The Concept of Experience

The Meaning of Life I

The Oulaf’s Picnic
Bushwick Farms, The Oulaf’s Picnic, 2003. Courtesy of the Bushwick Farms Family Archive.

So many conditions conspire to make life intolerable. A life is too short. You only get one of them. You find, living among other people, that every person has his own life, visible and desirable, and you can’t enter it; true as well for other lives past and future.

Cursed you seem, in certain moods. You are a man and not a woman, or a woman and not a man. You were born one person rather than two, or many. You are alive now instead of then. The morbid person knows he was born to die, but even the short time until the end he doesn’t know how to fill. The optimist says we were born for life, and in solitary hours fears he doesn’t live. Looking around at the dumb show, you see events flying past and can’t close on anything solid. Memory floats you back to days that will never be repeated, letting you know you didn’t appreciate them when they occurred. You move behind the time, like a clock continually losing seconds, and despair.


The problem is experience; specifically, a concept of experience that gives us the feeling we are really living, but makes us unsatisfied with whatever life we obtain.

Our acceptable philosophy is eudaemonistic hedonism. It says: we act, and choose, and react, by an insatiable hunger for pleasure, and this is to be adjusted, very reasonably, by an educated taste for happiness.

Happiness is a vague bliss. Sunny and sociable, it considers the well-being of family and friends, while ordinary pleasure is immediate and private. If you say, “I live for happiness,” no one will challenge you, since everyone is assured of the crumbs from your meal. The flaw of this philosophy, however, is that neither happiness nor pleasure can be put into reality directly. The pursuit of happiness has to enter occurrence, and raw occurrence can’t be saved or savored. Pleasure, like pain, will be unmemorable if it exists only as immediate sensation. Neither an orgasm nor the pains of childbirth can be recalled as feeling when you’re not undergoing them. So we learn to ask ourselves what it was like when the encounter or shock of sensation took place. You monitor the inward influence of occurrences as you undergo them, ruminating an interior object, something that can be brought up, later, to release a musty whiff of pleasure; or chewed again, to test if it’s “the real thing,” life; or digested some more to see if it will yield some elusive nutriment of happiness.

The new object is called “experience,” in the word’s most modern sense. Experience is directly attainable. It is definite and cumulative, when happiness is ambiguous and pleasure evanescent.

Any question of “the meaning of life” is usually raised as a joke. But some urge compels us to answer. “What am I living for?” The mistake commonly in our answers is that they project only a what and don’t spell out a how. A monk said, “I live for God”; a modern says, “for happiness.” But the meaning of life always comes down to a method of life. Sometimes the method follows from the goal, as religious obedience followed a God who paid attention. Often we don’t know how we are living.

Face-to-face with the shortcomings of more respectable goals, we have turned large tracts of our method of life over to experience—unwittingly. Even where life appears to be lived for happiness, it is lived by and through experience. We see our lives as a collection of experiences: “the day I met those people at that party”; “the night I lost my virginity”; “the feeling I had as a tourist in Paris”; or “when I stood at the lake in the woods.” These snow globes and beach rocks can be held onto, compared, and appraised for quality. You put them on the shelf, and take them down; or lie awake at night, just wondering at them. They come with stories, and you put forward your experiences as rivals to the experiences others can tell. We become lifelong collectors, and count on fixed mementos to provide the substance of whatever other aims we may declare, when asked, are our real goals or reasons to live.

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