The Greatest American Joke I've Ever Heard
The joke starts with this: It's the fourth of July, and a father and son are standing outside in the backyard, green grass, picket fence, the lot. The son turns to the father and asks: "Hey Dad, how long do you think it'll be until the kebabs are ready for dinner?" The father smiles, and says "Well son, the kebabs will be ready in seconds."
Immediately the son is faced with a paradox of communication. The joke is that of expectation; one expects that the kebabs will be ready soon, as the colloquial "in seconds" means "very soon; in a few seconds." However, the exact definition of "in seconds" simply means that the kebabs will be ready in a certain amount of seconds. We do not know how many seconds that will be. It could be 2 billion seconds, or 5. On another level, the knowledge that it will be ready in seconds, as opposed to minutes or hours or kiloseconds gives us no more knowledge than what we knew previously. It doesn't matter whether the kebabs are ready in 5 seconds or 0.00001 hours if the distance of time is the same. But none of this is important, in fact you may not be finding the joke funny. Now that you "get the joke," it's clear that it's an ineffective one. But that's just it. There's nothing about the joke to get. It's just a joke about the paradox of communication in the modern world. The real joke is about the joke is self-reflexive. The joke is that there's something to get in the first place. It cannot be funny unless you understand the humor. And the best bit is that most jokes, when you have to have them explained to you, lose the bulk of their humor. The only substance is that you feel slightly more intellectual, more hip, you "get it" a little bit more than the next person. It's vapid, smug.
In the course of living a life, you may wonder to yourself, while finishing homework or clocking out of work, why am I doing this? If the answer is "because my past experiences and mentality have brought me here," then you'll ask "should I change my mentality to ensure a more meaningful existence?" You may suspect that your life is being controlled, or swayed, by some capitalist regime to earn the next guy a little more cheddar. That education is a tool to get people to spend money. What's the point of completing math problems?
I'd like to preface by saying that the concept of education and freedom gets into a whole mess of class stuff, as proportionally those in wealth have access to better education, and marginalized communities often aren't as wealthy due to prejudice. The point of getting an education, as I see it, is all about freedom. Intellectual freedom, fiscal freedom, political freedom. Maybe it's too broad of an assumption to say that educated people are happier than noneducated people, but I can certainly say that you have a better chance of getting into Yale if you're educated than if you're not, if that's your goal. And "educated" is one of those loose words: do I mean "educated" as in "4.5 GPA and chess team whiz" or "street smart" or what? I mean, frankly, that one has the knowledge and requirements to have the freedom to do something. It doesn't require much education to learn how to ride a bike, but if you don't have that education then you cannot ride that bike. Before we turn to the existential thing of "well since I don't have infinite time to live on this earth, I can never become self-actualized or fully educated on something or whatever," let's at least discuss the idea of freedom.
"Is everything predetermined or do we have agency?" is a question that impacts you, right now, and forever. It has a profound effect because if you truly believe in determinism you'll be less likely to shoot yourself in the head. Society, as much as we condemn it, often steers us in the right direction. But radical freedom, the idea that in a millisecond aliens could take over and kill us all, that there's such thing as "chance" or "luck" because in physics, if you go waaaaay down past the molecular or atomic level, it becomes fuzzy and you can't tell if random chance exists. Then you get to the real joke. The really interesting thing. The incredibly, magnificently, gigantic joke. That you have complete and utter freedom over your life, regardless of if there's a god, or what environment you're in, or of your mortality. That in this gamespace—this constructed reality—infinity and endless possibility is a playground of infinite scope. The only understandable truth: that existence has no rules to it, that one day we really could all collapse into dust.
Sure. But pragmatically, that holds up the same as Last Thursdayism or any other ad absurdist thing. You will get up and finish your homework, or drive home, or go to sleep. You will die. You are made of genes passed down from past humans who passed down their genes solely because they survived long enough to, and that if you look at humans on a probability curve, many humans pass down their genes before they die. The only reason why you're alive is because of your biological makeup. So what gives your life meaning? Is it your environment, or is it up to you? I believe that education gives you the freedom to decide that for yourself. But I also believe that we don't have that education, that we never will, the same way we don't have the answer to the meaning of life, that self-actualization and religious ascension and pure education is all based upon an asymptote, a punchline we will never "get" to. That our lives are based upon an equation written down long before we were born, and we follow that equation until we die. And that our lives live on that line, graphed, unable to reach infinity. . . .
. . . is the joke. Do you "get it?" I don't know. Maybe all I've done is repeat the butt of Kafka's joke from the quote from Wallace's Laughing with Kafka that I used in my other article. But I think I've done a better job of examining it.
I think the purpose to this—or, not "purpose" as in we were constructed to do something, but maybe "existence" or "a goal you'd suggest for your individual self" might be experience, or it may just be self-actualization. It'd be best for those to, because you'd be alive, and maybe happy, and a good member of society probably. I find it stupid that I can't like pop music. That it's bad. That clichés are bad. Or cheesy. That you can't live an average life without being assumed as naive. Maybe self-actualization is a praise of the average, or at least the freedom to recognize what you enjoy. Freedom as personal agency to recognize others' criticism of your naivety, however subliminal, and choose to not care. I bet the ability to choose whether you care or not is a freedom. As much as education lay in books, it also lay in experience. And other modes.
Back to the point of this article. Why is it bad to burnout? If you think about it, living with your parents may not be so bad. Many successful people live with their parents because they love each other, and it's financially less demanding. It's better for the environment. Why is there shame in it? I think the shame may come from the pathetic lack of agency one has in the situation. Even if you're placed in the position where you did everything right, if for some reason or another the tides turn against you and you end up a failure, you failed. Maybe the world was taken over by aliens, you still failed, and there's shame in that. I think that there's a difference between societal judgement and personal self-esteem. I think that the self-actualized "American" would realize that societal expectation is just that, and that personal expectation is more valuable in certain situations.
But none of this is important if you can't apply it, right? Like the question asked earlier, about math. "What is the point of learning math?" Some would say it's important to build those critical thinking skills, to look at problems a certain way. Or to at least be able to look at problems a certain way. Some would say it trains the student to learning how to study for something they will never use in their life, and to submit themselves to the notion that there are powers of greater control than themselves. That much of life is pointless. I'd argue that it's another piece of education, lending freedom, just as much as any other form of education.
So I guess the main point is about awareness. That you have all this accumulated knowledge on life and reality and self, but it's all useless unless you put it to work. Unless you remind yourself daily, hourly, about some truth. So that it'll become secondhand.
I think that this is where the arts come in. Reading things like Good Old Neon because they're really fucking great, and because they enlighten you on a perspective. Or listening to music. Or biding your time creating an album or a book. Finding some hobby to occupy your time, and make it more bearable. Maybe even pretty great, sometimes.