The Incredible Hidden Gift in Meaninglessness
What would you say that’s a picture of?
Some would say “it’s a dog,” or “a puppy,” or maybe “the primary source of all poop that I pick up.” Other people might say it’s “a best friend,” or that it’s “cute.” And still others would say “it’s food.”
Those are some wildly different relationships to the same thing, huh?
So, which of those is it?
In the movie Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character has a quote on his mirror that offers a clue to this sort of conundrum.
That’s a pretty memorable way to say that the reality of a thing is independent of what we think or say about it.
In fact, what we think about things and what things actually are frequently have nothing in common.
All of us are looking out from entirely unique locations in time and space, so naturally we all have entirely unique perspectives. With these unique positions come sets of experiences that are also entirely unique.
Our experiences are our realities, and they are very, very real to us. So real that learning to not automatically assume that our experience of something is the reality of it is, well… something we have to learn.
“I think this; I feel this; I saw that… therefore it’s real” seems to be the basic and default assumption of the human experience.
The most important thing to notice about those statements, though, is the word “I.”
Now, there’s obviously nothing wrong with being the center of your experiences, but problems enter into the picture when we start mistaking our subjective experience as the objective reality of things.
The cup and the baby buffalo
Before we talk about the cup and the baby buffalo, let's talk about the image below. It's a fairly well-known visualization that does a great job of showing how our perspectives can dramatically affect what we’re perceiving.
Person A would say “it’s a square” from one perspective, while Person B would say “you’re obviously a stupid idiot who doesn’t understand life, because it’s clearly a circle” when looking from another.
Cue century-long bloody war about the “true” nature of the floating object.
Ok, now let’s talk about the famous story of the cup and the baby buffalo. As you probably know, the story is about a baby buffalo who encounters a cup lying in a field. The little buffalo was very curious about the unfamiliar object, but the object’s status as a drinking vessel was totally lost on it.
The cup was just an interesting thing lying there.
(Ok, that wasn’t really from a famous story… I just made it up so I could draw a cute buffalo.)
The moral of that story, though, is that a cup is a cup to you and I only because we’ve created a story about it, and we’ve both agreed to participate in that story together.
If a thing has meaning to you or me, it’s only because of the story we’ve created about it.
So, have you picked up on the radically profound implication here? I’ll give you a hint (or, you know… the answer):
Nothing in existence has any inherent meaning.
I know that statement is massive, but please don’t throw your phone or computer across the room.
For clarity’s sake, let me back up and say that “meaning” and “value” are not the same thing, and I’m not being nihilistic or implying that nothing matters. I’m just pointing at the reality that the content of our lives only means what we say it means.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa—wait. Doesn’t that imply that we can choose what the things we encounter and experience mean to us?” -Bob from Accounting
The Universal Rorschach Blot
The universe that we’re a part of is like an infinite, exquisitely beautiful and complex Rorschach blot.
In clinical settings, Rorschach blots help show how a subject’s mind is seeing the world by uncovering the meaning they’re projecting onto an essentially meaningless blob of ink.
This is the same exact projection of meaning that we’re doing automatically, all the time, with everything that we encounter.
We are meaning-generating and meaning-projecting creatures, and the delay between our perceiving something and applying meaning to it is so small that it’s practically imperceptible.
This is an incredible power with staggering implications, but few people live their lives from a conscious awareness that they’re doing it. Most people seem to move through life feeling knocked around by the world’s demands of them, believing they have to be what the collective narrative of society and their culture says about them.
“You’re a girl, so you’re bad at science. You’re a boy, so your power is in dominance. You’re young, so you’re beautiful and interesting. You’re old, so you’re obsolete and taking up space.”
Learning to consciously choose how we’re going to define the events of our lives, or what information from others’ stories we’re going to let in, is not easy. But neither is learning to ride a bike, learning to play an instrument, or learning to read or speak.
I can’t think of anything worth accomplishing that is easy.
We all can be really entrenched in our stories, and most of us think that our stories are our identities, and that our identities are who and what we really are.
But they’re just stories.
Some stories are beautiful and give life exquisite richness, but others are disturbingly destructive and can ruin our lives.
This is what this Hug the Universe project is really about: human perception, and its relationship to our individual and collective happiness.
In the next few posts, we’ll dig into the role that language plays in our perceptions, and in the stories we tell, hear, and believe.
Buckle up. :)