By NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So recently, I decided to move to a new city which I thought would better suit me and my goals, and so I moved. But I was kind of in a mess where I wasn’t really making any actual progress. The first few days got spent doing what is otherwise best termed as busywork- work that accomplishes nothing but makes one feel good. I was busy, but not productive. I was only managing to eat and sleep- something which seemed like an achievement in itself, being a newcomer to the city. So, all-consumed between ordering food from nearby restaurants on my phone and searching for laundry service in my area, I wondered if I was making good use of my time given I was so well aware of death and the preciousness of time. And the answer to one’s surprise was that it was irrelevant. Let me explain.

Earlier, I’ve talked about the intrinsic value of things and how we ultimately do things for their own sake, for no other reason than we want to. And today’s topic follows naturally from this fact, and it is all about the intrinsic meaning of things, or as I call it, ‘self-contained meaning’.

The short version of my argument is very simple. All we ever do, we do things for their own sake, or for a goal that is likewise self-justified. There’s never any value in doing things except the one contained in them, whether directly, as in doing something for its own sake, or indirectly, as in doing something for others or a future goal. There’s no value outside these things other than any meaning we provide to them, or at least none that effectively motivates us to do them.[1]

See, with anything you ever do for the future, you do it on the silent assumption that what you do will improve the quality of a moment that is yet to come. And so it goes with everything in life. So, let’s return to my situation. I see that even though I didn’t do much of what would improve the quality of any future moment(s) on my timeline, I had a good deal of fun doing whatever I actually did. Even if it was busywork, it was fun. And in fact, even if it wasn’t fun, I would still argue that all this time had a self-contained meaning.[2] And I’ll argue that that’s the total meaning there ever is. Applied to my example, this means that even if I was the most productive during this period, the total meaning of the duration wouldn’t increase by a bit. But yes, assuming that productivity would have changed the quality of a time that was yet to come in the future, the total meaning of the latter and my lifespan as a whole would have increased.

So, what perspective does this have to offer us for our everyday lives? Well, the first thing is rather starkly clear. The next time you find yourself beating yourself up over having wasted time, relax and just remind yourself that you’re only wasting time then. This perspective also teaches us something about hard work, improving one’s life, and even contributing to the society at large in the sense that this would improve the quality of future moments of other conscious creatures just like oneself. And it is simply that all these things matter. The fact that using your time to build a better future is rendered irrelevant doesn’t mean that the same doesn’t matter. Viewed correctly, this perspective offers us something, all the while taking nothing away from us. The result as far as I can see is a net-positive, and this holds true for everyone who applies it.

But the greatest implication it has to offer I think is this. Appreciation is the highest good one can aspire to. I’ve talked about this already at some length in my previous essay where I encouraged everyone to maximize present moment goals which deliver happiness in the present. These goals are nothing but the things we want to do for their own sake, for no other reason than we want to i.e., purely for their intrinsic value or meaning. But if the self-contained meaning is the only meaning there ever is, it follows naturally that appreciation is the highest good one can aspire to, simply because there’s nothing else that comes as close to realizing the sheer joy of being alive in the present, and given the present moment fulfilment is the best thing you’ll ever get to experience. And the word appreciation here can broadly encompass different verbs characterized by taking joy or pleasure in the intrinsic value of things, including respect, cherishing, and gratitude.

I picked a career path distant from any of the crowd, and decided to do work that would allow me to retire in a few short years. But why retire? So that I could finally do the things I loved or wanted to do, free from financial constraints of all sorts, and with all the freedom of time and mobility in the world. But what would be the essence of retiring and then doing all those things? Well, that’s the interesting question. And the answer that comes straight from the gut is, ‘to finally appreciate the present moment for what it is’.

See, whenever the present moment becomes good enough, the meaning of life itself is realized. And appreciation is the doorway for tapping into this meaning. But you know what the best thing about appreciation is?

It is that the present moment is a sufficient condition for appreciation, and we know that the present moment is always there. And appreciation usually happens for the present moment. But here’s the key. It can happen for the past as well, or for the future. This offers us a nice tool at the end of the day to cope during hard times. Because quite literally, you can just go back into your past or think of all the good moments yet to come, but whichever way you have it- whether nostalgia or fantasy, you can experience the sheer joy of being alive. And this is what it means to be happy during the bad times. You count on all the good stuff and loved ones you already have from your past or that are yet to come in the future. But the converse is also true. One can have all the riches in the world, but due to a broken outlook on life or the world, one can be utterly miserable nonetheless.

So, to conclude, self-contained meaning is all there ever is, and appreciation is in my view the best thing you can do in your life. We are the feeling and breathing organs of the universe, and it is through us that the universe knows itself. I must say that among other things, an awareness of death is the doorway into this appreciative way of being and living in the world in each moment. But at the end of the day, the degree to which you can appreciate is precisely the degree to which this universe is meaningful, in a sense.

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Footnotes:-

1. And that’s the keyword here- effectively. Because in principle, there can be meaning derived from a belief in an afterlife or heaven. But one must note that this is potential meaning, not actual meaning.

2. As long as you’re connected to the present moment, as long as you’re not distracted by thought and are simply surrendered to consciousness in the present moment, as long as there is a union of consciousness with the present in each moment, it doesn’t matter whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, it doesn’t matter whether it’s fun or painful doing. You’re just good to go. Because you see, you don’t have time for thinking that it’s something bad without knowing that you’re thinking. And it is this type of thinking, thinking without knowing that you are thinking, that is the principal source of human suffering, more so than the experience itself. An example of where you surrender yourself to something unpleasant in the present is BDSM as known in sexual practices.