Decisions of Motion

Why is it that whenever something comes to an end we tend to, or inevitably succumb to the urge, reflect back upon how it all began?

There is a part of me that wants to refuse the tug of the past and instead continue steadfastly moving forward, with my gaze fixed upon the potentialities held within the unknown mystery of the future. Thus, I’m also pulled forward by my anticipation of what lies hidden and awaits being actualized, while simultaneously being tugged on by the past’s allure to be reflected upon and mined for gems of wisdom and treasures of meaning. The result is a state of tension and disequilibrium; my inner world stirs with the restlessness of indecisiveness of where to place my focus – which direction should I place my attention and, subsequently, galvanize my energetic resource to pursue.

Life is held in this dialectical tension, if by nothing else, by the law of entropy, which is solely responsible for the arrow of time. Consequently, we fill our time with busyness working tirelessly against disorder while also hoping to arrange our lives in some order that we find a sense of safety or security in – at the very least, a sense of familiarity. We crave normalcy and, to some degree, we cling to the delusional notion that someday our lives will be suspended in some abstract fixed state of continual satisfaction; we desire a state of being where all of our needs are met, so we conjure goals from our hopes, dreams, and role models to develop some plan of action for setting out on this quest.

However, the undertaking is tricky for two main reasons: first, future goals have a way of branching off into additional goals and/or dividing themselves into numerous subgoals that serve to continually postpone our attainment of the initial goal we set as our target; second, even when we have attained a particular goal, inevitability dissatisfaction and tension finds us once more, and we are left feeling as if we’ve drifted back to the shore from which we’d initially set sail. The cycle repeats once more.  

Many people convince themselves of their eventual conquer of this journey and spend their lives committed to this belief, even until their last day. Others, also convince themselves of thoughts more comforting than the truth and pretend that all their needs are already met, so there is no need for them to strive.

It is challenging to confront these distorted beliefs held within ourselves because to do so requires some degree of both acceptance and humility. Both of which are praised as virtues, when viewed from a distance, such as abstractly, but seldom do we genuinely wish to adopt and embody these virtues in the experiential realm. Rather, we decide that an intellectual appreciation of these virtues will suffice and, once more,  dodge the actual challenge presented to us by life.  

We spend most of our lives trying to avoid the realities of life by either convincing ourselves or allowing ourselves to be convinced by others’ fictions about life. This cognitive maneuvering allows us to sidestep the discomfort experienced when life’s challenges are indeed acknowledged as an obstacle. We prefer to become like Sisyphus destined to exert effort toward a task that never ceases in the rest of completeness but provides the illusion of progress by conflating motion with progress. Unlike Sisyphus who the repetition of his task to be his punishment, we harness our creative powers of meaning-making and allow our imaginations to construct grand narratives of how our work and task-pursuit are in fact of the utmost significance.  

There is real meaning to be found in the tasks we choose to undertake in our lives. However, issues tend to arise when we choose to deny the reality that we will never arrive at the fixed permanent state of satisfaction, which we so crave.

This issue resides within ourselves. We lack the sufficient self-knowledge necessary for us to properly identify what tasks, goals, and pursuits provide us with the meaning, purpose, and satisfaction we seek.

Consequently,  if we haven’t allowed ourselves to succumb to the illusion of pursuing tasks like Sisyphus, then we may find ourselves aimlessly wandering from place to place searching for others to tell us about where we should look within to discover answers to what propels our internal restlessness. This movement of outsourcing may even be taken so far as to alter how we perceive our inner world as to align ourselves more fully with the direction we’ve allowed others to corral towards. 

Yet, this too is fruitless and leads to feeling stifled or as if one were an imposter. Nevertheless, many choose this path because it supplies more comfort and security than embracing the alternative; that is, the recognition of what an incredibly challenging, ambiguous, and arduous task it is to become an individual.

A word of caution feels warranted here because of our proclivity to gravitate toward extremes. To be an individual is to understand, appreciate, and embrace the inherent uniqueness of oneself and others; it does not necessarily entail that one must become solely an individual concerned only for oneself and own self-interests.

This is an example of how often we take a particular point about a specific matter and then run ahead with it, applying it to a whole host of other ideas. Quickly, and often subtly, the result of this type of hasty generalization is a product that has lost its connection to, or hardly even resembles, the initial point from which it was derived. Consequently, this too leads back to another method of deceiving ourselves.

How significant must this force be that we try everything within our powers to wriggle our way out of having an encounter with it by means of avoidance, suppression, denial, and the list could continue ad infinium. Nevertheless, despite any of our attempts, like Sisyphus, we are not capable of such a maneuver, as to sidestep or bypass this force that imposes upon us, since, to succeed in such an endeavor would be to contradict our essential quality of being. For what confronts us is the task of becoming something with the being that is inherent to our existence. 

While the temptation to delegate the contemplation of the topic of being to the domain of the philosopher is an enticing way to, once again, duck our responsibility, we are nonetheless incapable of escaping the task placed upon us by life itself to discover what it is that we are, both as an individual and within the context of society.  

