The Existential Anxieties

So far, I’ve talked about the general framework and the tensions between the needs. To explore how the character moves across the Four Needs coordinate space, let’s study how the character might experience the tensions between the needs. In this story, our character is largely unaware of the pairwise polarities of the four needs. Instead, the character senses the tension, and can only relate to needs in the context of experiencing this tension.

To put it differently, the character feels that something is tugging at it, something beyond the grasp of the character’s understanding. This framing reveals a set of counterfactuals. In relation to each need, the tug produces a question of potential absence. What would happen to me if a particular need went unsatisfied? What if I didn’t have Belonging? What if I didn’t have Agency? What if I didn’t have Safety? What if I didn’t have Purpose? These counterfactuals give rise to four Existential Anxieties, the fears of the unknown, the fears of the potentiality that a need may not be satisfied–or perhaps even satisfiable.

In the context of the need to Belong, the experience of the tension in the Agency+Belonging polarity is thus interpreted as the threat of not belonging, giving rise to the Anxiety of Not-Belonging. In the context of the need of Agency, the same tension manifests as the threat to one’s agency, giving rise to the Anxiety of Not-Agency. Similarly, the character develops the Anxiety of Not-Purpose and Anxiety of Not-Safety through its experience of the tension in the Purpose+Safety polarity.

When I constantly seek others’ approval, I crave Belonging, and that craving ultimately comes from the perception of a deficit of Belonging, my underlying Anxiety of Not-Belonging. When a company decides to centralize and streamline its operations, it’s seeking efficiency and predictability, which is a marker of Safety. Lurking underneath, there’s organizational Anxiety of Not-Safety.

Existential Anxieties predict deficits of needs. They turn tensions into conflicts, each unwilling to let go, leading to vicious cycles. They vie for our character’s attention, providing catastrophic prognoses of needs being unmet. They are what compels the character to shift their position in the coordinate space.

This is an important point, so I’d like to give it more consideration. When the character is not subject to Existential Anxieties, it rests at the center of the coordinate space. The tension across the needs holds it perfectly at peace. It is only when the question of overcompensating, when there’s anticipation of a dire outcome does the change in character’s coordinates happen. Only when the character believes that there is some yet-unseen force that might push it off center does it begin to crave toward or avert away from one Need or another. These beliefs are supplied by the Existential Anxieties, and thus the anxieties are the driving forces behind the character’s journey across the coordinate space.

Once the change of coordinates happens, the balance in the conflict of Existential Anxieties shifts with it: anxieties are allayed or aggrieved. Moving away from one Need flares up its respective anxiety. When, late for class, I decide to take a shortcut through a dodgy alley, my Anxiety of Not-Purpose, combined with Anxiety of Not-Belonging supply a convincing argument of upholding my identity of a “good student”, causing my character to shift to the Purpose+Belonging quadrant. Then, as I hear a strange noise behind me, the aggrieved Anxieties of Not-Safety and Not-Agency savagely pull my character into the Safety+Agency quadrant. Similarly, an organization might find itself stagnant and uninspiring after another round of streamlining driven by Anxiety of Not-Safety, yearning for something courageous and bold as the indignant Anxiety of Not-Purpose drags its character toward Purpose.

A peculiar quality that seems to be common to all characters I’ve encountered so far is the presence of delays. Perhaps because Anxieties compete for attention and attention is a serial device, or perhaps for other reasons, the predictions of catastrophic calamities that Anxieties provide tend not to be punctual. I may sit up awake in the middle of the night realizing what a terrible goof I’ve made at the last week’s meeting and how that would definitely ruin my career. It might take years for an organization to suddenly snap into a belief that it needs a different culture. And at the same time, who hasn’t felt the visceral, immediate emotional response to a seemingly innocent remark of another? Sometimes anxieties trigger instantaneously, and sometimes they take time. As a result, the character tends to travel in wild oscillations that are common to complex systems with delayed feedback loops: as Anxieties conflict with each other, they pull and push the character along a messy, chaotic trajectory.

The paradox here is that while the journey marked by this trajectory is taken under the auspice of going back to center, it is also pretty clear that the method of the journey is unlikely to result in such outcome. Yet at the same time, this journey is truly the destination: it is only through experiencing this journey that the character may be able to glimpse the nature of this journey, and perhaps transcend the Anxieties that fuel it.

