Post scriptum (2022, week 13) — Purpose defined, from conversation to revolution, and how tech despair can set you free

Hlöðuberg Artist’s Studio overlooking the Breiðafjörður Nature Reserve in western Iceland, by Studio Bua — “The beautifully ruined, foundation-free perimeter walls have been retained, enclosing a new walled garden where flowers, vegetables, and herbs can be grown.” (Photograph by Marino Thorlacius)

Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s Post scriptum: A definition of the purpose of life; why radical ideas need quiet spaces; on escaping the totalizing grip of ‘technique’; why we need the presence of mystery; Michael Ignatieff’s ‘On Consolation’; David Whyte and the importance of conversations; if Suetonius entertains, then so also does he educate; Bofill’s magical La Muralla Roja; and, finally, Van Gogh’s and the difficulty of knowing oneself.

Purpose defined

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

As part of its ongoing interest in increasing understanding of character and virtue, the John Templeton Foundation commissioned a review of more than six decades of the literature surrounding the nature of human purpose. The Psychology of Purpose examines six core questions relating to the definition, measurement, benefits, and development of purpose.

In the past, definitions of purpose have varied, but in recent years a consensus has emerged. A purpose in life, the authors of The Psychology of Purpose write, “represents a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.”

This definition includes at least three key components: a goal orientation, personal meaningfulness, and a focus on aims beyond the self.

“First, a purpose in life is a goal. It is a long-term, ultimate aim that directs more proximal behaviors. However, not all goals are purposes. Only far-horizon aims that are particularly meaningful are likely to represent purposes in life. For example, seeking to earn good grades is unlikely to represent a purpose since it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Imagine an individual who wants to earn good grades to become a teacher. He may find purpose in instructing and molding young minds, and he may realize that to achieve his personally meaningful, far horizon aim, he needs to earn good grades. In this case, earning good grades represents an important objective along the path to purpose. This definition of purposeful goals suggests aims are intentionally selected, and recent research suggests individuals may possess a motivational self responsible for selecting and directing attention toward particular goals, including toward purposeful aims (Fishbach, 2014). The motivational self resolves differences among competing goals and prioritizes goals; in the case of purposeful goal pursuit, personally meaningful aims are likely to be prioritized by the motivational self over sources of goal pursuit.

Next, a purpose in life is personally meaningful. This may seem obvious, but it means that although external forces can help nurture the growth of purpose, the motivation for pursuing such an aim ultimately comes from within. Purposes are so personally meaningful, in fact, that individuals feel compelled to actively pursue them by investing time, energy, and resources to make progress toward them. For example, an individual who finds purpose in becoming a caring and compassionate doctor is likely to feel compelled to study hard to get into medical school.

Finally, a purpose in life is inspired, at least in part, by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond the self. Individuals pursue a purpose because it offers them a meaningful way of contributing to the broader world. […]

Purpose researchers have not paid much attention to the nature or source of purposeful aims, but motivational research illuminates at least two key facets of purposeful goal pursuit. First, the motivation for wanting to contribute to the broader world can come from anywhere. Motivational scholars (Kalkstein, Kleiman, Wakslak, Liberman, & Trope, 2016) suggests that beyond-the-self motivations can stem from sources of information or inspiration that are psychologically and temporally close to or psychologically and temporally distant from the individual. People are particularly adept at high-level learning, including learning in abstract and decontextualized ways, when the source of information is psychologically or temporally distant. At the same time, they tend to learn at low levels, including in more specific and contextualized ways, when the source of information is psychologically and temporally closer. This suggests that the motivation to pursue more abstract purposes in life may well come from sources psychologically and temporally far away, such as when a seventeen-year-old living in Los Angeles gets inspired to fight child labor in the far East after watching an Indian news channel YouTube clip reporting on Indian youth forced to work in the silk industry. At the same time, the motivation to pursue a more concrete purpose may come from a source of inspiration closer to home, such as when an individual is inspired to become a caring and thoughtful teacher after having a caring and thoughtful teacher. Second, research by motivational scholars also sheds light on what motivates youth with purpose to pursue personally meaningful aims (Fishbach, Koo, & Finkelstein, 2014). Evidence from this line of research suggests that individuals committed to pursuing a personally meaningful aim are likely to be motivated by negative feedback and by attending to subgoals they have yet to accomplish. Finally, recent motivational research also suggests enabling individuals pursuing a purpose in life to experience the intrinsically-motivated positive emotions associated with accomplishing subgoals may help keep them progressing toward personally meaningful aims over time (Klein & Fishbach, 2014).”

