How Do We Talk to Others?: Wittgenstein and Language-Games

What does it mean “to speak to another human being”? That is, what does it mean to convey something using sounds-words to another? Is it even possible to convey anything for that matter? Moreover, if one were to assume that X were being conveyed from Person A to Person B, how would Person A go about verifying that X, in fact, were accurately conveyed? If you have ever wondered about human language and communication, rest assured, you have company: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, too, thought about such things. In this paper, I will consider Wittgenstein’s contributions to the philosophy of language, or, as some would have it, his work on “ordinary language.” While it is beyond the scope of this paper to thoroughly deal with Wittgenstein’s continually developing ideas, paradoxes, etc., it is the hope of this writer to help make Wittgenstein’s ideas palatable to the general public. I hope the teenager reading this learns something about the apparent subjectivity of much human language; I hope the college student reading this walks away with a better appreciation of Wittgenstein and a better understanding of his relevance for practical living. After all, we all use language on a daily basis. We all attempt to convey things with it—be they emotions, commands, facts, etc.—without taking the necessary time to think about what it is that goes on when two human beings (a) share a common language; (b) share a common human body with common sensory apparatuses; and (c) attempt to convey something to the Other using sounds and words (i.e., language). In a nutshell, this paper is just a modest attempt at understanding human language and communication.

Wittgenstein’s famous collection of notes taken by his students at Cambridge during the years 1933-34—the so-called “Blue Book”—begins by asking, “What is the meaning of a word?”[1] Even before one begins addressing this question, Wittgenstein went even further: What does it even mean to produce a “meaning of the word”? That is, Wittgenstein is asking what a definition of a word would even look like. What makes a definition acceptable to the general public? Who or what determines that such-and-such a definition is providing us with meaning regarding a particular, singular word? For example, one could theorize that there are, at least, two ways of providing a meaningful definition of a word: the verbal and the ostensive definitions. The verbal definition merely uses other words to describe the particular word we are trying to define (e.g., one defines the word “to hate” by appealing to the dictionary and saying that it means “to dislike some person intensely”).[2] The ostensive definition, on the other hand, is pointing us to something objective (e.g., in ostensively defining the color “red,” a teacher may show her students a red apple and, pointing to it, say, “This is what I mean when I say ‘red.’”). The point Wittgenstein is making here is relatively straightforward: if we are using an ostensive definition we have a word, such as “red,” and we have something objective it refers to—for example, the word refers to a red-patch that reflects a particular light wave-length that stimulates certain photoreceptors in our retina producing a subjective psychical state in our cerebrums that, it is assumed, is shared by most (all?) human beings who are able to perceive color.

But there is a problem even with this ostensive defining of a word. How do we learn that our subjective experience of the color red is actually what our teacher means when she says, “This is ‘red’”? Here Wittgenstein gets into the problem of learning and understanding a language.

Wittgenstein lucidly reveals the problem of communicating using a human language when he discusses learning a language by “ostensive defining.” For example, if I wanted to teach someone that a pencil was called a “pencil,” and I pointed to a pencil and said, “pencil,” how does the listener know that what I am trying to convey is that the thing in front of me (e.g., the entire pencil) is called a “pencil”? Isn’t it possible that the listener would associate “pencil” with “wood”? Maybe the listener would associate the word “pencil” with “round” instead (as pencils are, usually, in fact, round!). Wittgenstein writes regarding several possible interpretations that may arise after such a lesson. The student may interpret your pointing at a pencil and saying “pencil” to mean the following: (1) This is a pencil; (2) This is round; (3) This is wood; (4) This is one; (5) This is hard, etc., etc.[3]

We haven’t even begun defining a word ostensively and we’ve already run into the problem of learning a language. If, in fact, ostensive definitions are the way to go when trying to make sense of human communication and language, how is it that even when we are learning the language, it seems that rules are already in play here too? That is, it seems that the class of students learning the word “pencil” already have some idea of what it means to learn the meaning of a word! Where does such meaning come from? Or, to ask the same question differently, where do the students get this notion of learning a language in such a way? Why is it not the case that more students would hear “pencil” and interpret it to mean “the thing in front of me that appears round shall from henceforth be known to me as ‘pencil’”? Why is it that a large portion of the class already inherently seems to know what it means to learn a language and, hence, what the process looks like when learning the word “pencil”?