Tension between Purpose and Safety

Now that I described the tension between agency and belonging, I’d like to look at how the tension between Purpose and Safety plays out.

Within the framing of the the Four Needs framework, there’s a story being told, and I find that looking at the story through the eyes of the character of the story is helpful to zero in on the definition of the needs.

The need for Safety is usually the easiest to spot. It’s the one that drives the character to seek stability and order, where it wants to make sure that things are “predictable”, “coherent”, “legible”, “stable”, “certain”, “well-defended”, “supportive”, “at home” and so on. It’s the need to self-protect, to endure, to continue being. It’s easy to spot because this need’s most powerful manifestation is the survival instinct, an embodied response to a threat of existence. Based on my understanding, this is the most basic and first-acquired way of making meaning about the surrounding environment: will I get hurt? People and organizations alike take steps to ensure that they can see another day, whether through thoughtful accounting, planning, following laws, diet, or hygiene.

When craving Safety, there’s a sense of wanting protection, having capacity to defend oneself, the desire to predict and react appropriately to any external circumstance. The aversion to Safety feels like judgements of inflexibility, decay, obsolescence, boredom, and resistance to change.

If the need for Safety aims to reduce the risk, the need for Purpose moves in the opposite direction. Through the lens of the Four Needs framework, it’s that sense of wanting to be more, to expand, to grow. Purpose is about wanting to matter.

When people talk about Purpose, they usually say words like “change”, “hope”, “revolution”, “achievement”, “delivering”, “growth”, “outreach”, “destiny”, “challenge”, and alike. Purpose sometimes feels aspirational, carrying the implicit hope of tapping into the character’s full potential. In such situations, high moral principles and ideals tend to be at the center of organizational discussions or individual reflections. The need for Purpose could also animate something entirely self-serving, as it sometimes happens with communities that merely want to expand and consume or destroy everything in their path, like malignant cancers. In itself, the Need for Purpose is neither positive nor negative. It’s just a fundamental need that lurks in questions like: “Why am I here?” or “Is this all there is?”

When craving Purpose, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, impatience, restlessness, desire to do something, to change the circumstances. The aversion to Purpose feels like seeing something risky, unwise, not-well-thought-out, and just plain stupid.

In a weird way, both Safety and Purpose are trying to achieve the same thing: to continue character’s existence. The Need for Safety takes the approach of prolonging existence, and Need for Purpose wants to redefine what it means to exist. While Safety takes existence literally, Purpose seeks immortality. Be it the scores of thriving descendants, enduring memories or actual physical artifacts representing character’s glory, Purpose is about making a mark on the world that transcends physical existence.

This desire for leaving a mark comes at the expense of Safety, producing the tension. To change the world, our character must interact with the world, which means putting itself in situations where there’s risk, spurring the Need for Safety’s protests.

I found James Hollis’ formulation of the tension enlightening: “we need to remember that these twin agendas of progression versus regression war within us each day.” Here, James assigns a more optimistic, high-minded sense of “progression” to Purpose, and uses a somewhat negative word of “regression” to describe Safety. Notice also the hostile juxtaposition of the needs in their tension in the use of the “daily war” analogy.

Arthur Schopenhauer has a more dour take: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom,” situated in the perspective of begrudgingly seeing Purpose as the animating force.

Organizations experience Schopenhauer’s pendulum as they cycle through the innovator dilemma’s S-curves: Purpose-driven disruptive innovation gives way to protecting the user base animated by Safety.

As our characters persevere through their struggles, swinging back and forth between Safety and Purpose, I can’t help but observe that one output of these undulations is suffering. As one need is sated, the other is aggrieved, setting up the next round. The unending tug-of-war is certain and present in every moment of our collective being. What if this is also how we learn to transcend it? What if every battle in that daily war is a small step toward learning to see this tension as a polarity to be managed, rather than a battle? What if the other output of these undulations is development of the character’s sense-making capacity?

Total Customer Satisfaction

Imagine that I am asked to design an organization whose mission is total customer satisfaction. What does it mean to totally satisfy a customer? If I give them exactly what they want right now, is it total? If my business is to sell alcohol and my customer is an alcoholic, what does it mean to satisfy this customer? Does it mean selling them booze? Does it mean doing something different?

