On the importance of meaning and purpose in my life…

Saturday afternoon I went through a short and yet intense moment of experiencing the sense of loss over a past relationship, contemplating what exactly it was this relationship represents, and why it seemingly meant and still means so much to me. An intriguing possibility occurred to me, one I hadn’t really thought of before as clearly, but that at least at the moment seems to be fairly plausible: When I initially developed feelings for this person, I distinctly remember having a fresh sense of “this is what I want and need”, something that has been diminishing for quite a while. However, my subsequent decisions and the outcomes I observed didn’t make sense to me. So, what I have been and partly still am attracted to and obsessed about may be the idea that this relationship could give my life meaning and purpose, together with the enhanced experiences of agency and self-efficacy. And I want to flesh out each term a bit more.

My experience of agency, which, briefly put, is perceiving that actions I’m taking are self-determined, allowing me to actually take charge of my life. A typical example from psychology is that by making a decision I can bring about a specific outcome, and I would argue that spending time with someone I feel close and attracted to, interacting with that person, and observing the feedback I’m getting clearly constitutes a situation with a heightened sense of agency.

Closely related but not identical is the concept of self-efficacy. While agency can be experienced in good and bad outcomes alike–as long as it has been my actions that bring the outcome about–self-efficacy is specifically linked to positive outcomes that are congruent with my goals. As such, being with someone and observing that person’s increased sense of well-being as a direct consequence of my actions creates a higher sense of self-efficacy.

The experience of meaning or meaningful outcomes–and I think it is important to distinguish meaning from the other concepts–is something I can more or less attribute to a situation. To some degree, it is both guided by and subsequently guides future goals I have in life. As an example, even an initially negative experience I make, such as the person I feel for not returning those feelings, can be seen as meaningful if I end up with a thought that, one way or another, this experience helped me in reaching one of my goals. As such, it is highly independent from agency, as even outcomes that are seemingly caused by others or maybe even random events can be perceived as meaningful.

Semantically overlapping with the concept of meaning, I would yet separately name my sense of purpose. I would argue this sense is an expression of how I translate my appreciation of life as a whole into what I intend to do for seeking meaningful experiences. In short, it is the one highest-level goal I have in life. Obviously I can’t look into the future, but I guess that if I could, a very good reason would probably be that I’d want to verify that I will reach this high-level goal. In that sense it is like the hypothesis and synthesis of future meaning, and whenever I manage to move closer toward this goal I’m experiencing an increased sense of meaning. And for me, being with someone in an intimate way is clearly part of the purpose and meaningful.

Finally, I would add the experience of things making sense. And I think it is important to also distinguish this from both meaning and purpose. In a situation where I made a mistake and incur some form of punishment or cost, the painful part of the experience at least makes sense–which is different from a situation where I experience pain without understanding why it happened. I would say that my implicit belief in cause and effect has very little room for randomness, and I often have a fairly strong need to understand what exactly caused the things happening to me, particularly the painful ones, which is why in a situation where outcomes do not make sense they at least must be meaningful to be bearable.

More generally speaking and related to what I see as the preliminary thoughts on a neuro-computational model for human experience as a whole, I would argue that once the more basic needs we experience as human beings are satisfied–those that guarantee our physical well-being and survival–we are left with the challenge to look after those still requiring satisfaction, which I speculate could be one of the reasons why people in positions of great power might at some point become incredibly dissatisfied with part of their experience.

Coming back to my own situation in life: working in the field of psychology, albeit not as an academic in the strictest sense, has always been a continuous source of meaning. The way in which I came to the job, however, did not entail the experience of agency and purpose, at least I would argue that how I ended up working in this field came about more as a coincidence. And I somehow sense that a slow but noticeable decline in perceived meaning may very well have contributed to the intensity with which I have attached myself to the idea of finding meaning elsewhere, say in this relationship turned to obsession.

