Working with Meaning (Part One)

There's a great scene in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL says “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  The fact that HAL is a computer is disconcerting enough but even more unsettling is how it nudges the viewer, who is in fact a conscious entity, to ponder am I putting myself to the fullest possible use? 

Occasionally, I'll hear the phrase What's the meaning of life? spoken in a casual conversation. I say "phrase" and not question because it's usually said more as a punchline than an honest inquiry.

The meaning of life is at the core of HAL’s quote.  He (it) has found it: I am putting myself to the fullest possible use. Of course, the word "use" here does seem subjective. If HAL were a philosophy professor, I doubt he would tell his students that his reference point for usefulness was, in an a priori sense, THE reference point. HAL seems content because he has found his own fullest possible use.

Working with Meaning (Part Two)

In Part One, I quoted a passage from an essay by John T. Price suggesting work in and of itself is redemptive. I hear echoes of Price's essay in this passage from Jack Schaefer's western novel Shane when the father of the narrator is laboring with the title character, Shane, to uproot an enormous tree trunk:
What impressed you as Shane found what he was up against and settled to it was the easy way the power in him poured smoothly into each stroke. The man and the axe seemed to be partners in the work. The blade would sink into the parallel grooves almost as if it knew itself what to do and the chips from between would come out in firm and thin little blocks.  
[My father] picked a root on the opposite side from Shane. He was not angry the way he usually was when he confronted one of those roots. There was a kind of serene and contented look on his face.   Shaefer, Jack. Shane. (pp. 25-26). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
When the boy's mother, Marian, comes to see what they are doing, she is surprised because initially her husband intended to take the day off and rest.  Not sure what to make of the behemoth task her husband and Shane are attempting, Marian says: 
'Humph... [t]his is a funny kind of resting you're doing today.'  
The boy's father puts the axe on the ground, leans on the handle, and responds, 'Maybe it seems funny... [b]ut this is the best resting I've had for about as long as I can remember.'
Of the entire passage, I find these sentences to be the most interesting. Shaefer is working with a paradox here- not only illustrating the physical strain required to accomplish their task, but suggesting one can simultaneously feel "rested" within and during the task. 

Working with Meaning (Part Three)

Earlier, we discussed the scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Brick is looking for an ever-elusive click "that turns the hot light off and the cool one on."  A few years ago, Wright Thompson wrote a great article titled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” that illustrates Jordan looking for this same click.  Why is it soothing to hear that in spite of his accomplishments Michael Jordan is still a restless, unhappy soul? Is this the sentiment Shakespeare's Richard II suggests when he says let's sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings? It's clear this is the appeal Thompson's article is trying to foster. He even uses some of Jordan’s material possessions as pointed metaphors: his cigar not staying lit, a lost championship ring, a missing pair of glasses.  It's an easy story to tell:  If I can't be like Mike, I want him to be like me. 

Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread?  Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found as an executive? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:

Working with Meaning (Part Four)

Previously, we discussed the three common denominators for reaching a state of Flow:
  1. A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
  2. Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
  3. Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
In the previous posts, we were primarily discussing how these components related to work, but Csikszentmihalyi's ideas expands to even game theory. Of the three components, the second is the most nuanced and I would argue, often what makes one game more or less enjoyable than another.  In fact, the next time you’re playing a game and find yourself sort of bored, it’s likely from an inability to make creative decisions within the game's rules or boundaries. 

For participants and fans alike, professional sports display a nearly perfect execution of the these three components. Most of the major sports have not only rules in place but referees and umpires to enforce them, as well as instant replay to enforce this enforcement. The vast differences among players in style and skill illustrate the range of creativity and decision making allowed within the rules set into place. Immediate feedback is not only displayed on the scoreboard during each second of the game, channels like ESPN and sports radio provide recognition and commentary about each accomplishment. In addition, there are myriad awards presented each season, culminating with the most gifted players being inducted into a Hall of Fame.

Working with Meaning (Part Five)

In my prior post, I referred to Csikszentmihalyi describing how many people feel “Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do….For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating.”  

Years ago, I read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and heard echoes of the same theme: 
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”  Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  

Working with Meaning (Part Six)

 As we think about the idea of work, we should look at a peculiar scene in David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson and his men are held as prisoners of war by the Japanese army and ordered to build the bridge stated in the film's title. Initially, the men are not taking their work seriously and are even trying to undermine their enemy’s command. 

Nicholson realizes this and orders them to stop thwarting the effort and begin taking pride in their work. Shortly after, Clifton, a physician, notices the progress of the bridge and questions Nicholson:

CLIFTON: The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity. 

NICHOLSON: Are you alright Clifton? We are prisoners of war, we haven’t the right to refuse work. 

