Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Three Types of Goals, and the Loss of Human Meaning

When I look at humanity, I don’t see the depressed, angry, selfish, greedy mob that we appear to be. Sure, it would be easy to see us this way, if you just looked at how we act, what we say, and why this means our values are all fucked up. However, I see something else when I look around: goals.

Everyone has them, even if some of us never talk about them. In fact, we not only all have goals, we all have the same three types of goals: the easy, the difficult, and the impossible. People are miserable because we as a society only seem to pursue and support the pursuit of easy or impossible goals, while meaningful goals which are difficult to achieve are few and far between.

An easy goal might be something as simple as, “I want a hamburger for lunch.” Maybe in some situations, that might seem like a difficult or even an impossible goal (like if you were, say… alone on a desert island). However, for most people, it’s not all that tough. These kinds of goals are not bad, they’re just not very rewarding in a significant way.

An impossible goal is equally as common in our society. Lots of people want to live forever, rule the world, or end all suffering. Impossible goals may seem pointless, but actually they are one of the only meaningful pursuits available to many people. While it may be an impossibility (or just seem like one), people working towards goals like world peace get a greater sense of accomplishment than when they are pursuing an easy goal they can actually achieve. Even when they ultimately fail, there is still a sense of accomplishment from knowing you dedicated yourself to something important and larger than yourself.

Difficult goals are not extinct, but they are almost indistinguishable from impossible goals for many people. Obviously, none of us can know if a goal is difficult or impossible, because we can’t know for sure if we can achieve it. Some might say it would be difficult for me to play in the NBA, but since I’m only 5’11” and I went undrafted again at the age of 28, chances are that it’s an impossible goal for me…

And yet, it’s also a meaningless goal. Most of the difficult goals in our lives are artificially constructed, and many of them are inherently meaningless. Most, if not all, of the difficult goals which we aspire to achieve have only the value which we attribute to them. Playing in the NBA isn’t a real achievement, in the grand scheme of things, unless you think a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around is fundamentally important.

So little of what people actually do anymore seems to have any real significance. Even many scientists and artists lead pointless lives, injecting lab rats with exotic chemicals in the pursuit of a cure for baldness or working for a marketing firm that sells sugary breakfast cereals to kids. There are so few people leading genuinely fulfilling lives that it should be no surprise that millions of Americans can’t get by without the distraction of anti-depressants or narcotics or useless hobbies which imitate the effort/reward model.

A great deal of humanity’s effort is wasted in distracting ourselves from how empty our lives are. Somehow, we dreamed ourselves into a corner. Some people even read “self-help” books that encourage them to busy themselves in the exercise of imagining grandiose goals for themselves as a distraction from how pointless their goals actually are. [Note: if you need a book, it’s not “self-help.”]

People envision themselves as one day being happy, if only they could be famous, wealthy, attractive, or some other inane, pointless distinction. Still others have just given up entirely, imagining that you can only be happy if you’re happy with what you have. Too rarely now does anyone recognize a problem, deliberate on solutions, put the effort in to solve it, and then reap the benefit of improvement.

I think perhaps that people today lack the experience of handling difficulty. Instead, we are busied with tending to simple tasks, unattainable ideals, and distractions of our own design. We would be immeasurably happier if we ignored some (but certainly not all) of the trivial and immense aspects of life, instead spending more time on the formidable task of achieving meaning through effort exerted towards real progress, not insignificant surrogate actions.

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