04 March 2011

The Uncertainty of Actualization

Blended Panorama of Sunset at Santa Monica Beach at Lei Out - January 16, 2011
Typical Ti:Sapphire Laser Amplifier
Stage, glowing from 532nm pump
laser light. Image here.
At the time, I didn't know that such a small thing would be the grain of dust in this snowflake. I didn't know that it would be the beginning of much understanding I have come to in the five or so years that have followed. I didn't know, but I am grateful.

A bildungsroman. One of the grad students in the laser lab I worked in during undergrad at CU Boulder kept a single, inconspicuous notecard near the amplifier stage of the laser (see image). The first reading was a fleeting moment: "Abandon Any Hope of Fruition." As my first reaction, I thought, "This is ridiculous." Why would I give up Hope? Why would anyone give up Hope? Isn't Hope imminently positive? Isn't Hope the only thing we have left when nothing else remains? Do I not seek Fruition?

For four years, a splinter in my mind, this phrase worked itself in. Finally, Hope was called into question. Hope is passive, I thought. Hope is lazy. When we focus on what might be, we fail to take the action right now that actualizes the future. When we simply try to do something and hope it works, we incompletely do it. Abandon Hope, I thought. Act deliberately.

So I tried it. I got rid of that weak emotion, Hope. How'd it go? Sometimes, I felt empowered, sometimes it sent me reeling closer to passivity. It was as though Hope was a necessary possible emotional state. I looked the word up. I talked about it. I wrote about it, and made the chart below. Now, I think Faith is a synonym for Hope, but not the reverse. Faith is 100% confidence, a subcategory of Hope; Hope is confident wishfulness or sanguine expectation--not simple passive wishfulness. I think "Abandon Any Hope of Fruition" really means "Abandon Passive Wishes of Fruition," and that is a good lesson. More on that shortly.

A Construct. Much of what follows stems from great conversations and experiences with all sorts of folks over the years, including Casey (who I have mentioned here a few times), Larkin, Aaron, Nolan, Seth, Keely, my Dad, and many others. It has also been spurred onward and upward by Cal Newport's blog, Study Hacks. If you don't know about that blog, go check it out. It will revolutionize your life, perhaps. One particular article there regarding passion (and how it really comes about) helped a lot of these thoughts develop. It re-forged my perception of working hard and finding purpose.

Now, make sure you have a little time to sit and think. Make a cup of tea, sink into a comfy seat, and check this out on your big screen. Some might call this kind of thing axiology, or a moral value theory. Looks like a picture to me:

(c) 2011 Nate Kirchhofer
Concentric shells.
Image obtained here.
As you dance around the hierarchy towards Enlightenment, your worldview gets bigger, encompassing all of the echelons below it, much the way in which I described Faith as a subcategory of Hope earlier. In terms of world view, one useful visualization of this hierarchy might be this: concentric radial shells where each higher echelon in the hierarchy is represented by a larger-diameter shell containing all of the other shells below it (see image). In such a scheme, Skepticism/Negativity is a point at the center, and Fear draws you from this center, from zombie slavery, from inanimate animation, and gives you life. (See poll at left.) Quickly, instinct and luck can slingshot you outward.

Look at it some more.

Think about all those arrows on the chart: as a sentient being, you experience life and metabolize your experiences, retaining salient emotions such as Fear or Faith, which guide you through many actualization transitions over time--sometimes up into Hope, or briefly into Enlightenment, and then sometimes down into Hedonism, or even Innocence, and hopefully not long into Skepticism. Ultimately, the question is, "How do you spend most of your time?" In the past, my observation is that I spent most of my time in passive wishfulness (see red dashed lines). That is, I was positive, but passive, wishing for things rather than making or creating things. Perhaps that's how I still am. I like to think it's lessened. Regardless, that notecard opened my eyes, and I have returned once again, inspired, to the same sentiment, just more developed: Act deliberately. Work hard. Play always. Share happiness. Have Faith. Actualize your potential. 

I just can't yet conceptualize where it leads.

Questions. What is puzzling to me is this: I have the capacity to write down (some of) the qualities and aspects embodied in Enlightenment, but I understand very little of what they are like in practice. That is, I feel like I have good morality, and act from my heart, but I am not particularly "enlightened" at present. What is it like to live love? Find God? Become the best? Truly live with humility? Fully actualize? Live a life worth dying for? It's an issue of interaction time; I don't spend much time in Enlightenment. So, I feel that many of these answers cannot be found right now. Only through experience will they emerge. That is, only through experiences of creating value, and building friendships, and having your ideals ripped away and mashed up and returned back different, does Enlightenment emerge. Indeed, some answers may not be clear until the very end. I am reminded of a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:

"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - RMR, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four, 16 July 1903

I like to think that questions drive us. It's a delightful inquisition, too, when answers yield new understanding and new connections and new questions. We must step forward boldly into the exciting and uncertain future. It's foggy, but beautiful things always seem to pop out of the fog.