“Modern scientific research on human purpose has its origins in, of all places, a Holocaust survivor’s experiences in a series of Nazi concentration camps. While a prisoner at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two satellite camps of Dachau, Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl noticed that fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed greater resilience to the torture, slave labor, and starvation rations to which they were subjected,” the authors write in The Psychology of Purpose. (Photograph: Uniform worn by Marian Kostuch, held as a Polish political prisoner. From the exhibition Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York. © Musealia)

When each of these features — goal orientation, meaning, and a beyond-the-self motivation — exists, purpose is present. But it doesn’t necissarily make it noble or moral or even prosocial in nature. “Hitler likely found purpose in trying to create a purely Aryan race and the individuals who attacked Paris on November 13th, 2015 likely found purpose in promoting ISIS aims. These actions represented (1) far horizon aims (2) that were likely highly personally meaningful and (3) motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond the self.”

And although it can be difficult to distinguish noble from ignoble aims, it is possible. But this is where we enter the realm of philosophy, virtue ethics in particular, and, as such, it falls outside the scope of The Psychology of Purpose.

A few words on purpose in life versus meaning in life:

“Early in scientific discussions, the terms purpose in life and meaning in life were used interchangeably, but more recently, they have been distinguished from one another. A purpose in life represents a subset of sources of meaning (Bronk & Dubon, 2016). In other words, meaning is a broader, more inclusive construct than purpose. For instance, researchers have described purpose as just one aspect of the ‘four needs of meaning’ which also include value, efficacy, and self-worth (Baumeister, 1991). Similarly, other researchers have included purpose as part of their definition of meaning along with the extent to which people make sense of or see significance in their lives (Steger, 2009). Psychological researchers argue that a purpose in life refers only to those sources of meaning that are both goal- oriented and motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond the self (Bronk & Dubon, 2016). That means that individuals may find meaning in watching a shooting star, but they may find purpose in working to preserve natural resources.”

Note: See for the references mentioned above the annotated bibliography on page 37–52 of the review.

Radical ideas need quiet spaces

“Many social movements, from Occupy Wall Street to #MeToo, can feel like this now: They streak through, trailing fire and leaving an aura of heightened sensitivity in the places they burned before vanishing almost as suddenly as they appeared.” Gal Beckerman, the senior editor for books at The Atlantic, writes in Radical Ideas Need Quiet Spaces, an adaptation The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas.

Saul Alinsky, the famed community organizer who wrote Rules for Radicals, had a useful metaphor: For a revolution to be successful, he argued, it has to follow the three-act structure of a play. The first act establishes the characters and the plot, the second act sharpens the conflict, and in the third act, ‘good and evil have their dramatic confrontation and resolution.’ […]

Those first acts matter because that’s where activists hammer out ideology, define goals, set strategy and build lasting identity and solidarity. It’s also where the essential work of organizing occurs. If skipping over these steps seems especially tempting today, it’s because the tools are available to do so. Social media has given everyone extremely effective bullhorns that can call people to the streets for that presumed final battle. As a result, it has also set the metabolism of the movements that are supposed to reshape our world, making them quick and loud and full of emotional release.”

But the first two acts require somethings different. Instead of “quick and loud and full of emotional release” the demand “closeness and heat and passionate whispering.”

Beckerman has spent the past few years searching through the pre-digital past for the tools social movements used when they weren’t able to amplify their messages through social media, when they had only their ideas and goals, and needed to both expand their reach and refine their strategy.

As it turns out, the history of social and political change is full of analog but nevertheless interactive media that helped guide new ideas and identities into existence — from the letters that helped ferment the 17th-century scientific revolution to samizdat in the Soviet underground, which kept alive a shadow civil society, to the staple-bound zines of the early 1990s, where the style and sentiment of third-wave feminism first flourished.

