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Good afternoon, everybody ...

Posted by Dave Bull at 10:01 AM, July 27, 2009

The paper is trimmed, the corners reinforced, and it's all moistened and in the stack ready for printing!

I can't start work until the moisture has evened out through the batch though, so maybe there is time for a RoundTable posting this afternoon. Might be fun to fire up my Zoom recorder, clip a mic to my shirt, and take a walk ... (Can you stand another one of these dictated stories?)

"Good afternoon everybody. I guess this might be a bit difficult, but I'll give it a try.

My name is David Bull, and I'm ... I'm ...

I could never have imagined that I would ever be part of one of these groups - all these people sitting in a circle in chairs, standing up one by one to introduce themselves ... to talk about their problem.

Those of you who have been a member of this group for a while, probably know how difficult it is for someone to be here for the first time. It seems that the first step in solving a personal problem like this is ... admission, but I wasn't able to do that ... Because I'm ... I'm ....

My name is David Bull, and I'm a procrastinator.

So of course I wasn't able to seek out help like this. But a friend of mine - somebody who cares a lot about me - had heard of this group - Procrastinators Anonymous - and arranged for me to come here today.

Some of you who know me, will be very surprised to find out that I'm a procrastinator. After all, look at the stream of work that I have put behind me so far! Hundreds and hundreds of woodblock prints, in thousands of copies! A newsletter coming out like clockwork four times a year; a new story every week in my A Story A Week series. Books ... constant website updates ... a river of production! Surely this is not an indication of a ... procrastinator.

But there are some things that a person looking from 'outside' can never understand. A person looking from outside can see the output - the things I have produced - but has no idea what I am really capable of producing. The person inside, and the man in the mirror, knows very well what the true story is.

And this person inside, knows beyond doubt that he is wasting huge amounts of time most days. Wasting actually, most of his time on this planet.

We sometimes try to compare ourselves with other people. Such a comparison can be useful, or it can be misleading. I was thinking the other day about Mozart; he died at - what was it, 35? - and left behind this vast quantity of wonderful production. But it's not really fair to compare ourselves to 'strange geniuses'; Mozart wasn't really a normal person.

Looking around for a better example, perhaps it might be the one I was reading about a while ago - the old author in England, Sir Walter Scott. He seems to have been a fairly normal guy. And we're told that when you put his entire output - all the books he wrote - on a single shelf, it ends up being meters and meters long. And this is a man who was working without any good tools; just pen and paper. Quill pen, for all I know. And yet somehow, he managed to produce an incredible quantity of work, work that certainly by the standards of his day, was recognized as being top level stuff.

Whether or not he felt that he was productive, or a procrastinator, I have no idea, but in my own case, it is really quite clear. Day after day, hour after hour, I do ... nothing. I sit and look out the window ... I 'think' about what I might be doing next ... I fiddle with this, and faddle with that ...

The internet has of course recently been part of this; I check email, browse here and there. But I can't blame this on the 'net; my behaviour long predates the presence of a computer on my desk. It's just a part of my daily existence. I do ... anything ... to avoid doing what I should be doing; to avoid work on the print I should be designing, the next newsletter I should be writing, the instruction book I should be planning ...

I've got this huge list of things that need to be done. Many of them need to be done! I've got a mortgage to pay, I've got deadlines to meet ... And yet getting down to it, just ... never seems to happen.

Some of you listening might be surprised to hear this. 'Dave, I thought you enjoyed your work! Don't you like making prints? Aren't you having fun doing all these things?'

And yes, this is the paradox, because that is perfectly true! I really do enjoy my work! I've got a beautiful workshop, a very short 'commute' to work each morning (down the stairs!), a 'perfect' environment ... And indeed, once things are moving, I'm quite content, and quite happy, not to say focussed and productive. But it's the process of getting any individual step up and running - a hundred times a day ... 'What should I do next, what's next?' - that is the problem. I couldn't imagine how much worse it would be if I didn't enjoy my work! My god, I'd never get around to things!

And beyond this is also a bit of a frightening thought ... not 'frightening'; that's a bit of a strong expression ... but ... what will happen a couple of years from now when my financial pressures are reduced somewhat, when my mortgage is paid off, for example (Countdown - 16 more months!)? When there is much less pressure to create income ... I might never get the next print out the door! Because inescapably, one of the main things pushing me to 'get things done' is the need for constant income. If nothing goes out, nothing comes in. Now that may sound like a horrible confession, but I suppose that's what today's meeting - sitting here in this circle of chairs - is about. Confessions.

One of the things I read somewhere about trying to overcome procrastination, was about using lists. You get up in the morning and make a list: 'These are the things I will do today,' and then you just work through it. Anytime you find yourself getting distracted, you come back to your list, pick it up, and say to yourself 'Right. It's just a question of discipline. I will now do this next job!' And I have to say that this does indeed work to some extent; this is one of the few techniques that is keeping me on track. I've got lists ... lists ... I've got lists of lists! My desk is littered with them - today's list, yesterday's list ... items checked off, circled, underlined, scribbled out ... Without aids like this I would never be able to move forward.

Another part of this problem is ... that this is not just a question of pure procrastination; it's a question of ... what's that expression ... 'Drowning in the Sea of Possibilities'. Man, there are so many things I want to do, over and above the things I'm doing as part of my normal work. It's very difficult to select something to work on. 'Let's see, I'll do this ... no, perhaps I had better get started on that.' I'll get up from my chair to start something, and then in mid-stride change my mind and switch to something else! 'Ah, before I can do that, this has to be done. No. Before I can do that, this has to be finished!' And it just goes on and on ... I look at the clock and see that I've been sitting there for an hour trying to decide what to work on!

The deadlines tie in with this. It's like juggling a bunch of balls. They go up, and they come down, but you have to grab the one that is nearest the floor, and get it back into play. Then grab at the next lowest one. This results in a completely chaotic approach to the work, and the carefully prepared list just gets ignored ...

Another whole aspect to this problem is not just this 'sea of possibilities', but the ... again, what's that expression ... 'The perfect is the enemy of the good.' I tell you, this is the story of my life! I don't want to claim that I am a real 'perfectionist'; I don't believe that is true. When I look at the work I send out, I can't in any way claim that anything has actually been done 'perfectly'. I've tried to do a good job, but of course anybody would do the same thing, whatever level one is working at.

But there is an undeniable thing that comes into play, that every time I am looking at a job, or anything that needs doing, I have an over-riding compulsion to find the 'best way' to do it. It might be the most efficient way, or the way that gets the most attractive result, or the way that needs the least maintenance later ... the word 'best' can have many conflicting definitions. But whatever it is, I want to find it! So, because of this I inevitably end up with 'No, can't do it that way ... there must be a better way ...'

The construction of my workshop is a fantastic example of this; I've been in there now for ... this is my ninth year. And yet, although it has managed to come to a point where I can actually do work there, it is far from either complete, or comfortable. The job facing me at the moment is the stairwell, and the accompanying ventilation ducts, and it's been ... what is it now ... two or three years since I got to the point where that was the next step. And I haven't done it, because even though I've made plans, and sketched sketches, and made lists, and created Plan A and Plan B ... the inevitable hesitation about choosing a method because I know that later on I'll think of a 'better' way to do it, results in ... total paralysis!

Meanwhile, look at my neighbour down the street, who is also a 'handyman' type, like me. During this same time period that I have been thinking about my stairwell, he has built an entire shop for his wife, who is a self-employed hairdresser. He sort of planned as he went along - the same sort of approach that I am using for my workshop - but he 'doesn't give a damn'. He just charges ahead any old way and does it. If two pieces of wood don't fit - bang them harder. Don't have enough of the right kind of paint - just mix something else for the last wall. And of course the result is not perfect; if a professional looked at it they would say 'That's a pretty funky job, you know ...' But. There is his wife, using the room and making a living as a hairdresser, and people come in and say 'Wow, what a neat place this is!' It's not 'perfect' of course, but it is eminently useable.

Back at the ranch here, Dave's workshop isn't 'perfect' either, but he still doesn't even have a staircase! So which of these two approaches makes more sense? You know the answer ...

Anyway, to those of you sitting in this circle here ... I have perhaps talked a bit too much about myself. I'm sorry. It's time for me to shut up and listen to some of the rest of you. Hopefully by hearing some of your experiences with these same problems (if indeed, they are 'problems', I don't know), I might be able to work my way through some of these issues that I am facing.