Consequently, I am now wondering to what extent my sense of loss is, to a considerable degree at least, the expression of the needs for meaning and purpose, and that if I were to find those two by other means, especially if I were to experience them with agency and self-efficacy, the sense of loss would be highly diminished. Naturally, it seems tempting to simply go for another relationship–that would afford me with a renewed sense of “that’s what I want and need.” However, I have to ask myself how stable this experience would really be, given that I have witnessed how easy it can also break apart…

Accept or React?

Working in a psychology lab focused on social cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University has allowed me to keep an eye out for answers to some very profound questions I have been asking myself for a long time, and even I don’t remember how long. One of these questions is, “how do you react to fear?” Incidentally, in one of the studies run at our lab, subjects were instructed to either react naturally to scary and pain inducing images or, alternatively, to try and put themselves into an accepting mindset, one in which the fear they were to experience simply would be allowed to exist. But more on that later…

Naturally, there are fears that better be reacted to, such as when an immediate threat enters our consciousness, and probably shortly before that it enters our subconscious, and our bodies are, almost automatically, set in motion to either avoid the threat, like dodging an oncoming car when we step onto a street we erroneously thought was empty, or to try and neutralize the threat, like taking aim and trying to thwart an insect we assume has the capacity to inflict pain or spread disease.

This kind of instinctive program, the fight-or-flight response, is still very strong and powerful in our species, and, at least in the here and now, for good reason. But humans have also evolved quite a bit further, and something else is by now “added to the program”, something that I believe is at the center of the human condition: we know that no matter how much we struggle for life, and no matter how well we adapt this fight-or-flight response, in the end we cannot win. We are, one could say, doomed to die. Obviously, I am not the only one talking about this: for instance, in a 2003  documentary, “Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality”, something I can recommend as worth watching, for instance at Netflix, film makers explore this question together with psychologist and anthropologists.

The paradoxical condition we find ourselves in can, I think, be characterized by those two elements and a twist: our instincts and intuitive responses, almost immutably, compel us to react to threatening cues in the environment such as to preserve our lives. But at the same time we have foreknowledge, and this is one of the very few things I would say most people agree we know with the highest degree of certainty, that one day must come when we will die. If the two layers in our minds–the subconscious effort to preserve life and the conscious knowledge that we must, eventually, fail–were separate entities, operating side by side, maybe we didn’t have to suffer. And here is where the twist comes in: conscious thought has the ability to generate subconscious states. And this is also true for future events, even if the details of these events aren’t yet available. Thinking about or being reminded of our mortality generates, even unbeknownst to us, a state in which we are more likely to pick up the fight. Which is also why we can be excited in light of anticipating a positive event.

So, if this reaction of fear is in the subconscious whenever we think about death, is there any hope of ever finding peace? Well, here is where I would want to add to the movie by presenting some, admittedly preliminary and not yet published evidence from the study in our lab: being accepting of one’s fear, that is to say allowing oneself to experience fear but doing so not with the intention of reacting, that is to say taking a path outside of fight-or-flight, seems to have the effect of lowering the actual impact of that fear. In other words, by consciously deciding not to react to a threatening cue in the environment, but rather acceptingly experiencing its impact, we are, at least partially, able to mitigate its emotional consequences and, possibly, lower its “call for action”, something that still needs to be studies in depth…

I recently posted on this blog about why I love living in the U.S.A. And there isn’t really anything I feel I have to take back about this post. But… The instinct of preserving life has become something that, as an outsider, I would almost call ever-present, all-trumping, an obsession. The debate on abortion, something I also posted on already, is one example. Good people are fighting one another over when life begins, probably driven by, on the pro-life side, the fear of their own mortality. Another and potentially much more dangerous example is the American notion of protecting life world-wide. The reason why conservatives want to stock-pile weapons and bombs is not to destroy life but to protect it–how could you, without a good ace up your sleeve should life become threatened, right? But, as the documentary movie so aptly puts: the desire to protect one’s life has the subconscious effect of increasing the impulse to fight, and then of course fight those who seem to have a different world view, as that is what threatens our way of life. In short, this is a vicious circle, one that evolution unfortunately didn’t see coming… And I must admit it would be very unfortunate if the human condition is one where the instinct to preserve life is, in the end, what destroys it.