“It’s not the fault of Egyptians; it’s the medium they are using. You’re just swallowed up by Facebook. You have emotional discussions with your friends, because Facebook is made for that. This is a trap,” Alaa Abd El Fattah, who is widely considered the most creative and tactical thinker of the revolution, said in a video that circulated shortly after he was released from prison in the spring of 2019. (Photograph: A woman protester, near Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011, by Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP)

“On first glance, these may seem to resemble pre-internet social media. But they were different in fundamental ways: These forms of communication demanded patience, took time to produce and time to transmit. They slowed things down, favoring an incremental accumulation of knowledge and connection. They also lent coherence, a way for scattered ideologies and feelings to be shaped into a single compellingly new perspective. They led to the sorts of conversations that strengthened identity and solidarity, that allowed for both imagining and arguing together, moving toward shared objectives. And, maybe most important, the activists and dissidents and thinkers who used these tools were in control of them. They created the platforms — and by creating them, they could set their parameters and make sure they served their ends.”

Intensity and intimacy and privacy can, of course, be found online as well, Beackerman writes, but we need to realise that where we talk can affect how we talk. “This is doubly true for the making of change, which needs solid foundations to avoid eventual crumbling. For the vanguards of the present dreaming up new ways to fight global warming or Black Lives Matter activists seeking alternatives to policing as we know it, this is an essential point: that the shape and extent of the change they seek depend as much on what tools they use as it does on their own will and hunger.

These activists need spaces to come together in the quiet when revolutions are only impassioned conversations among the aggrieved and dreaming. Because without those spaces, we risk a future in which the possibility of new realities will remain just beyond our grasp.”

How tech despair can set you free

“One way to look at the twentieth century is to say that nations may rise and fall but technical progress remains forever,” Samuel Matlack writes in How Tech Despair Can Set You Free.

“The century’s inquiring minds wished to know whether this faith in progress is meaningfully different from blindness. Ranking high among those minds was the French historian, sociologist, and lay theologian Jacques Ellul , and his answer was simple: No.

In America, Ellul became best known for his book The Technological Society. The book’s signature term was ‘technique,’ an idea he developed throughout his vast body of writing. Technique is the social structure on which modern life is built. It is the consciousness that has come to govern all human affairs, suppressing questions of ultimate human purposes and meaning. Our society no longer asks why we should do anything. All that matters anymore, Ellul argued, is how to do it — to which the canned answer is always: More efficiently! Much as a modern machine can be said to run on its own, so does the technological society. Human control of it is an illusion, which means we are on a path to self-destruction — not because the social machine will necessarily kill us (although it might), but because we are fast becoming soulless creatures.”

At the time of its publication — 1954 in French, and ten years later in English translation — tech pessimists celebrated Ellul’s book as an urgent warning of impending doom, while tech optimists dismissed it as alarmist exaggeration. Looking back, the optimists might think they are justified in claiming that the doomsaying was overblown. To them, Ellul’s talk about how we were facing a choice between suicide and freedom sounds antiquated. He was a man of his time. But there is good reason to take Ellul seriously, Matlack argues, for “he shows an alternative and oddly hopeful path for approaching social critique.”

Ellul rejects the standard prescription for social reform — if we start with the right analysis of where we are now, and take the right steps of reform, then we will someday arrive at a better future. Instead, he presents a problem but not a solution of the kind we expect. “This is because he believed that the usual approach offers a false picture of human agency. It exaggerates our ability to plan and execute change to our fundamental social structures. It is utopian. To arrive at an honest view of human freedom, responsibility, and action, he believed, we must confront the fact that we are constrained in more ways than we like to think. ‘Technique,’ says Ellul, is society’s tightest constraint on us, and we must feel the totality of its grip in order to find the freedom to act.”

“Technique transforms traditional practices by making them conscious and rational — by turning the tacit into the explicit and by relying on the authority of specialists and calculations to find the most efficient, most effective, most profitable way of doing something,” Samual Matlack writes in Confronting the Technological Society. (Photograph: Jacques Ellul, 1992, by Jan van Boeckel)

“One of Ellul’s major intellectual influences was [Søren] Kierkegaard, who writes that all of us suffer from a sickness of the soul:

‘Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety….’

Kierkegaard argues that these hints of anxiety we each feel — and that we each try either to escape from or to put up with — are really symptoms of a universal ‘sickness unto death’ that is largely hidden from view. Christianity, he says, has ‘discovered a miserable condition that man as such does not know exists.’ But Christianity not only finds this condition, it also describes its relief. The ‘state of the self when despair is completely rooted out,’ Kierkegaard writes, is when ‘the self rests transparently in the power that established it.’ There is no relief from our despair until we get to the bottom of it, recognize its all-pervasiveness, confront it, and find at the other end of that journey a place of divine rest that is also the beginning of freedom.

