Are You Swimming or Treading Water?

Are you swimming, or are you just treading water?

If you’re swimming, then you’re going someplace. If you’re treading water, then you’re just waiting to drown.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think that waiting to die is a good way to live.

If your life is going to mean something — to you, at least — it has to be about something beyond itself.

That’s one reason why many people today are so anguished. They’ve been taught since childhood that they’re just animals and that their lives don’t mean anything. They believe that morality, justice, love, and truth don’t really exist. They believe that it’s pointless to strive for knowledge because there are only lies: my lies or your lies, take your pick. It’s pointless to strive for improvement because there’s no better or worse, no good or evil: only savage, amoral brutes fighting over who gets the biggest piece of meat from the prey they just killed.

That’s their vision of life, and it drives them mad. They lose all sense of reality because the reality they see is absolutely unbearable.

But that vision is wrong, and we can do better.

The remedy is to stop treading water. Our lives need to have a goal, a worthy goal that helps people and makes the world a better place.

In previous eras, that goal and moral framework were provided by religion: in the West, mainly Christianity and Judaism. But as our wealthy and faux-educated elites have been progressively seduced by their own delusions of omnipotence and increasingly depraved vices, they’ve rejected the religious, historical, and cultural patrimony that had made both their luxury and our societies possible. They replaced our sacred patrimony with: nothing.

So there’s no longer a default framework that we can use to give our lives meaning and purpose. We have to decide for ourselves. How can we know what goals will make our lives worth living?

Everyone will have his or her own unique answers. But our goals should be:

  • Achievable. Impossible goals are bad not only because they’re a waste of effort, but also because they lead to hopelessness and giving up. It must be at least conceivable that you can achieve your goals. You need not know in advance all the details of how you’ll do it, but you should be able to figure out some general ideas.
  • Specific. Goals should be specific enough for us to know if we’ve achieved them or not. “I want to live in a nice place” is too vague. But if you say, “I want to live in a beach house in Malibu,” it’s easier to know if you’ve achieved your goal.
  • Challenging. Goals that are too easy aren’t inspiring and they’re over too fast. Goals should be possible, but not guaranteed. A little bit of uncertainty provides motivation while you work toward the goal, and increases your satisfaction when you achieve it.
  • Win-win. The best goals are win-win propositions. If you achieve your goal, then that’s great! You won. But win-win goals do a lot of good even if you lose. For example, do you want to qualify for the track team? Then get busy with physical training. Even if you don’t make the team, you’ll be in great shape. That’s an example of a win-win goal.
  • Morally good. The best goals are the ones that help people and make the world a better place. It’s not always easy to know if our goals can achieve those things. But if they increase human happiness and well-being, don’t cause significant harm, and don’t break any obvious moral laws (e.g., “don’t lie,” “don’t murder”), then they’re at least worth considering.

And finally, there’s a big point that’s different for everyone. Your goals should be:

  • Inspiring to you. The best goals for you are those that can stir your heart and move your mind to action. Only those goals can imbue your life with meaning and purpose, drawing you forward to the good place that you see ahead in the distance.

Don’t just tread water: swim. There’s treasure on the far shore that only you can unearth.

P.S. Peripherally relevant: today, October 11, is my college girlfriend’s birthday. She joined a cult, I think because she felt her life lacked meaning. The last time I talked to her, she was still in the cult — 20 years later. The cult gave her a sense of meaning and purpose in life that religion and society had failed to provide. I miss her, but I’m happy that she found what she needed. And as cults go, hers isn’t too bad.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Life, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Are You Swimming or Treading Water?

  1. This post is worth paying attention to.

    Liked by 1 person

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