Rule 7: Pursue what is Meaningful, Not what is Expedient (12 Rules For Life)

Get While the Getting’s Good

Life is suffering. Enjoy it while you can. We may be licensed to reason in this way since there is no denying the initial proposition, but it isn’t only that life is suffering.

Human beings for thousands of years exhibited patterns of behavior that were somewhat predictable, but we never understood them and still don’t. Then we eventually became aware of our behavior and started to decode them. Rituals were created to represent our behavioral patterns, and then we told each other stories that articulated these patterns in higher resolution. The Biblical story of Paradise and the Fall is one of these stories. It is a tale of Adam and Eve, our primordial ancestors, and the story tells us that before we became conscious, we were sinless.

The first couple fatefully consumed the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Death and vulnerability were discovered, and our ancestors turned away from God. Man was exiled from paradise and embarked on a difficult and fragile existence where man was doomed to labor eternally in order to sustain himself.

The Delay of Gratification

The idea of sacrifice was discovered by our forefathers. We would be able to postpone our death by sacrificing a valuable part of our present. Work is the same as sacrifice, and they are both uniquely human.

Animals may look like they’re working but they are only doing so because of the dictates of their nature. They have no conception of sacrifice – as in they don’t think that there is a more pleasurable alternative.

One feature of sacrifice entails the delay of gratification, but there’s more to it than that. With the discovery of sacrifice came the discovery of time and causality. Our ancestors realized long ago that reality was constructed as if it could be bargained with. They realized that they could bargain with time.

The idea of sharing is related to sacrifice. When humans hunted mammoths, they realized that it would be more beneficial to share the spoils instead of keep everything to themselves. The benefit of sharing is that it initiates the process of trade. It’s not a selfless activity. Doing something good for somebody today makes it likely that they will help you in the future.

What is implicit in the stories is that sharing and sacrifice are beneficial acts, and not doing both will make God unhappy, and all hell will break lose when that happens.

The reason why the story of Christ is an archetypal story is because the greatest two possible sacrifices are being made: Mary’s sacrifice of her son and the self-sacrifice of Jesus.

Sacrifice is the antidote to suffering.

“Forego expediency and pursue the path of ultimate meaning.”

Socrates could have chosen to defend himself when he was sentenced to death, but instead he chose to make the ultimate sacrifice (himself), because he saw that there was greater meaning in doing that. Socrates lived a wise and proper life. And doing so armed him with the ability to confront death fearlessly.

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were granted knowledge of Good and Evil. What that means is that when you become aware of your own limitations and vulnerabilities, you are suddenly capable of knowing the limitations and vulnerabilities of other people. Evil is only made possible because of self-knowledge. Since we know how to hurt ourselves, we know how to do evil onto others.

The story of Cain and Abel is a story of good and evil, and of sacrifice. It shows us how the hero Abel, despite being able to please God, can be taken down by a vengeful force of evil.

“No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” – Carl Jung

Jung meant one could not move upward without moving downwards in equal proportion. “It is for this reason that enlightenment is so rare. Who is willing to do that? Do you really want to meet who’s in charge, at the very bottom of your most wicked thoughts?”

Christ confronts the devil in the desert in an archetypal story of good versus evil. The devil tempts Christ three times. The first is to tempt Jesus (who was starving) with bread, but the latter refuses because gluttony and satiation at the expense of integrity of the soul is worthless. The second temptation was to get him to jump off a cliff and be saved by God. The devil makes the case that surely, God would save his only son from evil should that event occur. But Christ refuses to tempt God. The third temptation is the material world and all the pleasures that lie in it. But again, Christ is unmoved. He refuses to succumb to the call to earthly power, wealth, and lust. Christ rejects the expedient.

Christianity and its Problems

According to Jung, Christianity’s failure to account for suffering in the here and now led the Western world into a fascination with alchemy to discover the secrets of health, wealth, and longevity.

But despite Christianity’s failure in this regard, it still managed to achieve miraculous results. It transformed slave-based societies into equal ones. For most of human history, and in parts of the world today – the weak do not have the same rights as the powerful. But Christianity’s insistence that wealth and ‘works’ do not amount to moral righteousness resulted in the changes in law that are recognized across Western democracies today. Slavery, for example, was  once self-evidently useful, and it was noble for men to own slaves.

“We think that it is the desire to enslave and dominate that requires explanation. We have it backwards, yet again.”

Nietzsche recognized that Christianity was too weak – that it was watered down and that its adherents were given a free pass by merely being asked to have faith and accept Jesus’ sacrifice as having done the work for them. He criticizes what movements such as Protestantism have done to Christianity – relieving it from its duty to preach the proper imitation of Christ. Dostoevsky transcends Nietzsche’s anger through his literature by showing how Christianity can still be redeemed through the story of the return of Christ in The Brothers Karamazov.

Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky recognized that discipline was the precursor to freedom and that Christianity had disciplined the European mind. A father, while constrains his child from freedom by setting rules, endows him with the discipline required for his child to act freely.

But the problem is that after the European intellect grew out of this dogma, it was replaced with something worse: nihilism as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new totalitarian and utopian ideas. Nietzsche foresaw this result, and believed that we should invent our own values, but Jung pointed out that this wasn’t possible, partly because we know very little about the real motivations underlying our behavior.

We refuse to force ourselves to adhere to self-imposed totalitarianism the same way we rebel against externally imposed totalitarianism.

“We must discover that nature, and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves. What is it, that we most truly are? What is it that we could most truly become, knowing who we most truly are? We must get to the very bottom of things before such questions can be truly answered.”

Meaning as the Higher Good

Recognize that you have a shadow – a dark, evil side. Know that you are either working towards the betterment of mankind, or it’s destruction. You have either place good at the top of your moral hierarchy, or evil. You have chosen either Cain or Abel, Thor or Loki, Batman or The Joker, Christ or Satan.

Notice the difference between experience and meaning. Expedience is a fleeting escape, it is following a blind impulse.

“It is short term gain. It is narrow and selfish – and lies to get its way. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering.”

Meaning is not following your bliss or passion. It is the atonement “for the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being. It is payment of the debt you owe for the insane and horrible miracle of your existence.”

Expedience is the cowardly avoidance of responsibility. It is wrong because mere expedience, when repeated incessantly, resembles a demon. It’s wrong because expedience merely transfers the curse on your head to someone else, or to your future self, in a way that will make your own future and the future in general worse off.

“Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order, whose purpose is to produce out of the attendant chaos a new order that will be even more immaculate, and capable of bringing forth a still more balanced and productive chaos and order.”

Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.

Read 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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