Remembrance of things that have not yet come to pass

The general framework of thinking from a future endpoint backwards to the present seems to be a particularly useful method. For example, it is a useful trick for solving problems in game theory and other puzzles, as well as for goal visualization, project planning, etc. However, it’s become less and less clear to me that this way of thinking is necessarily the correct way to think about how to live one’s life. That is, the notion that we should live our lives such that we would be proud of what we’ve done while in our deathbed seems to me not quite correct.

I believe that we tend to overestimate the reliability of our own memories. Having seen my best friend battle brain cancer, and especially the last few months where he lost the ability to form long-term memories, it’s hard for me to hold to the belief that only those things that we remember are meaningful. Were the last couple months of his life not meaningful just because he wouldn’t have been able to remember them? Or, in the limit, does our mortality mean that all our actions are ultimately meaningless?

Why should a moment before death have any special privilege for us who are alive?

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he makes an interesting observation that one useful separation is between our “remembering mind” and our “experiencing mind”. Insightfully, it is our remembering mind that provides our basis for decision making, but it is our experiencing mind that has to live each and every moment, including the consequences of our decisions. That is to say, the basis for our actions is not identical to our experience of them, and what we remember of events is not the same as our contemporary experience of them.

A scenario he posits: suppose you were able to go on an amazing vacation, but at the end of it, all memories you had of it were wiped out. Was the vacation still worthwhile? How much would one pay for such a vacation? Certainly, a great deal less than one where memories could be formed.

Or: suppose someone lived a very pleasant and happy life for many years, but the last year of that person’s life was extremely miserable and full of suffering. How do we compare that to someone else who maybe had a very bland, or maybe just somewhat unpleasant, life their entire lifetime?

It seems to make some sense that we might think, if we were able to have the appropriate scale, that we should be able to just integrate under the curve of happiness, and that would be the correct basis assessing the overall happiness of one’s life. But given our temporal and psychological biases, that’s clearly not how we think. A very long period of constant happiness (or constant suffering) is likely to be forgotten or tempered in our retrospection.

But maybe we should be thinking this way a little more. It seems like we can’t just simply “work our way backwards” if our memory faculty is imperfect. We might believe that we remember things rightly, but it seems quite evident that we objectively do not. And so I’d like to believe, and put forth here, that even if my late friend couldn’t remember the Stanford vs. Washington football game we went to a few weeks before he passed away, it was still experientially meaningful to him at that point in time, and even so after all of us are far in our graves. That moment happened, it exists, and it will continue to be. And so with every moment.

Ultimately, I think the correct prescription about how to live our lives will be a combination of the two. Both how we would look back at our actions when we are on our deathbed, but also what it would look like if all these actions and experiences were compiled in a streaming, unedited biography.

This mix of thinking about the present experience as well as the future implications perhaps has some strange parallelism to the life-cycle theory of consumption in economics. That is, we should be thinking about our lives throughout the cycle, not just in single points of time such as the present or during our last breath. We must simultaneously take consideration to both our present selves and our future selves in order to optimize our decision making. And we must also acknowledge that some moments in the future — particularly powerful moments of retrospection — deserve to be weighted more than others. There must be a balance between caring towards the future and the hedonism of the present. Insofar that our experiences represent a core conception of who we are, then we must take care that our perceptions and our memories of them remain as true as possible.

Up and Down

In the morning these days, walking up the three flights of stairs from the underground parking to my work is exhausting. My getting quite out of shape in the past year certainly has something to do with it, but even more than the physical tiredness is the encompassing psychic fatigue I’ve been experiencing lately. The utterly Sisyphean nature of this daily ritual of walking up the stairs in the morning, walking down the stairs in the evening, doesn’t fail to escape or amaze me.

The daily and weekly work life leads little time to think, and not having that mental space to ruminate has slowly worn me down. I just wish I had some time to think things through and to clear my head. Though truth be told, my free time has not been spent particularly productively lately.

Aren’t life-changing events supposed to be periods of self-reflection and epiphanic course corrections? But yet, I see myself still working through the same routine, still holding on to so many little things and habits that entrench my status quo way of life, comfortable and meaningless. I want to brush everything aside, but I don’t. It feels like an important lesson was revealed, recited, and then promptly forgotten.

