Meaning Over Expedience

In the youth development field, I often find myself more surprised with the youth development workers, than with the kids themselves. I humorously watch as tension develops between the caregivers expectations and the reality of the situation. As if the miracle of human capacity has been taken for granted, there is often a shame put on kids who don’t share, are violent, or refuse to stay still. These are expectations that we place on our kids, yes, but these are not human baselines. We seem always find ourselves confused as to why someone does drugs, or acts violent, when, the real question should be: “Why doesn’t someone do drugs or act violent?” Violence and poor coping mechanisms for the harshness of reality is a baseline, and anything else is a virtue compared to historical human behavior.

The same goes with sharing. Hoarding, controlling, and refusing to part with resources is once again the baseline of human nature. There should be no surprise when these behaviors manifest in our kids. In fact, if we are willing to look past the lenses of proper behavior that society places on us, sharing as adults is still a revolutionary surprise.

Sharing comes down to the idea of a sacrifice. You give away something now, in return for something better later. In this sense, the return may be friendship, future promise of reciprocation, or just the pleasure of providing another with enjoyment. Sacrifices though, well, sacrifices are what changed the human trajectory. As Dr. Jordan B. Peterson lectures about, it wasn’t until human beings learned the premise of sacrificing, that we as a species were able to evolve so quickly. Instead of eating 20 lbs of meat now, like a wolf would, we could eat 5 now, and have 15 for later. Or, we could even share the other 15 with our fellow humans, that way when someone else catches food, we would be able to eat as well. This is against our primal instincts, against the nature that tells us to eat now, and survive now.

Sacrifices, in their nature, involve doing something, that may be uncomfortable now, for the hopes of a better future. This idea of delayed gratification is what a central baseline in the story of Jesus. In an attempt to poorly summarize the story, we can look at Jesus’ interactions with the Devil in the desert. The devil tempts a starving, weakened Jesus with many offerings, one being an accumulation of worldly goods (essentially offering Jesus the opportunity to rule humanity in a King sense). Jesus denied, and continued striving for what he deemed a worthy end goal: the Kingdom of God on Earth.

We do this in our lives regularly, albeit not as large. There are a million examples of everyday sacrifices. Saving leftovers, going to college, calling a parent, forgoing immediate gratification, such as partying or unloving sex, for delayed gratification, such as obtaining wisdom, or engaging in a rewarding relationship. Sacrifices, and ones worthy of our suffering, provide a meaning as the end result. Sacrificing expedience, and immediate pleasure, for meaning, and long term fulfillment, is where the meaty part of a good life is found. This is what Dr. Jordan Peterson means in rule number 7 (in his 12 Rules for Life), “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.”

Drinking, fighting, and participating in unloving sex provides expedience, provides momentary pleasure, but sacrifices, and thus the idea that Rule 7 is alluding to, involve letting go of what will provide you with that sense of joy and pleasure now, for the hope that you can have not only more joy and pleasure later, but meaning and fulfillment as well.

This means letting go of the expedient immediate gratification, such as drugs, sexual hookups, alcohol, in order to aim for meaningful, delayed gratifications, such as peace of mind. This means becoming ungodly uncomfortable, and voluntarily throwing yourself in the fire right now, for the understanding that it will make you better in the future. This could mean letting go of your Ego that tells you that you are the most important person, and that your success is the priority, and putting others first (because it brings you more satisfaction in the end). While immediately it feels good to yell, to get defensive or put down, to aim for victory in a discourse with your partner, the sacrificing of the pleasure that being right provides means opening the door for the meaning that solving the issue brings. It means knowing that you will feel an insane amount of discomfort if your make yourself vulnerable and tell the truth, but the closeness and connectivity that derives from that is worth all of the sacrifice of comfort.

It seems though, the larger the sacrifice, the larger the potential meaning derived from it. If I give up an hour of time to complete an assignment, that will provide minimal meaning. On the other hand, if I devote years of my life to a vision that I find fulfilling, that will produce more meaning in relation to the sacrifice. The more comfort we give up, the more truth we tell and the more we go out of our way to ease another's suffering, the more fulfillment we feel in the end.

The fascinating idea is though, is that the purest meaning of the word sacrifice is to let go of something you may desire. This something may be tangible, such as alcohol, meaningless hookups or video games, but more likely than not, it is your comfort, your temporary peace of mind, your safety and security. Sacrificing means going through a period of chaos in order to hopefully reach a semblance of order.

This can be seen in many aspects. Sacrificing means letting go of the easy, ‘swipe right’ or one night bar connections. It means letting go of the plan put in place, and the ease of mind that comes with security, to pursue a meaningful, and potentially fulfilling long term relationship. It means sacrificing the immediate pay off of a job that you hate, but gets you through, for the struggle and discomfort of striving for a meaningful job. It means having that difficult conversation with a loved one, sacrificing your comfort in the moment, for the meaning that comes from opening the door for honest and positive interactions.

