Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Resolutions and the Meaning Machine

Happy Freaking Arbitrary New Year

A friend of mine, during the usual start-of-year conversation, says "I made a resolution years ago not to make any more resolutions."

I laugh. It's an old joke, but I get it. At a certain point, you get tired of the whole self-improvement business, I'm sure. I myself have all kinds of resolutions, but that's my thing, and other people are free to do whatever they want.

Then she goes on. "I mean, why should January First be any different than any other day. It's just a day, right? Why should I pick that date, as opposed to any other?"

A switch trips in my brain. "Because your brain is a meaning machine, and you're actually missing a huge opportunity. Because there's no difference at all, unless you think there is."

January First is an arbitrary date to ring in the New Year, in the sense that there are dozens of factors that went into making it the first day of our Western Calendar (see here if you want to read about them). Some of the reasons are political, some religious, some both. Almost none of them are directly relevant to us now, except insofar as they make for us these milestones by which we might measure our lives. 

Christmas, Easter, one's birthday: these are days, just like any others. If we choose, however, we can imbue them with meaning. There is an argument to make, in fact, that that's the only thing that a brain is good for, that is, creating meaning.

The world is full of events - crowded with them, really (he said, understating drastically). Every moment of every day our senses perceive these events: light hitting objects, objects moving through space, the rush and pump of blood and lymph beneath your skin, gravity and physics working their inexorable will on everything. And every moment your brain, with whatever tools it has at its disposal, whatever experiences it's stored up in that imperfect attic of memory, your brain pieces those perceptions together into a story, a narrative that help give you a way forward, a method of response. Most of those narratives, in answer to olden days when everything was out to kill you, are pretty conservative in nature, and mostly geared toward keeping you alive.

Most people, bless them, do okay with that. Their stories get them through the day, and so they don't change much. They tally up their minor wins and losses and usually call it about even. They go through their lives, assuming that the story that they're in is the only story that they can be in. 

Some of them don't even know that they're in a story.

But you and I, dear reader, we know. The story that we are in, is, after all, a story that we are making up as we go and telling to ourselves. And if we're writing it, we can change it if we don't like it.

But how?

We tell a new story. "On January First, Twenty-thirteen, the first day of a new year full of promise and magic, I decided to change my life." We can choose to believe that the first day of a year has a special significance, and by doing so, it does. Not only that, but you've got the rituals of an entire civilization (the ball drop, champagne, the kiss at midnight, Dick Clark's reanimated corpse) reinforcing your story. That is powerful stuff!

Wait, you might say, there's nothing special about the first day of a new year. Of course not. There's no meaning to the first day of a new year. There's no meaning to anything, come down to it. A rose, a stone, a dog, a star, the touch of your lover, the breeze blowing off the sea at sunset on a warm summer's day - meaningless. They have literally no meaning inherent to them whatsoever. 

That's YOUR job. You give meaning. You create the story. If the world has no meaning to you, then you kill the world, and that's your choice. You can do that if you want. Let me know how that works out for you.

But, if you want, you can choose to see the signs, the circumstances, the good fortune that carries you forward toward the life that you want to live. You can use the rituals of your society to "boost the signal," as it were. You can make up your own rituals, if that's more to your taste. Whatever you want. And from that, you can change your life, the way you see the world and yourself, to be happier and more alive.

As a very wise man once said, "What the thinker thinks, the prover proves." If you believe that your life is getting better, and that life has significance, you will begin looking for and finding evidence of your beliefs. It's called confirmation bias, and, if used correctly and mindfully, it can be a powerful tool. 

(Used incorrectly, of course, it can nuke your life from orbit. It's that powerful. Caveat emptor.)

So think about it. What kind of life are you living? Are you happy with what you've created? Do you want better? What kind of story are you telling yourself? 

Image from: used under Creative Commons. Thanks.

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