Ellul might best be understood as engaging in a similar process. The despair we may feel when our technological system dehumanizes us — as in the commodification of life in fetal-tissue research, or the death wish at the heart of transhumanists’ dreams, or the way that much of public-health governance has become mass manipulation, or even just the vague sense that something stinks beneath the surface of most public ‘ethical’ thinking on science and tech — all these are symptoms that something at the very core is rotten. Fully exposing that rotten core is Ellul’s project in his writings on technique. To what end? To produce the despair he thinks we must face in order for hope to have any real weight.”

Note: It turns out that Elul had an interesting Influence on Thomas Merton. “Though [Merton] typically referred to ‘technology’ rather than ‘technique,’ the substance of his comments reveals that he indeed grasped and integrated Ellul’s view of technique and its role in human life,” Gordon Oyer writes in Jacques Ellul’s Influence on Thomas Merton.

In the margins

“Mystery gets too little respect. Scientific progress has always been sustained by a tension between what is known and what is unknown, between the things that may be questioned and those that must be presumed. This is what the late and great physicist Freeman Dyson meant when he said that ‘science is not a collection of truths,’ but rather ‘a continuing exploration of mysteries.’ It is what astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser meant when he noted that while ‘we strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge…[we] must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.’ In this regard, Dyson and Gleiser are not outliers in the scientific community. Prominent scientists — from Newton to Einstein to Steven Weinberg — have always acknowledged the essential role of mystery and wonder in the advancement of science.

We need the presence of mystery in the same way that the coherence and beauty of a landscape require the presence of a horizon, whether as a line defining the field of vision or as a dark boundary that gives sharper definition to the world that is illuminated. Or as language needs the refreshment of silence. We need a sense of communion with that which lies beyond human understanding, that which it is not only forbidden to express, but also which is in its nature inexpressible.”

From: Mystery: Numinous, yet decipherable, by Wilfred M. McClay (The Hegdehog Review)

“[F]or those who find consolation as elusive, if not as impossible, as a political solution to our darkening times, Michael Ignatieff’s book makes an eloquent and empathetic case for us to look a bit longer,” Robert Zaretsky writes in Or Better Worse: On Michael Ignatieff and Consolation.

“The challenge of consolation in our times, [Ignatieff] observes, ‘is to endure tragedy even when we cannot find a meaning for it.’ Derived from the Latin consolor, consolation is the act of finding solace in the company of our fellow men and women. It is more than mere comfort. While the latter is fleeting, the former is lasting; it is, Ignatieff states, ‘an argument about why life is the way it is and why we must keep going.’

In the end, Ignatieff believes, consolation offers hope and the ‘possibilities to start again, failing perhaps, but as Beckett said, failing better.’”

In After Paradise, the introduction to his book, Ignatieff writes:

“We can be comforted without being consoled, just as we can be consoled without being comforted. Comfort is transitory; consolation is enduring. Comfort is physical; consolation is propositional. Consolation is an argument about why life is the way it is and why we must keep going.

Consolation is the opposite of resignation. We can be resigned to death without being consoled, and we can accept the tragic in life without being resigned to it. We can derive consolation, in fact, from our struggle with fate and how that struggle inspires others.

To be resigned to life is to give up, to forgo any hope that it could be different. To be reconciled to life, on the other hand, allows us to hold out hope for what the future might bring. To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities.

The essential element of consolation is hope: the belief that we can recover from loss, defeat, and disappointment, and that the time that remains to us, however short, offers us possibilities to start again, failing perhaps, but as Beckett said, failing better. It is this hope that allows us, even in the face of tragedy, to remain unbowed.”

From: Or Better Worse: On Michael Ignatieff and Consolation, by Robert Zaretsky (Los Angeles Review of Books)

David Whyte responds to a question from a listener, who notices that Whyte uses the word ‘conversation’ not in the sense of two people talking with each other but often as an interface between opposing ideas or ideas or situations in tension with one another:

“I’m just started a new series of words, so that’s one I should include. And one of the remarkable things about the word ‘conversation’ is that it can’t be made into jargon because it actually stands for a whole spectrum of exchange. Everything from just a chat around the water cooler about the weather, to a life-changing emotional conversation at the kitchen table at midnight. And we use it for the whole spectrum of exchange. And of course it can be an exchange between you and the natural world too. Between you and the color blue in the sky or the sunset, or the ocean waves arriving on the shoreline. It’s the meeting between what you think is you and what you think is not you.

