Sunday, January 4, 2009


Once we realize that we can know nothing, and that nothing matters, the charge, “You're wasting your time” has no meaning.

The notion that what we do is “worthwhile” only if it meets certain criteria evaporates like morning fog in the incomprehensible vastness of the Universe and the insoluble mystery of Being. This brings a certain sense of freedom – as did my realization long ago, as I looked up into the sky for that judgmental God I had been told about, that “Nobody out there cares!”. We no longer have to feel guilty if we aren't doing something “useful”.

My Romanian friend, Adriana, does higher mathematics for her own entertainment, and she told me that she sometimes asks herself, “Why am I doing this?”, just as I ask myself why I am playing computer games and learning 3D modeling and animation instead of doing something “constructive”.

The standard of activities becomes what interests us and what gives us pleasure – particularly if it keeps us in Now and leads us not into the temptation of the past or the future. The idea that we must be accomplishing something like making money or getting published or preparing for an examination or performance no longer torments us. If a man wants to spend his life lying around on beaches and riding waves, more power to him. If I would rather play Super Mario Galaxy or build a palace in Second Life or learn about ancient astrology instead of doing something that qualifies for the mythical title “useful”, more power to me.

I'm not implying that I, personally, can dispense with all values, however arbitrary they may seem. I'm talking only about how we choose fill our time – and I say that you can tell much more about what a person really wants by how she chooses to spend her time than by what she says she wants. Witness the man who wants to be a great author but spends his time figuring horse racing systems.

Speaking for myself, it feels like a good thing to try to decrease the amount of pain in the world, even if governments like Israel and the United States devote themselves to increasing the amount of pain in the world. Justice feels better than injustice. Honesty feels better than dishonesty. And most people are happiest if they can arrange to create a comfortable, tidy, attractive environment. The relative desirability of activities might be measured by those kinds of feelings, but hopefully without any sense of “should” or guilt.

For me the greatest pleasures beyond food and sex come from learning and creating. For somebody else it might be training horses or learning Greek or sailing or fishing. But let none of us be chained to the galley bench of “useful” or “worthwhile”.


  1. Constructive activity to me means 'work'. But work can be construed as any number of things- from your typical day-to-day haul for a salary to learning. You say you like to learn and to create; if you have the leisure to be able to do those things, in addition to their being fun, it really is a constructive/worthwhile thing to do. The more you learn, the more ways you have to help other people, or, as you put it, decrease the amount of pain in the world.
    I hope I don't sound preachy or anything; I was just surprised that you didn't consider learning to be generally thought 'worthwhile'.

  2. Antonia, thanks for your thoughtful and very well-expressed comment. For me knowledge and learning not only bring pleasure and have value in themselves, but also (as you say) increase one's ability to help others. I have the impression, however, from my upbringing in the United States, that learning for the sake of learning is not held in high regard.

    It's a real pleasure to hear from you.