't, be cool with that. She might change her mind. A lot. If you're out doing something fun, and you've figured out you want to be with her, and think she wants to, pay attention and make a time happen when you're holding hands, are closer than one foot away, and looking at each other. If you can do this, and she seems comfortable with the situation, it's extremely likely she wants you to kiss her. Lean in, with your eyes open, and kiss her on the lips softly -- closing your eyes as you do it. Pull back after two seconds, and see if she looks like she liked it -- i.e. she didn't pull away. If she did like it, kiss her again immediately. After that, you're on your own.

Ahem. Sex. The internet is a great and horrible place to learn about sex. Lots of pictures and little information. Having sex is always a big deal. It's such a big deal that you should only try it with someone you like a lot as a friend too, and only after you've spent a hell of a long time kissing and doing other stuff. The main reason it's a big deal is you stand the risk of catching something serious, like herpes, or children. Getting a girl pregnant is really rough. And although the best choice at a young age is to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, that is physically and emotionally traumatic for everyone involved. So be careful. And feel free to ask advice from old people when you need it. Also, certainly don't try to get anywhere with girls you don't actually really like, or who don't really like you -- that's a potential disaster for all involved.

The last thing you need to know about girls has to do with love. Even just thinking about girls is likely to cause you more emotional anguish than anything else in your life. And it's not like getting mauled by a bear -- that kind of pain goes away after a month or so. No, love, when it goes bad, is worse than pretty much anything. So, why mess with it? Why not just avoid girls altogether? Well, I must admit I've asked myself this many times. And the answer is: can't help it. The emotions and drive are too strong to deny. So, just do the best you can. It is, actually, pretty damn good to have a girlfriend when things are going well. And try to make the best decisions you can, even though your brain isn't really running the show.

Lying

There are so many reasons not to lie. People will absolutely hate you for lying. The risk of being caught is usually higher than you think. In most cases, when you think lying will help, it's actually better for you to tell the truth. And, lying makes you feel worse about yourself. It feels much better to walk the high ground and tell the truth. However, if you think you completely understand a situation, and someone you are dealing with is unreasonable, and you're willing to take what you predict will happen when the truth is found out, and the risk of discovery is low, lying can in such rare circumstances be the best course. But avoid it if at all possible -- usually better for you to burden someone with the truth.

Work

If you're going to buy stuff, you're going to have to work to get money. Usually best to figure out clever ways to get the most money with the least work. Or, at least you can spend work time in a good social environment. Or, you can figure out how to make money by doing stuff you actually like doing. If your only option is working at a job you hate, that is none of these things, figure out another option, because your time is too valuable to spend doing something you really don't like.

Stealing, a.k.a. creative ownership management

(See Lying)

Parents

You are very lucky. Your family doesn't suck.

Stuff

Don't be too attached to your stuff. It's really a headache to worry about physical possessions, and they tend to take a lot of time and energy to acquire and manage. It's OK to have a few things you really like to use, and to take good care of them. But fancy clothes, stacks of magazines, collections of memorabilia, etc... they tend to be much more trouble than they're worth. A good judge of how much something is worth having and keeping is how much of your time you really spend using it.

Creative endeavors

This is really the stuff that can develop from an initial interest to a fulfilling intellectual life. As a fully actualized person, creating and/or accomplishing something truly great is the best we can hope for in life, and produces the greatest and deepest happiness we can experience. To get there, you have to go after things that are hard. Whether it's pushing yourself to be better at art, math, writing, inventing... whatever it is, finding what you love to do, what you're good at, and developing and applying those talents by creating something really cool is extremely satisfying. As a side effect, it builds self-worth, leads to new social connections, and may bring in more money. As humans, the deepest and most persistent pleasure we can experience comes from first deciding what matters to us and then becoming expert in that area and creating new stuff that matters for us. As a caution though, take care not to get so wrapped up with a creative project that you forget everything else -- it's good to maintain a balance of activities in life. A balanced life also acts as an insurance policy for when one aspect fails.

Boredom

If you are bored, you are failing to realize what you are dealing with on this planet. This is your life. The seconds are ticking away. What are you doing with them? If you're sitting there thinking "This is my life, the seconds are ticking away, what am I doing with them?" then that's just great for a short amount of time, but then you should really get up and go do stuff. (See above.)

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