Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Chris Moses
Originally published in Hobopoets Zine

The point and the goal

Answer a fool according to his folly.
-Proverbs, 26:5

The man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.
-Henry David Thoreau

There is no knowable point to life, so let's make one up. The imaginary point to life is satisfaction. The imaginary point to life is procreation. The imaginary point to life is salvation in the everlasting hereafter. The imaginary point is a combination of the above. The imaginary point is the conspicuous acquisition and consumption of goods and services at a rate above the average bloke in general and, specifically, at a rate above you immediate neighbors.

Push polls indicate, in that least common denominator kind of way, that the correct imaginary point to life is conspicuous acquisition and consumption. Thus and so our life goal is to outspend our neighbors, to put more cash into our houses, cars, and green lawns. We are status sensitive creatures; we like tangible evidence of our success. The square footage of our dwelling, the purr of our sports car's engine, the color saturation of our lawn- all are solid, empirical indicators of our personal worth. Let's call this outlook and practice the status-driven orientation.

To understand our personal value we can use these indicators just like rulers. To discover your intrinsic worth stack your indicators up against the indicators of your neighbors. But perhaps your neighbors have acquired and consumed certain things of which you are unaware. How should you account for this? The answer is do not make any attempt to estimate this unknown. It is practically unverifiable and represents the primary reason why the conspicuous component of consumption is so important. Please remember that it's not your fault if your neighbor fails to maximize his indicators. He or she probably just needs a little peer pressure to stay on track.

Once you have stacked your indicators against those of your various neighbors, you should calculate two things to get the clearest picture of your human worth. First create a ranked list with the person/family with the highest indicator in first place. These are the most successful neighbors; it's fair and reasonable to call them "the best." Fill in all the people in the middle through to the lowest place. The neighbors in last place are termed "the worst" and may deserve your scorn. But try also to pity them by remembering that each neighbor has an important social function and role within the group's hierarchy. For example, the disgrace of those at the bottom helps maintain the upward pressure, which is essential to the validity of the ranking process.
Second, calculate the average of your neighborhood's indicators and stack against your own indicators. Create a standard deviation curve and rate the first, second, and third deviations with the letter grades A, B, C, D, F. If your indicator value falls within the first deviation consider your value as a human to be average. Use your grade in combination with your rank from the ranking list to discover whether you are a success, a failure, or just lie somewhere in between.
picture of standard deviation curve

Perhaps the status-driven orientation appeals to you. If so, I imagine you might be able to learn more about how to pursue it from books with names like How to Win Friends and Influence People or How to Marry the Rich Man You Deserve. However, at this point you may alternatively feel like you've been beaten with a bag of oranges. If so, let's examine another imaginary point to life. (Actually you have been beaten with a bag of large-ish lemons.)

The imaginary point to life is procreation. We can call this view the blue genes orientation. The best we've got lies right below our belt buckle. Basically, we serve the interests of our genetic material and are rewarded with things like orgasms and children. Unfortunately, we are also rewarded with things like sexually transmitted diseases and children prepared paternity-suit style.
image of man and woman in silhouette

The Gnostics are likely interested in the point to life option that focuses on the hereafter. As I understand the Judeo-Christian tradition, the point to life can crudely be reduced to this: the Gnostic exchanges 60 or 70 years of life on earth for an infinite period of peace, happiness, and wisdom. This approach takes some patience, but the returns sound far far better than those Peter Lynch could ever get. To continue with the attractively vulgar monetary comparison, it takes big risks to achieve big rewards in investing. Conservative investments yield modest returns; speculative investments yield proportionately more for the level of risk you assume. Interestingly, this risk to reward ratio is liner only over a limited range.
graph of risk to reward efficiency frontier
(For a comprehensive and readable analysis of the relationship between risk and reward in investing read A Random Walk Down WallStreet by XXXXXXXX.)

When you invest everything you've got, namely your entire life, for everything that you could ever want, namely eternal peace and satisfaction, you're placing a big bet, namely the biggest bet you could possibly make. If you win, you win in all. If you lose, you lose it all. It's risky for sure and the lack of empirical evidence for the integrity of the investment may be cause for some concern.
Perhaps the moderate, risk-adverse Judeo-Christians will wish to hedge their bets a bit. Using Modern Portsoulio Theory sophisticated Jews and Gentiles can allocate certain percentages of their time to specific behavioral categories. For example, one could invest 60% of his behavior in following the Ten Commandments, helping the less fortunate, and attending services/ praying every day. This would be the bread and butter allocation for your soul- nothing to radical, just good solid J-C behavior. Another 15% of the pie could be dedicated to aggressive Judeo-Christianity such as orthodox kosher practices or self-mortification. Perhaps liberal doses of Jonathan Edwards. The last 15% could be allocated to J-C neutral activities such as golf or mildly questionable activities such as very occasional non-procreative sex between husband and wife and always in the missionary position.

Atheists (heathen communists), agnostics (heathen biologists), and perhaps some pagans (heathen idolatrists, get a job!) may need to look elsewhere for the point to life. Some may opt for short-term hedonism- the 4 D's- drinking, drugging, dancing, and doing it ASAP. These folks are living in the present and if philosophically driven, understand that there are no guarantees of a new brighter tomorrow. Essentially behavior is directed toward the goal of physical pleasure and avoidance of mental discomfort.
If boneheads tend to opt for the 4 D's (honestly, how many folks of this type are philosophically driven?) then eggheads tend to opt for long term hedonism of the slightly acetic type- avoidance of physical pleasure and pursuit of intellectual challenge.
Adapted from Walden III, unpublished text

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