“It’s never as good as it looks and it’s never as bad as it seems.”
The 16-17 year old students I work with often ask me how to get more motivation. They believe that it is some kind of fairy dust capable of turning you an accomplishment-machine, realising all your potential and aiding you in changing the world.
Perhaps. They forget that motivation resembles hunger. You may feel energetic but also increasingly agitated, nauseous and sore. Your mind is focused on getting your gullet filled, that’s it. You feel unsettled and uncomfortable. You feel anxious as you mightn’t last long enough to find food. You think of all the different ways to satisfy the hunger – doing nothing is just not an option.
Being motivated isn’t pleasant.
Sometimes, we all feel excitement at a new beginning, at how much we are going to accomplish. This pleasant sensation differs from what I would call motivation. We all need such an elated state sometimes to carry us through, but we borrow it from the emotional bank and will have to pay it back with interest. This loan covers over the obstacles that will get in our way and helps us to get started. If you want to feel elated, all you need to do is ignore reality.
Not a sustainable solution.
I think all productive people oscillate between feeling hungry and transiently being satisfied with what they accomplished.
Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are Alone together, scholar and cat Each has his own work to do daily; For you it is hunting, for me study. Your shining eye watches the wall; My feeble eye is fixed on a book. You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse; I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem. Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other; Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.
– an translation of an Irish poem written by a monk around the 9th century
P.S. I just made a guide to D.H. Lawrence’s poems as part of my educational platform, but I am missing one called Baby-Movements II, “Trailing Clouds”. I wasn’t able to find in Trinity’s library, so don’t even know where to look! If anyone has seen such a thing, please send it to me! (It’s not copyrighted at this stage.)
Do you read any poets yourself? Any modern ones? Recommendations are welcome 🙂
And so we continue our search for the meaning of life. Robert Solomon’s The Passionsoffered an interesting take on this question. He proposed the idea that emotions are the meaning of life: as in they add the meaning in a life; emotions add meaning to our experience the world.
When I first came across this idea, I thought it was strange, but really it does make sense. Emotions have a strong effect of perception. Perception heavily influences our understanding of reality and thus has an impact on the meaning we attribute to things, life itself being one of those things.
Emotions are probably the strongest mental phenomena, built of thoughts and feelings – and very importantly, ultimately resulting in action, as the name suggests. Emotions are the driver of behaviour. My entrepreneurial soul was quite impressed when I heard that every sale is a promise of a future state. Emotions rule us, so we may try to be a little bit more aware – and perhaps less disrespectful to them.
Solomon argues that emotions are judgements rather than plain feelings arising from bodily reactions. Emotions tells us whether something matters – or is meaningful. Solomon also argues that emotions are in a sense chosen, sort of along the lines of stoic philosophy. As with beliefs, emotional judgements are often unintentional and unconscious, but we are still responsible for evaluating and changing them if that’s warranted.
According to Matthew Ratcliffe, Solomon sees emotions as the ‘meaning of life’, in the sense that they are a precondition for the intelligibility of all our goal-directed activities. If no actual or possible states of affairs were ever judged by us to be preferable to any other, we would have no grounds for action. Without emotions, we could have no projects, nothing to strive for, no sense of anything as worth doing:
“I suggest that emotions are the meaning of life. It is because we are moved, because we feel, that life has a meaning. The passionate life, not the dispassionate life of pure reason, is the meaningful life.”
As someone who has spent some time studying emotions, I occasionally hold out hope that one day science succeeds in transcending the prism of bias and emotion and we are able to see the world without the emotional projections. Being that little bit pragmatic though – and seeing people like N. Taleb do it, I realise that we have to give up on overintellectualising and accept our limitations – or rather break up with our illusion that we are so above our lowly emotions.
The interesting thing about Solomon’s writing is that he emphasises the existential aspect of emotions: this our experience of being present.
The other interesting aspect is how neuroplasticity affects our perception: any time we experience an emotion a certain pathway gets potentiated and the next time we perceive similar inputs, the fact that we experienced an emotion relating to it previously will have changed the way we see the world. There is positive feedback here.
Neuroplasticity affects everything, but a lot of it is mediated through emotion. My personal working theory is that the meaning of life is the impact that you have (appreciating that that’s very vague, but the point here is that it’s different to the en vogue “the meaning of life is happiness”). But how do I decide what is full of impact? I need to feel that it has meaning. The exact values I consider to be full of impact may in theory be independent of emotion, but in reality they are completely affected by emotion. That warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment has to flow through me to know that what I am doing is meaningful. I usually only arrive there through what would look to an outside person as a silent CBT session with myself, so it isn’t entirely detached from intellectualising, but it has to feel right in order for me to know that it is right.
What if I do find something meaningful? It is going to invoke strong emotions. The common denominator of meaning does seem to be emotion.
Solomon drew a lot of Martin Heidegger’s concepts of mood. Mood is probably a more more precise word for what Solomon was talking about. The weather (emotion) matters less than the climate (mood) when we decide on the meaning of things around us. Our moods probably invoke the exact brands of biases and focuses of those biases that will allow us then to form our ideas on the meaning of what we see. Heidegger has an interesting definition for mood: it is a background sense of belonging to a meaningful world. That’s kind of like saying that I, as an object, have a relationship with all these other objects and I am trying to evaluate the condition of that relationship. “Sun’s out, so everything is good” or “Nobody is replying to my emails, so I feel like sh*t”. This certainly describes my mood a lot of the time, but then I slap myself and go back to a more Stoic/Nietzschean attitude to evaluating my own actions rather than the world’s response to me.
Reality is real no matter how we perceive it, but meaning is pretty personal.
P. S. I wrote a Haiku while sitting on a beach in Dublin:
An old dog, once black, now wiser, at sunset.
Here is the culprit:
P. P. S. I also drew something mighty odd. Feel free to indulge in the madness mindfulness and colour it in.