CLIFTON: I understand that sir, but must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they can build themselves? 

NICHOLSON: Would you prefer to see this battalion disintegrate in idleness? Would you have it said that our chaps can’t do a proper job? Do you realize how important it is to show these people that they can’t break us in body or in spirit. Take a good look, Clifton. One day the war will be over and I hope the people who will use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity. 


How is the viewer supposed to interpret this odd scene? On one hand, Clifton is
right. The bridge will help their enemy. On the other, we again hear echoes of Price’s grandfather from “Good Work” in that how one works is just as important as the work itself. Likewise for Nicholson, “shoveling shit” or building a bridge- “work is work” and the value isn’t just in what’s accomplished but in the way it’s accomplished. 

Could we go a step further and suggest that Colonel Nicholson is an artist? An artist wishing to create something functional, yes, but also something beautiful; a monument to hard work and craftsmanship, independent from any military or political objective. Nicholson’s men only see the bridge within utilitarian terms- a passageway from point A to point B. The bridge isn’t a work of art at all which makes it easy to undermine and eventually destroy. Conversely, Colonel Nicholson only sees it as a work of art. Even though their enemy is using the bridge with the intent to destroy the Colonel’s own military, the bridge has inherent value in and of itself- art for art’s sake in other words.  

Metaphorically Speaking

If you go online and look up “Bad Metaphors and Similes,” here are a few examples you’re likely to find:

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

What makes these so comically terrible? For one, they each violate the blueprint of a good joke: recognizable set up, a moment of tension, then a hard right turn.  With the examples above, the turn, rather than being poetic or descriptive, is blunt and obvious- a U-Turn.
I realize that being a former English teacher makes me part of the home team so to speak, but it's difficult for me to imagine understanding anything complex or abstract without having a coinciding metaphor illustrating it. I would even go one step further and say that metaphors can become a part of our personal stories, and that like personal stories, they become our "compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice." Solnit, Rebecca (2013-06-13). The Faraway Nearby (p. 3). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Is this overstating the importance of metaphor?  Before you answer, let's look at a scene from Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview that was filmed in 1996, several years before Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In fact when this particular interview occurred, he had been fired from Apple and the company was only a few months away from bankruptcy. During the interview, Jobs is unusually reflective, a bit sullen, and completely unaware that within a year's time, he will return to Apple and eventually make it one of the most successful companies in the world. 

This first quote is in response to when Jobs was asked about the team he put together to create the first Apple Macintosh computer and how there were reports of in-fighting and tension among the team. Interestingly, Jobs doesn’t get defensive or dispel the rumors but instead does the opposite by explaining how this tension actually led to the team’s success.  To illustrate his point, Jobs incorporates a metaphor he gleaned from a childhood experience:  
When I was a kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street and he was in his 80s. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might have paid me to cut or mow his lawn or something. And one day, he said come into my garage, I want to show you something and he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler, and it was a motor and a coffee can and a little ban between them. And he said come with me, and we went out to the back and we got some rocks. Some regular, ugly old rocks. And we put them into the can with a little bit of liquid and a little bit of grit powder. And he closed the can up and turned this motor on and he said come back tomorrow. And the can was making this racket as the stones were turning. And I came back the next day, and … opened the can, and we took out these amazingly, beautiful polished rocks.  The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [smacking his hands together] creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful, polished rocks. And that’s always in my mind a metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. Is that it’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people that, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together, they polish each other.  
Jobs goes on to say that everyone on the original Macintosh team, in spite of the conflict, admitted it was one of the most enriching and meaningful experiences of their lives. I would imagine that it was Jobs' expanded understanding of what makes an effective team along with his ability to enlist such metaphors that allowed the team members to ultimately see beyond their frustrations. Near the end of the interview, Jobs incorporates another metaphor, this time for the computer itself: 
I read an article when I was very young in Scientific American and it measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet, so for bears and chimps and raccoons and birds and fish- how many kilocalories per kilometer they spend to move and humans were measured too and the condor won. It was the most efficient, and mankind, the crown of creation, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But somebody there had the brilliance to test a human riding a bicycle. Blew away the condor. All the way off the charts. I remember that this really had an impact on me. I really remember this, that humans are tool builders and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities. And to me, we actually ran an ad like this very early on at Apple that the personal computer was the bicycle of the mind. 
And finally, let's look at a third metaphor that, for Jobs, illustrated Apple’s mission statement. It was posted on Apple's website on the 1 year anniversary of his death. During the tribute video, we hear a voiceover of Jobs: "There is an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love: ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.'” 

