We recently came across a terrific piece by Galen Strawson (whom we previously discussed here on the matter of free will) titled Against Narrativity. In it, he argues against the prevailing human tendency to view our lives as a narrative, rather than as a series of episodes. We strongly recommend reading the whole piece--block out some time and really digest it, as it is not exactly light reading.
In a nutshell, Strawson says we have, as a species, essentially come round to the belief that each of our lives is an unbroken story, with the "self" we are today directly linked to the self from yesterday, last week, or 20 years ago. (While we are of the opinion that the self is an illusion, and Strawson appears to share this belief, this is immaterial to the argument.) In a sense, most people approach their lives as a sort of perpetual building exercise, carefully constructing layer upon layer of personal and career "successes" they fervently hope will be large (read: important) enough to stand for some time, thus granting them extended "life" in books, people's memories, maybe even a song ("Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?")
As Henry Potter might ask: "Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?"
The problem with this approach is that it brings with it an ever-increasing load of baggage, as we constantly seek to conform to this self we have spent so long crafting. Thus, when faced with decisions, most people unconsciously strive to satisfy this self, rather than weighing pros and cons of the current situation. Or, worse, many find it more convenient to outsource such decisions--for example, many people in the US strongly identify with one of the two main political parties, and filter their beliefs accordingly. Thus the ridiculous recent specter of Democrats supporting invasive searches at airports and Republicans decrying them, in flat contradiction of long-standing stances on matters of civil liberties and defense. What accounted for the flip-flop? Well, the measures were implemented by a Democratic administration...
But we are talking more of the issue of, as Krishnamurti put it, "dying" each day (or even each minute). In short, we weigh ourselves down with all the detritus we accumulate day after day, in pursuit of this fiction that we can, if we work really hard and don't make too many mistakes, actually construct something that will stand for all time. Because if not, then what does it matter?
Ah, you say, it matters because these things make me happy. My life as I live it provides me with comfort, and friends, and good food and drink, and maybe even a fast car I enjoy driving on the weekends. These are good things...why should I renounce them in pursuit of this inner contentment you preach? Who are you to say what makes me happy?
We, of course, are no one. But we can say without fear of contradiction that a happiness based on things, be they physical or mental (eg, relationships) is ultimately doomed to failure. Things crumble, people get old and die, relationships fracture...all of which causes grief, and stress, and unhappiness. An inner contentment, on the other hand, requires nothing other than peace of mind, a "quietness," as Krishnamurti put it. And yet it is this seemingly simplest of pleasures that often seems most difficult to attain.
Living the episodic life, therefore, is yet another attempt to skirt the obstacles we put in our own path to such a state--a way of living that recognizes the past has indeed shaped us (both physically and mentally), but need not confine us.
In the words of the once and always Dude, "You don't have to be who you think you are."