My own vision? If we could just all accept some realities, such as that people have different religions and world views, and that we all will die, then, maybe, we can all share this reality and have wonderful experiences together, and at least reduce the suffering caused by this truly and ultimately useless fight.

There is yet little scientific basis for my vision, but I am hopeful that someone out there might feel this is worth exploring: can accepting the fear that comes with the foreknowledge of death reduce the impulse to fight? And if the impulse is reduced, what are the consequences practically.

Outside of science, in thoughts people post online as well as in revered literature, there is of course ample “evidence” that others have thought of this before, and that I am not the only one with this vision. I want to share two examples:

One of my very dear friends, Jeffyi Lu, put it this way in a recent Facebook post of his:

Midnight Reflection: If life was the ultimate game, I would rather prefer to loose. Because winning dehumanizes my true ethical being. In other words, being the king of the world also means losing everything else. And that “everything else” is what makes me a compassionate human being.

And I take the liberty to copy and paraphrase from the comment I made to that post… Aren’t we all losers? Then again, can’t we also be champions? At least potentially? This much we know: we are guaranteed to die! Unfortunately, for most people it seems that life is about fighting death, fighting mortality, which is to say they simply react to their emotion of fear, although this fear is entirely caused by imagining the future, a future in which they no longer exist.

This struggle causes so much pain and suffering, and for as long as we literally suffer from the illusion we could ever win this fight, I do believe we cannot be truly human. So, to be a champion, one must accept that, in the very end, the fight must be lost–but, equally, fight we must, as life preserves itself through instinct!

To borrow another image from someone whose books have been read by millions, I want to quote J.K. Rowling, who has her title character Harry Potter think and experience the following (J.K. Rowling. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, p. 512):

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.

So, yes, the true champion walks into the arena of life, knowing the fight will be lost, but with his head held high, accepting the inevitable but not despairing. And, to extend on that image a bit, that championship is exactly what Harry achieves, when he walks through the Forbidden Forest to meet his own death: you know what’s coming, death, but you still face it with dignity and humanity!

If we just, in our own lives, were accepting a bit more of the fact that, one day, we will no longer exist, and take it with a bit more “Buddhism” in our hearts and minds, not fighting it, but enjoying life while it lasts, maybe we would discover that the differences between cultures and ways of life are not reason enough to die for…

Sad, not sorry

I don’t think I’ve ever given this an awful lot of thought until today, but it’s a strange thing that when you talk to people about something sad that has happened in your life one of the most common reactions seems to be that they say, “I’m so sorry.” And while I am still not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean, other than hopefully showing their sympathy with my sadness, somehow I usually feel that people want to say something like, “that’s too bad, I wish this thing didn’t happen in your life.”

So, today is one of those days where I am sad. My dad called me just a short while ago, telling me that my grandmother, who celebrated her 95th birthday in February this year, died earlier today. Once the words were out, I could hear and sense my dad’s sadness, just as I could feel tears welling up in my own eyes, and we shared a long silent moment on the phone together. There clearly is a feeling of loss, and knowing that I will never be able to spend time with her, listen to her words of wisdom and her humor makes me sad. But am I sorry? Am I suffering from the loss? Well, what I can say with certainty is that I don’t feel any regret, and neither I think does my dad, nor did my grandmother until the end.

My dad told me that he and his wife were sitting with my grandmother until she was gone, and that even shortly before she went, she expressed how satisfied and contented she was with everything, with her life, with the way things have turned out, with the fact that she has raised a wonderful son, who in turn founded his own family and gave her three grandsons she always felt she could be proud of.