One would be hard-pressed to find a literal connection between personal computing and kilocalories, rock grinders, or hockey, yet if one could turn counter-clockwise for a moment and venture into a metaphorical or symbolic understanding of computers, the connection becomes quite clear, even profound. I would even go as far to say that it gives us insight into the idea of genius and one of the ways the term could be defined. Genius isn’t simply doing one thing or a series of things brilliantly; that’s what we call expertise and we shouldn’t just assume they're the same. I would argue “Genius” should be reserved for those who are not only experts but go one step (or several steps) further by taking disparate ideas and/or skills and combining them to form an entirely new idea. Jobs saw the computer as an efficient tool, and, with his interest in calligraphy, also imagined combining it with a graphic user interface. Isn’t this what metaphors do as well? Gleaning understanding through the combining of unrelated ideas: a bicycle and the role of the personal computer; a rock polisher and team management, a hockey player’s instincts and the mission statement of an innovative tech company?  When we find a metaphor that articulates what we are trying to say, it can act as, not just a guide, but a lifeline, much like the rope from Midwestern folklore that people would tie from their house to the barn so they wouldn’t get lost in a blizzard.  

To get a better understanding of symbolic or metaphorical language, let's look at a few definitions from Karen Armstrong’s book, History of God. Armstrong writes, "In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos." Logos signified the rational, objective, and literal; while Mythos represented a metaphorical, non-direct, symbolic interpretation. Armstrong goes on to write: 
Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.... People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition.... But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or ‘myth.‘  Myth or figurative language was “designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. Armstrong, Karen (2009-09-11). The Case for God. Random House, Inc.. Kindle.
You can learn a lot about yourself (including what subject you should probably study in college) when determining which of the two, Logos or Mythos, you deem more important. If you’re interested in learning how to fly a plane, Mythos won’t be of much use. You will need Logos to fully comprehend Bernoulli's theorem and the inverse relationship between the velocity of fluid flow and air pressure. However, one could say it was Mythos behind the inspiration to apply this theorem to flight in the first place. One could argue it was imagining being a hawk or an eagle soaring high into the sky and daydreaming about being free from earth's gravitational pull, free from mortality itself, that actually led Orville and Wilbur Wright to perform that fateful first flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. 

Then again, why are we referring to academics and scientists to understand figurative language?  Emily Dickinson wrote in nothing but metaphors. She even has a poem that explains how metaphor works

Tell all the truth but tell it slant -

Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What is a metaphor if not an attempt to tell the truth slant? And why do we need metaphors in the first place? Because Logos or literal language is limited; it can be “too bright.”  Consider the pin-hole projector; a device used to assist children when learning about a solar eclipse without looking at the sun. By looking through the projector, the students see the reflection of something that would otherwise be blinding. 

A few years ago, I had a friend who survived a massive heart attack, and afterwards when he was physically recovered but still a bit shaken emotionally, we had a lengthly conversation about the experience. We had no difficulty talking about the "How" or Logos of the situation. He could explain exactly what occurred from a physiological standpoint that led to the heart attack and what exactly occurred when he had surgery and how exactly the doctors were able to save him. We discussed his treatment and his diet and exercise regiment moving forward. This part of the conversation was easy. What was much more difficult was talking about the deeper meaning of the moment- the Why of the occurrence. Logos was completely inept at answering such questions, and I didn't really know what else to say. Then for whatever reason, a scene from Tender Mercies, a film we've talked about over the years, came to my mind. It was the scene near the end of the movie when Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is heartbroken and trying to make sense of his daughter's recent death. He is digging in a small garden, trying to get his mind off of things while talking to his wife. Unsure of what to say or even feel, Mac quietly begins:
I was almost killed in car accident once. I was drunk. I ran off the side of the road and I turned the car over 4 times. And they took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answers to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived.  I don’t know the answer to nothin. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you pitied me and took me in and helped me to straighten out and marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war. My daughter was killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.  
Mac’s wife doesn’t attempt to answer his questions, but she does listen. I didn’t have any answers either. In situations like this, I’ve heard people try to console someone by saying You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers or Things happen for a reason, but these sentiments, while sincere, often seem hollow or anemic. That’s because these moments require Mythos, not Logos. For moments like this, understanding, instead, is found “in [c]ircuit” or around the truth. Stories, liturgy, poems, metaphors, and in this case with my friend, a scene from Tender Mercies, is how one can tell the truth but "tell it slant.” After I mentioned the scene with Mac and his wife in the vegetable garden, my friend quickly referred to the next scene in the film.  After some time passes, Mac and his stepson, Sonny, go across the road to play catch with a football. Sonny is happy and so is Mac as they throw the ball and enjoy each other’s company.  Another metaphor at work- a ball being tossed back and forth through the air; connecting a father and son together both literally and figuratively.