The only competition that matters

“Oh my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” –Pindar

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” –Seneca

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

The only competition that matters is the one between who you are now and who you become.

Energy crisis

“To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” –Bertrand Rusell

The know-how may be less crucial than the want-to and the get-up-and-go. The will to action can be tough to summon. But it’s often the first step—the leap, the getting up and getting started—that stalls us.

Even if you don’t feel like it, just get started in some small way on your grand plan for making the world better or on your humble dream to be a better version of yourself.

Fake it if you have to. Act like you already are who you want to be. Forward movement builds momentum and renews energy you didn’t know was there.

Don’t wait till you’ve got it figured out to get started. You’ll never have it figured out. It’s only in the doing that the thinking can take flight.

Feeling a bit hopeless? In despair? Just start.

Things fall apart: The Second Law and the meaning of life

I keep coming back to this feature I read last year on the scientific term or concept that scholars think ought to be more widely known. Here’s the scientist Steven Pinker’s response explaining why more people should understand entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

(Pinker’s massive new book, Enlightenment Now, is about this very topic and explores in detail how much progress we have made in imposing order on a disorderly world.)

My layman’s mind doesn’t quite get the scientific nuances at play here. But I get that things in the universe fall apart (the stars are literally falling away from each other right now) and will continue to do so with only minuscule bits of resistance.

Those seemingly insignificant and likely futile efforts to “fight back the tide of entropy”, though, are our keys for living a meaningful life.

Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art calls that apparently malevolent force that pushes back against our efforts to grow and improve and create “the resistance”. But, maybe that force is just entropy, the natural inclination of the universe toward disorder. It’s our effort to overcome entropy and make progress against this relentless current pushing us toward chaos and decay that could instead be called “the resistance”. We are freedom fighters battling against an overwhelming tyranny.

It’s been too easy to believe that progress is inevitable, that humanity will just naturally grow smarter and gentler, because that’s what we’ve seemed to witness in general over the last couple of centuries.

But, progress is not the default. The default is disorder, not order, not improvement. Left on their own, things fall apart.

Organize your sock drawer on Sunday, and, without at least a little attention and effort, it’s likely to be a mess again by Friday. The lawn won’t stay mowed. Stop exercising and you’ll get weaker almost immediately.

The tide of entropy is relentless. Our very existence—all of biology, for that matter—is owed to fighting against that tide, to digging in and making something that will stand and endure long enough for the next wave of resistance to relieve us.

Progress, for individuals and for our species as a whole, depends on diligent, unrelenting striving, pushing against the natural default of disorder.

It’s all ultimately futile, I suppose, in the really big scheme of things. The sun will die its natural death eons from now. Our species will likely be long gone well before then. Even a mere two centuries into the future, who will remember your name or care that you lived?

But instead of sinking into despair about our fate, choose to rise with courage each day to go into battle and fight for meaning and truth and beauty while you can.

Individually, this should remind us to embrace discontent, to keep searching and stretching, and to be vigilant in our efforts to move our lives forward. Get stronger physically. Eat real food. Expose yourself more often to discomfort. Get off the well worn path regularly and venture into surprise and serendipity and uncharted territory.

Be intentional about building and strengthening the relationships in your life. Life is all about relationships. Especially don’t let what seem like good relationships that you value coast along untended. Everything falls apart without some tending.

And get busy making something with your life that will add value to others. Focus less on what you can get and more on what you can give. What can you contribute? Where can you give back? What unique contribution, no matter how small, can you offer in this noble effort to move humanity forward?

Build systems, habits, and routines into your life to stay ahead of the pull of entropy. Come up with a battle plan, of sorts, for taking on this challenge week by week and day by day.

The writer, Annie Dillard, was getting at just this:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Of course, don’t resist what already is. Accept reality as it is right now. But do resist the pull toward chaos that would otherwise define our existence.

I’ve shared this before, but a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, issues a fitting challenge:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

Putting up a fight is victory, no matter that we’re all going down eventually.

Engage with life. Be excellent. Shine while you can.

On not aiming for fame

I saw this New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith last fall and filed it away to reference later. I ended up reading her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.

She makes the case that a good life is one that most likely looks quite ordinary and unexceptional. You don’t need to live a life that makes the headlines or history books in order to consider yourself a success. If that’s the measure, very few will ever make it. And we all know of too many famous people whose lives seemed to be especially unsatisfying.

The good life that’s in reach for the vast majority of us, though, is marked by authentic human connection and small, mostly unnoticed acts of kindness and meaningful contribution.

Aiming for fame will frustrate and disappoint, whether you get there or not.

The best bet, I think, is to focus on what you can give instead of what you want to get.

In her column, Smith cites this moving line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Unhistoric acts of kindness and beauty by those unknown to us have filled our world with much of its goodness. We can pay that forward to the benefit of all while safeguarding our own best chance at a life well lived.

 

On noticing when you’re happy

From a 2003 speech to college students by the author Kurt Vonnegut:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Wouldn’t it be great to have an Uncle Alex around to regularly remind you to notice happy moments?

Or maybe you should be Uncle Alex, reminding others and yourself to notice the usually unnoticed small delights and kindnesses of daily life.

We are surrounded by wonder and deep mystery and the potential for little bits of joy that mostly get passed by in our dazed distraction or overwhelmed by the crush of complaints and worries that seem to consume our attention.

It’s easier to find something if you’re looking for it. Look for these moments. Notice when you’re happy.

Remind others, too.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

By-the-way happiness

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” –John Stuart Mill

What if your happiness is to be found only incidentally—by the way—as you focus instead on the happiness of others, on something beyond yourself, on some pursuit that is an end in itself rather than a means to some hoped for end?

What if instead of looking for what you want or what you can get, you instead put your greatest and highest effort toward maximizing what you can uniquely give, what you can contribute?

You might just find yourself surprised by the kind of meaningfulness and happiness that you could never find by direct intent.

Defying gravity

I get The Daily Stoic daily email. Today’s email quoted this passage from Walker Percy’s book, The Moviegoer:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

I read this and smiled and got up from my desk with a little more courage.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little less sure and a little more lost than normal.

I don’t seem to be getting wiser as I get older. I’m just becoming even more aware of how little I truly know. Or maybe that’s what getting wiser is all about. If so, wisdom is not living up to the hype.

Regardless, I do know that I can live by my “lights”, by my meager understanding of what it means to be good and to do good.

I know how it feels to come alive, even momentarily, and shake off the half-hearted, half-asleep caution that most of us cower behind perpetually.

I can fight. I can attempt to rise, knowing I’ll still go down sooner or later. But in merely making the attempt I will prevail and fleetingly defy the gravity that aims to keep us from escape velocity.

Make the attempt. Shine where you can. Get up and get going and put up a fight. Be the hero of your own life.