Striving to Strive

If you think about the rewards you receive in video-games, you notice how lame they are. A high score? A virtual trophy? Your character jumping up and down? A screen that says “The End”. Meh. All that dedication and effort for what amounts to nothing? And that’s true in this game as well, the actual physical prizes available here are kinda lame.

There’s nothing here, that once gotten, you’d feel “Wow, this is IT! I’m done! Nothing left to get!”. Once anything’s received, it’s a fleeting sensation of attainment followed by a new-normal in which it becomes an everyday object that sits mundanely as any other. Therefore, as in any game, experiences themselves are the only actual reward.

I’ve wasted countless hours in video-games attempting to achieve lame objectives – yet, I was perfectly entertained by the experience. The fun isn’t in attainment, that’s just another form of “Game Over”. The fun is in striving after something, anything, even if it’s a frivolous goal. Striving itself IS the goal here.

And I don’t mean “struggle” by the way. You really should find a level of striving that feels comfortable. It’s kinda dumb to stress and strain over a pointless objective when objectives themselves are valueless. Since they’re all of equal value (i.e. zero), pick something fun. And if you actually attain the object of your effort? Great, now pick another appealing objective and keep striving.

Trend Spotting

I’ve been attempting to analyze the trends of reward/punishment in relation to my behavior.

For example, I’ve clearly noticed a negative trend from overeating. It’s not every time, but overall it leads to unpleasant circumstances such as a tummy-ache or a complete lack of energy. But when I eat sensibly, not stuffing myself mindlessly, things proceed much better. I can clearly see a path I should take and one I should avoid.

Another trend deals with thinking about things I don’t like. If I allow unpleasant topics to remain in my thoughts, I typically feel bad. And once in awhile, those undesirable things even show up in my life. Whereas if I reject those unpleasant thoughts and focus on things I do like, my mood is better and my situation tends to improve. There seems to be an obvious pathway here too.

Another trend deals with how I treat people. If I’m careless and rude for example, good things don’t usually follow. Whereas when I present the best version of myself, I’m more satisfied with my interactions and things typically go much better. Again, there seems to be an undeniable path here.

The overall trend seems to deal with the application of mental discipline. If I’m lazy and let myself act like a disrespectful pessimistic slob, things don’t go well. Whereas when I stay aware of myself and keep to the role of a polite lighthearted guy that colors within the lines, things trend better.

Why are there preset guidelines that I must stay within? Perhaps the answer’s simple: it provides me with something to do. In games you move your character, making sure he stays on the correct pathway – that’s it. Life isn’t a movie: if you sit there, nothing happens – and if you stomp the accelerator without steering, you’ll likely crash.

As player of this game, I must remain awake and aware, with my hands on the wheel ready to make micro-adjustments as necessary to keep my character on the pleasant path. A path that’s discoverable through the reward/punishment mechanism. For instance: I have to actively monitor what he eats, what he thinks, and how he treats others.

Skinner Box

Is Earth a form of aversion therapy? In other words, am I punished for improper behavior? And if that’s the case, am I rewarded for good behavior?

Even from a purely physical perspective, you’d likely say that penalties exist for inappropriate actions. For example: if I eat too much, I get a tummy-ache. If I treat others poorly, I tend to suffer negative repercussions. If I allow my mind to wander, I find myself thinking thoughts I don’t prefer. If I consume dour and pessimistic media, I feel bad. In short, there seems to be a direct correlation between careless behavior and discomfort.

Is the opposite also true? Am I rewarded for considerate behavior? If I eat an appropriate amount of nutritious food, do I feel better? If I treat others well, do I benefit from similar treatment? If I guide my thoughts down pleasant paths, do I find myself delighted? If I watch a lighthearted movie, do I feel cheerful? In short, is there a direct correlation between thoughtful behavior and well-being?

In behavioral conditioning, the obviousness of the correlation between cause-and-effect is a key factor for learning. For example, if I fail to realize that a specific action results in a particular punishment, there’s no reason to stop an action. In other words, the amount of punishment won’t matter if I don’t know why I’m being punished. Yet, it would be heavy-handed or even harsh to reprimand for every infringement.

In teaching/coaching situations, obviousness is often sacrificed for gentleness. Instead of correcting every single misstep, a gentle teacher often allows some incorrectness to slide. This puts more responsibility onto the student, who must actively watch for trends in order to grasp the direction of the reward/punishment mechanism. The tradeoff is a greater feeling of agency and influence over one’s own life.