“If we are taught the meaning of the word ‘yellow’ by being given some sort of ostensive definition [in this case, ostensive means something like “denoting a way of defining by direct demonstration, e.g., by pointing”] (a rule of the usage of the word) this teaching can be looked at in two different ways: (A). The teaching is a drill. This drill causes us to associate a yellow image, yellow things, with the word ‘yellow.’ Thus when I gave the order ‘Choose a yellow ball from this bag’ the word ‘yellow’ might have brought up a yellow image, or a feeling of recognition when the person’s eye fell on the yellow ball. The drill of teaching could in this case be said to have built up a psychical mechanism. This, however, would only be a hypothesis or else a metaphor. We could compare teaching with installing an electric connection between a switch and a bulb. The parallel to the connection going wrong or breaking down would then be what we call forgetting the explanation, or the meaning, of the word…[I]t is the hypothesis that the process of teaching should be needed in order to bring about these effects. It is conceivable, in this sense, that all the processes of understanding, obeying, etc., should have happened without the person ever having been taught the language; (B). The teaching may have supplied us with a rule which is itself involved in the processes of understanding, obeying, etc.: ‘involved,’ however, meaning that the expression of this rule forms part of these processes…”[4]

Two options are offered us by Wittgenstein when it comes to learning a language: (1) the process of learning a language comes about by a process of “drilling” (as in example A above); or (2) it comes about via a process of learning “rules” (as in example B above). But drilling seems to have its own issues (such as learning the word “pencil”). Moreover, learning rules also has its problems. If learning a language means learning the rules of that particular language, then what do its rules look like? Wittgenstein examines rules also.

Wittgenstein understood language as being comparable to a game. In order to play in a game, one must know which words refer to which objects (for example, in chess, you may need to know that the piece which looks like a horse is known by the word “knight”) [here one can recall the “ostensive definition”]. But that’s not all: in order to play the game, one must also know the rules of the game. And, moreover, one must recognize that one is playing a game. For Wittgenstein, much like the game of chess, languages took on a form of life—they were very complex and were deeply interwoven into the community using it. In several of his aphorisms found in Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein shed some light on this particular issue of language-games and, moreover, what he even meant by “game.”

 

Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations—For someone might object against me: “You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language. And this is true—Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all ‘language.’ I will try to explain this.

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games.’ I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear…I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”… (§ 65-7).

Wittgenstein is saying that language-games are not necessarily bound to strict, calculus-like rigid rules; instead, language-games have a very complex, living sort of life to them. The ways we use words are akin to the ways we play games. There are certain rules that have definite boundaries, but these rules, themselves, seem to have something almost indefinable about them. For example, we cannot really reduce the word “game” to any one thing. As Wittgenstein showed us, the word “game” seems to relate to us that there are certain things we call “games” which share certain characteristics, but do not share all of them. Much like a son who looks like his father (sharing a “family resemblance”) but not being reduced to his father.

Wittgenstein suggests that to learn a language, to know a language, is really to practice the language in a life-setting. That is, in order to be fluent in a given language, one has to understand the multifarious relationships that are going on between single words, their referents, possible nuances, etc. Maybe the word “water” coming from the lips of my lover means, “Please bring me some water.” But, in another context, maybe her shouting “Water!” means, “The water in your cup, which you are about to consume, is poisoned!” (That is, “Please don’t drink the water!”) The word “water” itself is not merely reduced to a single concept (for example, H2O). The word cannot be understood apart from an intricate web of relationships which Wittgenstein calls a language’s “form of life.” This is why Wittgenstein would go so far as to say, “You learned the concept of ‘pain’ in learning a language.”[5] What he means is that even though pain is subjective, the entire relationship created between the word “pain” and your subjective experience is mediated by culture. You were taught what it means to be in pain. You were taught what to do when in pain. Another example. Let’s look at the concept of “love.” While many could persuasively argue that love is a subjective state of mind (or a subjective “feeling”), Wittgenstein would quickly point out how insufficient this view of love really would be. For example, is it not true that in order for you to communicate love to, let’s say, Juliet, you would need to communicate it within a context created and sustained by a community which shares your language? If the community says that love is expressed by the sending of red roses to the object of your affections, isn’t that more than just a subjective state? Doesn’t love, then, transcend the prison of your own subjectivity?