Thank you for listening, and I guess it's time to sit down ..."


Following comment posted by: Dave on July 27, 2009 8:10 PM

There are people out in the world in such support groups who do have real problems; the classic example would be some kind of addiction, whatever. Groups like this might really be a matter of life or death in such cases. Perhaps some of you reading that post of mine may be a bit upset with me for making fun of this kind of idea. But please accept that this is just a way to communicate a situation to my RoundTable readers, and hopefully get a bit of 'conversation' going. I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Following comment posted by: Barbara Mason on July 27, 2009 11:25 PM

I so totally understand, being a procrastinator too. I get a lot done, the same as you, but the edges of my life are unravelling. No hope for it, I have accepted myself and have decided to hire help

Following comment posted by: Sharri on July 28, 2009 5:43 AM

Yes, I too, am a charter member of the Proscrastinator's Union. There are just way too many tempting possibilities and I spend way too much time just thinking about them. Like Barbara I am hiring more and more of the mundane things out, but still I don't seem to get as much done as I would like. Maybe we just have unrealistically high expectations?

Following comment posted by: Jacques on July 28, 2009 7:27 AM

Ah, so your name name is David: my name is Jacques and welcome to the group!

I must admit I was quite surprised to hear that you are not satisfied with your output, and about how it has been produced. Following your progress in the world of Japanese woodblock printing, my impression of you has always been that you are an extremely disciplined guy, especially considering the fact that nobody is driving you to do what you have been doing, except for the need of a reasonable income (which is a pretty strong drive, I'll acknowlege that!).

Somehow this also comes as a relief to me, as I am - to put it mildly - a lot lazier than you are. I also keep postponing many things I know 'should be done' into the future, have a tendency to be interested in more things than I actually can handle, and hesitate about what I'll do next more than just doing something, anything at all. On top of it all I'm also a perfectionist. What makes it even worse: I love sleep!

The things you mention have some deep ramifications. I see them as the result of the conflict that arises between anybody's personality (which is everything that anybody's brain - continuously fed by the senses - produces: mostly crap, at least as far as the essential questions concerning being alife on this earth is concerned) and their essence, or fundamental source of energy, or life itself.

Seen in that light here are some of the rules I (try!) to adhere by:
- (it took me a while but) I no longer ever (and I really mean ever!) compare my life with any other person's life, not a Mozart, not a Sir Walter Scott, absolutely nobody. The higher purpose of these people's lifes here on earth are completely unknown to me (remember how and why Mozart died at a very young age?). I simply can't phantom or know for what reason these people were here (however long or short) on this earth. Otherwise I'll always end up with that downgrading "lucky-wonderful-bastard/how-the-hell-did-he/she-do-it" kind of stuff. Also, how about all these trillions of people who never made the history books, were their lifes meaningless?
- I never trust the information my mind provides me with, unless it concerns immediate facts. I take things that have to do with pure memory (what was that telephone number, name, pop song, square root of sixty-four again?) for granted, but do my best to cancel out everything else (you know the chitter-chatter in your brain: yesterday during that conversation with this person I could better have said this-and-this-and-that, tomorrow he/she will probably tell me this-and-this-and-that and I might then better answer this-and-this-and-that). It is pure speculation and fiction, at least from any 'real' point of view.

Then, finally there is that other question: why would you want to leave a legacy behind (in terms of physical output) that is as huge (and perfect) as Mr. or Mrs. X to humankind? Is that the only way in which your contribution to the world can or should be evaluated?
My idea is that what really counts is how you react to and deal with people you meet on a daily
basis. I always have this impression that you - apart from providing them with beautiful prints - treat people in a kind and respectful way. Couldn't it be that that counts when making up the final balance of your life?

Thank you for listening, and I guess it's time for me to sit down too ...

Following comment posted by: Dave on July 28, 2009 9:38 AM

Wonderful addition to the conversation - thank you! When it's my turn again to stand up, I'll be happy to respond to a few of your ideas. But right now, that wet paper is waiting ... with the ever-present threat of mold ...
(See, I can get to work when there's a real whip at my butt!)

Following comment posted by: Dave on July 29, 2009 12:08 AM

First two colours are now finished; not sure quite how many impressions this one is going to take. Somewhere from maybe 14 to perhaps 17 or 18. We'll see.

