February 5, 2010

Defining the tick marks on your life line

I wrote this last March, and forgot about it until the other day. Thought it deserved a migration from notes:

I was sifting through my notes early this morning and came across a few sentences scrawled in the margin, just a random snippet that, at the moment, I thought was worth jotting down: Life has two definite, unavoidable points that we all share in common – birth and death. I drew a number line and put tick marks at the beginning and end of that line, then habitually filled in tick marks between without even thinking about why or what purpose they would serve.

The birth and death marks are certain. But what do the tick marks in the center represent? Why are they uniformly distributed? If I’m to carry this metaphor beyond its simplistic, trite “meaning” (going against my usual distaste for life analogies using mathematical or scientific models), then those tick marks are what distinguish us from one another.

How would you categorize your life so far if you were forced to work within a space of birth and death? How would you use the tick marks between to organize the events in your life? My first incarnation of the number line marked events evenly, and I suspect many people could organize things by year or half year or some other time interval (like a history timeline, which actually wasn’t on my mind since the ends are not as clear). I think time is important as the space between the beginning and end, but it’s not adequate to define the scope of our life experiences.

It’s interesting to think of the organizational possibilities. I think some people would choose to organize by major events in their lives – high school, college, work, marriage, kids, divorce, death of family, etc. I suppose when it comes down to it, this is an organization by relationships, which makes a lot of sense. We’re all stuck with each other and most of the deep impressions made on me in my life were either given by people or observed in them.

I think “theme” (probably a misleading term) would be an interesting way of looking at your life, albeit a bit dramatic perhaps. If themes were your tick marks, I doubt that a traditional number line would be sufficient. It would have to branch, or create some sort of web in order to connect and represent links from different events in time that exemplify the particular theme. There could be a progression through your life if the theme changes, or if you change your perception of it.

I’m being vague. Let’s take addiction as an example of a theme. We all have instances of addiction in our lives to different substances or people or ideas and each of them could be detailed through time but connected in a structured system, annotated with its importance and relation to other themes (like sex or moving or music or work). Some people conquer certain addictions, some do not. Your relationship with addiction changes over time. I think that could also be represented somehow connected to other themes or events along the way.

Most of my life so far has been separated by place more than anything in my mind, so I think that would be my first inclination. I’ve moved around quite a bit in the past eight years. Each place has its own defining feel, and the events that happen within a certain time period can be directly associated with that place and the people within that place.

The most fascinating part of these “number lines” is how they could interact with others in compilation. Think of how immensely complex the interaction could be if they were even marginally detailed. One event that was relatively minor and forgettable in someone’s life could be a profound turning point for another. Think of something as huge as the inauguration of President Obama or the World Series, events where Important Things are happening and even more important things are happening internally or between a couple or a few within the tens of thousands in the stadium or park.

I imagine one of those “world at night” maps that show the concentrations of artificial light. A giant event filled with interaction would be as tangled and bright as the NYC or Baltimore/DC metro areas. In reality, I’m sure it would work out much differently than I imagine, but in reality it would never work out. Proper treatment is beyond our capabilities, of course, but it’s a thought that’s akin to my feelings about life at the subcellular level or the universe in a cosmological sense.

This isn’t some self-help or new age exercise. It goes no deeper than what it is; I’m just brushing the surface of a thought that struck me and putting it somewhere it can be digested.

1 comment:

  1. ChemBob2:29 PM

    Very interesting post. You are thinking backwards through life's "bush." I think of it as rather distinct milestones or branches in life, when I ponder the past; sometimes (often, usually) those branches are one way, no going back to the way things were. Going forward, I often use mindmapping software to plan, both for what/where I'd like to accomplish in the future for personal life as well as for my specific projects as an environmental consultant. They usually end up being pretty "bushy" (much like a phylogenetic cladistics diagram) and it can be frustrating trying to decide where to draw the line on detail, just as you address for your life "number line." Good post, got me thinking.