Below is the edited transcript of the video.
You get to pick your damn sacrifice. That is all. You do not get to not make one. You are sacrificial, whether you want to be or not.
This is the Peter Pan story, roughly speaking.
Peter Pan is this magical boy. Pan is the god of everything, roughly speaking. It is not an accident that he has the name Pan. He is the boy that will not grow up. He is magical.
That is because
children are magical. They can be anything. They are nothing but potential.
Peter Pan does not want to give that up. Why? He got some adults around him, but the main adult is Captain Hook. Who the hell wants to grow up to be Captain Hook?
Hook is so traumatized by that that he can not help but be a tyrant. Peter Pan looks at traumatized Hook and says “no, I am not sacrificing my childhood for that”.
That is fine, except that he ends up king of lost boys, in Neverland. Neverland does not exist. Who the hell wants to be king of the lost boys?
He also sacrifices the possibility to have a real relationship with a woman. That is Wendy. She is kind of conservative, middle class, London dwelling girl. She wants to grow up, have kids and have a life. She accepts her mortality. She accepts her maturity.
Peter Pan has to content himself with Tinkerbell. She does not even exist. She is like the fairy of porn. She is the substitute for the real thing.
But the dichotomy that I am talking about is very tricky, because there is a sacrificial element in maturation.
You have to sacrifice the pluripotentiality of childhood for the actuality of a frame.
The question is: why would you do that? One reason is: it happens to you whether you do it or not. You can either choose your damn limitations, or you can let them take you unaware when you are 30. Or even worse, when you are 40. Then, that is not a happy day.
I see people like this, and I think it is more and more common in our culture. People can put off maturity without suffering an immediate penalty, but all that happens is the penalty accrues. Then, when it finally hits, it just wallops you.
When you are 25 you can be an idiot. It is no problem. Even when you are out in a job search, it is like “well, you don’t have any experience and you are kind of clueless, but you are young, so it is no problem”. That is what young people are like, but they are full of potential.
Now you are the same person at 30. People are not so thrilled about you at that point. It is like:
Part of the reason you choose your damn sacrifice is because the sacrifice is inevitable, but at least you get to choose it.
There is something that is even more complex than that, in some sense. The problem with being a child is that all you are is potential, and it is really low resolution. You could be anything, but you are not anything.
Then you go on and adopt an apprenticeship, roughly speaking. Then at least you become something. When you are something, that makes the world open up to you again.
If you are a really good plumber, then you end up being far more than a plumber. You end up being a good employer. I am not putting plumbers down, more power to plumbers, they have saved more lives than doctors. Hygiene. If you are a really good plumber, then you have some employees, you run a business, you train some other people, you enlarge their lives, you are a pillar of the community, you have your family.
Once you pass through that narrow training period, which narrows you, constricts you, and develops you at the same time, then you can come out of the other end with a bunch of new possibilities at hand.
Carl Jung talked about that. He talked that part of the proper path of development in the last half of life was to
rediscover the child that you left behind as you were apprenticing. Then you get to be something, and regain that potential at the same time. Very smart. He was very smart. Very wise thing to know.
Sacrifice. You get to pick your damn sacrifice. That is all. You do not get to not make one. You are sacrificial whether you want to be or not. That is a good thing to know as well.
Dostoevsky said in Notes From Underground, a great book, an early criticism of the notion of political utopia: “if you gave people every thing they wanted, they had nothing to eat but cake, nothing to do but sit in warm pools and busy themselves with the continuation of the species, the first thing they would do, maybe after the first week, was go kind of half insane and smash everything up just so that something that they did not expect would happen, so that they would have something interesting to do”.
It is so right, because the utopian notion that, if you just had all the material stuff you wanted, that you would be, well, what would you be? What would you do? You just sit in the couch and watch TV? I mean, I don’t know what, you would be cutting yourself, just for entertainment, in no time flat, and that is the sort of thing that people do.
We are not adapted for security and utopia.
We are adapted for a certain amount of security, because we are vulnerable, but mostly we want to have one foot out where we do not know what the hell is going on. Because that is where you are alert, alive, tense, with it.
I believe this, and I believe it actually has something to do with the hemispheric structure of the physiology of your brain. The right hemisphere is roughly adapted to what you do not know, and the left hemisphere, this is an oversimplification, but a useful one, is adapted to the world that you do know.
