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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An extended metaphor

I'm like a zoo animal, released back into the wild. I spent the last two years in cozy captivity, working on things just barely interesting enough to hold my attention for just enough reward to keep me from having reason to complain. Two years, evidently, isn't long enough to accept it as a way of life, but its been long enough to dull my killer instincts.

The idea, I think, wasn't too poorly motivated. I figured if I could establish a good career, I'd be able to support my creative ambitions without having to worry about selling them; I wouldn't be the slave to others' opinions of the stuff I created. I could let myself run wild and uninhibited! Consequences be damned, for I'd be self-sufficient! Smashing! What could be better than simultaneously shunning convention and succeeding materially and intellectually?

Ah, but it's harder than I once thought. As material success mounted, my mind atrophied. All-consuming passion for radical ideas faded into passive acceptance of the massive inevitability of the course of history. With just enough vision to recognize the magnitude of humanity's challenges, one's individual contribution appears vanishingly small. Better to accept the small pleasures that life affords than burn it away trying to save a sinking ship... right?

How many fiery young souls fall into that death spiral? Quite a few, I should think, and having come so close myself makes me shudder. I'm thinking of a metaphor that illustrates the dynamics. Imagine all the paths you could take in your life, think of how the possibilities branch out and define some network growing in a sphere around the instant of your birth. Infinite possibilities! But only one path will be taken. How far will you get from the start? Assume for a moment that the distance is some important measure; you can define it for yourself, just imagine some positive value. You might imagine birth and death occupying the same place of "zero-distance-from-center" in this little imaginary universe. A reasonable goal might be obtain the furthest distance -the highest possible level of energy- before inevitably crashing back to nonexistence. Why not? Ultimately one goal is as good as the next, but a distinctive one seems appealing. Why? I don't know, but I suspect it has something do do with life's fundamental imperative to turn dead matter into living matter.

Among these infinite possibilities, how does one choose? Lucky for you and I, at least in terms of our ability to act, our choices are more constrained than we'd like to believe. We've got company in the space of possibilities; among our neighbors are peers on random walks like ourselves, and we exert influence on each others' directions. Sometimes we collide and send each other spinning askew, sometimes we sync up and spiral off in some direction with each other. Collections of such eddies form and take on a life of their own; pulling in new participants as their present ones leave or die. These become the massive objects whose gravitation defines the course of most of our lives: cultures, institutions, philosophies, and religions; they vie for dominance and trade oblivious individuals back and forth like electrons in molecules. Individuals near the edges are subject to the pull of competition and are buffeted back and forth, those nearer the nucleus gradually fall closer and closer in, gaining more isolation from the environment until they are as alike their compatriots as they can possibly be; their orbits perturbed only by universal changes.

Its not really fair to call such a fall a "death spiral." After all, the agglomeration of individuals that makes up the institution might be traveling in a positive direction, and the individual might be privileged (in their own personally defined terms) to become a part of it. And maybe each of the individuals are of such high energy and unique personal direction and internal complexity that rather than becoming more alike through their interactions, they each become more different. Ahhh... now that sounds like a ball of souls worth being a tangled up in!

Returning now from pseudo-philosophy meditations and pop-physics motivated imagry, I'll come to a point. I've been distracting myself from these sorts of thoughts for a few years with concreities like car payments and performance reviews. Concretes are much easier to deal with; answers exist and they have closed form: its just a matter of filling in the blanks with income, assets, and liabilities. Much harder to deal with are questions like "what is a positive path for my life to take?" "What is my standard of value?" "What am I living for?" The questions themselves aren't even well defined, but finding ways of expressing them seems like a worthwhile way to spend a life.

And that, friends, is what makes life exciting. I've spun off of my spiral towards cohesion with a great (but dieing) cultural institution, and I've conserved some of the momentum from my fall and shot of to (hopefully) higher heights. My redirection is largely thanks to having colided with a small, highly energetic and chaotic collection of individuals that seem to interact via paradox as much as similarity. I hope that you'll have such an opportunity as well. The fact that you've got this in your hands is a good start. The question becomes: do you have the courage to leave whatever comfortable orbits you're in and accept an uncertain direction? From my experience: its worth the trouble.