Have you thought about (HYTA) what is the meaning of life?

q4sxj

         The meaning of life, whatever that may be, faces a curious conundrum. Say that it has already been determined, and we bemoan our immutable state of affairs, that our lives can have no deviation from what the fates have in store for us, that the cards in our preassigned deck are stacked against us, or that the dice having been already cast, makes us prisoners of the path we must walk. But conversely, if told that life is ultimately meaningless, that in the grand scheme of it all, we are so insignificant and unimportant that we have virtually no influence on the cosmos, then suddenly, there’s a sort of desperate void in everything we do. Why do anything when race, identity and consciousness are but concepts that on the highest level, have next to no impact on the universe?

         So how to answer the question? The only legitimately honest answer is the latter. Life has no ultimate meaning, except for a few directives that are already bestowed on us: to survive and reproduce. Only humans have evolved a brain that allows for sufficient abstraction such that unlike lesser animals, we cannot simply be contented with merely surviving. We question who we are and why we are here, and the same brain that helps us arrive at these answers can also be persuaded to end its existence. What we do today is not different from what we used to do in the distant past. We occupy ourselves with work and play, marry or stay single, start a family or help look after one, and then ultimately, we die believing we’ve achieved something, and that someone will benefit from our legacy. It’s a repetitive cycle repeated for eons, and will be repeated in the far future.  Exactly what are we supposed to get out of life then?

         This is why man had to invent religion, of which each faith has its own origin story, so that some kind of meaning is given for each young life to aspire towards. We are told that a benevolent (or capricious) creator oversees us, that we are fulfilling a part of his grand plans and that he (or they) care for our mortal well-being. But we didn’t stop here. We’ve also invented various cultural icons – pledges of allegiances, school songs, philosophies and arts – to make us believe we are invested in a world that is orderly and that answers to our needs (it doesn’t). Whether you go to Japan, Africa or Iceland, each country has created its own superstition, myths and symbols, and despite being truly nonsense, these absurdities give their people a sense of meaning and comfort, and a reason to be proud of their traditions.

         It’s why orientation, icebreakers and bonding camps are so important. They give a sense of belonging and purpose where none initially exists, and to cunningly influence (by peer pressure) the newcomers to form new belief systems about the place they are in and how it all ties into their self-worth. We want to feel that we belong to something because the alternative – realising that there’s nothing out there – is far scarier. Our social structure is artificially built from start to end to infuse meaning into our lives. The compulsory education pathway comprises of targets and goals set for us by the government, and further down, the workforce is deliberately calibrated to give a sense of career progression. You eventually move up the ranks, and are often encouraged to keep climbing the ladder. Likewise, money is in itself only a piece of paper, but society chooses to give it value and meaning, and so hard cash can become tied to our meaning of life. Everything’s as deliberate and as false as it gets but there’s no denying its effectiveness or necessity.

         And even the jobs and hobbies we call meaningful are often nothing but clever disguises. A policeman may take great pride in his job and see it as a respectful duty, but what he fails to sadly realise is that it is the criminals who give his job (and his life) meaning. For the policeman to be happy, he must hope for the criminals to commit all manners of atrocities so that only when he locks them up, he can feel a swell of satisfaction. Likewise, a doctor must depend on all manners of debilitating diseases and infections that call for his expertise so that his job is meaningful. People must die, must fall sick and suffer so that what he does has purpose. Similarly, a general who lives in a world without war is probably better off dead. There would be no soldiers to train and bully, no recruits to send off to die and no missiles to be fired. He is as useful as the fifth wheel on a wagon.

         Though there’s nothing inherently meaningful in anything we do, and while we are often guilty of mindlessly moving from one distraction to the next, we do get to author much of our lives. We have enough freedom and capacity of thought to direct the quality of life we wish to lead. And honestly? There’s not much we must possess to lead fulfilling lives. Our genuine needs are simple, but it’s modernity, advertisements and repeated comparisons that cause our dissatisfaction. Life can be meaningful as long as there’s at least one person we can always respond deeply to, a reasonable job that doesn’t go against our principles and a place to return. After all, haven’t the best stories always been the simple ones?

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what the meaning of life is?

Have you thought about (HYTA) which friendships are worth investing in?

