“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b– 40a
Every little choice adds up. It may not seem like there is a huge difference whether you spend the next half hour watching TV or going outside to find something beautiful to photograph. Twenty years from now you won’t remember the TV show. If you took the picture and framed it to hang on the wall, chances are that you will have an anchor point in time that draws you right back into whatever moment it was that you captured two decades ago. Those little anchor points are what determine whether your life has real meaning.
If you ask 100 people what gives their life meaning you will likely get 100 answers. In order to create meaning in your life, a sense of purpose is key. Meaning doesn’t just happen. It is created through narratives. You are in control of the narrative of your life, and that control is represented in thousands of choices that your brain makes every day. What you put in your mouth and what you put in your head determine who you become, and what the arc of your existence looks like.
Modern life tends to present too many choices, most of which are like fast food. They taste great but ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied because the content isn’t healthy. It isn’t healthy because it generates no meaningful sense of purpose. The online game World of Warcraft is an example. The game allows you to create characters who inhabit a fantasy universe that is fun to explore and full of interesting creatures you can kill or be killed by. The game has its own economy and system for ranking players. Creating an avatar is fun. Entering a massive world full of other people who are exploring it along with you using their own avatars is fun. You even have a sense of purpose at first. Your avatar grows in power and gains skills. You can buy magic armor and weapons to aid you in completing quests throughout the game’s imaginary world. The problem with World of Warcraft is that the more you give, the more it takes. To get your avatar to the highest level possible takes an investment of hundreds if not thousands of hours of your life, as well as paying the fees to continue playing month after month. Let’s say you have the time, funds and motivation to climb the game’s ladder all the way to the top. What now? Your reward is that you’ve sunk hundreds to thousands of hours into becoming…what exactly?
You’ve solved no problems in your real world life. You’ve solved no one else’s problems in your real world life. The return on investment is that you are able to defeat powerful imaginary foes in an imaginary world. You may have made friends in the game, but most likely, you’ve never met them in the real world. That means you can’t hug them or share a cup of coffee, or go to an art gallery together. Fantasy can be a healthy escape, but in a modern implementation such as World of Warcraft it is more likely to become a debilitating distraction. Type ‘World of Warcraft addiction’ into Google and browse through the 4 million plus results.
Modern choices trade real meaning for instant gratification. Look around you next time you are in a restaurant. Chances are that many of the people you see will be looking into tiny glass screens instead of interacting with the real world. They are making a choice. Choosing a simulated world where everything is poised and posed over one the one that engages all five senses. One day maybe the simulated worlds we humans and our machines construct will have more depth than the real one, but that time has not arrived. If you are choosing the artificial worlds available in 2017, you are missing a great deal.
Life’s meaning cannot be boiled down to a single meme, or even all the memes you will be exposed to on Facebook during a year. Those memes are not beautiful choices. They distill complex real-world issues into easy to digest bites of information that will ultimately cause brain indigestion.
If you live an existence connected to the Internet, you live in the information age. Unfortunately, a great deal of the information that pops up each time you log on masquerades as something it is not: valuable to finding meaning.
The words you are reading right now are a narrative. There are armies of people motivated by different beliefs churning out millions of narratives at every minute of every hour of every day in the world I inhabit as I type out these words. Most of those narratives will not stand the test of time. They are the equivalent of your current haircut. Haircuts don’t age well. Ten years from now you will probably wonder why you wasted all that time. Choose well, because there are beautiful choices hiding in plain sight. Most of them involve getting out of bed and having an adventure. In real life, with people you can physically touch. That’s the essence of being human.
Next time you have dinner, power off your phone and look into the eyes of each person around the table. Tell them what you want to become and listen when they tell you what they dream of becoming. You’re not a Kardashian, and that’s a good thing. All those choices add up.