If you don’t write, it doesn’t get written.
So I decide to write again, picking one topic among many confused and overlapping things I keep thinking to write about.
This one is about how life unfolds out of control, and has some overlap with my post about butterflies.
Of late I’ve realized that many of my posts could be written in a far more condensed form, preserving most of the content and almost all of the point I am trying to make, with perhaps a surprising advantage that they’ll hit home harder as they force you to think to fill in the gaps. So hopefully this post won’t be long.
There is a widespread infatuation with the illusion of planned-ness in the world. We like to believe that things happen in life with a purpose, or that there is a purpose to life. You’re here to do something, to build your life towards something. Indeed, if you take away that from many contexts, many belief systems will collapse. Our lives unfold in a certain way, and when something very fortunate happens, like a relationship or success at work, we immediately think of it as the consequence of actions and events. The lover thinks they were meant to be. Even if not all of them think that, they still see inexorable direction and justification in having arrived at their current choice. It is not imaginable to them that this other person is someone who just resulted from the unpredictable knocking around of the universe and could as easily have been a completely different person, resulting in a completely different life for themselves. But that is how it is, as I discussed to some extent in the butterfly article. Where you are born and where you grow and chance encounters in chance situations, these are what shape your life. Despite our incessant planning and method and ambition, much of the important structure of our lives owes itself to chance. If you see meaning to everything in your life, you are pasting retrospective direction onto it.
It is not true, I have noticed, that hard work always pays off and slacking off makes you pay. In order to resolve this bug in the image of an otherwise planned world, there are terms like ‘playing is more important than winning’ and so forth. Sure, work builds character, but that only ups the chances of success. In this world with numerous conflicting flows all out of your reach, success cannot be tuned like that with a dial of hard work. Don’t always expect genuine hard work to pay off. More important, don’t always assume that your success was a direct consequence of your hard work, unaffected by factors completely uncorrelated with it.
This attitude of removing purpose and determinism is depressing. It takes away the dials from your life. Man likes to be in control. That is why he is always looking for patterns. Science, Art. Think about it, that’s all we are looking for. If every single thing was one of a kind, there would be little meaning to these disciplines. We group according to pattern, and then we try to formulate what’s working inside the things in the same group. It works well in many cases. Consequently we can predict and exploit the system. But then we make an easy but dangerous mistake of extending that attitude to more complex systems where we have no a priori evidence that this works, like life.
With the little knowledge of nonlinear dynamics that I have now, I am becoming increasingly aware of why this pattern-finding algorithm shall be a complete failure in life. You shall see patterns in life, no doubt, but then, as you generalize them, you’ll make a mistake. There are no dials you can tune to get predictable results. There cannot be. You cannot control the chaos of life. This is not philosophy or literature I am mouthing; this is science. Be wary of any life advice you get. There is no way anyone could have figured out the whole machinery. And until someone does, which they won’t, there is no evidence that such advice works. In fact, this attitude of I can tune this will get you in more trouble.
It takes away some beauty and solace from life, true, this absence of purpose and direction. But I feel an excitement from it, to imagine my life being carried by unknown currents to places where I with my puny foresight could never have planned to be.
Therefore I accept, life, whatever you gift me from the great knocking about of the universe. I don’t need dials. It’s better this way.