This would explain why actions in life aren’t always rewarded or punished appropriately. Life trades cold mechanical conditioning for a more organic feel. There’s no lever that reliably releases a pellet when pressed – outcomes follow trends instead. Also, intermittent reward is a more captivating circumstance and likely leads to longer, more involved engagement.

Honestly, I’ve been obstinately plowing through life, ignoring any signs pointing in the proper direction. I follow my own assumptions about what’s appropriate. As you might imagine, it hasn’t been an effective strategy. Am I to simply follow the path set forth by the aversion/reward mechanism? Hm, that almost sounds like cheating. Wait, actually that seems like a lot of work. Well, I’ll have to keep this is mind and be on the lookout for trends resulting from my behavior.

Character Analysis

I’m not good at playing pretend – I often take my role too seriously and add too many procedural details and attempt to establish elaborate and often dour backstories. Plus, overreaction comprised of frustration and histrionics is a hallmark of my characters. “WHAT!? This is preposterous! How dare you!”

I think in life, you have to commit to a role. It makes improvisation easier in the sense that a character has a typical response to a given situation. Whereas I often don’t know how to react, so I stand awkwardly attempting to evaluate the situation and analyze my feelings. But a pre-established character would simply respond in his usual way. “Wowza, that’s the beez kneez!”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to figure out a character by examining the external world and looking for clues. Characters are best defined by whatever evokes the most joy – so you have to look inwardly. I think the world we experience is a product of our imagination and subject to interpretation, therefore the world can appear as a paradise or a nightmare solely based on perspective.

When you commit to a character, I think circumstances change and form to accommodate it. So if you play an anxious character for example, upsetting scenes and stimuli will become the basis of your experiences. I’ve often played as an overly-sensitive anxious-guy but I don’t enjoy it and never feel committed to the role. And like I mentioned, not having a preset role leads to slowed interactions with life since every stimulus sparks a new analysis.

Therefore, I’m in the market for a new role. And unlike before, I’ll take a much more lighthearted approach. Instead of that solemn guy that disappears into every room he enters, often spouting pessimistic nonsense to himself, I’d rather be a cheerful optimistic fellow that people are glad to see. “Oh snap! Rich is here!? It’s about to get good!”. Instead of nervousness and doubt, calm and confidence should be my foundational feelings. Yeah let’s do that instead of all the nonsense I’ve been doing.

Bragging Rights

To me, it feels like I’m on a reality gameshow in which I’m thrown into an unreasonable situation and must persist to the end despite the constant challenges. But what’s the prize? It’s certainly not the process itself right? As I find this game difficult to appreciate. And like those gameshows, I feel like any structure I create will only get torn-down by the producers when I leave. Therefore, I don’t have a desire to invest my time into anything significant – I’m fine with a temporary structure that simply gets me through the day.

I stay close to my small structure. I do little projects to stave off boredom. I talk to myself, trying to find the motivation to make it one more day. I wrestle with whatever challenge comes up that day. I celebrate minor victories, lament the losses. And like all other contestants, for whatever reason, I feel like I have to see this through – quitting isn’t an option. If it was, I’d have quit many times by now. Where’s my radio!? “Hey guys!? Yeah I’m done. Get me outta here!”

To me, there’s nothing in-game that provides a sense of satisfaction. It’s like a bootcamp where you’re relentlessly drilled and pushed until you break – a torture-chamber making you scream “I can’t take anymore! Please stop!” But apparently I can take more, and I do, running up the obstacle course again and again – day after day. “Please, may I have another!” Sicko. I might just be a masochist, using pain as a means to feel alive.

I used to lift heavy weights as a hobby, I know what it’s like to consciously push myself to failure. Who’s to say I don’t do it unconsciously too? Is this some other-worldly training facility? But am I any stronger because of it? Is my spirit actually improving? Is my soul some buff dude flexing amongst his peers? Or am I merely a pitiful weakling in this world, barely scraping by?

Or perhaps I’ll be sitting at a bar with other-worldly pals one day, bragging about the time I spent on Earth. Their eyes looking on in astonishment as I retell the hardships I experienced as an Earthbound being. “Believe me boys, it was rough stuff, the kinda thing that puts you into a higher tier of toughness. Why the things I did and the things I saw would melt your socks off.” They’ll be buying my drinks for eons to come. “Another round for Rich! The toughest S.O.B. in here!”

Absurd Mischief

There are two things I regularly observe: the absurdity of human activity (individually and as a society) – and second, the mischievous moments periodically introduced into my day. To me, this means I cannot earnestly participate in the game of life. Have you ever tried taking a game seriously while other participants fooled around and ignored the rules? It’s not fun. And then to have your efforts regularly thwarted by mischief? Why do anything at all?!

