Whereupon I write stuff about the year that was 2016 and try to figure out what to do in 2017. Warning: this is fourteen year old girl level introspection stuff with only the thin veil of some philosophy from the 1950s to make it look acceptable. Read at your own risk.
As in 2015, in 2016, I had five main goals: learn more Spanish, write more, read more, exercise more and watch more movies. Because I’m a data geek, I track those goals because evidence shows that you need to be very specific in your goal setting if you want to actually succeed. In 2016, I achieved 75% of my movie goal, 63% of my exercise goals, 50% of my book goals, 27% of my Spanish goals and 15% of my writing goals. Super successful then. Though I did achieve all of my diaper changing goals. So there’s that. So then the natural reaction for a navel gazer is to wonder what happened. Were the goals too aggressive (maybe)? Was the desire to achieve the goals insufficient (probably)?
Of course, it’s not like nothing momentous happened in 2016. I now have a daughter who is beautiful and happy and healthy and absolutely fills my heart with a sensation I can’t even possibly begin to express within the limits of a language like English (maybe French or Russian but given how far from my Spanish goals I ended up, I’m doubtful of writing French poetry any time soon). But on an actual personal level, I feel pretty unaccomplished this year (and here’s where all the other parents stand up and say “welcome to the club”). I didn’t write much and almost all that I did was in February, read half as many books as I wanted, watched two-thirds of the movies (and some of those were repeats), exercised some early in the year but basically gave up in the last several months and didn’t advance much on the bilingual front (which isn’t entirely true, last time I logged into Duolingo, I was 10% fluent but it’s still way behind my goal).
One of the benefits of tracking specifically the goals as well as having the same goals over multiple years is that you can compare the progress. Were things better in 2016 than 2015? Yes, mostly. I learned significantly more Spanish, exercised moderately more and read more books. I wrote less in 2016, at least from a public production stand point and watched 2 fewer movies. But overall, 2016 got better than 2015.
I did just finish reading At The Existentialist Cafe which is a broad sweep of the philosophers who created existentialism including Simone de Beauvoir who my daughter’s middle name comes from. It is a fantastic look into a time when major magazines covered philosophers and their work, examining the impacts and the celebrity of these thinkers, i.e. the opposite of 2016 where major magazines covered an unbelievably terrible election and totally missed the entire thing. Existentialism focuses on the actual events of life, the things as they are when the layers of crap have been stripped away. It also focuses on freedom, a fundamental characteristic of being human and the implications that characteristic has on our every day life. Reading this book, which examines both the men and women who developed existentialism and the time period from which they came (WW I through about 1960), it was striking how much attention in the actual world was paid to a philosophy and how much influence that philosophy had in art and literature and even politics.
Man is condemned to be free. Because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Jean-Paul Sartre
We don’t often think of freedom as a condemnation, do we? And yet, the constant need to make decisions brings upon us an anxiety that many of us find too difficult to deal with. Freedom isn’t all fun and games. It is this constant interplay between choice and anxiety that existentialism focuses on. It’s interesting to think about freedom as a burden but it is because with choice comes consequences. Don’t want to exercise? Have fun with heart disease or back surgery. Don’t want to read because Facebook seems more fun today? Don’t be upset when you aren’t any smarter than you were yesterday.
But choose well and your life is at least 75% yours, probably as long as you don’t have something terrible happen. Obviously there are limits to what control you actually have over your own life but everyone has some control. Sartre argued for the concept of authenticity, of being true to what it was that you are. Here’s a quote from the book:
If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is. Sartre does not deny that the need to keep making decisions brings constant anxiety. He heightens this anxiety by pointing out that what you do really matters. You should make your choices as though you were choosing on behalf of the whole of humanity, taking the entire burden of responsibility for how the human race behaves. If you avoid this responsibility by fooling yourself that you are the victim of circumstance or of someone else’s bad advice, you are failing to meet the demands of human life and choosing a fake existence, cut off from your own ‘authenticity’.
As I read this, I thought about all the times I made a choice that was not only bad for me but also bad for the whole of humanity. Certainly, this is a heavy burden but imagine the changes in the world if we even slightly considered humanity when we made decisions.
This battle with anxiety in order to achieve authenticity is fundamental to existentialism and the more I think about it, to human existence. I tracked all my goals this year as I often do. But I didn’t track how many times I mindlessly opened Facebook or Twitter because it was an easier choice than picking up a hard book or writing code. I made excuses: I only have 15 minutes, the baby may wake up, I’ve had 3 beers – but excuses are just that, a way to escape from the fact that choices were made that lessened authenticity in my life.
So while 2016 was way behind on the goal scale, perhaps things can change in 2017 assuming the world doesn’t end in WWW III or the zombie apocalypse. This is the only life we have, regardless of what you think happens when it ends. Existentialism teaches us to focus on our choices and to choose a path to our greatest authenticity.
At the end of the book, there is a discussion of existentialism and technology. Interestingly enough, Heidegger wrote extensively on this topic and it seems even more relevant today in a world where our lives seem to be almost entirely lived out online (irony duly noted that I’m saying this in an online forum). The Internet (and I’m thinking specifically of Facebook and Twitter here) removes depth and authenticity from everything. When I post to Facebook, I do so on a platform created specifically to profit from my data. Once I do that, that experience is no longer mine, it belongs to the “Other” from existentialism, the concept of that which is outside ourselves. A post, a picture, a note on Facebook reduces me to the sum of those things and removes context and depth and privacy from my actual self. It steals my authenticity except that it was my choice, made freely, and thus is actually me reducing my authenticity voluntarily.
In 2017, I want to spend more time with my daughter and less time with my phone. I want to spend more time with my wife and less time with social media. I want to spend more time with my parents and in-laws and less time giving away my authenticity. I want to spend far more time in the outdoors, teaching my daughter about nature and the world and less time wondering if anyone liked something I said on a platform that uses me as the product. These are things that will increase my authenticity. They will increase my intellectual abilities and not make me feel weirdly anxious after doing them.
So my concrete goals for 2017 remain mostly unchanged from 2016: 120 hours of Spanish work (down from 180 in 2016, 50 accomplished in 2016), read 18 books (9 read in 2016), watch 12 movies (9 in 2016), exercise 180 times (115 in 2016) and write 26 things (down from 52 in 2016, 8 accomplished in 2016).
More specifically, I want everything I do to increase my authenticity. So for January, I’m going to start an experiment. All content will be placed here on AEIS instead of Facebook or Twitter. I’m not sure that’s totally an improvement but for at least one month, I won’t be the product. I won’t be driven by likes or retweets or any other false metric for authenticity. Additionally, we as a family are going to take a technological Sabbath every Sunday as well. We will focus on each other, our extended families, our house, our animals, our experiences and we will not be online. We will produce and create, not consume and absorb. We will read an actual newspaper and play actual games and go on actual walks and hikes.
Here’s to a stronger, blessed 2017. I hope your year turns out to be everything you choose it to be.
Books read in 2016
The Black Swan
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy
The Age of Unreason
Then We Came To The End
Waiting for Godot
The War of Art
At the Existentialist’s Cafe
Movies seen in 2016
It Happened One Night
Herb And Dorothy
The Long Hot Summer
Secret Lives of Pets
Tomorrow Never Dies
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation