I discovered something a couple of years ago: Almost all culture, old or new, is designed for consumption by people under 40. People between 40 and Ω (an indeterminate number defined as “really, just way too old”), are primarily employed as meaning-makers for the under-40 set. This is because they are mostly good for nothing else, and on average not valuable enough themselves for society to invest meaning in.
The only culture designed for people between 40 and Ω is prescription drug ads and unreadably dense literary novels. Between age Ω and ∅, the age at which you die, there is only funerary culture. That second link is to an app for managing your own death called Cake. Why cake? Your guess is as good as mine.
But there’s a plus side. Forty is when immortality begins.
A very general life-stage map across civilizations and eras looks like this:
- 0 to α: Achieve launch velocity
- α to 40: Play culture!
- 40 to Ω: Ah crap, I have to make shit up for others now?
- Ω to ∅: Let them eat cake
The new number in the scheme above, α, is the age at which you achieve enough of a restless drive, via either increasing resentment (some sort of red pill) or cluelessness (some sort of blue pill), to play for meaning.
In the scheme above, 40 is the only roughly stable number. It exists as an approximately fixed point because it is an emergent outcome of history. It is reflected in the nature of humanity’s collective cultural archives, religions, sitcoms, ideologies, self-improvement plans, justifiably ageist 40-under-40 award schemes, weight-loss plans, and dating advice.
In case you hadn’t yet noticed, the few older archetypes and characters who do play a role in our collective cultural imagination tend to be unrealistically wise, healthy, evolved, and wondrously well-prepared for retirement. Unlike archetypes of youthful beauty and vigor, these are not meant to set unrealistic standards for older people to actually strive towards. It’s too late for them. They are meant to prevent young people from getting too distracted by their own future concerns to play the present-day meaning games the world needs them to play.
The other numbers can float, which means you can get extraordinarily fucked-up lives if (for instance), your α is higher than 40 or your Ω is under 40.
If you’re lucky, the following set of inequalities will hold for you, and you will be able to experience that most precious of all things, a life lived forward in time:
0 < α: you have childhood innocence to lose
α < 40: you have enough value that society does culture to you
40 < Ω: there is enough time to take revenge for having had culture done to you
Ω < ∅: if you’re lucky, there will be time to rest and observe in peace
Some well-known fucked-up life scripts include:
Ω < α: Acting dead
α > 40: Peter Pan
40 > 40: Has-been
40 < 40: Burnout
∅ < α: Died tragically and heroically young
∅ < ∅: Painful and unwanted life extension
Once society stops doing culture to you, and you’re on your own, immortality begins. The morning after your fortieth birthday, you experience the first day of the rest of time.
There is an obvious question that everybody should ask but nobody does: how would you know if you were immortal?
It is not enough to merely go through one or more death experiences, miraculously surviving each one. By virtue of living in 2016, you’ve probably already sailed through many infections and diseases that would have killed you a few hundred years ago. You’ve probably also committed what would have been capital crimes in ages past.
No, you begin to experience immortality the first time you recognize the transience of experiences you thought were permanent, and more subtly, the permanence of experiences you hoped were transient.
This recognition generally ruins culture for you, since culture is built around the game of a meaningful search for eternal truths, timeless values and changeless habits of prowess. And, it goes without saying, transcendence of the unpleasantly transient.
Time, of course, is the merciless slaughterer of all these infinitely qualified anchors of the meaning of life. Wait long enough, and every truth will crumble. Wait long enough, and every value will dissolve into moral ambiguity. Wait long enough, and every habit will decay, first into ritual, then into farce. Wait long enough, and every slain demon will rise again.
And then you will be free. Something almost nobody wants, but almost everyone is forced to endure past 40.
Unless you have kids, in which case you may be eligible for an extension.
Forty years is not enough to specifically undermine every truth, value, and habit, but it is long enough to generally undermine the idea that there are non-transient truths, values, and habits. You’ve seen too many business cycles, too many political cycles, too many cultural cycles, too many saints and sinners trading places, to believe that this time a source of meaning will endure.
I’ll call any emotionally coherent collection of truths, values and habits meaning. The half-life of a representative basket of meaning is about twenty years, adjusting for purchasing power parity.
Forty is also the age at which point it stops being worth anyone’s while to manufacture and invest meaning in you. It is this drying up of supply — meaning, by virtue of its transience is a consumable — more than any maturation into nihilism, that triggers the shift into an immortal frame of mind.
What really drives home the visceral sense of the transience of all meaning is the realization, around forty, that not only is nobody going to supply you with comforting permanences anymore, but that you have to begin to repay a debt you did not realize you had incurred. You have to create meaning games for others to play. There are not many other jobs for the 40-to-Ω crowd.
Not only is it all meaning transient, it must all be manufactured by somebody. Meaning doesn’t just happen. Civilization functions by putting the 40-to-Ω crowd to work, creating meaning games for the α-to-40 set to play.
Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Stock a lake with fish, and he’ll fish till he’s 40, at which point it’s generally not critical to anyone else that he continue to eat.