The predominant feeling I have, next to the sadness over the loss, is that of gratitude. My grandmother has always been a source of inspiration when it comes to a wonderful attitude towards life: you always do your best, but whatever comes out of it is in God’s hand. While I do not think of the world as being “controlled” or “constantly ordered” by God, I truly believe that one of the main reasons why my grandmother was able to weather the tremendous storms that rattled her life was that she was willing and able to “give in to reality” and not despair, but rather grow with the challenges as they presented themselves.

I want to take this moment to celebrate my grandmother for the woman she was and remember her for the best of what she instilled in me!

Even before my dad was born, she received word that her husband, my grandfather, had been killed in a railroad accident in Russia. It was the summer of 1942, in the middle of World War II, and I cannot even imagine the agony and pain this must have caused her. One of the things my grandmother would, particularly later in life, repeat often whenever we spoke was that her family had warned her, “don’t you dare having a child so soon.” Well, obviously she did have a child, my dad, and has always been thankful for not heeding the advice she was given. And I do hope that, next to some traits I inherited from my mom’s side, my grandmother’s defiance and determination to stand against all odds and do what she felt she had to do will always be with me.

A few years later she was faced with a most terrifying health crisis. She developed an infection, which eventually led to an almost complete loss of hearing on one side. And after attempting pretty much everything that classic medicine could offer at the time, the doctors told her she had mere months to live. But she wouldn’t give in, and she surprised not only the doctors… Her son needed her, and she fought a long uphill battle. She began reading up on less traditional medicine, she became learned in herbs and their properties, and despite this severe incident she managed to outlive all of her siblings.

Another of her most endearing qualities was her humor. She would always joke and laugh with my brothers and me about the things she knew were declining during her final years. For instance she would suggest to us that we should take her to a dance, fully aware of course that her mobility and health would never permit it. But she wasn’t bitter about the loss of mobility, the loss of hearing, or the loss of memory. She just took whatever came and made the best of it anyway, simply by being who she was, by doing what she felt was right, and then allowing God to fill in the blanks. She often said that all she wished for was for God to take her home, so she could see her husband again, who would be waiting for her. But she didn’t wait anxiously but rather calmly.

In short, despite the many and heavy personal blows that fate dealt her, she kept going and always did so high-spiritedly. While I have not made up my mind about whether or not I believe in an after-life, I must say that I do hope that she is now reunited with my grandfather. She has been longing to see him for quite many years, and finally the waiting, at least, is over.

For as long as I live, I now want to do my best to follow in her footsteps and keep her legacy alive in me: Do what you feel is right, and then be content with what comes of it. And in those moments where I might feel frustration over something I didn’t manage to achieve, or angry about someone who I believe has wronged me, then I want to remember her… Don’t be angry, just be yourself and then everything will turn out alright.

Thank you, grandma, for everything!

Is romantic love worth the risk?

Today it happened for the second time within a week that a good friend of mine told me about how the person he felt very smitten, for not say in love with simply turned their back on him and how his feelings seem to have led him into a situation where, after opening up, he is faced with having to close a chapter in his life which just seemed to have started. How could this have happened? And given the potential for incurring such a high emotional cost, is falling in love really “worth the risk”?

Well, something similar happened to me before, and not just once. I guess most people can probably relate to this situation: there is someone who makes you feel special, who seems to be perfect, who you would do anything for, but as much as it might seem so at first, in the end the feelings are not reciprocated… I do not wish to speak to the exact details of my friends’ recent experiences. Instead I am again thinking about, and to some degree trying to decide, how much those emotions can be trusted.