We know that we are something; we know that we exist and can quickly provide a list of identifiers to prove our existence within a societal context; that is, by utilizing the tool of language to articulate the ways by which we identify, or distinguish, ourselves from that of others. However, does this articulation of an inventory of individual identifiers truly resolve the task placed upon us by life? Is there not more to our existence and to who we uniquely are than merely that which can be articulated in a manner as to communicate it to others?

However, since these aspects to which I refer are definitionally ineffable, their existence becomes easy to merely dismiss as sophistry and continue navigating through life operating purely from what can be explicitly stated or objectively shown. Moreover, science and empiricism offer further validation that it is only the manifest, the quantifiable and the qualitative, that our existence is justified. Consequently, that which is unable to be spoken nor seen must then not actually exist. Yet, how much of our life is undermined and/or dismissed if our sole criterion for evaluating existence requires some sort of external or externalizable proof before being eligible to be deemed as being something “real”?

Voices of the Collective

If only we changed this single aspect, then these types of tragedies would be reduced or elminated; it’s too much of that and not enough of this; it’s actually too little of that and too much of this.

In fact, it’s not so much either this or that but rather another singluar aspect that hasn’t been taken into account appropriately: mental health. Actually, saying this is only a way of scapegoating the real issue of gun control and is even harmful to the work to destigmatize mental health.

I think it’s the effect of these new and extremely life-like video games that are normalizing violence, even encouraging it. Actually, the research doesn’t support the connection between violence in video games as a predictor for the committment of violent acts.

It’s probably the constant coverage the news media provides that serves to amplify the perpetrator and allow for others to seek that kind of recongition, especially because of our culture’s emphasis on celebrities.

Whatever cause or combination of causes that resulted in the action does nothing to erase the actuality that it happened, and it hurts — it should hurt because it is a tragedy.

Often we become lost in muddled arguments and too quick to avoid genuine engagement in them. However, without the proper usage of argumentation and discourse within the public square, nothing has been processed nor any action taken toward the prevention. Consequently, we are just taken back to where we started; another repetition completed.

What was gained this time around?

Aging and Emotional Preferences

Most of us strive to feel good; this doesn’t necessarily mean we are continually striving after pleasure in a hedonistic sense; rather, our strivings toward feeling good can be described as striving toward feeling a positive affect.

In science, and specifically the field of psychology, the term affect typically refers to the visible manifestation of a given underlying emotional experience by a person. Within the context of the affect valuation theory, the term affect is used even more specifically by including three dimensions that comprise affect (Barrett & Bliss-Moreau, 2009):

  1. Valence – the subjective evaluation of a particular experience as being either positive or negative.
  2. Arousal – refers to the degree of activation of the nervous system, typically ranging from low-high levels of arousal; higher levels of arousal, in this context, refer to increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
  3. Motivation – in relation to these other dimensions and the overall theory, this type of motivation is referring to the strength (or intensity) of a person’s desire (or urge) to take action toward or away from a particular experiential state of being.

To return back to the initial idea of striving toward positive affect states of being, researchers Scheibe et al. (2013) further examined the findings regarding affect valuation theory, particularly focusing on the critical point that the nature of what is a “positive” versus a “negative” affective experience is subjective and, thus, highly dependent upon the individual’s preference.

However, previous research had already indicated that the dimension of arousal is one way of differentiating the differences within individuals’ ideal positive or negative affective state. For example, some individuals sought positive affective states that incorporated low arousal, such as feelings of calm, peace, and so on, while others preferred ideal positive states that included high arousal levels, such as excitement and enthusiasm.

While high or low arousal offers some clarity for distinguishing between differences in a person’s ideal positive state, the results of Scheibe et al.’s research (2013) provided further support for the notion that aging is associated differences in the type of ideal positive states (low or high arousal) preferred by the individual. For example, their research found that older adults showed a greater preference for low arousal positive affective states (LAP) compared to that of high arousal positive states (HAP). Furthermore, while  this preference for LAP versus HAP was present in all three of the study’s older age groups (ages, 40-59, 60-79, and over 80), it was most pronounced in the oldest age group of participants (over the age of 80). In contrast, the age group for younger adults (less than age 40), did not reveal a preference for one state over the other and instead indicated valuing low and high arousal positive affective states equally.

While these findings suggest that a gradual shift in preference for the type of positive affective state does change with the natural course of aging, it also shows this change is a relative one; that is, even those in the oldest age group still reported a motivation for high arousal affective states.

Therefore, our ideal positive affect seems to include both low- and high-arousal states. The degree to which we prefer one over the other may vary between individuals, but the overarching trend is appears to be a gradual shift away from higher-arousal states, such as excitement and zeal, toward a greater emphasis on and appreciation of lower-arousal states that provide us a sense of peace and tranquility. Nevertheless, there is a need for both types of experiential states, and our motivation to attain these states through experience will continue to propel our actions, though the course of time may guide more toward one side.

Reference

Scheibe, S., English, T., Tsai, J. L., & Carstensen, L. L. (2013). Striving to feel good: Ideal affect, actual affect, and their correspondence across adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 28(1), 160–171. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030561

Barrett L. F., Bliss-Moreau E. (2009). Affect as a psychological primitive. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 41, 167–218. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)00404-8