Time enough now at the end of the day for a glass of beer, and an attempt to address some of the points that Jacques raised ...

The question about comparing ourselves to others is a very interesting one. On the face of it, it shouldn't be a factor in our thinking at all; as Jacques mentioned, we are all individuals, and what somebody else produces obviously cannot be directly compared with what we ourselves produce. And of course the men I mentioned as examples lived in such different times and circumstances that any direct comparison is completely meaningless.

But the other point of view is that it is important for us to have 'models'. I think that 'looking upwards' - at men whom we respect as being hugely productive or creative - is very important. Why not measure ourselves against the best? Life may not be a competition, but it is to the benefit of us all that one tries to emulate those people whom we see as 'great' in their fields.

I know that when I do finally get to the end of the road, and am lying there in the last few minutes of my life, it won't matter one whit how 'much' I managed to create during my life. What will matter is how much I have enjoyed my time, and how much I have contributed to my society (and so presumably to the enjoyment of other people ...)

So I apologize if I left the impression that my only measurement of 'success' was the inches of shelf space my creations take up. 'Success' these days for me means: enjoying life in general, taking satisfaction in my day-to-day work, watching my children 'fly', being a 'companionable' person to those around me (friends/parents/collectors/community/etc.),and in general, being one who contributes as much to his society as he 'takes'.

But I also can't ignore the thought - which sort of goes with my job (the creation of (hopefully) beautiful objects that will live after me) - that 'more' production is 'better' production. Cut! ... Print! ... ... and then get them out the door! As many of them as possible! :-)

Following comment posted by: Jacques on July 29, 2009 7:51 AM

Thank you for your reactions Dave!

The question about comparing ourselves to others is a very interesting one. On the face of it, it shouldn't be a factor in our thinking at all

The interesting thing I pick up from this is that you consider thinking to be somehow the best means to evaluate what life is all about. I hear echoes of the French philosopher Descartes who said "cogito, ergo sum" - which is Latin for: "I think therefore I am". As far as I'm concerned such an evaluation can and should be completely free of any thought whatsoever.

But the other point of view is that it is important for us to have 'models'. I think that 'looking upwards' - at men whom we respect as being hugely productive or creative - is very important. Why not measure ourselves against the best? Life may not be a competition, but it is to the benefit of us all that one tries to emulate those people whom we see as 'great' in their fields.

I agree completely. But that leaves the question: how do you define 'the best'? Which 'models' should we compare ourselves with, and aspire to become (thinking - maybe for completely wrong
reasons - that they are 'great')? Aren't the models that we choose to aspire to just as much a
reflection of who we are as what they really have accomplished (consider teenagers whose
aspiration is to become a Michael Jackson, a Madonna, a Bill Gates, or grown-up people under any dictatorship to become like their dictator, to give some awkward examples)?

I know that when I do finally get to the end of the road, and am lying there in the last few minutes of my life, it won't matter one whit how 'much' I managed to create during my life. What will matter is how much I have enjoyed my time, and how much I have contributed to my society (and so presumably to the enjoyment of other people ...)

Great! That's what really matters: the selfless enjoyment part (which in that case -by its very nature- helps to lighten other people's burden as well)!

But I also can't ignore the thought - which sort of goes with my job (the creation of (hopefully) beautiful objects that will live after me) - that 'more' production is 'better' production. Cut! ... Print! ... ... and then get them out the door! As many of them as possible! :-)

Here we seem to be back at square one.

Suppose that, tomorrow, the apartment where I live would burn down completely, including every thing I've ever been able to collect in my fifty-five year existence: all my books, all my Japanese woodblock prints (including yours!), and all the rest of it. It could happen, couldn't it?

What reaction of mine would you consider to be the most 'appropriate':
a) I react in utter desperation, and it takes me months - or maybe years - to recover from the blow;
b) the event doesn't affect me at all; I take it all in with complete grace, knowing that my happiness and well-being do not depend upon the things that I have been lucky enough to acquire during my life-time.

In the end, what I'm trying to convey is this: art can be a beautiful and wonderful external
materialization (expression) of what we are. But - in the end - there is no substitute for the wonder of life, and the loss of anything material (including your prints, my own body) is irrelevant, simply because I already am life.