But what is the lesson that I was supposed to have learned? If it’s to see joy in everything, then I was doomed to fail it. A substrate of hope, perhaps. Taking the good with the bad, but also the bad with the good.

In the end, life is simply what it is. Perhaps with some Herculean mindfulness we can change our perception of what we see. But it is tough many days to pull myself by the existential bootstraps, to repeat the mantra that “this is water”. Sometimes, I want to scream, but I have no air. Time flows forever forward.

Ozymandias Two

One of my most-thumbed books is a poetry anthology simply titled The Top 500 Poems. I have about a dozen of my favorite poems bookmarked, one of which is P. B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The short commentary on the poem notes that, while the cautionary tale of pride is immediately evident, perhaps the boastful king still had the last laugh: “… even if the monumental statue is broken and the inscription sounds fatuous, what remains of anybody else of that age?”

This is the way the world ends

I knew from the start that this season of Nutcracker would be different, because my heart wasn’t quite as in it, due to a number of extenuating circumstances. What I didn’t realize was that my body was going to call it as well. I guess this isn’t exactly unexpected, knowing the rapid decline of professional sports players when they’re past their prime. What a difference a year makes for so many players — especially in the NFL, when a running back goes from top of the heap to replacement squad in a season.

It seems it also happens to us amateurs as well. After what I thought was a fairly minor lower back injury about a year and a half ago, my body’s been getting progressively worse, to the point that I don’t think I’ll be able to perform next year, even if I wanted to. What little flexibility and strength I have appears to be long gone, not to mention the ridiculous amount of weight I’ve gained in the past year. While it probably doesn’t help that a busier work and social schedule reduces the number of classes I take per week, I can’t help but feel that my time doing ballet is quickly drawing to a close.

The excruciating question has been, and remains: what now? Do I redouble my efforts, and try to work through the malaise and pain? Dare I try to find another hobby, perhaps another dance style that is less of a “young people’s sport”? It frightens me to leave what has been a tumultuous love-hate relationship with ballet, a very tangible sort of comfortable uncomfortableness. While any endeavor can consume time and passion, there’s a special place in my heart for that which humbles me so, which will be hard to replace.

We are the lords of life, and life is warm

Death has been very much on my mind. It’s probably inevitable when someone close to you — the one you meekly most imagine yourself as possibly being — passes away. Right now, it seems that I haven’t learned the lesson that he was teaching, because all I feel is fear. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the day before Thanksgiving.

In some ways, as his wife mentioned, he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to put his affairs in order; fortunate to have lived long enough, and in good enough health, to cross off so much of his bucket list, despite the agonizing choices and sacrifices that they did have to make. (I still wish we could have gone to Wimbledon together one more time.) And in my most cynical moments, I wonder just how vanishingly few people are lucky enough to be so financially secure by their 30s as to be able to pivot their lives in order to fully live without regrets or hesitation, to be able to receive world-class treatment, and to have a New Yorker profile written about him or her. For every life’s story that is told, a thousand are unsung.

Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics mused over the question, whether it made a difference if it’s one year, or ten, a hundred, or a thousand? In some ways yes, and in others, no. The specter of death hangs over all living things, and that existential fear would be no less poignant if one were told a day or a millennium. But it’s blindingly obvious that what one would choose to do with one’s life would be very different, given the amount of remaining time left.

When the prognosis became clear, the two of them did the very brave action of focusing on quality of life, not quantity of life. Instead of enrolling in every possible clinical trial or experimental treatment, they focused on hanging out with friends, making music, and building communities and relationships — the experiences of a year for which I’m eternally grateful to have played a small part, and been a generous recipient of their love, generosity, and time. It’s so easy to see that ultimate life lesson, but so difficult to internalize, and even more difficult to actualize. Whether we have terminal brain cancer or are at the peak of health, we should try “to live graciously, nobly, boldly, and with every fiber of our beings.” (Why am I quoting myself?)

We are each bestowed with the vast improbability that is our being alive. Finite though they are, we must build statues though we know they will crumble; dance though we know its fleeting nature; love though we know it will break our hearts; pursue our dreams though we know we will fail; forever fight the good fight, and take each breath until we can’t.