Valuing Transient Relationships

I’ve always struggled to value relationships that I knew wouldn’t last.

Here’s how I subconsciously conceived of short-term relationships. If I knew that I wouldn’t be able to spend time with person X after some point in time Y (with no foreseeable opportunity of being able to interact with them again), then, looking back after Y, wouldn’t the time spent with X prior to Y seem like a waste (i.e. there were better ways to spend it) since X would no longer be a part of my immediate life?

As a result, I have at times sabotaged relationships when the time of physical separation neared. I didn’t suddenly cut off all communication or anything extreme like that, but I would begin to spend less and less time with people, justifying myself with the feeling, “what’s the point?”

This pattern of thought seems to have resulted from a number of experiences growing up. When I graduated from Japanese elementary school in 6th grade, my parents gave me the option of going to Japanese middle school (where all my friends would be going) or homeschooling. I don’t really remember the reasons why, but I chose to be homeschooled. This cut me off from all but one close friend whose school attendance gradually declined, thereby allowing me to spend more time with him. The following year our family moved and I started attending an international school. During my first year I developed a friendship with an intimacy that I previously didn’t know was possible. Unfortunately, my friend had to move after just one year, and I haven’t seen him since. My parents ran a hostel for the international school I attended, so the people I was living with changed annually. This pattern was repeated in university, while living in a share house with friends, and in the guesthouse where I currently reside (where people come and go most frequently).

The common thread throughout these experiences was my relationships being forced to be broken up (at least to a certain degree), primarily due to physical separation. I understand that this is by no means a unique experience, but it seems to have affected me more than the average person (or perhaps I’ve just never heard anyone discussing this topic).

Through it all, I developed a dislike for short-term relationships and formed an image of an ideal relationship – one in which two people are never permanently separated. (This is by no means an impossibility; in fact, it is the norm in some societies, such as hunter-gatherer tribes.)

Buried beneath this mindset was an assumption that is most clearly manifest in the particular type of relationship called romance – how, at least in most cultures, any outcome other than marriage is generally viewed as negative. Translated into relationships in general, a relationship is considered a failure if it ever ends; if you don’t keep in touch, it wasn’t that great or important of a relationship in the first place.

This generates a compulsion to maintain relationships by any means possible, even artificially. Take the practice of skyping geographically distant friends, for example. This is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction; it only includes a limited amount of auditory and visual information and requires that you to be in front of a screen in order to continue a conversation. You can’t play games, share a meal, take a walk, watch a movie, or any other activity you would do if you were actually together. All you can do is talk, much of which is merely an exchange of information.

That’s not to say that conversations have no value, of course. But can a relationship consisting of conversations alone be truly intimate? More to the point, can regular skyping maintain the level of intimacy that was once present between two people before they were physically separated?

I don’t think so. The reason intimacy is developed in the first place is not merely because hours are spent in deep conversation (although that may very well play a part in it). No, intimacy comes from doing life together. Charles Eisenstein put it best:

“Besides, real intimacy comes not from telling about yourself―your childhood, your relationships, your health problems, etc.―but from joint creativity, which brings out your true qualities, invites you to show that aspect of yourself needed for the task at hand. Later, when intimacy has developed, telling about oneself may come naturally―or it may not even be necessary.
Have you ever wondered why your childhood friendships were closer, more intimate, more bonded than those of adulthood? At least that’s how I remember mine. It wasn’t because we had heart-to-heart conversations about our feelings. With our childhood friends we felt a closeness that probably wasn’t communicated in words. We did things together and created things together.”

My focus on trying to create and maintain “ideal” relationships have caused me to undervalue transient relationships and be distracted from the now, my immediate circumstances, the people who are actually near me that I can interact with.

Reading Through Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases

I finished reading through Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases (as well as a list of common theoretical causes of them).

Things I realized:

1. I am hopelessly biased. Just because one knows of a bias doesn’t mean they are free from it, and surely there will always be undiscovered biases anyways. I would like to become totally free of bias, but that seems impossible.

2. A cognitive bias is not necessarily “bad.” Some are simply poor reasoning (e.g. the gambler’s fallacy), but others seem to serve a useful heuristic function.

