Then I go to Google Analytics and look at my blog numbers for the past week and month.
Then I look at which specific posts got the most number of views.
Then I check how many books I’ve sold through my Amazon Associates account and how many pennies that has earned me.
Then I look at my Twitter stats to see how many times my links have been clicked and whether I’ve been retweeted.
Then I check my bank account.
If you took all these numbers and added them up and divided them by my age, you would get…
… a completely meaningless number.
This occurred to me within the first pages of a new book, The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-First Century, by existential psychoanalyst Carlo Strenger, chair of the clinical graduate program in the psychology department of Tel Aviv University.
Psychology and philosophy are deeply entwined, the former having emerged from the latter, and so the ideas presented in this small, dense volume might be taken into the lab one day. I hope they are. When I attended college in my 40s, I was distressed by how little attention was given to midlife in my developmental psychology classes. In this book (described in back-cover blurbs as “ambitious”), Strenger present his theory about midlife transformation.
Strenger urges us to consider our values, our strengths, and (here’s the existentialist twist) our limitations as we seek meaning in midlife. He makes a case for what philosopher Karl Jaspers called sosein, which translates roughly to “being thus and no other.” We are who we are and no amount of aspiration and inspiration can change that.
“Just do it,” is a lie, Strenger says, because we are human beings who can have unlimited aspirations but are born with limited talents, time, resources, or whatever else we might need to pursue dreams.
Strenger builds his arguments with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and the rest of the gang of existentialists; pop culture; classical arts; case studies ranging from his clinical practice to President Obama; and some huffing and puffing against political correctness and vapid pop spirituality. He essentially urges us to follow our bliss, a la Joseph Campbell, but only if our bliss is realistic when measured against our sosein.
But before we can even figure out what we are meant to do, he argues, we must recognize our anti-intellectual, celebrity-obsessed , quantity-over-quality, money-is-meaning culture for what it is: glittering but hollow trappings that substitute for a profound and meaningful worldview. We must strip the stars from our eyes to develop an authentic worldview, and then live that worldview with passion and commitment, letting inessentials fall away. After all, our time here is limited. (Mortality is a big player in existential philosophy.)
Strenger’s theory is consistent with “socioemotional selectivity theory,” proposed by Stanford University psychologist Laura L. Carstensen and colleagues, which suggests that as we age and face our mortality, we shed social connections that are not emotionally satisfying. I like to think of this as “Life is too short to waste on annoying people.” (Except I don’t say “annoying people.” I use another “A” word that is not appropriate here.)
I was drawn to Strenger’s book because “fear of insignificance” speaks to me. Insignificance is the bogeyman that hides under my bed. What if I am never on Letterman? Does that mean my life is without value? Strenger forces me to examine my view of a life well lived, and accept that who I am and what I do won’t take me to Hollywood (or the Ed Sullivan Theater). Which won’t mean my life lacks meaning.
He also forces me to reconsider my daily ritual of seeking significance in my statistics. If they’re good, I feel accomplished. If not, I’m a loser.
What do those number mean, really? Not a whole lot. What does my fixation on them mean? What do they do to me? Are they helpful or harmful or somewhere in between?
How do you measure your life?