If you’re lucky, the meaning game you play in your α-to-40 years will have been designed by a tradition of not-entirely-malevolent 40-to-Ω sociopaths.
If you’re even luckier, the meaning games you help create for others in your 40-to-Ω will not be entirely bereft of kindness. This matters more for you than for the people who play your games.
The transience of the seemingly permanent is well-recognized, even though Buddhists around the world work hard to mystify it. A word or two about the permanence of the seemingly transient.
There are many experiences we hope are transient. Experiences that threaten, and ultimately destroy, meaning. Experiences about which we say, this too shall pass.
Generally they do. Unfortunately they also keep coming back. The causes change — today it is Zika, Trump and robots, yesterday it was the Spanish Flu, machine guns and George Wallace.
The transient experiences keep coming back, but the meanings they destroy don’t. Indeed, the permanence of transience is merely the negative space formed by the creative destruction of meaning. Change, as the saying goes, is the only constant.
This is a good thing.
Culture is the necessary art of perpetuating the disturbing rumor that reality is meaningful. That beneath the pain and the pleasure, the cruelty and the compassion, the estranging and the connecting, the breaking and the making, the ugliness and the beauty, the losing and the winning, the dying and the living, there is Something More.™
Reality of course, is the bit that doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. The meaning of reality, unfortunately, isn’t part of reality. And beyond reality, there is nothing more.
But with a little skill, it is possible to prevent most people from figuring this out until they have paid more in taxes and social security than they will demand back.
This is a good thing. And I am not being snarky. It is good that things are this way.
The way you perpetuate the rumor is by making meaning games. These come in many forms, besides the obvious ones like creating a religion or writing a poem. Like being a good middle manager, running for President, or announcing a daring plan to colonize Mars.
All fall into one of two patterns: redistributing meaning and creating new meaning. There is also a third category, accelerating the destruction of rotting meaning. But since rotting meaning self-destructs naturally anyway, there isn’t much demand for accelerating the process. Still, there’s a living to be made in shorting the meaning markets.
Redistributing meaning requires creating strongly escaped realities by sealing off inconveniently meaningless bits of reality. Things like religion fall into this category. By shifting Significance from Some Things to Some Other Things, redistribution can manufacture a new signal from old noise, and motivate the restlessness and motion the world requires of the α to 40 set. It may not be very useful motion (indeed the motion is usually circular), but it creates liquidity in the meaning economy.
Creating new meaning means disturbing the universe. By sciencing the shit out of it, as we have discussed several times before. This does not directly create either meaning or meaning games. In fact, given the fundamentally nihilistic character of sciencing shit, the core activity threatens meaning more than it creates meaning.
But for those standing far enough away that they can Fucking Love Science! instead of actually doing science, disturbing the universe creates pleasantly disturbing rumors that J. Alfred Prufrock actually had an overwhelming question. One to which he could have discovered the answer if only he’d had the courage to disturb the universe. A fucking lovely answer.
The grim truth is not that there is no profoundly satisfying answer. The grim truth is that there is no overwhelming question. Poor Alfred just wasn’t very good at turning 40.
Redistributing meaning or creating meaning. You’re either an art history major, or you can science the shit out of things. There is no middle.
This way of talking about meaning is similar to how we talk about money. You might conclude from this that if you seek meaning, you will also make money. This is exactly wrong. You have to make meaning games, which is exactly the opposite sort of activity.
Being exactly wrong is actually a useful thing to be. It’s the next best thing to being right. You can get to right by flipping exactly wrong. Flipping somewhat wrong merely makes you somewhat wrong in a new way.
To seek meaning is to believe in truth before virtue, virtue before beauty, beauty before creation, creation before victory. This is the honor code of meaning-seeking. If you follow this code perfectly, you will make exactly no money.
I was dumb enough in my twenties to try to follow this code perfectly. Fortunately for my solvency, I am not very good at following instructions, and a succession of mid-life crises and crashes ensured my survival.
But it is important that you don’t stop believing in this code too early. That’s a recipe for a fucked-up life. It is also important that you don’t continue believing in this code too long. That’s also a recipe for a fucked-up life.
You must stop believing in this code exactly when you are ready to begin immortality. When your own appetite for meaning is satiated, and you are ready to start making meaning games for others. When you’re ready to play god for your own amusement.
Here is how you disturb the universe to make meaning. It isn’t pretty, and there’s a reason most who are able to do it on a grand scale are above forty.
Winning before making. This is survival.
Making before beauty. This is perpetuation.
Beauty before virtue. This is leadership.
Virtue before truth. This is realism.
To win you may need to do destructive, ugly, vicious, and false things.
Then, to create, you may need to do ugly, vicious, and false things.
To make your creations endure, so they don’t go away when you stop believing in them, you may need to do beautiful, vicious, and false things.
Then, you may need to do beautiful, virtuous, and false things to create happiness.
And finally, you may choose to seek truth. This is an optional, meaningless, and essentially solitary activity. Something the immortal and free may choose to do, to entertain themselves in the amusement park that is the part of eternity that does not go away when you stop believing in it.