The right place for you to be is half way between then. You can tell that, that is what is so cool, this tells you that this is actually reality that is manifesting itself to you.
That sense of active engagement you have in the world when things are working well for you. You are where you should be, at the right time. You are alert, on top of things, engaged. You do not have much of a sense of time. The sense of the tragedy of life recedes. That is
when you got one foot where it is secure and one foot out in the unknown. Your brain signals to you that you are in the right place by making what you are doing meaningful.
That sense of meaning is actually a neurophysiological signal that you have got the forces of the cosmos properly balanced in your being at that moment. That is why it feels so good. What else could it possibly be?
Our brain is capable of looking beyond our vision. That is what it is for. That sense of engagement, there is not reason to assume that that is anything but a real signal.
You can reduce it, you could say:
You have got to mediate between those two things:
That is the place where information flow is maximized.
You know that, because that is where you are when you are having a really interesting conversation with someone, you are gripped by a book, you are really into a movie, maybe something that you do apart from your work, or maybe even in your work you are into it. That is because you are in the right place at the right time and your whole nervous system is signaling that to you.
I would say that is the sort of place that you should be all the time. Of course you can not be because no one is perfect, but that is the recreation of paradise on earth, something like it, because you are in the right place at the right time when that is happening.
We are mobile creatures, we need to know where we are going. Because all we are ever concerned about, roughly speaking, is where we are going. That is all we need to know. Where are we going, what are we doing, and why.
It turns out that the way we are constructed, neurophysiologically, is that
we do not experience any positive emotion unless we have an aim and we can see ourselves progressing towards that aim. It is not precisely attaining the aim that makes us happy, as you all know if you have ever attained anything, because since you have attained it, then the whole little game ends, then you have to come up with another game.
It is Sisyphus. That is OK. But it does show that the attainment can not be the thing that drives you because it collapses the game.
That is what happens when you graduate from university. It is like, you are king of the mountain for one day. Then you are like serf at Starbucks for the next 5 years.
What happens is that human beings are weird creatures because
we are much more activated by having an aim and moving towards it than we are by attainment. What that means is
you have to have an aim. That means you have to have an interpretation. It also means that
the nobler the aim, the better your life.
That is a really interesting to know, because you have heard ever since you were tiny that you should act like a good person and you should not lie, for example. You might think “why the hell should I act like a good person and why not lie?” Even a 3 year old can ask that question, because smart kids learn to lie earlier by the way.
Why not twist the fabric of reality, so that it serves your specific short term needs? That is a great question, why not do that? Why act morally? If you can get away with something, and it brings you closer to something that you want, why not do it?
These are good questions, it is not self-evident.
It seems to be tied with what I have just mentioned. You destabilize yourself, you become chaotic, and that is not good. If you do not have a noble aim, then you have nothing but shallow, trivial pleasures, and they do not sustain you. That is not good because life is so difficult, it is so much suffering, it is so complex, it ends and everyone dies, it is painful. Without a noble aim, how can you withstand that? You can not. You become desperate. Once you become desperate, things go from bad to worse very rapidly.
There is the idea of the noble aim, and it is something that is necessary. It is the bread that people can not leave without, it is not physical bread, it is a noble aim. What is that?
It is to pay attention, it is to speak properly, it is to confront chaos, it is to make a better world, something like that. That is enough of a noble aim so that you can stand up without cringing at the very thought of your own existence, so that you can do something that is worthwhile to justify your bad position in the planet.
Whatever it is that is you, has this capacity to experience reality and to transform it, which is a very strange thing. You can conceptualize a future, in your imagination, then you can work and make that manifest. You participate in the process of creation. That is an amazing idea, because it gives conciousness a constitutive role in the cosmos.
Conditions of human life are such that suffering is an integral part of existence. It is an important thing to understand, it is also a view point shared by the bulk of the great religion systems of the world.
Life is suffering. Why?
One reason is because of society’s arbitrary judgment. Every single one of us has traits and features, quirks and idiosyncrasies, that are far from ideal, and that are judged by the standards of society as insufficient.
You suffer because of your insufficiency in the eyes of others and you can certainly make the claim that fairly frequently that is arbitrary. That is the claim that society is tyrannical, judgmental and needs to be constantly reconstituted so that the tyrannical element does not take full control. You have to stay awake, so that does not happen.
But the thing is, it does not matter what society it is, although they vary in the degree of their tyranny, the mere fact that you are grouped together with other people and have to come up with a common value structure in order to live together means that many of the things that characterize you are going to be suboptimal. The price you pay for social being is that much of you is deemed insufficient.
Hopefully there are various ways that you can be in a society that is sufficiently diverse so that you can find a place where what is good about you in the eyes of others, and perhaps in your own eyes, can flourish of its own accord.
You do not have to be good at everything if you can be good at one thing well enough. That might allow you your niche, and hopefully a healthy society allows that. Certainly societies can become so tyrannical that they do not.
You can lay one source of human suffering at the feet of tyrannical social structures, but, the other element of it, clearly, is the mere fact of the arbitrariness of the natural world. You have a life span that is going to be counted in the number of decades that you can count on two hands, and that has nothing to do, technically, with the tyranny of the social structure.
You could say, if we got our act together more completely, perhaps you could live longer. Fair enough. But the fact of the limits of your lifespan, and the suffering that is necessarily a consequence of that, the death of your parents and the death of most people that you will know before you, means that that part of suffering is an integral part of existence itself.
That can not be laid at the feet of an insufficient social structure, except in so far as it is tyrannical and blind. It is a condition of existence.
By the same token,
you have your own responsibility for some of your unnecessary suffering because there are things that you could be doing to make your life better, and to make life better for other people, that you know perfectly well that you are not doing. If you stop doing all the unnecessary things that make your life bad, then it would improve to some degree that is not really computable, because you do not know how far you could push that.
There are three reasons why you suffer:
The existential take on that, and the thing that all this diverse people that we have been talking about, including Viktor Frankl, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and the people that I have already talked to you about, is that the proper pathway through that is to adopt the mode of authentic being:
orient your speech, as much as you can, towards the truth.
take responsibility for your own life, and perhaps also for the lives of other people.
There is something about that that is meaningful, responsible and noble, but also serves to mitigate the very suffering that produces, say, the nihilism, or the escape into the arms of totalitarians to begin with. You need something to shelter you against your own vulnerability.
You can adopt a comprehensive description of reality that is formulated for you by someone else, that neatly divides the world into those who are innocent, perhaps innocent victims, and those who are guilty, perhaps the perpetrators of the suffering. But none of that has anything to do with you, and it is simply not a reasonable way of accessing the world. The suffering is built in. That is why the existentialists insist upon that.
For the freudians, the psychoanalists, and even for people like Carl Rogers to some degree, if you are in a situation that is characterized by psychopathology, if there is something wrong with you mentally, that is a consequence of something gone wrong.
But that is not the existentialist take. The existentialists take is: no, that is just how it is. You do not have to necessarily have done anything wrong for things to get completely out of control. It is a terrifying doctrine.
But it is not a hopeless doctrine, because it still says that there is a way forward, there is a pathway forward:
adopt a mode of being that has some nobility, so that you can tolerate yourself, and perhaps even have some respect for yourself, as someone who is capable of standing up in the face of that terrible vulnerability and suffering.
adopt responsibility for the conditions of existence, and to attempt to actually rectify them.
The thing that is so interesting about that is, well, two as far as I am concerned, and some of this is from clinical experience. If you take people, and I have told you this, and you expose them voluntarily to things that they are avoiding and are afraid of, that they know they need to overcome in order to complete their goals, their self defined goals,
if you can teach people to stand up in the face of the things they are afraid of, they get stronger.
You do not know what the upper limits to that are. Because you might ask yourself,
if for ten years you did not avoid doing what you knew you needed to do, by your own definitions, withing the value structure that you have created, to the degree that you have done that, what would you be like?
There are remarkable people who come into the world, from time to time, and there are people who do find out over decades what they could be like if they were who they were. If they spoke their being forward. They get stronger and stronger, and we do not know the limits to that.
You could say, well, in part, perhaps the reason that you are suffering unbearably can be laid at your feet, because
you are not everything you could be and you know it. And, of course, that is a terrible thing to admit, and it is a terrible thing to consider, but there is real promise in it, because it means that perhaps there is another way that you could look at the world, another way that you could act in the world, so what it would reflect back to you would be much better than what it reflects back to you now.