Mind you: whenever my apartment really burns down, or even worse: my body is really taken away
from me, I'll probably face some difficult times, or be scared shitless even. I am not perfect! :-)

I'm only trying to give you an inkling of what I am aspiring at...

Following comment posted by: Dave on July 29, 2009 9:46 AM

you consider thinking to be somehow the best means to evaluate what life is all about

Yes Jacques, of course I do! Thinking is what makes us people! Although I understand that there are those who wish to live an 'unexamined life', that is not for me. Boots the Cat - sleeping on the chair beside me at the moment - lives that way, and she certainly seems happy, but I am not a cat, I am a man!

Too much thinking, and we can indeed end up in a tangled mess; I readily admit that I may sometimes appear to be a mass of contradictions. The human brain is obviously a 'work in progress', and perhaps always will be. But it's all I have, and it seems to be getting me where I want to go!

Aren't the models that we choose to aspire to just as much a reflection of who we are as ...

Sure. Guilty as charged. And that's also the way it should be. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that there should be a single model/pattern to which we should all aspire.

And as I get older, I've learned that this sort of thing works both ways. Because I have now reached a position where I have a number of 'accomplishments' behind me, it seems (going by emails that I receive) that I'm becoming a model for some people, something that - believe me - feels pretty bizarre.

... burn down completely ...

You know, I have actually given quite a bit of thought to this (yes ... more 'thinking'!) The ideal situation is that I would turn away, shrug my shoulders, and move on with life. My skills and experiences cannot be taken away by such an accident. Either I would rebuild and continue with printmaking, or I would take it as an opportunity to 'refresh' and start something else completely different. Somebody wrote somewhere words to the effect that "In the end, it's all dust anyway ... both prints and printmakers ..." and this is true. In the very long run, none of this matters at all.

But I live in the 'here and now', not in the long run, so I will continue to care deeply about these things, and about trying to live as 'useful' a life as possible. I know ... I know ... you don't think that such things matter, and I respect your idea, but I just can't help myself!

Following comment posted by: Jacques on July 30, 2009 6:01 AM

Yes Jacques, of course I do! Thinking is what makes us people! Although I understand that there are those who wish to live an 'unexamined life', that is not for me. Boots the Cat - sleeping on the chair beside me at the moment - lives that way, and she certainly seems happy, but I am not a cat, I am a man!

To me 'not thinking' does not equate 'no examination' at all.

The ability to think definitely separates us from all the other species living on this planet: in contrast with great characters like Boots the Cat, for example, we are the only species equipped with a thinking device, and are therefore the only species endowed with self-reflective capabilities.

Nice photograph of Boots by the way! I've 'had' (I'm using quotes here because you never own cats really, they only make you believe you do) several cats, and was always amazed about their
absolute mastery of an ultimate and blissful form of relaxation (in contrast with dogs and horses,
who I've always found to have a much more nervous predisposition), and about how they charm us
people - well, at least some of us, and I happen to be one of them - into improving their already
blissful conditions even further. Not that I ever regretted it!

From the photograph, I also couldn't help noticing that you have a copy of that great book called "The New Wave".

Please note - and I really didn't do that on purpose - how quickly I got side-tracked from going into the heart of the matter of what you wrote. A sure sign that my brain is running the show here (fluttering and darting from one association to the next). Maybe it's time for another session over at Pocrastinators Anonymous...

So yes we humans are capable of self-reflection. But that also brings some responsibility with it,
wouldn't you say? But then look at what we humans (the cream of the crop, yes siree) - and I'm not
necessarily talking about you or me - have done with that 'wonderful extra capacity'. For the moment I'll leave that to anybody's imagination (hint: read tomorrow's newspaper) ...

As the French say: "A suivre"!


PS. I completely respect your ideas as well! That's what's making this exchange fun indeed.

Following comment posted by: Dave on July 30, 2009 9:25 AM

... look at what we humans (the cream of the crop, yes siree) ... have done with that 'wonderful extra capacity'. For the moment I'll leave that to anybody's imagination (hint: read tomorrow's newspaper) ...

Jacques, I'm so sad to hear you talk like this!

You're a scientist, someone who comes to conclusions based on data and facts, not on 'opinion' and 'impressions'. What we see in our newspapers these days is a huge distortion of the actual situation on the surface of this planet (re the effect of the human species ...). The entire structure of that thing we call 'the media' is genetically engineered to bring us negative news - reporting on things that are a disruption of normal activity. Just look around you in your own country/community to see the reality - the wonderful civilization that 'thinking' has brought us!

Have you seen psychologist Steven Pinker's recent piece - 'Why is There Peace?'? He talks about the recent findings of researchers that violence is decreasing over time. Here's a quick quote from it:

Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.

I don't want to be seen as trying to whitewash over the problems that we do face. The most pressing of these is of course the necessity for our global civilization to mature to the point where we learn to use resources sensibly. We (speaking of the global 'we') are still behaving like children who don't understand that you 'can't have everything you want', and it may take us a very long time to learn this. Pessimists believe that we never will, and that our planetary civilization is doomed.

I'm an optimist, and I feel that we will probably get things sorted out, step by step, bit by bit (although with of course plenty of backsliding along the way.) That's what our history shows us. It's been a long journey since we swung down from the trees ... all the way up to this point where you and I can sit here and have this discussion, and I don't think we're done yet!


But look at this! You and I came to this group to try and learn how not to procrastinate; to try and get help with keeping focussed on our work!

Blind leading the blind ... :-)


Following comment posted by: tim on July 31, 2009 11:54 AM

I think it is important to think when you spend so much time doing what you do!
Where would the you be, what would it be. I think, if you can afford that luxury, then take it. in times distracted.
and to just a comment on role models
which maybe were there
I tend to choose the worst!
just pure. Silly and flippin over
as we go

Can't wait to see your latest print
I'm watching everyday
No I Am Actually!!!!

Following comment posted by: Jacques on August 4, 2009 7:29 AM

I am an optimist too, but in a different sense than you mentioned at the RoundTable. I am certain - although I cannot provide you with any so-called scientific proof - that this wonderful universe has been designed by a supreme intelligence (call it It, ET, X, Life, God, whatever you like).

Daniel Tammert, a pretty well-adapted 'savant', recently put it into these wonderful words: life is too beautiful to think of it as the result of an accident.

I agree with you that the media have a morbid tendency to focus on the negative events happening on this planet. The background being that sensational news - usually meaning bad news - sells, and that people have an inclination to enjoy hearing that what happened to others did not happen to them.

It is also true that I am a scientist (and very happy with the income that it provides!). Still, at best I consider science to be a very enjoyable game, nothing more, nothing less. Most of the inventions scientists made range from making life more comfortable (computers - including the internet -, cars, planes, elevators, being able to get a child when a woman is sixty years old, to name just a few) to extremely destructive (guns, tanks, atomic bombs, to name just another few).

Scientists also claim that their methods are the ultimate means to uncover the mysteries of life (in short: a new religion). But science utterly fails to provide mankind with 'meaning': what the heck is this all about? Why are my loved ones leaving me, either of their own accord, or because they die? What is the meaning of life, love, death?

Religions on the other hand (especially the well-established institutions like christianity and islam, for example) claim that they provide the answers to these questions, but they also fail miserably as history obviously shows - they killed other people to prove their point, for god's sake! Their weak point - their achilles heel - has always been asking people to trust on faith.

I am looking at both religion and science, and am trying to reconciliate both.

I have found that silence is the way: close your eyes, concentrate on your body, focus your attention inside your body, and stop thinking.

If you try: it is very simple but not easy.

Once I reach that state of complete silence (my ears still hearing the noises from outside, but without any need to react) I find that I am engulfed in an incredible peace where nothing could ever disturb me. To die right now: no problem at all. No worries any longer about what I still want to achieve in life, about the people I feel I should say goodbye too, etcetera.

As soon as I leave this state, however, the world rushes in again, acting like an enormous magnet (Jacques: think about all the other things you could achieve in life! why did the people you loved leave you? help!).

Now, as you rightly mentioned: ain't I desperately deviating from the real topic of this RoundTable topic which is procrastination?


Following comment posted by: Dave on August 4, 2009 10:20 AM

Jacques, thank you again for the extended thoughtful reply. It is clear from the things you describe and tell us that you are a person who has come to a (fairly) comfortable acceptance and understanding of his position in life, and it is a pleasure to share opinions with you!

