I like this quote because it affirms my faith that my life will eventually make sense.
Because up until now it’s been a random and disconnected series of events that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the reason this doesn’t completely paralyze me with existential dread is because I trust that I won’t realize the outcome of my self-construction until later, when I can look back and see my decisions as necessary pillars.
Why later? We know that future events give meaning to past ones just by watching a movie with a twist ending, or living long enough to see patterns emerge in ourselves and others that reveal our character. It’s easy to be patient one time, but patience of character shows through consistency, and consistency takes time to show. Similarly when you fight with someone – you will never know if you are in the right, or at the whim of some blind spot – not until or if you show a pattern of the same kind of kind of fight, the same kind of criticism. We can never be sure about much in the way of self-justification as long as the future continues to unfold.
So, I do have faith after all; but it’s in myself. That as long as I keep doing those things I want to keep doing, even if there’s no clear reason why, I will become the person I want to be. I trust that someday I’ll be able to look back and think “oh yeah, that’s why I did that. Because that’s the kind of person I have turned out to be. It didn’t make sense at the time because I was not that person yet, I was only becoming.” And if I never attain that feeling – well, I’ll be too dead to know nothing ever did make sense in the end. It’s like Pascal’s Wager for the self-involved.
So, this quote makes sense to me. I need it to.
The full quote goes like this:
“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”
Well well well, how the meaning has changed. Here he seems to emphasize the “living forward” part as if to remind us that we might forget to do this if we are continually looking backwards for meaning (which he takes for granted as something philosophy “tells us”). But it’s because we are always going forward – and in doing so, constantly changing the meaning of the past – that we can never actually take the position of looking backward from a fixed point where the past’s meaning has been set in stone.
So, where the quote I have always loved suggests life can be understood, the not-shortened version says that it’s impossible. How embarrassing!
I want to mention Steve Jobs’ similar quote, which my original interpretation of this quote might better apply to.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
I take this to also say that you can’t plan the life you’ll have, you can’t predict how you’ll feel, what you’ll do, in any given situation. And if you try – like picking a career path because it seems stable and doing such and such to get there – we will be doomed to dissatisfaction because we aren’t honouring our gut, or whatever.
The questions I have for readers – what “guides” you in your life decisions? Does it feel like a story with no plot or is there a common thread? Does it make more sense looking backward, or are you still working it out? Do you care?