A unit right triangle. By the  Pythagorean theorem,
the length of the hypotenuse of this triangle is

= 1.41421356...

and the decimals never end or repeat predictably.
Yet, despite this "infinite" uncertainty, we can
concisely draw the shape and concisely
write the symbol representing the concept.

Image obtained here.
I like to think that Uncertainty is the glue of the universe. The oversoul. God. The thing that connects us all, and tugs at our spirits. Whatever you want to call it. Even the word "Uncertainty" captures the character of the concept. It's an appropriately abstract and formidable Noun. (It also appeals to the physicist in me as an elegant allusion to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, an expression governing the physical properties of the universe.) Think: just as it is paradoxical to write the concise, finite symbol "√2" to represent the square root of 2 (an irrational number--see image), the very writing of the word "Uncertainty" is paradoxical in its concise certainty. (One way to conceptualize this is that writing collapses thought wavefunctions--veritable platonic forms--into digestible language and meaning. The paradox is that uncertainty seems antithetical to meaning, so collapsing the "Uncertainty" platonic form should yield the meaning of no meaning.) And yet, we can still write √2 and have some strong concept of what it means. We can still write "Uncertainty" and think about the meaning of no meaning. Perhaps that is why we can have some strong concept of God.

I am deliberately committed to this moment: Now. There will always be questions, and living them is the point of life, as far as I can tell. Fully living this Uncertainty is tantamount to finding God, living love, actualizing your potential, and living a life worth dying for. The question is how to approach Uncertainty: Fear? Indulgence? Gratitude? Faith? Love?

You decide.


  1. Great description of Enlightenment, I share your point of view on that. Impressive chart by the way. I’d like to share my vague opinion, I feel like love you can experience with one special person to whom you can dedicate part of your life and share your soul, spirit and meaning of life with, that’s a part of living love (I’m young but I can still see things) and love itself is just showing others, people close to you the way you feel about them and letting them know how much you cherish and value them. It may also be showing them the impact they’ve had in your life and how you appreciate it. There are different types of love (but of course you know that). Not being afraid to show what you truly feel/want and take action into doing so by looking at life through others' eyes, can be a step closer into humility. As for living a life worth dying for, as of now, I’d like to measure it by the contribution I do to this world, its people, from saving someone’s life to just having some sort of positive impact in it. It would just be like leaving something to be remembered or missed for, in family, friends or a discovery that affects the world like finding cure for cancer or becoming the best at what I do. Even something simple that changes someone’s life for the good. Living love, happiness, having no fear for giving in and giving all. Maybe I'm just repeating what you previously said, but there's just many ways to approach life (that's one of my ways of approaching it). I'm impressed by yours, great.
    That is my view as of now, we have to give time some time to change our minds and to add answers to the questions of life. GREAT THINKING. Very deep. I'm glad I had you as my TA, very interesting.

  2. you take things in an amazing direction. I have a lot to say about your hierarchy, but I'm going to look it over again, and again, and again first. Thoughts in this moment: I think we find ourselves crossing through many of these boxes every day. How do we stay near the top? but also, How much of our human flaws do we accept? We have a tendancy to bounce down to the bottom every now and then... and sometimes that's ok. Would the top exist without the bottom? Sometimes the magic of the flow is watching the tide come in, and to do that we've got to be left high and dry every once in awhile. Good stuff Shooter!

  3. Beautifully written.

    I'm thinking along the lines of what Larkin said...

    Also. As humans we are very into verbs. Becoming worthy is an action, not a state of being. Hmmm. See? We're so obsessed I can't even use symbols to say it well. Even 'being' is a verb when it doesn't need to be. ha. It appears to me that the symbol of language has come about as a means to describe something by marking change. Nowness doesn't happen when we talk about it. But to talk about it is to understand, maybe, what honesty means. Plus it's fun. But right now it's bothering me, and I dislike that active is valued higher than, say, just plain ol' existing.

    If it's okay I'll drop my take on 'abandon all hope of fruition'--

    Make peace with failure? I suppose, as a scientist, this is something that helps avoid veins popping out and such without speaking to or judging the effort involved in failing...

    I love your brain. And your sweet face. Keep chugging. We shall speak more.

  4. Well written, good friend. I enjoy your take on uncertainty. How to live enlightenment? Work for it. You've managed to identify aspects of the path, now it takes hard work to actualize it, right? And of course, the best way to approach uncertainty: faith and gratitude ;)