BUT, the guy that takes a game too seriously is not correct – he’s actually a killjoy. Imagine playing a game of pretend, like “house” for example: You knock on the door and inform the homeowner of high-interest rates, the possibility of refinancing, the benefits of a 401K retirement plan, as well as the need for adequate life-insurance. Your playmate looks at you in disgust as she quickly closes the door and tells you to quit being a jerk.

I’m often guilty of applying too much formality to life. Wherever I go I want to check what I can and cannot do. “We must consult the rules!!”. But if you’re constantly looking for a rulebook that doesn’t exist, you’re going to have a bad time. In fact, this world is VERY resistant to rules – it’s a Wonderland in which mischievous absurdity leads the way. You can’t apply structure to its formlessness – it’s more dreamlike than anything. The ONLY recourse is to play along.

Imagine being at a dinner in which most of the participants peridodically stand and move to the center of the room. A cacophony begins and people hop around the floor while grabbing at one another. You think: “Why don’t they sit down, be quiet, and simply eat their food!!” But of course they’re just dancing to the music, yet you refuse to appreciate or participate in the frivolity.

In video-games, it’s common to work long hard hours to achieve arbitrary rewards that disappear as soon as the game’s over. So it’s fine to pursue frivolous objectives, that’s the goal of games – but the pursuit must be enjoyable. The point is to have fun while straining to achieve those ephemeral ends. In other words, you CAN work hard within a mischievously absurd environment, you just can’t obsess about the outcome. You can’t cry when the sandcastle crumbles.

In general, enjoyment must be extracted from the process of doing something and NOT from savoring something that’s already completed or attained. In that way, it doesn’t matter if attainment even happens or an accomplishment fades away. You should be too involved in the activity you’re doing now to care anyway. In this way, mischief can’t quite affect you.

In regards to absurdity, you’ll have to embrace it and play along. For example: just do whatever you want. If you want to paint popsicle sticks, do that. Stay calm, don’t worry, and just do whatever relaxing activity comes to mind. The more lighthearted you are, the more lighthearted the mischief and absurdity that surrounds: so keep it playful. Oh and planning doesn’t work as expected in an absurd world – in fact, it just makes it easier to tease you.

Corporeal Lament

I’ve watched captivating movies, lost myself in enthralling shows, and journeyed alongside characters in great books. While engaged with these stories, I’m undistracted and enjoy myself. In other words, I’m an effective audience member. But when I leave these stories and return to my own story of everyday life, I’m often distracted and frequently fail to enjoy myself. What gives!?

Obviously it’s because my story SUCKS. And it’s true, I don’t like it. If I had to devise a dumber plot or a more unlikable character I’m not sure that I could. As I implied earlier, good storylines are effortless to consume, but bad narratives are boring and a chore to get through. I know good stories exist, I’ve seen them, yet my life is not one of them – why?

Nothing short of a bonafide Christmas Miracle would make the preceding years balance out. Maybe aliens introducing advanced technology such as teleportation, perfect health, mechanized avatars, and recreational virtual worlds. Well whatever it is, there needs to be a deus-ex-machina alteration to this narrative for it to become a worthwhile story.

Am I unappreciative of the miracle of life? YES, it needs to be interesting and engaging or else who cares. Ooh look at me walk around. How fun. Ooh trees! Neato. Ooh all those stars in the sky! So bright! I don’t care. Physical pain, the awkwardness of personal interactions, digestion difficulties, sleep and energy issues, the tediousness of transportation, finding purpose — who needs that crap!? If this world is simply a lesson to teach me that bodies are terrible things to have, then mission accomplished.

Who Knows

I’m not discounting the possibility that I might be a moron, but if that’s not the case then I believe this world willfully obfuscates its true nature. I’ve spent years attempting to ascertain the underlying principles of my existence – I’ve found nothing. Like a mirage in the desert, seemingly solid answers simply dissolve whenever approached. In other words, close examination of this world will not lead to an explanation.

And that makes sense of course, because you can’t explain how a movie was made by merely watching a movie. Who wrote it? Who coordinated the production? How was it recorded? How were the special-effects done? Who composed the music? The same is true of video-games: playing provides little insight into the underlying programming code and overall construction of the product. Therefore, I can surmise that this world is NOT self-contained – something exists beyond its walls.

But whether it’s movies, video-games, or even dreams, it doesn’t seem prudent to spend one’s time attempting to see-through the illusion. Why not sit back and enjoy the show? Right? But to be quite frank, I haven’t been able to appreciate my time here. It seems like a poor implementation, basically a low-quality movie. And what does one do when presented with a flick that lacks entertainment value? Well, you lose your ability to focus on the story and you sit there wondering who made this crap.