While it is true that you cannot empirically verify that another person is, in fact, experiencing exactly what you are experiencing when you say, “I am in pain,” nonetheless, because of all the associations we make with being in pain (such as a grimace, a screech, a high pulse rate, etc.) [notice that such associations are objective and can be verified], it is reasonable for us to assume that when someone else says that they are in pain—and they appear to be—that they are, in fact, in pain. Why? Because even the concept of pain was taught to us by the community! That is, even while we were young, we were told that when we feel “pain” we should make a frown, call in sick, and act “down.” In other words, our expression of pain—the way it is lived out within a community—is itself already defined by the community (hence not being completely “subjective”).

“It is for this reason that our mental words must be, as they are, connected with features of our situation which anyone can in principle observe. Every inner process must have its outward criteria…Statements about pain in the first person, Wittgenstein says, are in fact extensions of natural pain-behavior, conventionalized alternatives to crying out which we are trained to adopt. They are not so much descriptions of pain but manifestations of it.”[6]

So how do we know when someone is really in pain? Are there rigid rules for this? Is there a list of “requirements” that must be met? Or, to speak of something more existential, is there a list of requirements that would help us distinguish “those who are really in love” from “those who are not [really in love]”? “[I]n general we don’t use language according to strict rules—it hasn’t been taught us by means of strict rules, either.”[7] Wittgenstein is well aware that humans don’t normally use extremely rigid rules when learning a language, participating in a language, etc. So where does this leave us? If language can’t be rigidly reduced to a formula—something one can do in math—what happens to exactness and certainty in language? Well, it seems that certainty cannot be found even in language. We simply lack the tools, the environment, the brainpower to convey things, understand things, accurately every time and always.

In the end, one is left engaging with a language within its own boundaries. The point may be simply to be conscious of these facts, to be conscious of language-games. Being conscious of the plethora of ways in which we deploy words may help us attempt to speak in a lucid and clear manner. Maybe, at times, we may even throw in a definition of a word in the hopes that the definition may betray the language-game from which we are speaking…

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations,” trans. Rush Rhees (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 1.

[2] But such “verbal definitions” may get caught up in a circular argument. For example, one is then forced to define what it means to “dislike” someone “intensely.” After looking those words up, and discovering other words (such as, “aversion,” “loathing,” “hatred”) one, immediately, finds that “to dislike” someone is defined by “hating” someone; and “hating” someone is defined as “disliking” someone! In the end, the verbal definition takes us nowhere: we go from vacuously arguing about words by appealing to other words, which are then re-appealing back to the initial word we set out to define! To bring to the fore the logical positivist arguments of the 1930s’ Vienna Circle, the only words that are “meaningful” are words that could be ostensively defined by having an objectively existing referent.

[3] Ibid., 2. Note: This paragraph was taken virtually wholesale from the Wikipedia page Blue and Brown Books; however, I wrote the section in Wikipedia anyhow.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), 125.

[6] A. M. Quinton, “Excerpt from ‘Contemporary British Philosophy,’” in Wittgenstein, The Philosophical Investigations: A Collection of Critical Essays, Modern Studies in Philosophy, ed. George Pitcher (London: University of Notre Dame, 1968), 20.

[7] Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, 25.

%22There Are No Existentialists Here%22

“There Are No Existentialists Here”

It’s a Friday night and I’m stuck at a twenty-four hour Starbuck’s drinking coffee with a crowd of young earthlings between the ages of sixteen and thirty. I had recently moved “down South” from Washington state to Atlanta, Georgia. Here I was a thoroughbred northerner stuck in the self-deprecating, yes-ma’am-ing, door-opening, deep-fried South.

I moved here to attend graduate school at Emory University. Rumor had it that Emory was a good place to be, especially considering the fact that, relative to the south, it was a darn good school. So there I was—young, energetic, and full of life—aching to discuss “the big questions.” I was, after all, obtaining a master’s in “theological studies.” That is, I was essentially studying God (whatever the hell that meant).

But my youthful naiveté would soon meet its life-sucking Count Dracula. I would soon come to discover that the people in the South, as a general rule, didn’t really care about the big questions. In fact, they were permanently disinterested in thinking about them. I even suspect that they don’t even know that such questions exist. Take one such question—what is the meaning of your life?—for brief consideration. I asked this youthful bunch to think about that while they sipped their almost-deep-fried, double-shot Crème brûlée latte. I then waited like a cat hunting a mouse for a response. But it never came.