Emotions in general seem helpful in “making up our minds”. Several researchers have looked at the quality of decisions that are either based on “our gut feeling” or on careful deliberative processed. And overall, it seems that our instinct and intuition are fairly useful and indeed goal oriented when it comes to making decisions. But particularly when it comes to this both extremely wonderful but also potentially hurtful thing we call love, they equally often seem to fail us…

A few weeks back I had a long conversation with another very good friend, and we were debating about what exactly makes up the feeling of “romantic love”. And although we didn’t really get anywhere definitive, I remember two of the key elements that emerged from our train of thought:

For one, falling in love seems to require a person to allow him or herself to become vulnerable. As long as you “play it safe” you might feel attracted to someone, you might very well desire to spend lots of time with that person and flirt, but there seems to be no “sparkle”. When it comes to making a definite move, you need something else. The willingness to make a fool of oneself, or more generally speaking to give oneself up, even as far as being willing to die should the significant other person’s life be at stake, has also caught the attention of Helen Fisher, who studies love scientifically.

For another, falling or being in love also seems to focus our attention solely on positive aspects we experience in a relationship. So, whatever negative, or at least possibly conflicting or usually discouraging information we might normally pick up on when it comes our way, we seemingly are just not receptive for that. Whether the person we have a crush on shows no real interest, or they even show signs of disrespect and hostility, as long as we are “in love” those aspects are invisible.

Both these elements clearly go against what a deliberative process would dictate: only exposing oneself as much as is necessary and certainly keeping an eye out for trouble. So,  if romantic love makes us vulnerable, and at the same time seems to prevent us from even noticing that we are indeed being hurt, wouldn’t it be better to just forget about the whole thing?

Well, naturally this is something I can only answer for me, personally. Here is my reasoning, both emotionally and cognitively, why I would not want to live in a world without this particular kind of love:

Despite the risk, mostly that of falling in love with the wrong person of course, romantic love allows us to explore parts of our innermost self which are normally kept too well guarded to become visible. During the times I was “madly in love” I realized many of the qualities that I have come to cherish about myself. At one time, I for instance created a piece of music for a guy I had a crush on, although we had never talked to one another. For those of you who know the story: silence is golden, OK? But, honestly… That was stupid, huh? Well, maybe so, but I also realized how good I can be at composing music. The effort I put into this piece didn’t have any precedent. In other words, being in love made me see my, and maybe can make us all see our full potential. Why? I would argue that, besides the thrill of romantic love, there are only a few other situations I can think of that could motivate me to “shine” and bring out the best in me just as much. And some of these are probably even riskier…

Naturally, the feeling of one’s heart being broken, which undoubtedly occurs in anyone’s life if falling in love is part of it, is nothing to be “desired”, but given the choice between having the opportunity of extending my limits at the possible cost of feeling that pain and a life without love as well as pain, yes, I choose a life that allows me to explore those limits. Does that make me a hopelessly romantic guy? If so, I can live with that!

Now, are there any precautions one could possibly take to lessen the risk? Maybe, but my intuition tells me that any attempt at doing so, at least when it occurs prior to falling in love, simply means that my love would never be as genuine, as pure as it has to be for me to truly explore my limits. But I do believe I can ensure that, should disaster strike, I will at least be “OK” in time to come:

Having friends who know me, as good as can be, who know what I feel for that special person, who have shown their support in the past seems like a good start. And as much as it saddened me to hear what those two friends of mine are currently going through, I am at least glad that they felt close enough to talk about it. I sincerely hope that I can “return the favor” and be there as a supportive friend. In my life I have quite a few good friends who have listened to and supported me in my romantic endeavors. If you are one of them and I never said it as clearly as in this blog post, please accept my deepest thanks for being there for me, it would have been much harder without you!

The case of abortion after rape…

OK, this is a tough one, but, hey, aren’t philosophers (even spare time ones) supposed to tackle tough questions every once in a while…? At least the issue is still on my mind after several days have passed since Todd Akin, a U.S. Representative for the state of Missouri made some truly “outlier comments” on August 19 (quote):

“Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

To begin with, let me begin with that I believe that rape is one of the most violent and possibly destructive experiences anyone can go through. I count myself fortunate as not having such a memory to look back on.

