One of the real troubles I have with life (as opposed to the fake troubles, naturally) is that being a person doesn’t come with an instruction manual. At best, I’ve got a copy of the Quick Start guide that came in the box; although it’s surprisingly thick, there’s only one page per language, and every one is (badly) translated from Korean.

Some of the things in it aren’t nearly as true as I’d hoped (“The secret to lifelong happiness is behaving yourself and getting good grades at school.”) or worse, are just-flat out lies. It is amazing how long it took me to realise this.

Not to mention that there are whole sections of life that just aren’t covered at all. What do in case of X, or if Y starts happening, how do I deal with it? What if I discover I’m a Z?

So, absent a handy guidebook, I’ve been doing what I always do: analysing. I’m trying to figure out exactly what my personality flaws are, in an attempt to ultimately do something about them. In essence, trying to rediscover the guidebook using trial & error, deduction from first principles, and plain guesswork. Knowledge is power, so I reckon. The weird thing is that knowing what my flaws are doesn’t necessarily help; it just means I feel terribly self-aware as something gets screwed up (“Ahah! I feel like shit because of this!”), which is intellectually stimulating, but doesn’t really stop me feeling like shit. Actually, the process of intellectually dwelling can really just make things worse.

It doesn’t really help that I got terribly existential a few years back (as confused young men can, when they have access to either a well-stocked library or bookshop) and discovered that we all have absolute free will; in any situation you have total freedom of action. It’s simultaneously liberating and terrifying: absolute freedom of action is one of the most scary things imaginable. You become utterly aware that there is no such thing as following orders or going with the crowd; you’re making choices, all the time, and by freely making a choice you are assuming the awful weight of the responsibility that goes with that choice.

So if you screw up, it’s your fault. Even if you don’t know how you could have avoided screwing up, or if another choice could have screwed things up worse. The fact is, you did things the way you did (or didn’t do), and you’ve got to reap the consequences.

What I wish is that I could have access to a whole set of parallel lives so that I could try every possible action and figure out which one works best. An empirical approach to life, so that it could be led perfectly.

Although thinking about it, that’s just the plot to Groundhog Day.

Anyways, as I was writing this I thought of Neil Gaiman‘s “Instructions”, a narrated trailer for which I’ve embedded below, and it’s really marvellous.

My next post should be entitled “Damascus” and I’ve meant to type it out for a while. It’s been swimming about in my head.

7 thoughts on “Instructions

  1. You know, I love that there are no instructions. As you say, it’s liberating. If I screw up, then so what? The times I’ve screwed up in the past have been just as important as the times when everything’s gone well. Possibly more so, because however crap it may have felt at the time, by screwing up I’ve generally ended up learning something important. So it doesn’t really scare me; I pick myself up and try again.

    Come to think of it, instructions and the constraints they impose are some of my main problems with religion. I can’t imagine how dissatisfying life would be if one had to stick to such things.

  2. I navigate life by constantly running scenarios of future events through my head. I don’t remember when I started doing it and I don’t really notice that I’m doing it these days, but it’s rather useful. Whether I’m going to a job interview or going on holiday, I’ve already done a large number of permutations in my head so I already know what I’m going to do/say before it happens. It never turns out exactly how I imagine, but it’s close enough that I can usually make the right decisions.

    It’s notable that the more emotionally involving the event or decision, the less likely that it’ll go in a way that I’d expect. An interview is easy, I’ve already done the interview 100 times in my head so I’m not surprised by anything I get asked. Chatting up a fellow human is harder; you might as well discard any scenarios you’ve thought up because they won’t happen – relax and improvise :)

    As you say, knowing your flaws doesn’t always help. What’s more important is that you are able to very quickly prepare for whatever life throws at you at short notice. 

  3. I always feel better if I figure out ‘I feel shit because of this’. If I just feel generically melancholy I feel very lost and I don’t know how to cope with how I feel because I don’t know how to go about solving it. If I work out that I have a particular reason for the mood I’m in that automatically makes the problem – or rather, the associated mood – seem somehow more manageable.

    As for religion, instructions and freedom, I don’t feel that I have rules imposed on me by my faith. ‘Love the Lord thy God, and love thy neighbour as thyself’ is the only set one. None of that nonsense about cloth made with two types of fibre, or stoning men who lie with other men, or anything. I don’t think it’s an intelligent approach to faith to see it as some kind of rule book and with the exception of faiths (though to be honest the only example I can think of is Judaism and it’s possible I’m wrong on that, because Jesus was Jewish and he said all those rules were a bit much/plain wrong) which say you MUST stick to certain rules (rules within other faiths are there by tradition rather than supposed God-given law), I don’t think instruction manuals are a problem with religion.

    1. I agree, though from a different point of view. There’s an unfortunate conflict in several religions where if you don’t live your life as your religion says, you go to be brutally tortured in hell for all eternity, while everyone seems to have a different interpretation of that religion. So either there’s a lot of people who are burning right now (especially those who picked the wrong religion), or there’s no greater practical meaning to religion (as you can just pick and choose what ‘religion’ means to you, not what God(s) say it should mean). As I refuse to recognise any God who would inflict infinite suffering for finite sin, I take the latter view. Any instruction manual of religion is what you want it to be, not something imposed by a higher intelligence.

      1. No, I think you disagree with me almost entirely! My point was that where religions impose rules, by and large those rules are imposed by people and do not in fact come (nor are they held by proponents of that religion to have come) from God. So those rules come from one’s religion, not one’s faith in God.

        I would hold that I am a Christian, because I believe in God, and I believe Jesus was the Son of God. I have much left to think about. I suppose what I mean is that I have a faith in a benevolent God within a broadly Christian context, I believe that a lot of Christian moral teachings are broadly a good thing (although none of that stone-the-gays-and-no-sex-before-marriage stuff please – I’m talking about the ‘love thy neighbour, love thy God, love thyself’ bits, and the bit where Jesus made wine from water). It’s not a pick-and-choose view, to be honest. I try to read the Bible often and come to it with some understanding of hte historical/sociological context(s) in which it was written and that informs my moral compass. I also believe that Christianity is simply a lens on faith. I believe in the same God as pretty much every theist out there and we’re all doing our best to do good and make our way towards that God, whatever the context in which we happen to percieve him.

        Put more simply, here’s another example: my boyfriend has a faith, in God, and if pushed he would say that his idea of God is ‘probably’ a broadly Christian one. But he does not hold with organised religion for almost exactly the reasons you just mentioned. That instruction manual you talk about doesn’t really come from God. I can’t imagine that God gives a stuff about whether I eat shellfish or what my clothes are made of or who sticks what in my vagina and when, quite frankly. So long as all of these things occur in my life in a way that is not designed to hurt anyone, so long as I treat my fellow people (and other living beings) with love and respect. Of course, I’m not great at that, but there we go.

        So no, Mike Gist – I separate the ‘practical meaning of religion’ almost entirely from the God at its heart. Infinite suffering for finite sin is something we humans have made up. And to be honest, it’s not as if atheists are any better at finding the answers so far! We’re all as lost as each other and I suspect (though I could well be wrong) that to feel as if you have in any way found the instruction manual (either through your faith or your lack of it) is itself probably quite narrow-minded. Or brilliantly inspired. Le sigh.

        1. If you see Christianity as a “lens” on faith, then why stick to the one lens? If you believe that the same spiritual entity/God/whatever is at the heart of all religions (which seems a little presumptuous to be honest, but anyhow), then could you also derive the same sort of spiritual benefit (or whatever benefit it is you get) from reading other scriptures, whether that be the Qu’ran, the Pagan Book of Shadows, or even Ancient Greek mythology? If you see these all as different lenses on the same God, then they should all be equally valid and so equally worthy of your attention; and perhaps the different perspectives might be beneficial at different times. To (ab)use the lens metaphor, perhaps the teachings of Christianity are like a general all-purpose lens to you, but perhaps something else is your macro lens, something else again your fisheye lens, etc.

          FWIW, I’m not sure you and Mike Gist really do disagree. As far as I can tell, his statement that “any instruction manual of religion is what you want it to be, not something imposed by a higher intelligence” is pretty similar to your idea that “rules come from one’s religion, not one’s faith in God”.

          Oh, and regarding the comment that atheists aren’t any better at finding answers: that’s because we know that often there aren’t any answers (or that in some cases, the question is wrong). Which is really quite profound, and – as I alluded in my initial comment – extremely liberating.

  4. Sorry, but ‘there are two types of freewill’: absolute, and relative (or effective).  Civilly ask someone to do something they’d rather not, such as curse the name of their beloved mother, and they’d likely refuse; but, put a loaded gun to their head and ask and they’d likely comply.  In both scenarios, the person asked has, ultimately, fundamentally, got absolute freewill; but, in the second scenario, their relative (or effective) freewill is non-existent (or close to it).  And, it’s not only literal loaded guns that place us under this duress: even putting aside our abilities (or disabilities, if you prefer), which, of course, most fundamentally limit what we can do, our life experiences, fears and phobias diminish our freedom to act, as effectively as any loaded gun.  Somebody suffering from, say, a great fear of leaving their house is not free to leave their house.

    It is a sadness to me that some people think that everybody is totally free to do anything.  It is a primitive assumption, thus, for example, to be found significantly in the right-wing USA; it is practically expeditious: if people are totally free to do anything, then, when they do wrong, there are no otherwise-troubling and difficult issues of mitigating circumstances to be considered; it’s black or white: the _person_ is either good or bad, so you really can ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’, much cheaper than trying to rehabilitate — help and treat their underlying problems, especially in a country where the ‘bottom line’ is the celebrated final arbiter of everything.

    You’ve, obviously, been rather selective in your choice of books to read (perhaps there is some background, personal reason for this).

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