Lived experience

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The lived experience when you are not “a proper little jailer’s pet”, yesterday.
In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play?
Queen: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Hamlet, III, ii

Lived experience
/lɪvd ɪksˈpɪərɪəns/ (n.)
Knowledge about the world one gains, first-hand, by living through it.

Knowledge that is joyously subjective, and not the quasi-objective, pseudo-knowledge by which we are all systematically indoctrinated through insidious social institutions like our education, socialisation, government, the corporate chumocracy and, to the extent it is any different, the calculating fingers of the media.

Each person’s “lived experience” is necessarily unique and, taken ad absurdum, unavailable — literally “ineffable” — to another. Which is true, of all of us, but makes you wonder what its value really is, except by way of unconditional surrender to the human condition.

This calls to mind a stanza in one of the JC’s favourite Ogden Nash poem:

Caught in a mesh of living veins,
In cell of padded bone,
He loneliest is when he pretends
That he is not alone.
We’d free the incarcerate race of man
That such a doom endures
Could only you unlock my skull,
Or I creep into yours.

Ogden Nash, Listen..., reprinted in Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash

Of course, knowing what one’s “lived experience” is can get confusing when you consider it includes being indoctrinated into those lesser forms of pseudo-knowledge, through social institutions like school, university, work, the internet and, well, people on it who witter on about “lived experiences” all the time. Yes: like the JC.

In any rate, your lived experience is personal, subjective and your own business, to be minded as such: though you may be politely indulged, no-one much cares to hear about it.[1] So, life advice, kids, from the Dale Carnegie school of winning friends and influencing people: frame your interactions with the world in terms of others’ lived experiences, not your own, lest you come across as a bore.

Suppress the instinct to yawp about your own problems. For, if you have the time, energy and platform — that is, the luxury — to do that, they will hardly seem existential in nature to anyone minded to listen. The converse is just as true for those inclined to humblebrag about industry awards and Chambers’ rankings: if things are so good, why waste your time crowing about it, rather than just getting on with the winning?

Disingenuously complaining about your lot — let’s call it “humblegriping” — is a dark inversion of humblebragging. No more edifying, and so much more of a downer. Tiresome though he is, you rarely hear the humblebragger droning on about his lived experience.

Lived experience as a finite game

James Carse’s fabulous Finite and Infinite Games provides a great prism for framing these battles between the past and present. For what is a “lived experience”, a “grievance” or a “standpoint”, if not an articulation of history?

The future contains only as-yet unlived experiences. There are no grievances there. Our standpoints, the margins and their intersections are unknown.[2]

Being historical, an already-lived experience is permanent, and set in stone. It cannot be moved. It cannot be removed. It cannot be compensated for. It cannot be denied. It becomes a monument. A shibboleth. A sacred prophecy. But it remains our own imaginative construction.

We are autobiographers. Literally, we talk our own book. We choose by which significant events we define the trajectory of our own lives. We build our own memorials. We choose to live beneath their shadows. But our present is a function of every point in our past, not just the ones on which it suits us to now fixate as we construct our personal narrative.

To adopt — some might say “colonise” someone else’s personal narrative is the empathetic stance: to step into their shoes, to take sides, to exalt them and perpetuate their grievance. Empathy is to exalt history, whilst pretending to despise it.

But, look: standpoints iterate. As the present moves through space-time, we lay down the tracks of future, each new decision we make contributes to our lived experience. We update our standpoints — it is only by refusing to update our standpoint that we can optimise our grievance. There are people whose professional interests are served by optimising their own grievances. They are not fun people. They probably don’t have much fun. Don’t be like that. The decisions we, and our ancestors made, and had made about us, fall ever further away in time and significance. It is an inverse square. Keep moving forward, and they fall further away.

The infinite game counsels us to look at where we are, see what we’ve got now and how to make the best of it. It focuses on the decisions we can influence now and the possibilities of the future. It regards the past as informational and instructive, not constraining. If I once hit my thumb with a hammer, I know to be careful next time I use a hammer. It does not make me forever a victim of hammer abuse.

See also


  1. The proprietors of The Times appear to believe, wrongly, that this rule does not to apply to Robert Crampton, for some reason.
  2. Unless you accept the data formalist’s stance that the universe is a clockwork, causal determinacy is absolute, and therefore the future is a linear extrapolating of the past. In which case, so is complaining about it. Nothing can be done, and no-one is to be blamed: we are “as flies to wanton boys”.