3. Not all phenomena labeled as a cognitive bias are necessarily so. A cognitive bias is basically a pattern of illogical inference based on some perception. As such, a cognitive bias is a cognitive bias only when certain assumptions (depends on the bias) are granted. For example, “projection bias” – the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one’s future selves) share one’s current emotional states, thoughts and values – is not a cognitive bias in a worldview in which human consciousnesses are not independent of one another (thus current mental states are shared to a degree, and people’s thinking that others’ thoughts are a certain way is not a projection but a perception, not an assumption but an inference).

Reading Books I Already Agree With

I have a general policy of not reading books whose ideas I already generally agree with.

My reason for this lies in my purpose for reading in the first place: to change the way I think. I want to be exposed to new ideas and have my current paradigms questioned.

I find it amusing when I post some thought on Facebook and a friend replies with a book recommendation that says similar to what I had just expressed. I know that this is done as a kind gesture, but consider the exchange that is taking place in its essence:

Me: “I think X.”
Friend: “Here’s a book that also says X. You should read it.”

To me this seems potentially unhealthy as it can create a cycle of solidifying beliefs without any opportunity for considering alternatives. Personally, I would much rather prefer a recommendation of a book espousing a contrary perspective.

I’m not saying that reading books whose ideas you generally agree with has no value. There may still be much to glean from such a book, such as looking at something from a different angle or encountering a new way of verbally expressing an idea. The question isn’t whether there is value or not, but rather which is more valuable. Wouldn’t a book challenging your beliefs be more beneficial than a book that basically tells you, “you are right”?

I hope you didn’t already agree with this post ;]

Infinity as Quality

In Charles Eisenstein’s The Ascent of Humanity (which I have been reading ardently, and which is looking like it will become my favorite book of all time) reality is often referred to as “infinite.” I noticed that this slightly bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why.

Having grown up in a culture that reduces, objectifies, and measures just about everything (or at least tries to), as well as studying mathematics in university, I have become accustomed to thinking of infinity only as quantity. Today I realized that, unsurprisingly, I was interpreting Eisenstein’s statements as meaning that the world is quantitatively infinite – either that there is a countably infinite amount of matter or that matter is infinitely divisible. (The reason this bothered me was that both options seemed to be unwarranted assumptions, but that’s a different topic entirely.) This naturally led me to ask myself:

What would it mean to consider infinity as a quality?

The word “infinite” is commonly used to poetically describe qualitative characteristics such as unfathomability, limitlessness, boundlessness, etc. For example, consider the following sentence from The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” In context, the poetic meaning of “infinite” here is clearly not quantitative (e.g. that “we” is a great number of human beings) but qualitative (e.g. the ineffability of what was being felt at that point in time).

But I am trying to conceive of a characteristic that is qualitatively infinite in a “literal” sense, just like there is a characteristic that is quantitatively infinite in a “literal” sense, namely a collection of objects being uncountable.

It seems, however, that such a characteristic might fundamentally contradict assumptions inherent in my cultural upbringing. I feel this way precisely because I’m finding it so difficult to come up with such a characteristic. “Reality is infinite.” All I can think when I consider this phrase is, “but what the hell does that mean?”

Thinking back, though, it now seems obvious to me that Eisenstein meant something along those lines. I just don’t know what exactly he means.

Any ideas?

Searching for Meaning

“What’s the meaning of life?”

An oft asked question.

For most of my life, the answer seemed obvious. Recently, however, having undergone significant changes in my beliefs, I find myself for the first time in my life struggling to find a satisfactory answer.

I used to ground meaning in life after death. In particular, life on earth was meaningful precisely because of the subsequent afterlife, the state of which is directly dependent on the manner in which your current life on earth was lived. I couldn’t conceive my current life by itself (that is, if there were not an afterlife following it) as meaningful since, by its very nature, it is finite. The afterlife was meaningful, however, because it was infinite; unlike life on earth it would never end.

Hidden in this previous mindset of mine was the notion that if something will eventually end or cease to exist, it is ultimately meaningless; impermanence is the enemy of meaning. I now recognize this as an assumption that accompanies many religions (for example, christianity, the one I was raised in) as well as the determinism of the Newtonian worldview which pervades our culture. Further, I cannot think of any compelling reason for why this should necessarily be true.

It’s not that I necessarily believe there’s no afterlife in any form; it’s just that I no longer derive meaning purely from it. I am learning to find meaning within that which is impermanent.

Guess I’ll get back to searching now.