The second part of that is, well, imagine that many people did that. We have done a lot as human beings, we have done a lot of remarkable things. Today, for example, about 250 thousand people will be lifted out of abject poverty, and about 300 thousand people attached to the electrical power grid.
We are lifting people out of poverty, collectively, at a faster rate that has ever occurred in the history of humankind by a huge margin. And that has been going on unbelievably quickly since the year 2000. The UN planned to half poverty between 2000 and 2015 and it was accomplished by 2013.
There is inequality developing in many places, and you hear lots of political agitation about that, but overall the tide is lifting everyone up, and that is a great thing. We have no idea how fast we could multiply that if people got their act together and really worked on it.
My experience with people is that we are probably running at about 51% of our capacity. You can think about this yourself. I often ask undergraduate students “how many hours a day you waste?” or “how many hours a week you waste?”. The classic answer is something like 4 to 6 hours a day. Inefficient studying, watching things on YouTube that not only do you not want to watch, that you do not even care about, that make you feel horrible about watching after you are done. That is probably 4 hours right there.
That is 20 to 25 hours a week, 100 hours per month, 2 and a half work weeks, half a year of work weeks per year. If your time is worth 20 dollars per hour, which is radical underestimate, it is probably more like 50 if you think about it in terms of deferred wages, if you are wasting 20 hours per week, you are wasting 50 thousand dollars a year. You are doing that right now. Because you are young, wasting 50 thousand a year is a way bigger catastrophe than it would be for me to waste it, because I am not going to last nearly as long.
If your life is not everything it could be, you could ask yourself,
what would happen if you just stopped wasting the opportunities that are in front of you? You would be, who knows how much more efficient. 10 times more efficient, 20 times more efficient, that is the Pareto distribution. You have no idea how efficient efficient people get. It is completely off the charts.
If we all got our act together collectively, and stopped making things worse, because that is another thing people do all the time, not only do they not do what they should to make things better, they actively attempt to make things worse because they are spiteful, resentful, arrogant, deceitful, homicidal, genocidal, or all of those things, all bundled together in an absolutely pathological package. If people stopped really, really trying just to make things worse, we have no idea how much better they would get just because of that.
There is this weird dynamic that is part of the existential system of ideas between human vulnerability, social judgement, both of which are major causes of suffering, and the failure of individuals to adopt the responsibility that they know they should adopt.
That is the thing that is interesting too, is that, it is not merely that your fate depends on whether or not you get your act together and to what degree you decide that you are going to live out your own genuine being. It is not only your fate, it is the fate of everyone that you are networked with.
You think, well, there are 7 billion people in the world, we are going to peak at about 9 billion by the way, and then it will decline rapidly, and who are you, you are just one little dust among that 7 billion, and so it really does not matter what you do or do not do.
But that is simply not the case. It is the wrong model, because you are at the center of a network, you are a node in a network, of course that is even more true now that we have social media. You will know 1000 people, at least, over the course of your life, and they will know 1000 people each, and that puts you one person away from 1 million, and 2 persons away from 1 billion. That is how you are connected.
The things you do, they are like dropping a stone in a pond, the ripples move outward, and they affect things in ways that you can not fully comprehend. This means that
the things that you do and that you do not do are far more important than you think.
The terror of realizing that, is that it actually starts to matter what you do. You might say well, that is better than living a meaningless existence, it is better for it to matter. But, if you really ask yourself, would you be so sure, if you had the choice?
It is not so obvious to me that people would take the meaningful path.
Nihilists suffer dreadfully because there is no meaning in their life, but the advantage is they have no responsibility. That is the payoff, and I actually think that is the motivation. They say, well, I can not help but being nihilistic, all my belief systems have collapsed. Yes, maybe, or maybe you have just allowed them to collapse because it is a hell of a lot easier than acting them out. The price you pay is meaningless suffering, but you can always wine about that and people will feel sorry for you, and you have the option of taking the pathway of the martyr. So that is a pretty good deal, all things considered.
Specially when the alternative is to
bear your burden properly and to live forthrightly in the world.
If you live a pathological life, you pathologize your society. If enough people do that, then it is hell, really.