Erudite Primitivism

The Struggle of Two Selves

Before looking at the implications that a death without judgment has for how I lead my life, it's first important to establish the dynamics of a relationship that is the root of certain struggles: the lived self vs. the remembered self.

When we say that something 'makes us happy', it's not exactly clear what we mean. When my alarm goes off at 6:00AM, there's a part of me that wants to ignore it and sleep in. However, if I do so, I will surely regret it later in the day, since there was a reason I set the alarm early and likely specific things I wanted to do. How can one aspect of us be happier waking up with the early alarm, and yet another is happier ignoring the alarm? Our happiness is not dictated by just one us, but rather by two versions of us that often come into conflict.

The lived self is what we experience at each instant. As I type this, my lived self is evaluating how I feel at this exact moment. The lived self is the version of me that craves the extra two hours of sleep, not caring that I wanted to get up early and get to work. The remembered self, however, evaluates backwards and forwards. It is the version of me that will regret not listening to my alarm, and also the version of me that will set the same alarm tomorrow, in the hopes that my discipline is stronger then. The struggle that has to be dealt with is the fact that what makes the lived self happy is not necessarily what makes the remembered self happy.

This fact is evident in the alarm story, but it extends to any situation in which our immediate desires and long term goals are in conflict. The lived self wants the brownies, the remembered self wants a fit body. The lived self wants to sleep in, the remembered self wants to get up early and start a project. The lived self wants to cheat, the remembered self wants to remain faithful. The lived self wants to watch mindless TV, the remembered self wants to read a book. In general, the lived self is vastly more susceptible to temptation, while the remembered self can remain focused on goals. If we're not careful, the lived self's desires usually win, since the lived self is in the driver's seat.

One naive heuristic for living can be given as 'Do what makes you happy'. Given the above explanation, it's not quite clear what you means in this sentence. If I did what made the lived self happy, I would spend my time lounging around, indulging in unhealthy food, never working on complex projects, and browsing the internet and TV for entertainment at the first sign of temptation. While my lived self would be satisfied at each instant, my remembered self would grow more and more unhappy. I would be a fat, lazy, unskilled leech lounging around home and sinking into depression. There may come a point where even the lived self is disgusted with my behavior and vows to make a change; however, this resolute attitude cannot last, as eventually my lived self will be dragged back into some semblance of my old ways, as the call of temptation is far stronger than the call of discipline without a remembered self to guide my behavior.

An honest question is why my remembered self should feel awful for enjoying such a lifestyle. Doubtless, there will be some guilt for my lack of productivity, and it's interesting to ask where this guilt should come from. An interesting connection is that perhaps living in a consumer-focused, capitalist world has made me conditioned to feel guilty if my productivity is not up to scratch with what the system needs from individuals to function. Kaczynski's "Industrial Society" manifesto (a work I want to explore in a future entry) makes consistent points to this oversocialization, which makes individuals feel guilty for acting and thinking differently than society wants. While I believe there is merit to this idea, I also believe that regardless of social conditioning, humans have a need for goals, work, and achievement that is the result of evolutionary selection, rather than socialization (Kaczynski looks at this as the Power Process). This is more convincing, anyway, because guilt will surely not be the only emotion I will feel. Simply, my remembered self will feel unfulfilled and unhappy, despite satisfying every desire my lived self has. This is because work, not just satisfaction, is an essential component of human fulfillment. I think back to the "Twilight Zone" episode, of the gambler who thinks he's in heaven since he always wins. Of course, always winning gets awfully boring very fast. In much the same way, simply satisfying our desires at each instant may bring joy to our fickle lived self, but honest work is necessary for the remembered self to feel satisfied.

So, if the 'Do what makes you happy' heuristic cannot be satisfied by focusing on the lived self, can it be satisfied by focusing on the remembered self? The cautious answer is yes, but with some qualifications. Some people interpret this as not focusing on the lived self at all. Of course, this is just as foolish as focusing on the lived self entirely. 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. The remembered self is partially satisfied by hard work on projects that lead to an achievable goal. However, the remembered self is also partially satisfied by ensuring that the lived self is satisfied. Here, it is important to remember that what makes the lived self happy and the remembered self happy are not necessarily in conflict; in fact, they are probably mostly the same. The lived self enjoys being on vacation, the remembered self enjoys having been on vacation (as long as it feels like the vacation was well-earned and other commitments were not sacrificed). The lived self enjoys eating brownies, the remembered self enjoys having eaten brownies (as long as the remembered self knows that we're not on a diet, and therefore not cheating ourselves). The conflict only comes when temptations distract from long term goals. From a remembered perspective, sitting down to watch a movie at the end of a hard day's work is a far different experience than wasting the entire day watching movies when you had work to do.

So I suppose the answer, like most things in life, is just about finding a good balance. It's easy to say that one day you'll die, and none of your projects will mean anything to you, so you should ignore the remembered self and live for each moment, not feeling guilty about not working. This, of course, ignores the fact that guilt is not the only negative emotion felt from neglecting the remembered self. After all, measured work on meaningful projects is good in its own regard, since it brings a sense of fulfillment to the remembered self. However, overly identifying with these projects, while ignoring the fact that they (and you, and me, and Ozymandias) are one day due to crumble to dust, can lead to ignoring the the lived self. This can make us just as unhappy as if we overly satisfied the lived self, since there'll never be a space to enjoy the instances we live in. Recognizing the reality of death, and by extension, the short term nature of our life, we can feel less guilty about enjoying our time and not focusing on some kind of work. When this is pushed to the extreme, though, it is just as harmful. Again, balance.

With all the discussion of the two selves focused on the 'Do what makes you happy' notion, it must be asked: is this even a good way to make choices in life? I say yes, and in a future entry I am going to explore how that specific idea is derived from the concept of a death without judgement. Additionally, I am going to look at specific details for what a balance between the lived self and remembered self looks like on a day to day basis. Finally, I want to analyze tactics for overcoming the temptations of the lived self; also known as discipline.

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