I would like to think that I too am in the same sort of position. I don't mean to imply that you or I think we have found 'the secret of life', or anything like that, but that we have arrived at a place where we have a good balance between what we 'know we can know', and what we 'know we can never know' ... if you see what I mean.

As seems to be the usual case between us though, my views on these points have diverged somewhat from yours. I'm going to put a few ideas down in the next couple of paragraphs that are a bit in opposition to what you have told us, but I hope you understand (I'm sure you do) that I am not 'arguing' with you, and am in no way trying to change your mind. If the two of us were studying some kind of scientific experiment in the lab, then we might clearly try to bring the other person around to believe in our own way of interpreting the data we were looking at, but in this wider case - 'what is the meaning of life' - I rather suspect that a clear answer will not readily be nailed down ...

Anyway, here goes my attempt at answering it ... (!)

... life is too beautiful to think of it as the result of an accident ...

The conclusion reached by this speaker is simply the result of a lack of imagination! Our human brains have obviously been structured by evolutionary pressures to work in a certain way, in a certain environment, under a certain range of inputs. We can sort of understand what may happen over a period of some decades, over an area of some square miles; we can process data on this scale.

We can most definitely not even begin to process data on the scale of millions of years in time, or millions of years (light years!) in distance. These are 'meaningless' concepts to us. Of course, in recent years we have moved to a point in our development where we have developed tools to explore such data, but not one of us can pretend that we 'get it' ... that we really understand internally what we are talking about. Our brain can simply not process such input in any meaningful way.

My point is that although I can sort of intellectually come to accept that the life and environment that we see around us (both the creatures on this planet, and the planet itself) came to be as they are by a long process of evolution from a 'raw' dust cloud in space, I am unable to 'understand' that. It just doesn't seem possible.

But that doesn't mean that it didn't happen. It is just that I don't have the intellectual capacity - the imagination - to understand it. So one obvious response to this failure - and one that has been taken by every human society since we became human - is to make up stories about how it happened. In the earliest days, such stories were 'animistic'; the world itself ... trees, mountains, etc. ... were 'alive'. Later men moved such 'spirits' into their own plane of existence (Gods of Olympus ...), as deities (or single deity, as the case may be.) We needed to have an explanation for the 'why' ... because we have never stopped asking those questions ... why do we exist? and ... what is the meaning of life?

For all the millennia of human existence, the questions have remained completely unanswerable, but finally - with the help of science (the enjoyable game you mention) - we have reached a place where we can now make some attempts at getting to grips with who we are, and why we are here. The process of discovery and analysis is still going on (and is perhaps infinite) but answers of a sort are in sight.

Only a very foolish - or very optimistic - scientist would make the claim that 'I've got it! The ultimate and final answer!', but as I am both foolish and optimistic, I'll give it a try.

Question (1) : Why do we exist?

Answer : We (the current 'we') are a snapshot taken at a point in time along a very long path. Back at the beginning of the path was that dust cloud I mentioned. Random dust in the universe, much of it left-over remnants from previous star/planet constructions that had come to the end of their particular cycles. Stuff happens to this dust based on physical laws (gravity, chemical properties, etc. etc.)

You see what I'm getting at, and I don't need to 'tell the whole story'. The dust gathers into clumps ... the sun ignites ... planets form ... etc. etc. ... Once it is very hot in one place (in the sun), and very cold in another place (that ball of rock), the laws of thermodynamics and entropy pretty much guarantee that a lot of elements and molecules are going to be pushed/pulled around in 'interesting' ways during the long process of getting the energy all levelled out again. Oceans form, mountains rise, mountains fall, molecules clump together ... etc. etc. In this sense, what we see around us today is indeed 'the result of an accident' - in the sense that it came about through a vast number of combinations/re-combinations of elements over a vast expanse of time.

There is nothing I can see around me as I sit in my room today that I can't explain by a simple application of physical laws to that original dust cloud. (I don't mean that I personally, or even humans in the aggregate, can yet clearly explain every single step of the process, but just that it is explainable.)

We (you and I, and our species) are a natural consequence of this process. Of course in other parts of the universe very similar things are happening all over the place, and I am quite sure that other creatures in many other places have evolved to a point where they also have asked these same questions. The existence of 'sentient life-forms' is probably just as much a natural part of this process as is the existence of volcanoes (although probably somewhat rarer, I guess ...)

