0455 – the joy of working with constraints

I’ll start by refuting the very premise that I want to meditate on. Constraints can be cruel, arbitrary, stupid, unfair, unkind, damaging, crushing, painful, horrifying. The idea of wishing constraints on somebody (apart from unique situations where it would be obviously beneficial) generally seems like a hateful thing to do. And the idea of wishing constraints on yourself… seems like some sort of bizarre self-flagellation, or perhaps a manifestation of guilt, from enjoying privileges that others don’t have, and squandering them.

I’ve also often thought that we romanticize death because we don’t know how to stop it or fix it. As Asimov demonstrated with The Last Question, even if we figure out how to immortalize ourselves, we aren’t likely to figure out how to immortalize the Universe that we live in. We don’t know how to reverse entropy in the absolute sense– the Universe will die. Everything will end, as far as we can tell. So we romanticize it, with statements like “Death is the greatest invention of Life”. And there are all these interesting, nuanced points to be made– “so long as men die, liberty will never perish”, Charlie Chaplin said in his monologue in The Dictator. And Steve Jobs said, in his commencement speech,

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

And he goes on to say…

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

I’m inclined to agree, though I wonder if we’d change our minds if we could actually escape death (if that statement were ever meaningful).

So it feels here like there are two sets of considerations– how to live knowing that we will die, and what to think about death if it were something that could be solvable (it doesn’t seem completely implausible, at least, compared to things like time travel).

I guess for the context of this vomit I’ll begin with the assumption that we have no choice but to die– it’s the likeliest outcome, so it’s worth preparing for. Death is the ultimate constraint, and we have to learn to live with it. If we are to experience joy, we are to experience it within the context of a looming death. That’s the big picture.

I wanted to think more about the little pictures though. Day to day life. Of living with constraints and working with them. In the context of these word vomits, I’m choosing to constrain myself to writing 1000 sets of 1000 words, just because. It won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and it probably won’t matter even in relatively smaller schemes of things, but it’s something I’d like to do. It’s a self-imposed constraint. But it feels like a constraint that will allow me to push myself further as a writer, to challenge myself, to grow and learn. And that’s a sort of joy.

Beyond the constraint of the word vomit project itself, I have the constraints of everyday life. I have work to do, and my to-do list is effectively infinite. I think everybody’s is. The list of books I want to read. The list of movies I want to watch. The list of people I want to meet and have conversations with and spend evenings with. All of these lists are infinite, and I’m constrained by the fact that I have 24 hours in a day, and some number of years left before I die.

If there is to be joy, it needs to be found within constraints. Despite constraints. And perhaps… FROM constraints. I’m just feeling that right now in this moment, even if it seems silly.

I wouldn’t wish damaging, hurtful constraints upon myself or anybody else. I don’t want to suffer crippling pain or loss, and I don’t want to have to go through those things in order to experience a more exalted existence. Though I think it’s definitely worth recognizing that people who experience pain, hardship, difficulty, etc do seem to do just that. There’s selection and survivor bias, of course. It seems probable that most people who experience ridiculous pain go on to perish or suffer immeasurably with nothing beautiful to show for it. It’s a small subset of people who thrive under that pressure and produce diamonds, and I’m not sure if the literature/evidence suggests that that’s a possibility open to everybody.

I must admit I do sometimes fantasize about experiencing some sort of crushing, painful loss. I do it as a sort of… thought experiment. I think about the deaths of my loved ones. I imagine getting into a car accident and being crushingly paralysed, disfigured, and so on. What will I do after that? If I can write, I think I’ll still write.

This whole thing got a little more dramatic than I wanted to go, but I’ll just go with the flow. I wanted to think about how… it often seems like we’ve been conditioned to live without properly recognizing or acknowledging the constraints that are already all around us.

I was thinking for a long time, why is it that so few startups or businesses etc seem to grasp the importance of solving one very, very specific problem very well? Why are so many people tempted to write business plans that are overly vague and generic, that claim to do all sorts of things? Why do we write that way in general?

My guess is that we were trained to do so in school. Teachers aren’t allowed to say, “write something that’s really moving and compelling, something that you really believe to be true.” That’s what people like Hemingway say, and they figure that out, probably, because they’ve been working at the boundaries.

Yeah, that’s my question– why is so much of everything so shitty? I think it’s because people look at the world with the wrong lens. And to go back to Jobs’s Harvard commencement speech– it’s obvious that he wrote those things at least partially because he wanted to tell a great story about himself and his life. It’s an exercise in mythbuilding. But the central idea– that he thought he was going to die, and he wanted to do something meaningful within that constraint– I think that’s quite legitimate.

I think beautiful things happen because people are mindful of constraints. We write better when we realize that readers are busy and impatient. We live better when we know we’re going to die. Maybe that’s why there are stories about angels and elves and heavenly beings etc being envious of man, who seems to live so intensely (at least, some of them do). If you’d live forever, you’d never really have a reason to do anything NOW.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *