Beginning the World

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New Year’s celebrations remind me of a song by a band named the Innocence Mission titled, “Beginning the World.”  She sings about the nervousness of starting school, the uncertainty of what she’s doing with her life, and recites in the chorus: “I am always beginning the world.”  Those words always struck a chord with me, serving as a reminder that (as the cliche goes) every new day is the beginning of the rest of the your life.

So are we really free to begin anew?

The phrase “Same Shit Different Day” (SSDD), while often innocuous, communicates the anti-thesis of this.  It suggest a rut of unfulfilling habit.  No change is occurring.  Nothing memorable is being experienced.  No new pages are being added to your life story.

In this TED talk, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses what he describes as concurrent but separate versions of Self: an experiential self, and a self of memory.  The former is the part of us that experiences each moment, forever existing in the “now”.  The self of memory (our memory-story, I will call it) is the meta view of ourselves; it compiles our story, creates connections in memory, anticipates futures memories, so forth.  Our memory-story, he points out, is not linear.  A ten second sequence can feel like forever, and whole weeks (years, even) can go utterly unrecorded.  Our memory-story does not care about time as measured by clocks, but rather is focused on change.  Noteworthy change.  According to Kahneman, it is change that is recorded and remembered.  Twenty straight days of lying blissfully on a beach is roughly the same as one day of lying blissfully on a beach to our memory-story.  Though our experiential memory likely loves each day the same, our memory-story does not appear to sum the total pleasure.  There is nothing new being added to the memory-story of our lives by the additional 19 days of repetition.

If life is what we remember it to be, is SSDD functionally equivalent to not living at all?

In “The Information“, James Gleick describes Claude Shannon as equating information with complexity (or perhaps more accurately, entropy).  He says, “According to this measure, a million zeroes and a million coin tosses lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. The empty string is as simple as can be; the random string is maximally complex. The zeroes convey no information; coin tosses produce the most information possible.”  In other words, the more repetitive a pattern is, the less information it conveys.  In this sense, a life of SSDD is void of information.

Does that make a life of SSDD void of meaning?  Is a life filled with sudden and surprising changes maximally informative?  Maximally meaningful?

Then again, there are many for whom routine appears to be a necessary anchor.  One of my children has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and one can see how important routine and repetition are to his ability to navigate his world.  He is not alone.  I find myself savoring tedium at times, perhaps for different reasons than my son.  Raking leaves, shoveling snow, driving to work, etc, are all tasks that engage my body while allowing my mind to wander off to some separate task.  In that sense, a small portion of SSDD would seem healthy and perhaps even necessary.  In “The Information”, James Gleick expands on the contrast between maximum complexity/information (a random series of digits) and minimum complexity/information (unvaried repetition) by asserting, “…these extremes have something in common.  They are dull.  They have no value. If either one were a message from another galaxy, we would attribute no intelligence to the sender. If they were music, they would be equally worthless. Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace.”

Perhaps a little Same Shit Different Day serves as a baseline that helps make a truly Different day memorable and Beginning the World momentous?

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