If we say “total”, let’s mean it. Let’s go all the way to the max. That is, when a person is on their deathbed, surrounded by their loved ones, they look back and smile peacefully, recognizing that their life, though at an end, was worth it. This is total satisfaction. So maybe the idea here is that for each customer, “total customer satisfaction” means helping customers to move closer toward the sense of a well-lived life at the grand finale? Total customer satisfaction is the 5-star review the customer gives to their life at the end.

This is a preposterous proposition, I might protest. It is impossible to determine whether or not a transaction with a customer takes them closer to life well-lived. Further still, who am I to decide what it means to have such a life? My mind boggles even trying to consider how to quantify something like that. And what can’t be measured, can’t be optimized. How would one build a company that is effective at such definition of total customer satisfaction?

An answer might be hiding in the distinction between Remembering and Experiencing Selves that Daniel Kahneman drew a while back. I am going to make a small leap off his shoulders and propose the concept of the Incrementally Satisfied Remembering Self.

If I posit that, along one’s life, there is a series of anchoring points that Remembering Self uses to evaluate their total life experience and satisfaction thereof. The Incrementally Satisfied Remembering Self considers their life well-lived at every one of those anchoring points. Sure, there are loads of suffering between those anchoring points, but at each anchoring point, it seems like the whole thing was worth it.

With this concept at hand, I could aim to engineer those anchor points, those “magic moment” pins on the timeline of life that holds the “well-lived life” story together. Here, I quickly run into the “magic moment” addiction issues. Everything around satisfaction begins to run on a sliding scale, with every next magic moment begging to be more magical than the previous. The amount of magic needed for Total Customer Satisfaction becomes quite staggering, with the suffering remaining roughly the same.

So I might also be well off helping customers change their relationship with their experiences, so that the Remembering Self’s perspective on life shifts toward satisfaction. With this shift, even the most painful memories of the past are viewed as part of the “life well-lived.” Such change would transform the Incrementally Satisfied Remembering Self into Continuously Satisfied Remembering Self. When a customer reaches this state, they simply live a well-lived life at every moment.

Definitionally, such customers do not need my magic moment engineering efforts. Even when I fail to deliver on my commitments, they see this failure as a beautiful opportunity to connect with me and help me grow, help me find my own path to Continuously Satisfied Remembering Self. I become their customer. For someone who views their life as well-lived at every moment, what else is there to do other than helping everyone do the same?

I am torn being dubious and hopeful that reaching such a state is even a possibility. But I wonder… if I make even a slightest shift in how my customers relate to their experiences toward Continuously Satisfied Remembering Self, how much human suffering have I eliminated? Maybe that’s what total customer satisfaction is really about?

The Fall of the Carapace

Let’s imagine that I am presented with a problem: I need to help people be more capable physically. They need to be able to lift heavier objects than they currently can. And I am asked to use technology to make it happen.

I spend some time studying the problem space and–logic elided in this story–narrow it to two paths: one is an exoskeleton style harness, and the other one is a muscle-building machine. 

The exoskeleton will amplify the individual’s minute movements and allow them to lift objects with little or no effort. It’s really easy to get into, and it fits like a glove, and it’s super-easy to learn.

The muscle-building machine is basically a fresh take on the exercise equipment. It’s smart and will guide the person toward their goal, but still require effort on their part, the time and sweat to increase their strength. It’s just as user-friendly, but in a “supportive, yet firm coach” type of way.

I ponder which path to take. From the perspective of achieving the immediate goal, the exoskeleton seems like a perfect fit: not only the individual’s physical capability is increased immediately, it’s also awesomely scalable. If I get everyone to wear my Carapace 3000, I up the physical capacity of the whole humanity… and sell a crapton of units! The muscle-building machine seems to offer very few benefits at the start, and has a requirement of individual commitment to get to desired state. Plus, given how difficult it is to procure such commitment, it’s unlikely to scale as well as the exoskeleton.

Hearing investors express concern over the financial viability of the muscle-building machine seals the deal. I charge ahead with the Carapace 3000. I become rich and famous, and I make a lot of people happy. At least in the beginning. The long-term effects of exoskeleton use begin to surface: people tend to underuse their own muscles, leading to decreased tone and eventual atrophy. Turns out, “barely lifting a finger” was as much of a prophecy as the tagline. As the wave of health-related issues linked to the use of Carapace 3500MAX sweeps across the world, the anti-exo backlash erupts. My company becomes a punching bag, my fame flips into infamy, and fearing for my life, I withdraw to a private island. I hide, occasionally volleying incoherent write-only pronouncements about “ungrateful masses” on Twitter. Trapped in self-loathing, I descend into addiction and one dreary day, find myself dying of overdose on the cold marble floor of my bathroom.

As I draw my last breaths, the waning thoughts percolate. If only I considered the long term effects. If only I didn’t blindly chase the metrics. If only I was more persuasive about the potential of the muscle-building machine. If only I recognized that being helpful and making things more convenient are two entirely different things. If only I recognized that being helpful can only happen in the tension of challenge and support. If only …

… Poof! In a flash of light, I am back where I started. Disoriented and confused, I am gratefully grasping that I am given a second chance. Except this time, the problem is slightly different. I am asked to help people be more capable of making sense of the deluge of the information that is presented to them by the modern world. What path will I take? Will I opt for the withering convenience? Or will I instead consider people becoming more resilient as the aim of my enterprise? How will I define “helpfulness?”

The tension between Agency and Belonging

In the Four Needs framework, I identified a tension between two opposing forces: the need for Agency and the need for Belonging. Here, I want to focus on the nature of this tension.

Agency and Belonging are powerful words, so I’ll try to get at the concepts they describe within the context of the Four Needs framework.

Through the lens of the framework, the need for Agency is that desire to be a unique, differentiated entity, be that an individual or an organization. It’s the need to “be myself,” to “make our own path,” to have an identity that is distinct from others. For people, it might be that sense of wanting to retain our unique beauty, our Self-ness. For organizations, it might be the pull toward defining some way to differentiate itself from other similar organizations. The questions like “who am I?”, “what am I about?”, “what’s our unique value proposition?” tend to come up. When considering Agency, conversations about boundaries are usually focused on clarifying one’s own boundaries. Where do I end? Where do I begin? What is my role? What are team’s principles? What does it stand for? What makes me Me?

 When people talk about the need for Agency, I typically hear words “unique”, “different”, “runaway”, “unconventional”, “loner”, “own/self”, “independent”, “autonomous”, “pioneer”, “siloed”, and alike. When craving Agency, there’s a sense of wanting more freedom, liberty, self-determination, and more capacity to plot one’s own path. The aversion to Agency–especially toward the others’ need for Agency–might come across as a sense of them being uncooperative, difficult to work with, ornery, stubborn, or isolated.

This is where the tension begins to reveal itself, with the implicit questions of “Why can’t they just behave like everyone else?” and “How can I be myself in this team culture?” Sometimes, these questions come across as statements, such as “This org is just doing what they want, and not what’s actually asked of them” or “I feel like I can’t do or say anything without running into obstacles.”

Within the Four Needs framework, the need for Belonging is best described as the wish to be part of a larger whole, be with the others. For individuals, it’s the desire to be loved, be included as part of their group. A team or an organization will experience this need as the aspiration to do good for others, to be viewed by its customers or partners as delivering net-positive value, or to be an effective collaborator within the larger organization. The questions like “how do I fit in?”, “who are my people?” or “what is our team’s mandate?” tend to come up when considering Belonging. The conversations about boundaries typically center on understanding the boundaries of others. What do they want? What am I asked to do? What makes me part of Us?

When we speak of the need for Belonging, the resonant words are “community”, “together”, “compliance”, “teamwork”, “integrated”, “alignment”, “we/us/our”, “unity”, “respect”,  “tribe”, etc. When craving Belonging, there’s usually a sense of wanting to be accepted, be seen, understood, to not be left out or excluded. The aversion to Belonging feels like the disdain for neediness, accommodation, conformism, or tribalism.

Looking at cravings and aversions helps me to see the tension between Agency and Belonging. We all want to both be unique selves, and yet, we want to be with others. We want to stand out and yet, we want to be included. At each extreme, the outcome is a catastrophic failure to meet the other need:

  • Total Agency is the ultimate isolation — to be fully free to do whatever I please whenever I please, I must accept that I can’t ever connect with others. As soon as I act in any way that recognizes the need of others, there’s no longer total Agency. By recognizing their needs, I experience the need for Belonging.
  • Total Belonging is complete assimilation — to be fully with others, I must accept that I don’t have a free will and I will only do what’s asked of me. As soon as I do anything that is not the will of my tribe, there’s no longer total Belonging. That minute being different is an experience of the need for Agency.

Though there are many books written and movies made with heroes and villains at these extremes, in day-to-day life, we usually walk the line: we carefully balance these needs.

When my friend and I discuss which movie to see, my mind is performing an intuitive dance of balancing Agency and Belonging: is this about the movie I want or is this about doing something together? It happens when a team reconciles its long-term aspirations (Agency) with the short-term priorities of the larger organization (Belonging). It happens when folks with dramatically different opinions (Agency) continue to coexist in the same online communities (Belonging).

We can’t get both at 100%. So we tend to negotiate. To have Belonging, we usually trade a little Agency. To gain more Agency, we usually give up a touch of Belonging. This happens moment-to-moment, and is easy to miss in the whirlwind of the mundane.

When I decide to speak up about something controversial at a team meeting, I intuitively recognize that I will give up some Belonging to satisfy my need for Agency. In that moment, I am suffering. The two conflicting needs of Agency and Belonging are battling for the outcome. If Belonging wins and I stay quiet, the unsatisfied Agency spikes, shifting me to the left-most quadrants  in the coordinate space: I will either feel frustrated, likely at my colleagues–“This team culture is so stifling! I don’t feel like I can say my mind at a meeting!”–or feel that weird ennui of “Well, there’s nothing I can do.” If I say something and the need for Agency wins, the spike in unquenched Belonging launches me to the right-most quadrants, to the shame of “OMG! What have I done! Everyone will definitely hate me now!” and/or the anxious “How can I fix this?!” 

Depending on where I end up is where the next round of the endless negotiation begins. How will I act or think to make another trade, to shift the balance in this conflict? And how do we get to the point where we see that framing this tension of needs as a “conflict” is at the core of our suffering? How do we get to center?

The Four Needs Framework

The stories we tell ourselves shape how we see the world around us. Sometimes, these stories are incomplete, lopsided in ways that aren’t obvious to us. A world viewed through the lens of such stories contains the suffering of inescapable traps, impossible choices, and paralyzing ambivalence. I want to share a framework with you that I found useful for adding a bit more depth to the stories, revealing more choices, and gaining a sense of direction. I developed it through my effort to discern the forces within myself, and have since applied it to help other people and organizations map their stories. I was inspired to see the framework resonate with others, and heartened to see them use it for wrangling with their challenges, helping refine the framework in the process.

This framework is more of a “feels like, seems like” tool rather than a rigorous scientific instrument. I think of it as a lightweight navigation aid for making sense of confounding situations. 

At the core of the framework, there is a four-quadrant coordinate space, formed by four needs in a pairwise tension with each other. The opposing needs that form the horizontal axis are Belonging (right) and Agency (left). The opposing needs that form the vertical axis are Safety (bottom) and Purpose (top).

These four quadrants are where the character’s story unfolds. At any given moment, the character is a point in this space. This character can be a person, a team, an organization, a family, or any social structure. Axes supply the coordinates within the space.

The coordinates reflect the tension between each of the paired needs. For a point that’s at the center–that is, equidistant between the extremes, the needs are perfectly balanced with each other. Points closer to either extreme reflect the imbalance: one need is dominating the other.

The farther to the extremes is the character, the more polarized the story becomes. At these extremes, needs are vastly outbalanced, becoming stark and existential. On the fringes of the coordinate space, there are drastic actions, emotional turmoil, sharp edges, spikes, and suffering. Everything is super high-contrast and feels like the matter of life and death. Needs turn into fears and impulsive drives. Safety becomes the literal matter of survival. Belonging — the terror of becoming invisible to others. Purpose transmutes into the horror of rotting alive. The need for Agency explodes into panic of dissolving into the mass of others.

The closer to the center, the more balanced and nuanced the story. The tugs of the needs become subtle, needing more care to discern. Things may seem “normal” or “business as usual”, yet there’s usually a nagging feeling of ambivalence, something being off. 

At the center, all needs are balanced in perfect harmony with each other. No need is heard stronger than others, and the character is at peace. Here, all needs are still present and are just as forceful, yet the character is able to see them and masterfully maintain the delicate balance.

The neat effect of this arrangement of the coordinate space is that the framework becomes directional: there is a clear destination, something to move toward. There’s a built-in compass of sorts. Getting to center is the nature of the character’s journey.

In practice, the journey rarely ends up looking like a direct line. Like in an endless tug of war, each of the four needs competes for the character’s attention and usurps it when the attention is granted. Instead of arriving at center, the shift in the balance tends to “overshoot” the character over to the adjacent quadrants.

And so the journey ends up looking like a chaotic meandering from one quadrant from another, an enduring quest for peace.

To reach the center, the character must transform. They must learn to have simultaneous attention on all four needs, to gently balance them in the moment. The character needs to become aware of the needs, learn to see them and the tension between them.

This is the basic setup of the framework. For me, its value has been in having a structured way of looking at a situation, finding the story that is being told and revealing new ways to see that story. Who is the character in the story? What words do I use to describe the character’s needs? What do these words tell me about the character’s position in the coordinate space? What led to them being there? What are the hopes and aspirations of the character for each quadrant? What are the fears? What does being at center feel like?

My experience is that with each answer, the story gains a bit more depth, more subtlety, and allows me to see more choices, more opportunities and clarity of direction. I hope you’ll find it useful in your character’s journey toward the center.

If I don’t wake up, I stay asleep

I had a beautiful experience early this morning. I was in the middle of a nightmare about our family network being actively attacked and all of my devices becoming compromised as I  fruitlessly tried to fight back. The attacker was swiftly making a meal out of my corp laptop when suddenly, I had this weird sense that something was off about the whole situation. A thought crossed my mind: “This is all a dream. I don’t have to be doing any of this.” So I stood up from my chair, closed my eyes and looked inward. There was a brief sense of falling through emptiness… and I woke up, startled and exhilarated, broken free from the nightmare.

This sense of release, this moment of liberation is something I’ve experienced before. It’s that moment of clarity, realizing how the seemingly all-important mundane swallows us all and consumes our lives. All of the stress and worries and jittery meandering around center–seeing it, but never quite reaching it–all of the churn and the tug-of-war are just a bad dream. So many of us are gripped in the struggle of Fears. So few of us are able to pause and go: “Wait, I don’t have to be doing any of this” and wake up. Waking up is not easy. It takes suffering and struggle. But the point of life is not the struggle itself. The point of life is waking up.

Of Love and Fear

I am struck by the line I see between two kinds of stories. On one side of the line are the stories of love. On the other, the stories of fear. Interwoven, they are the fabric of our collective humanity, and they influence us in profound ways.

Everything is storytelling, and the way we shape our world is through telling each other stories. Each story leaves a mark on our souls, however tiny. Some stories resonate deeply and change our lives. Some stories we forget, and some we only forget for a while. And through us, each story changes the world.

All stories shape what lies ahead. Stories of the past imbue us with wisdom from which to draw when moving forward. Stories of the future allow us to contemplate the possibilities and form an intention. Every story adds a bit more to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. And through us, each story changes the world.

Some stories seem simple and clear, and some appear deeply confusing. Some are so contradictory to what we currently believe that we drop them like we touched something hot. Some are so close to our hearts that we don’t even need to hear them to the end. As we hear stories, we collect them, create our own, and share them with others. And through us, each story changes the world.

When told, stories open our horizons. Some stories give us a chance to imagine a future that is better than the story we currently see as reality. These are the stories of love. Stories of love create this beautiful tension between where we are and what could be. They help us see where to go, pointing toward a destination. And through us, each story changes the world.

Yet other stories give us a glimpse of the future that we can’t bear to see happen. These are the stories of fear. These stories focus us on what we want to prevent, a prospect so undesirable that it warrants doing something about it. They point away from a destination, rather than toward it. And through us, each story changes the world.

Directionless, the stories of fear are unfinished, not having a destination in themselves. They beg for a simple, clear story as a conclusion, a story that neatly replaces the path away with the path toward something. They beg for a story of love to complete them. So it often happens that beneath of a story of love lurks a story of fear. We need the simpler story of love because it helps us explain how the story of fear affects us. And through us, each story changes the world.

It’s possible that these fear-driven stories of love point at the destinations that are genuinely inspiring. But because we only need these stories of love to help us feel better about our fears, it is unlikely. More often than not, these stories of love are a means to an end, an illusion to explain away the uncomfortable story of the fear underneath. And through us, each story changes the world.

As I look at the stories that drive me, I wonder how many of them are the stories of fear and how many are the stories of love. I wonder how many of them are the stories of love that I created to complete my stories of fear. How many of them will take me toward something inspiring. And how I could reframe my stories of fear to be truly the stories of love. Because through us, each story changes the world.

The Upper Limit Of Understanding

Walking down the yellow-brick road of everything being storytelling, I stumbled into a handy metaphor of system models. If my Self is a complex adaptive system and the reality outside is also such a system, my lifelong process of meaning-making could be viewed as asymptotically constructing a more accurate model of reality. Let’s unpack that.

This is a story of interaction between two systems: the Self and the Context. The Self is well, me. The Context is the reality. The Self is receiving signals from the Context as the Input, and the Context is receiving Signals from the Self as the Output.

A diagram showing Context and Self, connected with arrows, labeled Input and Output.

For example, there could be some sensory Input (seeing an apple), and then some action as an Output (reaching for an apple). This interaction of two systems is continuous, with many inputs and outputs happening in parallel, like a river.

Some Inputs are nourishing to Self, and some are harmful or even fatal, a SIGKILL of sorts. Given no other recourse, the Self makes a significant assumption: that it can influence the Context by varying its Output. Having this influence motivates Self to learn to predict the Input based on the Output. Thus, from the perspective of Self, the name of the game is Understanding, or learning how the Context works.

To excel at this game, the Self constructs a meaning-making device: a Context Model. It’s an internal proxy for the Context and is used to evaluate the Input and discern an Output. It’s the vehicle for answering the question: “What is the meaning of this Input within this Context, and what is the appropriate Output that influences the Context most effectively?”

A diagram showing Context and Self, where Self contains a Context model, which takes Input and produces Output.

For example, I hear a driver behind me honking. The Context Model helps me make meaning of what might be happening (“they want me to hurry up and move”), and select an appropriate action (“curse them under my breath”).

With such a setup, the accuracy of the Context Model becomes paramount, and the Self is highly motivated to continuously improve upon it. Thus, the Context Model is constantly developing. The inputs that are congruent with the model’s current structure are used to reinforce it. The inputs that aren’t congruent challenge it and eventually spur a structural change within the Context Model: a transformation.  I say “eventually” because I notice that the model is naturally resistant to change. I see that often, the incongruent inputs are being re-fed back into the model from memories, appearing in consciousness as fretful relitigations of past conversations or actions, beating myself up, etc. These are useful signals indicating that the model as it exists today is due for re-structuring.

Each transformation brings more complexity to the model. The model becomes more subtle, more attuned to, more representative of Context. What used to be a matter of primitive impulses becomes connected through causal chains. What used to be concrete becomes abstract. What used to be a strict taxonomy becomes a cross-categorical cloud. The Model’s complexity grows over time.

Because the Self contains the Context Model, the complexity of the Self increases as the model transforms. From this perspective, in its process of continuous development of the Context Model, the Self strives to at least match the complexity of Context. Within the Game of Understanding is the drive to grow and develop, based on this fundamental assumption: if the Self becomes as complex as the Context, it will be capable of containing an accurate Context Model, which produces perfectly effective Outputs and predicts every Input.

To put it in more dramatic terms, understanding the meaning of life becomes possible when I completely understand the world around me.

An important insight hides in those last three words: “world around me”. The two systems in this story, the Context and the Self, are not peers. The Context includes and transcends the Self.

A diagram, showing that Context includes Self.

In this arrangement, the Context Model also necessarily includes the Model of Self. I can observe this clearly by looking at my archaeology of self effort. And look! It’s a recursion: within that Model of Self is a Context Model, and so on.

A diagram of Context including Self, showing the recursion: within Self, there is a Model, which then includes an smaller Context and Self, and so on.

This shift in perspective reveals the Upper Limit of Understanding. At least in this story, the inner system can never match the complexity of the system that includes and transcends it. The Context Model can never be an accurate model of the Context. The Game of Understanding is an infinite game, and the meaning of life is forever a mystery.

When I first arrived to this point, I felt this weird combination of joy, relief and a twinge of disappointment. Seeing the upper limit for the first time was a profound experience, a sense of connecting to something impossibly large, yet somehow familiar. I’d read how “life is a journey, not a destination” in multitudes of different ways, and in that moment, I truly felt it. And in disappointment, I saw a small part of me that still wished for the possibility of “winning” the game of life.