Also, while I am as little or much of a medical expert as I am a professional philosopher (not at all!), I would simply argue there is little hard (or hard enough) evidence to support the conclusion that a woman’s body would have the ability to “shut that whole thing down.” (here is an article at least looking at some of the evidence, but it seems obvious that this is a topic that could never be studied under controlled conditions so long as ethical review boards do their job, so maybe the best we can say is that we better don’t assume anything…)

Now, if I start with those two base assumptions:

  • Women who are raped go through a most terrible experience and it is a natural reaction to try to remove any evidence associated with it.
  • Pregnancies following rape cannot be construed as some way of saying, “this wasn’t rape” (because otherwise the pregnancy would not have occurred).

where does this lead? I would hope that even the most “pro-life” arguing person would agree that there is a potential value in allowing the mother to terminate the pregnancy (hoping that the process of healing and recovery will not be aggravated by the constant reminder of the experience itself, which seems inevitable during the pregnancy).

Do I believe that this automatically means a woman “should” choose an abortion or that no-one shall raise an objection? No, I don’t. Here’s why:

Regardless of how a child is conceived, a “life-in-the-making” is created. One of the real issues with this question might be seen as whether or not an embryo in its early developmental stages can or even must be considered “human life” (with all rights and privileges usually given to it). And as much as I am willing to tackle that question, I want to concentrate, at the moment, on why this debate hasn’t left my thoughts.

Most importantly, I agree with and emotionally relate to the “pro-life” sentiment that, regardless of whether the embryo can be considered human life at the time when a mother is (or isn’t) given the choice to terminate the pregnancy, this “life-to-be” is worth protecting. For one, it cannot protect itself (if no-one is speaking on its behalf, whatever good and valuable exists might be overlooked and irrevocably destroyed). For another, as much as this life was conceived in an act of violence, I do not think that the “human it could become” should be held accountable or responsible (which, naturally, is not at all what a “pro-choice” position postulates!).

In short: women who are pregnant after having been raped are faced with a tough decision (so long as they have it, that is) between their own emotional healing and well-being on the one side and allowing a new life to be created by their bodies on the other. Given that the life-in-the-making doesn’t yet have a voice to speak for itself, other people feel the need to do so. I think the dilemma arises when those people speaking for the unborn (and unfinished) life want to take “matters into their hands”. How could anyone ever say they “know” what is best for the mother? Or what is best for the unborn child? Or which of the two is more valuable? What those people are trying to do is to protect the value of an unborn child (and I believe that is a good thing!), but the way they choose to do so seems to forget about the value of the life of the mother.

Do I have a solution? Well, I would like to propose a position that is both, pro-life (acknowledging that the embryo, regardless of whether or not it can “already” be considered human life, is worth protecting) and pro-choice (the life of the mother is, in its entirety, worth protecting as well). This may sound like not a solution at all (anything that is even a little pro-choice is, in the end, pro-choice!), but I think that what pro-life proponents are most infuriated about is the seemingly callous way in which people on the pro-choice side of the argument say that abortion is “OK”.

In an “ideal world” (well, as long as rape happens, clearly not ideal, maybe call it crazy if you want), I would hope that good people would talk to those women who, after being raped and finding out they are pregnant, are put in a position where just after having to deal with an extremely traumatic experience they must make a most difficult decision (possibly leading to yet another traumatic experience either way). If those women could experience the support and care, both for their emotional needs as well as for the unborn and yet to be created life, maybe their decision would become at least a little less difficult. Is it possible, maybe even likely that, in any given case, a woman chooses to terminate the pregnancy? Absolutely yes. But should someone else be able to force her to carry to term (and in a way rape her again, by taking away her choice)? Personally, I don’t think so. By taking the decision out of her hands and forcing something upon her which she has no control over (the core elements of any rape), I think it is likely that whatever emotional healing has to occur cannot occur.

Comments welcome!