Sacrificing, in a sense means that you are trading in the person you are now, accepting to voluntarily live in the fire with the hopes that the person you come out as is better. This is because the person you are, and the person you can be cannot both exist at the same time. One must die, one must perish for the other to flourish. Either we make decisions that let go of who we are now, for sake of a better future, or we entrench in our current selves, killing the possibility of who we can be. To aim for a future good though, we must have faith that the system will allow for the payoff of the sacrifice we make in this moment. While not all sacrifices pay off in the way we imagine (that is just part of the game), there has to be an understanding that all sacrifices can pay off, if not there is not point. Why would you save your hunt if you know that others will steal it? Why would you delay pleasure if you know that there is an above average chance you die tomorrow? How could we delay gratification and fulfillment in relationships if we can’t trust that the other person will still be there in week? (Generally, all sacrifices pay off in one sense or another, just often not in the way we expect them to. If we open up and show the world who we truly are (sacrificing our immediate safety and comfort) for the hope of social meaning, but yet we are still rejected by our peers, that does not mean the sacrifice didn’t pay off. By opening up, we killed the fearful, fragile person we were for the person willing to be vulnerable. After almost every sacrifice, the meaning is there, we just have to be willing to look).

Obviously, sacrifice has a religious manifestation. Jesus sacrificed his life for the sins of humanity. But at a deeper level, Jesus delayed all immediate gratification for the most meaningful of possible pursuits: the Kingdom of God on Earth. While tempted by Satan after enduring the pains of desert wandering, Jesus turned down the human pleasures that we, as mortals, seem to base our lives striving for. Jesus was called by God to make potentially the largest sacrifice, for potentially the largest meaningful outcome. This is true with Abraham as well. Who, after asking God for a son, was then asked by God to sacrifice his son.

Sometimes that largest sacrifices are needed, to bring about the “Kingdom of God on Earth” in a non-religious sense. Sometimes we must escape pleasures and opportunities that most people not only would die for, but that most people aim their lives for. Sometimes we must let go of what we know, of all stability in a shaky world, just for the opportunity to maybe achieve meaning.

As I turn to reflect my life, I see this theme play out. Unwillingly, and even ignorant to the process that was occurring, I had to sacrifice all that I knew, I had to give up family, love, pleasure, etc for the potential (not all sacrifices breed meaning). I did not know it all the time, but God (or universe, or whatever word makes us most uncomfortable) was calling for a sacrifice, the largest possible for me at the time, in order to allow me to strive to create my own Kingdom. I had to not only turn down every aim I was previously seeking, but I had to deny myself every possible avenue of escape, every path back to the immediate gratification. Although I could not see what was occurring, God was calling for the death of me, for the crucifixion of who or what I was, for the possible potentiality of rebirth into something, or someone new.  

Everytime we learn something new, we sacrifice what we know for the potential of what we may know, killing off an old version of ourselves, to create room for who we may be. I describe the process as killing for a very specific reason: it is painful. Although it may be easier to be comfortable now, to say no to the situations that breed pain and uneasiness, we must deny expediency. We must instead chase what our hearts already know. We must aim for the highest of fulfillment, and let go of the necessary sacrifices to achieve it. Because if we don’t, if we choose to act like a caged rat jumping at every pleasurable impulse that presents itself, hiding from any opportunity for delayed gratification, what will we be? It isn’t that we should ask ourselves: “Why would I do this?”, it is that we should ask ourselves, “What is the alternative?” What is the alternative if we don’t aim for meaning over expedience? To consistently seek immediate pleasure. To live a fruitless life void of fulfillment? To shirk responsibilities, to run from chaos, to hid from conflict. If we don’t aim for fulfillment and meaning, instead of immediate pleasure, what would we feel looking back on our life? What is the alternative?


EDIT: The speaker was so loud, so voluminous that I couldn’t hear out of my right ear for the rest of the evening. I looked around, to see a ring of friendly peers, and a room of strangers all letting go of the week’s worries in the form of dance. As my body couldn’t stop itself from dancing along to the top hits of the 2000’s, and my face couldn’t help by smile every time I watched the excitement of a new song scuttle across the adjacent face, I asked myself: “Is this meaningful?”

In the moment, I was pursuing pleasure now, so expedience, but also creating a foundation of friendship at which to stand on in the future, meaning. So maybe, in some rare instances, we can have both. Spending a day conversing with your father is meaningful, and expedient. So are date nights, birthday celebrations, and evenings for fun. It is possible to have both meaning and expedience in the same situation, if, I believe, we follow two points. 1. The meaning is not derived from the literal context of the situation, as dancing in a bar at 1 AM is not meaningful in and of itself, but from the virtuous fulfillment behind the situation. There has to be a point, and a virtuous one at that. 2. We are provided opportunities to find both meaning and expedience in life only after we make the worthwhile sacrifices to get there. The only way to find meaning in a night of dancing is if I had a virtuous reason for it, and if I sacrificed previous expedience in order to get to this point.

So, maybe there is a way for both. Maybe it is possible to enjoy the present, while also putting yourself in a position to enjoy the future. They aren’t mutually exclusive. If the meaning in the moment puts you in a situation to find meaning in future moments (instead of jeopardizing future meaning but obtaining it now), then why not have both? Because what is the point of striving to build a better future if you never get to enjoy it?