Saturday, September 15, 2007

Getting Lost

Getting Lost

Everyone, I'm told, has good and bad days, but some people have more of one or the other. The question then is: is the trend up or down? Unless a person is pushed entirely to one side or another, do they even really know where they are?

Here's an example: a man likes tuna sandwiches. Every day at lunch he has one. Around 11:00, he starts thinking of that day's sandwich. At noon he goes to the deli, where they make his sandwich. He eats and it's always the same sandwich, more or less, because he lives in the U.S. and we're pretty good at that kind of consistency. Sometimes the sandwich maker is more or less consistent. Perhaps they are distracted and lay a little heavy on the mayonnaise. Or perhaps the tomatoes are very good and they participate in the salty, watery, unctuous flavor fiesta that is a great cheap deli tuna sandwich.

His experience of the variation in this daily ritual varies according to who he is. Some possible outcomes include:

  • He is vaguely pleased or irritated at the day's sandwich, but five minutes later he has forgotten all about it.
  • The quality of the sandwich means a great deal to him. If it is good, he rises to a euphoria which lasts him until bedtime. If it is not as he likes it, he is plunged into the pit of despair. Perhaps he does not even return to work that day, but instead retreats to his apartment, lies on his couch quietly weeping, and silently curses the steady drone of his neighbor's radio, which is always tuned to an A.M. news channel.
  • He doesn't even notice that he's eating a tuna sandwich at all. Perhaps he only orders the same thing each day out of disinterest. He is either hungry or not. He eats to fulfill an urge.

From his own point of view, can any of these men say whether things are good or bad? Can he dispassionately articulate what his situation is?

People are notoriously bad at evaluating their situation from local information. Irrational Exuberance, by Robert Schiller, mentions studies which suggest that market valuations tend to be bunk because people will frequently value assets according to very local and relative comparisons. The dot boom collapse illustrated this: at the height in 2000, stocks were given insane valuations at over a hundred times earnings because this was "in-line" with other stocks. Never mind that when everything fell, so that to be only 30 time earnings was now reasonable, those very same stocks were still considered to be "fairly priced".

Comparisons are shortsighted and valuations are shallow, and a person's assessment of their own lot and mental state may not be much more accurate. If you have known only tuna sandwiches for lunch, it may never occur to you to eat as a vegetarian. If you live in a filthy city, perhaps you never think to live in the country. If you have spent years having trouble waking up in the morning, or continuously thinking "I suck, I can never do anything," it may seem odd to you that most people don't.

Some conditions appear to have simple solutions. Eating only tuna is easy to correct: eat something else. Living in the city might be easily fixed: move. Knowing that your perspective on reality is excessively high or low, though, how do you know that? If you do, how do you decide how happy happy should be?

How do you know who or what you are when your experience only extends a short distance on time and space?

Sent from my iPhone

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