Somewhere amidst all of the important topics filling the discussion like hot air balloons at a two-year-olds birthday party, my mere mention of “meaning” got lost. It was never heard amongst all of the bells and whistles.

You see, being the generous soul that I am, I, quite naturally, assumed that my question must have never tickled a single soul’s eardrum. So I sputtered out the dying remains of this existentially unnerving question. Like its previous contender, the question fell on deaf ears.

Having said all that, I think the people here are quite happy-go-lucky. I mean, they are so enamored of themselves that they never ask big questions. Or, maybe, they are so thoroughly enjoying life that they don’t have time for such petty things as “meaning.” Come on, who cares about “meaning” (what’s that?) when you’re having the best time of your life?

Well, that was somewhere around “month one” in Atlanta. I had something like two years to spend here, so I decided that, contrary to my subjective opinion, Atlanta might prove me wrong. There was, after all, still time.

The months turned into seasons—summer came and went—and I failed to meet a person who thinks about thinking. (I ended up meeting one such soul, contrary to my previous sentence, but he was originally from Boston. And to which, in due time, his soul returned happily again.)

His name was Andrei. He was a philosopher at heart. He studied cognitive psychology at Penn State; prior to that, he did his undergraduate work in classical piano. We talked about a lot of things—music, people, public opinion, etc.—and then we came upon that most touché of subjects: the meaning of it all.

Andrei brought up a funny anecdote that stuck. We were having dinner together—I was sipping a Moscato and he was drinking chardonnay—when we began discussing the philosophy of language (it’s practically impossible to find people in the South, amidst the general public, who would be familiar with the subject, much less able to hold a discussion). As I told Andrei my views on God and His/Her/Its ability to communicate meaningfully to us, Andrei related his own concerns. “When I was at Penn State, all of the psychology graduate students used to wonder how philosophers and theologians would speak and write about God. We’d sit together and discuss in utter amazement how these guys could imagine that they knew what they were talking about. Here we were trying to figure out how the human mind was able to perceive a ‘cup’ as a ‘cup,’ and these guys were writing dissertations on God!” “Look at this cup,” he continued, as he pointed at a cup in front of him. “It’s different from this other cup here. This one doesn’t have a handle on it. It’s a different color. It’s made from a different material. How does our mind still classify both of these very different objects as belonging to the category of ‘cup’?”

            I understood Andrei’s point because I, too, wondered; I, too, lived asking similar questions. How do we know—almost intuitively—that something is a cup? Here I was trying to speak about a Being I’ve never met, using words I never did understand (infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.)—and yet, I never even got past grade school; I never solved the problem of cup-ness.

How could we speak of “meaning” when we have a hard time understanding cup-ness? How could we use such abstract nouns, when even basic nouns still evaded us? We could pretend to discuss “the meaning of life”—and use such abstract nouns no one has access to like “morality,” “goodness,” and “end-goal”—but we’ll only go as far as cup-ness will take us. And that’s really not that far.

Let’s go back to the cup dilemma for a second. The problem with the cup—as we seen it—has far-reaching implications. If one were to set out to define what it means for an object to be a “cup,” one would have to demarcate certain lines, that is, create certain criteria that would have to be met when someone would be defining a cup. For example, one might say that a cup must be able to hold a liquid and be circular. What about cups that are square? One might qualify the statement and add that cups may not necessarily be circular/round. What about cups that don’t hold liquids well? For example, what if the ceramic cup is cracked? Is it still a cup? If not, what is it?…

We never were able to define “cup” in such a way that would enable us to include every cup that had ever existed—and would exist—in all human history. We were unable to come up with a definition for “cup-ness.” In other words, when asked to define “cup,” us educated folk were left stuttering…

Like a session during a smoke and mirrors magic show, the whole idea of a “cup” kept evading us. It was here for a second, there for a second—then it was completely gone. Like an illusive term in a Wittgensteinian language-game, the cup never materialized enough for us to grasp it, for us to drink from its waters.

Empty we came, and thirsty we left.

“There are no cups here.”

But on a more serious note, when Andrei moved—and I realized I hadn’t had dinner with a friend in months—I wrote my professor-friend from undergrad. He was glad to hear that I was alive and well. He was glad to hear that I was reading Kierkegaard. But then something tragic happened. After he asked me to tell him how I was doing—and I had texted him a summary of my experience in Atlanta—I made the following concluding remark in my text message: “This place lacks existentialists.”