We exist as a consequence of some unbalanced 'clumps' of energy attempting to 'level themselves out'. The flow of this energy stream from high to low causes many temporary and inherently unstable structures to form in the raw material scattered about the universe. That's it. It's just so simple that I can't understand why people get in such a knot about it!

Question (2) : What is the meaning of life?

This has two levels of answer. The first one, which is very simple, is that - based on the answer to Question (1) - there is no meaning at all, and the very question is meaningless:

  • There is a universe. (We know that, because we are in it)
  • Patterns of uneven energy distribution form.
  • This causes many variations of temporary accumulation of elements/molecules to form (me, for just one example).
  • Eventually, the energy is evenly distributed, and the game ends (or begins again, who knows).
  • There. Is. No. Meaning.

But that's a bit of a 'cop out'. After all, here on the one hand is a creature (Jacques) that is capable of forming the question, so it deserves at least an attempt to formulate a response in the same spirit, instead of just saying ... 'mu'.

But science utterly fails to provide mankind with 'meaning': what the heck is this all about? Why are my loved ones leaving me, either of their own accord, or because they die? What is the meaning of life, love, death?

But even a fuller answer still remains simple at its core: 'meaning' (as well as all those other concepts that start to overlap: morals, ethics, etc.) is something that only comes into being when it is described and defined.

Out there in the wider universe of dust, rocks, suns and planets, there is no such concept as 'meaning'. There are no morals. There is no good, and no bad. There is no ugliness. There is no beauty.

These are things that are created within the minds of sentient creatures, and only have existence therein.

Jacques, you must define your own meaning! Of course, because you are a member of a species (and a social species, at that), you don't do this completely independently. Certain ways of thinking are built-in to your DNA from the beginning, and many other ideas are overlaid on top of that based on where you were born, and on what you have read, and who you have talked to in the intervening years.

You must simply process all this input, and make of life what you will. For me, I very much like the phrase that engraver Andy English uses on his blog; "I dream my dreams and stagger contentedly through life." That, I think, sums it up as well as anything.

Each one of us must answer the question for himself - or ignore it, and live like Boots the Cat (perfectly acceptable, if this is what you wish).

I have found that silence is the way: close your eyes, concentrate on your body, focus your attention inside your body, and stop thinking.

It seems to me that you are trying to find a balance in your own life - living like a human, with all its attendant pleasures and frustrations, and living like our friend Boots here, peacefully and contentedly - but mindlessly.

Please enjoy your 'silent' moments, but please also remember, Boots-chan is only able to enjoy such a happy carefree 'thoughtless' life because we the humans, have built - over centuries of ferocious struggle and striving - a society and culture that provides us (and her) with a comfortable way of living, far and above the level of basic existence. (We have done this partly by over-spending the planetary 'stored energy' account, and there are going to have to be a lot of adjustments made very soon now, but that's another story!)

If we weren't 'thinkers' in the first place, you would still be swinging in the trees, hunting for food each and every day, and doing your best to avoid becoming somebody else's dinner! How much time would you then be able to spend in peaceful inner contemplation? :-)

Anyway, as always ... a pleasure to hear your ideas. Responding to them helps me try and clarify my own - very muddy - thinking!

And now, back downstairs ... perhaps six impressions on the Forest print still left, and the weather very damp. A race to the finish!

Following comment posted by: Julio Rodriguez on August 22, 2009 8:26 AM

Hi, I have enjoyed this discussion as it brings out a very familiar theme. I too procrastinate quite a bit, to the point that I often think it must be my biggest weakness.

Many a times procrastination has cost me dearly either financially or in terms of lost opportunities. Making lists of things 'to-do' is another habit of mine. While it is somewhat useful at times it later on reminds me of how little I actually get done and how much time is wasted. Since I have a 9-5 job I often make these lists during the week so I can tackle the big jobs on the weekend. Often I can't wait for Friday night to arrive so I can get to my list of things to do...after the weekend is gone...the true realization of how much actually got accomplished is often very sad. This is not always the case of course..at times I am quite successful and do get many things done. It is all a matter of motivation vs. free will....at some point my desire to get something done reaches a certain threshold and then is all engines forward. Other times free will gets in the way and I find 'excuses' or more valid reasons as to why a certain task should be deferred...we are funny creatures that way !

Dave...get that stairs built !!!

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