You also wonder if there’s something you can do to improve things. Maybe change seats and get a different perspective? Pay closer attention? Perhaps focus on an interesting aspect that you previously ignored? Maybe stop criticizing, and attempt to appreciate the scenes? But that just seems like a lot of homework. Whereas a well-made movie allows you to simply sit there captivated. Why should the burden of enjoyment be put on the audience? And, is such effort even effective?

In fact, I’ve spent lots of time and effort readjusting and trying to get a better handle on the situation. Meditation? Yep. Reading philosophical, religious, self-help, and spiritual books? Yep. Moving to a new location? Yep. Spending time with loved ones? Yep. Finding a hobby? Yep. Cutting out negativity as best I could? Yep. I’d say there’s some improvement, but it’s also FAR from a good movie.

So now what? Well, I know without a doubt that this world is a concoction, a fabricated fiction that purposefully confounds my consciousness. Why? Who cares about “why” if it’s fun. Unfortunately, I often find myself less than amused by the antics of this world. Is this a challenge to overcome? A puzzle set forth by some other incarnation of my self? Am I a beta-tester of some weakly implemented simulation? Is my origin the mystery I must solve to unlock the next level? I don’t know.

Too Far

Striving for enlightenment might be taking things a bit too far. Instead of overcoming a single challenge, it’s the idea of overcoming challenge itself — thus eliminating ALL challenges in one fell swoop. It’s like sitting in the middle of an arcade and not playing any of the games because you conquered the desire to engage — but the point of a game is to play!!

Imagine exiting the arcade and explaining to the game developers that you didn’t play their games. They ask why. You respond: “Well, after losing a few times I got frustrated and stopped playing. Then I got bored and played some more but kept losing. This led to even more frustration so I proceeded to train my mind to ignore those enticing demo-screens and to ignore the sensation of boredom while sitting still.”

Exasperated, the developers explain that the games are specifically designed to be unwinnable. Winning and losing result in the same outcome: “Game Over”, therefore the games are designed to string players along in an endless series of challenges that are ultimately insurmountable. It’s only a game they say, you shouldn’t get so bent-out-of-shape over it — you’re taking things much too seriously — an arcade is meant to be fun.

So in a sense, the initial quest for enlightenment might be a bad-attitude in which a person wants to give-up on the game and sit quietly until it ends. BUT, if you sit silently long enough, you’ll ultimately come to this conclusion: play the game and have some fun (i.e. lighten-up). You’ll also conclude that you shouldn’t attempt to play every game in the arcade — it’s better to focus on the ones you find most enjoyable.

Enjoying Inefficiency

I could describe the quest for happiness as a search for “enjoyable inefficiency”. The most efficient life is to die as soon as possible. Therefore, our goal is to live an inefficient life. But to last for a long time, we need to find a way to enjoy ourselves — or else we’ll quit from boredom. I happen to love efficiency, so this concept has been a lifelong struggle to understand. “What’s the quickest method that requires the least effort?” That’s the universal question I apply to everything.

Now, I must change it to: “What’s the slowest method that evokes the most enjoyment?”. Instead of wolfing down a meal, it’s about savoring the deliciousness of every bite. Instead of showering as quickly as possible, it’s about the sensation of warm trickling water and the formation of suds on the skin that flow down and around the drain. Instead of a quick breath in and out, it’s about deep lingering inhalation that calms the mind. Instead of an exchange of data, a conversation is a dance performed with words.

Efficiency simply gets you nowhere fast. Within this world, there’s no finish-line to rush to. The application of speed simply ups the intensity but moves you no closer to a desirable outcome. NOT getting to a destination IS the outcome you really want. Every objective achieved simply starts a new mini-game with a new objective. What you really want to find, is the level of inefficiency that induces the most fun. Do you want to raise your own sheep, sheer your own fleece, spin your own yarn? There is some state of wasted-time that will maximize your amusement — experiment until you find it.

“What about laziness and procrastination? Are you saying we should simply become slackers!?” No, inactivity leads to boredom — inertia is not our goal — we MUST constantly remain in motion. But the motion we maintain should be sufficiently slow enough to fill our time on Earth. You must find the pace that suits your taste. If you’re currently dissatisfied, guess what? You haven’t found it yet. Most likely, you’re striving for too much efficiency — add some indirectness into the mix. Find a roundabout way of doing things while avoiding straight paths. It is within the inefficiencies of life that we find satisfaction.