And there’s a lovely etymology origin to the word. It means in Latin, ‘inside out’ actually, ‘converse.’ And so it’s literally, what’s both seen and experienced on the outside and also this parallel experience of what is felt on the inside, both literally and metaphorically actually. I talk about conversational leadership because I think reality is conversational. I talk about the conversational nature of reality. It’s always this meeting between what you think is you and what you think is not you. Whatever you want to happen in the world will never happen just as you would like it to. But equally, whatever the world wants of us, will not happen according to the world, the way the world wants us to behave. And what actually happens is this third entity, which is neither what the world wants nor what I want. It’s the conversation between the two. And of course, all of us find out that marriage is that way, that parenting is that way. That leadership is that way. That just walking around is that way, actually. The only place where things are real is where I’m meeting something other than myself.

And yet we spend very little time at that place. We’re often afraid of that meeting. And certainly we’ve got a society at the moment that’s retreated into its own corners and refusing to have a generous conversation with things that are other than itself and its own inherited belief system. So whenever I meet a new person, the most tedious thing I could know about them is what their inherited beliefs are. I know that’s a radical thing to say, what I’m really interested in is whether they’re up for a proper conversation. It’s not that I immediately want to engage them in a deep philosophical conversation. It’s just, do they have a conversational identity? Do they have an invitational identity? And those are the people we actually, naturally, and unconsciously and consciously love in the world. There’s nothing better than having a friend in your life, a person in your life, who’s invitational; who’s also generous enough to understand when you don’t want to receive the invitation, thank you very much.”

From: David Whyte’s Keys to Learning Generosity, Leadership and Presence, David Whyte takes questions from Frank Blake and listeners (Grazy Good Turns)

“When Augustus lay on his deathbed, he asked for a mirror, ‘ordered his hair combed and his lolling jaw set straight, and then, after admitting his friends into his presence, and asking them whether they thought that he had played his part well in the comedy of life, quoted these lines:

If the play has been a good one, then please clap your hands

And let me leave the stage to the sound of your applause.’ (The Deified Augustus)

To rule as a Caesar was to stand as an actor upon the great stage of the world. Each of the emperors portrayed by Suetonius, in varying ways and to varying effect, understood this. The fascination that Suetonius himself, throughout the Lives of the Caesars, displays for theatre, spectacle, the staging of beast hunts and gladiatorial games, reflects his appreciation of Rome itself as the supreme arena, one in which an emperor has no choice but to fight, to thrill, to dazzle. The result is as influential a collection of lives as has ever been written: lives which even today continue to inform how we understand the drama of power.”

From: Caesars and Sopranos: the Shadow of Suetonius, by Tom Holland (Antigone Journal)

In La Muralla Roja III (When the sun goes down), the Spanish photographer Andrés Gallardo “has captured the spirit of [Ricardo Bofill’s] apartment complex in a striking collection of photos, capturing the vivid use of reds, violets, and contrasting blue tones, against the night sky. Claret tones resemble that of the ablazen sun setting upon the horizon, and blue shades similar to those of the tranquil starlit sphere. Its angular postmodern form casts an atmospheric shadow against its walls, highlighting geometric shape and its domineering presence as a magnificent piece of architecture.”

From: Bofill’s La Muralla Roja Captured in Evocative New Photoseries by Andrés Gallardo, by Rebecca Ildikó Leete (ArchDaily).

Photography by Andrés Gallardo.

“People say… that it’s difficult to know oneself — but it’s not easy to paint oneself either. Thus I’m working on two portraits of myself at the moment — for want of another model… One I began the first day I got up, I was thin, pale as a devil. It’s dark violet blue and the head whiteish with yellow hair… But since then I’ve started another one, three-quarter length on a light background.” (Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo) Painting: Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1887–88, by Vincent van Gogh; oil on canvas, 65.1 x 50 cm. Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (courtesy of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

“Van Gogh’s insistence on the difficulty of knowing oneself, and his concern with changing appearances, echoes ideas about the formation of the self developed in English empirical philosophy. John Locke argued that rather than being born with innate ideas inscribed indelibly on our soul and mind, we are in fact a blank tablet at birth that is progressively marked by experience. David Hume gave the most extreme formulation of the new outlook in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), in which the self was defined as ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.’” — James Hall, Painting the Eternal

Post scriptum will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course.

If you want to know more about my work as an executive coach and leadership facilitator, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings, follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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Mark Storm

Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought

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