0e7ef8e7ee619b1cc96f8b2d81578ea8

         A few weeks ago, someone important to me made a surprisingly shrewd observation: Which friends are worth keeping around? And who among them are worth investing more time in? In the economy of time, every action comes at a cost and each decision an expensive choice. Time spent with one person is less time spent with someone possibly more significant, and even less to be had for our own goals and desires. 

         The answer will first depend on our expectations of friendships. Some of us have very little, if any, expectation of friendships – a point I am reminded of by a colleague who once remarked cynically that there’s no one you can truly trust and you should expect every person to be nice or unpleasant according to whatever is most convenient for them. Furthermore, it’s sometimes hard to trust ourselves. Our desires are frequently capricious and our ability to accurately recall events is laughably bad. It’s kind of difficult to broach the topic of trusting friends when it’s doubtful if we can even trust ourselves.

         And even if we do have loftier expectations of friendships, exactly what is it that separates an old friend from a good friend, or even a best friend? These at first glance, appear to be arbitrary labels that seem to connote something better than a mere friend, but do they really mean anything? It’s hard to say. Old friends may just be a term you throw around as casually as guys are quick to call each other buddies or bros. In fact, there’s something irredeemably offensive about someone you’ve only known for a while and who’s quick to put arms around you and declare you a brother. Even if you have known someone for a long time and worked together, it’s not necessarily representative of a great friendship.

         So the first course of action is determining exactly what you want to get out of friendships. Should they be a matter of convenient alliance? To fulfill a temporary social need and easily expended in times of need and dropped whenever you wish? Or a permanent fixture you can always turn to no matter which stage of your life you are at? Some consider the occasional shopping trip to be a more than adequate way of maintaining a friendship while others may necessitate long hours of deep talk and confiding in to count as any meaningful interaction. Knowing what we clearly expect makes it easier to keep and cut friends in our lives.

         Yet, if Psychology has anything to say about friendships, it would be that as much as we wish for a degree of permanence to them, they generally do not last. Because our expectations and definition of friendship waxes and wanes according to where we are in life. For example, friendships often take a backseat to romantic relationships – an unfortunate corollary often exploited to comedic effect as ‘bros before hoes’. In a 2010 Oxford university study, it was observed that falling in love comes at the cost of two or more close friends. Because there’s only so many social connections we can have at a given point and only so much socialising we can handle before we become overwhelmed, close friends have to be set aside for someone we love. It’s less of economics and more of human limits.

         Similarly, married couples generally have fewer friends than singles, and are far less dependent on friendships. It’s not to say marriage cancels out friendships, but often, if we fall in love and marry the right person, we are in effect, marrying our soul mate and our best friend. And those who are in a deeply fulfilling marriage where their partner attentively attends to almost all their needs will find little desire to expect anything more from friendships. And even if such a friendship can be maintained, it would now be of a lower priority than it used to be. This doesn’t mean that a married life is better than being single. All it means is that friendships represents something very different to someone single (and maybe doesn’t intend to marry) as opposed to someone who is already deeply bonded to a life partner.

         Furthermore, friendships often have great difficulty surviving changes in personalities and beliefs. A great friend we have now that’s terrific to have for school projects and training matches may quickly become an unscrupulous businessperson on entering the workforce; when we enter or exit religion, we may find many of our friends keeping a wary distance, especially if we choose to forego a common faith; or if we decide to champion certain political positions or controversial causes, it may cause a deep rift with friends who stand in opposition to our choices. A friendship that can survive these difficult obstacles may not survive future ones. And a friendship that survives it all may still not necessarily be a meaningful one. 

         In the end, maybe friendships are nothing more than a strategic alliance. They are just personal connections to get you a job, who will write you a recommendation or be an additional numeral to swell your social ego. It’s not important whether they are good, best or great as long as each have a distinct role to play and a benefit for yourself. Friends meet a present need, but should not be expected to fulfill a future want. So which friend(s) should we invest in? If we are cynical and practical, then all of them. If we are merely practical, then some of them. If we are just cynical, we should invest in ourselves first, and pick the person who repeatedly gives us a meaningful return for every little thing we do for him or her.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) which friendships are worth investing in?