I burned my old journals tonight. More than 1,000 pages hand-written pages going back to 1980. I’m am tempted to say that as the flames consumed the torn off chunks of pages in my fireplace, spirits were released from the papers—sadness, passion, confusion, existential angst, so many emotional moments “captured” in ink, until tonight. Except that it would not make sense, even if one were to speak of “spirits” in a metaphorical sense. You see, I painstakingly scanned all of the pages first, and then I backed it all up on an external drive. I’m trying to get rid of paper, converting almost every scrap of paper I own into a pdf. Therefore, there’s no need for any “spirits” to be released from the pages, although looking at the haunting flames made me occasionally wonder. Then again, if I were a spirit trapped in a piece of paper, I probably wouldn’t understand anything about computers or scans, so I might nonetheless assume a haunting flame shape as my piece of paper burned.
Perhaps because life seems especially rich with meaning and change is in the air, I’m in an existential mood tonight. When that happens, I’m often reminded of the Star Trek notion of Kobayashi Maru. Here’s the description from Wikipedia:
The Kobayashi Maru is a test in the fictional Star Trek universe. It is a Starfleet training exercise designed to test the character of cadets in the command track at Starfleet Academy. The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and also appears in the 2009 film Star Trek. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Dr. McCoy referenced the test as an example of the no-win scenario that he and Captain Kirk were facing. The test’s name is occasionally used among Star Trek fans or those familiar with the series to describe a no-win scenario . . . The objective of the test is not for the cadet to outfight the opponent but rather to test the cadet’s reaction to a no-win situation.
Hmmm. No-win scenario? A test of character? Yes, each of us is part of a no-win scenario. We are each on a conveyor belt inexorably pulling us toward dusty death. Obviously, the “meaning” of life (to the extent that it makes sense to speak of “meaning of life”) cannot be how to cheat the system, because there is no long term cheat. This is true, despite the efforts of many religious folks to conjure up afterlives. You “lose” even if you make a world-class contribution to your community or world such that people will talk about you for awhile after you die, maybe even for 100 years or more. You “lose” even if you have lots of offspring and they bear you grandchildren who will sometimes, decreasingly, mention your name. But eventually there won’t be any people still living to talk about you. The conveyor belt will have dragged both you and your reputation to oblivion. That’s the sad part: you are immortal, ephemeral. Many people suffer and struggle all the way to the end. Consider Shakespeare’s words:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
Just as the end of the movie Titanic, we can choose to see life as a test. Perhaps one of the best ways to approach life is to see whether you have the will and the courage to exhibit honorable character even though you know that you are in a no-win scenario. Hence, the Kobayashi Maru approach to life.
Does Terror Management Theory (TMT) push creativity to a head in later life. I recently ran across an article that suggests exactly this in Adult Personality Development: Volume 2: Applications, by Lawrence S. Wrightsman, Mar 15, 1994. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Creativity can undergo a resurgence in the later years of life, and especially in life’s last years (Simonton, 1990, p. 630). Sometimes during the late 60s and 70s an increase in output appears (Simonton, 1988). This secondary peak In output may be a manifestation of an Eriksonian final-stage contemplation of death and review of one’s life accomplishments.
Does any empirical evidence exist for the existence of such a “swan song” phenomenon? Simonton (1989) examined 1,919 compositions by 172 classical music composers, assessed each of numerous aesthetic qualities, and determined how many years before the composers’ death the piece was composed. A clear pattern emerged:
As the composers approached their final years, when death was raising a fist to knock on the door, they began to produce compositions that are more brief, that have simpler and more restrained melodic lines, and yet that score high in aesthetic significance according to musicologists and that eventually become popular mainstays of the classical repertoire. It is as if when the composers see the end approaching fast on the horizon, warning that their last artistic temperaments dwell among their current works in progress, they put their utmost into every creation, yielding truly noteworthy products. (Simonton, 1990, p. 630).
I’ve often written about Terror Management Theory (TMT). Recently I found this well-written illustrated review of many TMT principles.