He replied: “Easily one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a text.”

It’s a heart-breaking moment when your professor-friend tells you that noticing the fact that existentialists are missing is important. It’s a good thing to read that someone still tracks existentialists—for it suggests that there is still someone existential enough to notice!

The situation, in retrospect, is much more dire than initially observed. This place doesn’t just lack existentialists: they have gone extinct.

Somewhere along the journey to Hell, I bet there’s a post that reads:

“There are no existentialists here.”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 

Juliette (Yuriy Ku Watercolor)

The Ethics of Dating: Modern Inter-Sex Relationships and Some Advice from an Existentialist

 

The dating scene has become something which late night talk shows and psychologists discuss on a daily basis. With so much talk going on, I thought I’d get onboard and tell you what you’ve all already heard. Well, actually, I’m not sure that will be the case. I hope to offer some advice, which, I hope, may actually be somewhat idiosyncratic. Having said that, I also must restrain any potential surprise by saying that I’m probably not going to say anything too radical. And, as a heads up, I’ll use as few words as possible. Here I go.

Honesty

The first ethical premise I defend in relationships has to be that most foundational of principles: honesty. You’ve probably heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, be yourself. Be honest to those around regarding who you are, how you feel, and what your justifications are. Expect the Other to be honest, too. If everyone lied, we’d not be able to even ask what time it is without getting confused. So, please stay honest in your relationship. If you don’t want to discuss something, be honest and say, “I am uncomfortable discussing this at this point due to X, Y, and Z.” It’s okay to be honest and say, “I simply can’t discuss this with you, babe, at the moment.” It’s okay. We’ll appreciate the honesty. Sure, maybe it’ll leave us searching for answers, feeding our curiosity, but, in my experience, relationships usually fair well with some mystery. An element of surprise doesn’t kill a relationship based on truth and honesty.

Virtually all humans, if not all, want to know and be known. In order for us to know, we must know things that are true. If my attempt is to know a girl named Lily, it would help me if she is being honest about who she is, what she enjoys, what her dreams are, etc. My subjective construction of Lily—who she is, what she likes, what she believes—consists of data. What kind of data? That data could be her body language, verbal content, emotional reactions, moods, her general approach towards life (that is, how does she treat the world on a daily basis?), etc. Already, as a human being incapable of experiencing anything but my own feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc., I am limited as to what I imagine the Other feeling and thinking. I am imprisoned to my subjectivity. This makes all my evaluations of the Other very tentative. (In fact, I’m epistemically agnostic across the epistemic spectrum.) Since I cannot experience what Lily is thinking—I have no access to that—all I can do is take her at her word. If she tells me that she is excited to see me, I simply must accept that datum—the thing she told me—as being true. If she honestly is tired, exhausted, and bored at the moment, it may be better for her to tell me, “Let’s do this another time.” Given the fact that most of us create all kinds of associations on a daily basis, if I associate golf with Lily’s happiness—even though she isn’t really “happy” to play golf with me—this may contribute to difficulties later on in the relationship. We associate things all the time. Because of our nature—we look for cause and effect everywhere (that is, we try to associate anything we come into contact with with something else)—it is imperative that we be honest and allow others to have honest and truthful feedback. I’m giving a lecture on honesty because, frankly, people aren’t honest. Even I am not honest at times. I try to be. However, the shitty human in all of us some days gets the best of us.

Lucidity

The second ethical premise I defend is: lucidity. What do I mean by “be lucid”? It’s actually very much related to being honest: if you’re interested in someone for X reason, tell him or her you’re interested in them for X reason. There’s really no need to beat around the bush. We have no time for that. For example, I once worked with a fellow nurse whom I liked. We exchanged numbers. And then nothing happened. We talked about the weather, her sunroof, good places to eat, and her grandma. When I received texts from her, I would literally get bored. Instantly. “Why the hell were we talking about her sunroof,” I asked myself one day. So I sat her down and asked her to tell me what drives her. I asked her to relate to me what gives her life meaning. In other words, “What do you live for? If you were to live for another year only, how would you spend it?” I asked her some deep shit. Because I cared about her and about myself. I didn’t want to waste her time, neither did I want her wasting mine. If we didn’t see eye-to-eye when it came to core values (for example, I’m very conservative when it comes to sexual relations [no need for me to elaborate]), how the hell would we make it work? But before I could even contemplate such a thing, I need to know what the hell your core values are. And stop feeding me your bullshit “I had a cheeseburger at X restaurant last night” lines! Seriously. We’re not here to discuss cheeseburgers and sunroofs. We could do that for like one second. After that, tell me why you didn’t commit suicide last night. What prevented you? What does your heart ache after? Those are the things I want to know. Expose yourself.

I was recently involved in several bullshit exchanges with the opposite sex. Goddamn! I can’t tolerate the mediocre and the mundane. Drive me up the wall with philosophy, civil rights, whatever, just don’t bore me with platitudes. It, to be blunt, annoys me.

I have the bad habit of valuing my time. I am the guy sitting on the toilet reading three books at once. I cannot even begin to fathom what sort of unproductive waste of time it would be for me to simply not think. I don’t have the time for not-thinking. (I’ll do that when I’m dead.) And then along comes this girl whom I find attractive. I love to spend time with her and such, but she bores me with the mediocre. And so I call it quits. Seriously, bare your soul to me, lady. I’m not leaving until I see you nude. Really nude. That’s some real nudity for you. I want to see your soul bare before me, way before I see your nipples. Please, do enlighten me.

So, in other words, be lucid with one another. Speak your mind. Don’t waste your time or someone else’s. Trust me, when you’re dying, you’ll not regret having read that.

Finitude

The third concept is foundational for all human behavior, including the ethical: we all are finite creatures. This is directly related to lucidity, as we shall come to find out. Because we only have X amount of time for Y, we have to make decisions and judgments—and sometimes our judgments are prematurely made. In fact, in a perfect world, for any given action, I would demand eternity. I would demand to have an infinite amount of time to think about my action, why I would act, in which way, how it would affect those around me, and every possible outcome from the aforementioned action. I think that in such a world I would make little mistakes. Imagine the divorce rate. “Wait, what divorce rate are you talking about?” What would happen if I could take my fiancé out for dinner three billion times before marrying her. We’d probably have each other figured out. We’d probably know all the idiosyncrasies, the things that set us off, etc.

But we don’t have eternity.

Now think about this: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the Internet, and Match.com have screwed us all over. They have increased our options by infinity while not increasing our lifespan. I now have three million Katherine McNamaras to choose from. But in a short span of time—roughly between the ripe ages of 18-30—I have to figure out with whom to mate, with whom to raise a family, etc. But my time is still very finite.

Take Billy Joe, for example. Back in the sixties, he came from a small town of five thousand. There were two hundred girls his age. He was ugly and dumb, so that increased the pool to two hundred fifty candidates (for marriage). Now most of these girls he had probably never spoken to. Most likely, he spent time with something like 20-30 of them. He could spend a year getting to know each girl after the age of 18. Since there are thirty, and Billy became wiser with age, he decided to spend a year with every individual girl. He really wanted to be fair when deciding whom to marry; he wanted to give every girl a chance. So at eighteen he dated Mary for a year. By the year’s end, ten of the other girls became engaged and five became married. Billy realized he was now stuck with Mary. He became ambivalent. Moreover, he nurtured his attraction to Liza and dumped Mary. After dumping Mary and dating Liza for a year, he realized she wasn’t worth his time. By now all the girls had gotten married. Five had gotten divorced. About ten became pregnant. And, amidst this existential crisis, Billy Joe realized that Mary was his favorite one. But, there was now a problem, since time didn’t stop: she had become engaged to his friend, Mark. So, despite everything that had happened, Billy had no choice but to live with his now-pregnant ex-girlfriend, Liza. And that’s what life looks like for most of us. We spend our elderly years in a rotting rocking chair regretting “the one who got away.”

The point of the funny anecdote is this: time doesn’t wait for us. You don’t have all year long to make decisions. And, of course, that means you’ll probably marry someone you will divorce. That’s life. Accept it. It’s not you, really. It’s your finitude. I’m at a point in my own life where I probably should be dating someone with the hopes of marriage in the next couple of years. I am getting old. It’s a fact of life. And nothing has happened as of yet. (Which is why I am still writing about dating at such a “dirty” age! Not!) But the fact remains: we all are running out of time. Time is such a beautiful thing. We don’t have enough of it. I really wish we had. Please spend your time with the person you love, in an honest manner, being completely lucid and bare. Yes, don’t forget to bare your soul!

 

With love,

Moses Y. Mikheyev