The Law of Subtraction


Not to be confused with the “Law of Attraction,” the concept peddled by the best-selling self-help New Age book and film, The Secret:  the idea that, if you just want something hard enough—“I think I can, I think I can”–it will eventually come into your life.  Taken at a literal level, of course, this is plainly stupid and easy to mock.  But the book wouldn’t be so successful if it didn’t contain a kernel of truth.  The message resonates with people because it taps into a brute and basic psychological truth:  that people who are generally open and optimistic will generally attract other people and opportunities that will generally get them what they want and where they want to go.  It’s not a law of gravity, but a pragmatic strategy to help us navigate life.

One other such strategy is what we might call the Law of Subtraction.  We can come at this concept by defining it in terms of what it’s not:  the Law of Addition, which rules our lives more often than not.  What is the Law of Addition?

In his classic book, The Lorax, Dr. Suess described the plight of the Lorax, the last of a species endangered by the steamrollers of industrialization and development.  Suess was taking aim at what he saw to be a corrosive attitude creeping into the post-World War II affluent American society:  “biggering.”

Just as the forces of “biggering” threatened to crowd out, colonize, and consume the wild spaces of the world, today the forces of “moring” jeopardize the sacred space of solitude.  Forge more connections.  Gain more skills.  Earn more credentials.  Make more money.  Add more value.  Assume more responsibilities.  Buy more stuff.

Look at your desk.  Look at your inbox.  Look, for heaven’s sake, at your browser tabs.  Look at your calendar; your Netflix cue; your text messages.  Do you see a pattern starting to emerge?

The problem with moring, as we all intuitively know, is that it is futile. Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation”—the more of a stimulus we consume or expose ourselves to, the less stimulating it becomes, and hence the more stimulation we need.  Put another way:  moring is boring.  But it is a clue that can lead us to the problem of freedom in the modern age.

The basic problem of life is survival, and the basic problem of modern life is choice.  The great delusion of modern life is that this problem can be solved by maximizing options (this as the means toward the presumed end of maximizing utility or “pursuing happiness”).  We are, as some have put it, “choicesters”:  we love having choices, but hate having to choose, and we see the world as our oyster.  Ultimately, this tricks us into thinking we no longer have to choose—that we can “have it all”—and that having it all, whatever that might mean, would in fact sate us.  The irony is that it was the very privation, scarcity, the shackles of natural necessity that made the leap to freedom possible in the first place, that challenged us to grow and reach and strive and overcome our natural limits, the evolutionary Eros that motored us up out of Eden.

In modern consumer culture, however, freedom strikes us more and more as a burden rather than a boon.  We tend to associate freedom with creativity, play, and space; yet the deluge of options and choices that confront us every day presents more as work, as a task, a constant, dizzying, infinite influx of information that confounds our senses of priorities, orientation, and self.  Consumption is typically contrasted with work and conceived as a form of leisure, but if we are honest with ourselves, it proves to be a taxing business indeed.

Perhaps the fundamental error of modern life—the misstep on which is based the better part of self-imposed, first-world suffering—is this false form of freedom: the negative freedom of a lack of limits, what Hegel called a bad infinity.  Such freedom seeks the absence of limits, obstacles, friction, sacrifice, structure, and suffering.  Such freedom is at odds with reality, and can only define itself in opposition; indeed, it is fundamentally odd in the sense that it will never attain the balance and integration it claims to seek.  So long as we conspire to get even with reality, as though it had done us some great evil, we will remain perfectly odd:  a remainder, a fraction, struck and frozen like an unfinished division problem.

True freedom—again, as we intuitively know but practically deny—only happens within and because of limits.  Limits—structures, boundaries, contexts, institutions, orders—confer clarity, focus, and orientation.  The thrashing and drama of the little ego always only plays out against the background, the stage, of a broader story; and so long as that structure remains submerged in darkness, the ego will never know its true shape.  For true freedom is impossible without the acceptance of fate.  We need not construe fate as sheer determinism, as the antithesis of freedom and a cause for pessimism; indeed, fate would only appear this way from the perspective of the tyrannical ego that “wants it all.”  Rather, accepting fate involves the recognition of the limits and finitude and shortness of life; the acceptance, in other words, of reality and oneself.  True freedom, in other words and paradoxically, involves a kind of submission.  This is why the great religions generally contain a better understanding of the nature of human freedom that modern secular humanism.  Freedom is actualized in and through and by limitations, not despite them.

This union of freedom and fate shipwrecks the project of the ego:  total freedom, total security, total perfection.  True freedom doesn’t mean the power to be all of what we want, when we want, how we want, or however much we want.  Nietzsche described this union as “amor fati,” loving one’s fate.  In other words, if you’re falling, dive; and we’re falling, so dive; and note, too, the connection to Christianity’s notion of sin, of human nature as “fallen.”  The idea is that the process of embracing and celebrating and being grateful for one’s fate—rather than grudgingly accepting and tolerating it—actually transforms it.  Limits embraced are limits transformed; once we cease pretending they are somehow something other than us, we cease to invest them with power over us.  Nietzsche pictures this transformation using the images of a lion and a child.  The lion is ever proud and bent on control and dominance and independence.  The child, however, is the one released from ego, in love with the world, building sand castles in full knowledge that they will be taken by the tide, but playing just to play.  The child does not try to build a fortress that will never fall.

So what does all this have to do with the Law of Subtraction?  As Matthew May pointed out in today’s New York Times Business Section, Lao Tsu expressed a deep insight when he wrote, “To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”  We might pair this quote with another, from T.S Eliot:  “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  So many of us are in a hurry to become good “knowledge-workers” and consume as much “information” and “content” as we can.  But perhaps we would be better served by subtracting the many sources of distraction and stimulation that clutter our desks, inboxes, and minds.  To our “to do lists,” as May notes, we might add another bullet point:  “Not to do list.”

Lessing is Moring.

What Do You Think?