Ideas

How to Find Meaning in Work

The argument for perspective has won.

No longer can we question what is wrong with life, the world or the absurdity of a checkout line. Instead we must embrace -not the triviality of adult existence- but a new perspective on why the trivial is not so trivial at all. The late David Foster Wallace tells us that heavy traffic, long checkout lines, babbling babies and the ‘crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot’ are all issues of perspective: ‘the point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in’, Wallace tells us in his hit YouTube video (post-humous 2013).

Life is about choice, Wallace insists.

We can choose to worship ourselves and complain that the parking lot is overcrowded, ‘bumpy and littery’ (a statement of fact), or we can choose to worship perspective, and forgive everyone and everything its faults. Maybe the concrete-maker was having a bad day when he decided to not build enough parking lots; maybe the council planners were depressed when they only approved one shop in a town needing twenty; maybe the trash on the sidewalk appeared by the magic hand of God throwing it down to spoil a pleasant Sunday drive.

In the words of the Roman Stoic, Seneca, we must stop bitching about our lives (okay, he didn’t say that) and start resting “happy with what we have” – however unfulfilling, meaningless or empty it might be. It is not the fault of the world for being the way it is but the fault of ourselves for not seeing the world the way it isn’t: perfect.

 

This is the catch cry of the modern automaton. The nine-to-five day-jobber who cannot seem to scratch that feeling of emptiness from the back of his mind, despite re-reading the latest copy of Self-Help: How to find Meaning in Nothingness.

The modern automaton views change as an external force, extrinsic to his internal action and internal motivations. Change is something that happens to him, not from him, and he watches it from afar with a breathtaking silence, unable to scream at its onslaught or cheer at its arrival.

In so seeing the world, the modern automaton abdicates social responsibility and any ambition to change the way the world works. Instead of advocating change, he advocates capitulation. On his day off he informs his colleagues that he is currently working on “paying off his dues”, awaiting retirement, and he likes to see the world in a positive light, even when clouds keep circling near his cubicle. He is not sure where the clouds came from: he decides not to investigate.

He spreads his gospel to his fellow man like the word of God and makes them repeat the mantra of “that’s the way the world works” over and over and over and over again and again, spreading confirmation bias through their minds like little weeds plucking down an oak tree in a garden once bristling with life.

When eight out of ten people hate their job, the automaton tells them that their meaningless, hollow, empty existences are not the problem. Their perspective is. ‘Change it,’ he advises.

The automaton reacts in puzzlement when people refuse to change their perspective. If only they could see the love staring back at them from their empty desk, blank computer screens and the hollow stares of colleagues watching the clock; waiting for it to strike home. “In those dead eyes are life”, says Self-Help: How to find Meaning in Nothingness. The automaton highlighted that bit, because he’d been taught to highlight important things in High School.

 

The automaton’s woes arise out of three distinct cultural phenomena: sharing and capturing culture, the culture of instant gratification and the culture of “happy with what we have”. The first comes as an offshoot of social media culture, where “sharing and capturing” have become the end goal instead of being just one way of observing something.

Erich Fromm once remarked that people shouldn’t take photographs at all, and should instead engage in life itself; be present, not absent; feel the moment, be alive. Back then he was discussing photographs taken by tourists on holiday. Now we face an increasing amount of people being tourists in their own lives: observing, capturing, celebrating, but not actually being present and thinking for themselves.

Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century French philosopher, once wrote: “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The modern explanation of this is that this type of activity – quiet, intimate, introspection about the world – can never be shared. Someone sitting “quietly in a room alone” makes for a bland photograph, or worse, a lonely photograph. It looks out of place on social media networks next to photographs of parties, weddings and championships. It is unpublishable because it is unremarkable. It is unpublishable because it is revelatory, not celebratory.

Just as David Foster Wallace told us that we can inject meaning into meaningless activities, so we can inject meaning into past photographs. The past is pliable because it can be remastered.

Filters can be added: yellows, greens and reds. If we add enough filters we can filter out the meaninglessness. The event that we so hated: how great does it look in florid purple, smiles shined to white, faces absent of wrinkles. If we never visit the photograph again we can avoid feelings of nostalgia, regret or ambition, which may lead to action. Action is pointless when filters can do all the work. We need not change the future when we can simply hold off and wait until it is time to filter the past. In this way, a permanent state of nothingness is established, where our photographs – fluffed, faked and filtered beyond recognition – fill the void in our hearts and fulfill our sense of self-esteem where larger, grander and more meaningful acts used to do the heavy lifting.

This is the primary way the automaton changes his own perspective.

 

The second is through passive inaction; observing others do what he refuses to do. He watches the daily drudgery of his own life as a passive observer, living in complete denial of any wrongdoing and filtering past mistakes in bright green. Positivity seeps through him like an over-blown lightbulb however when he goes to pick up the latest copy of Game of Thrones to binge-watch an eight hour spree of gore and sex. Absent the considerations of danger, choice and regret, he can live in a bubble of entertainment, satisfied beyond all real satisfaction.

So the passive observer of life becomes a passive observer of entertainment – even though humans were never built to be passive observers of their own existence.

This satisfaction, if left unchecked, can eventually become a pattern of addiction and withdrawl. Much like drugs and alcohol, addictions to TV and entertainment can impact our epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin levels. Those are respectively our: fight or flight adrenalin hormone, our ‘reward’ hormone (the one triggered by addictive drugs) and our ‘happiness’ hormone.

In effect, some of our base hormonal gratifications are met by TV and other entertainment mediums. We become addicted at a subconscious level, and this is why we enjoy our favourite TV show almost compulsively. Like the automaton, we are trapped by our passive enjoyments.

 

What is worrying about all of the above is that the life of the automaton is a life of complete inaction. Instead of acting to change the world, we embrace changing our perspective alone. Instead of engaging with the world, we capture it. Instead of living exciting lives, we watch others live exciting (fictional) lives and must be happy with the lot that we have got.

One thing is clear, we can either be “happy with what we have” (cue Seneca) or “be the change we want to see in the world” (cue someone pretending to be Gandhi). While living like an automaton has its advantages – entertainment, smiles, a fake sense of meaning – it can never substantiate for real meaning and real purpose. So long as we continue to just change our perspective, instead of changing the world, we continue to abdicate our social responsibility and our personal presence, in favour of an eerie absence from which we can watch life from afar.

* Originally published at The Australian Bulletin.

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Categories: Ideas, Philosophy

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