The Experiential Life

Recently, a young woman I met was explaining her job to me. “I provide an ‘experiential approach’ to shopping malls,” she said. The “experiential approach” is one of the current hot terms in business. From what I’ve read, it works like this: “… experiential retail turns the boring experience of browsing, trying, and buying into something fun and exciting.” Many millennials, I’m told, do not wish to simply purchase pants; they want an immersive activity that makes the purchasing experience more authentic and engaging.

Last week On Point’s Tom Ashbrook interviewed a millennial who spoke about the transcendent benefits of adults’ spending all of their free time playing video games. Callers phoned in eager to justify their electronically engaged evenings. They talked of the many “friends” they had made, and they said that gaming had allowed them to have victories, providing a framework to “experience” life as a winner.

So, what does it mean when a culture needs to spend time and wealth conjuring the means to experience life, when our viewfinder on this world consists mainly of ways to see it as a consumer and a spectator?

I think it’s safe to say that my 89-year-old father hasn’t spent much time immersed in a technology-generated experiential life. No instant status updates or sharing of memes from the deck of a WWII destroyer in the Pacific. No existential worry on how to connect his existence with life: he worked hard every day, raised a large family (seven kids), spent several nights each week volunteering with service organizations, served as a trustee for his church, and regularly visited shut-ins. And, for all of that, was a strong presence in our lives. No need for him to purchase an experience to be a winner.

The Stoic Epictetus warned us to avoid giving over our minds to others, but instead to experience life on our own terms. Quaint advice these days, as many now live the totality of their lives merely as consumers and commodities, careening across the fluorescent-lighted landscape in a desperate search for the authentic experience to purchase, never realizing that they are the purchased. Our species has gone through billions of years of evolutionary struggle to reach this experiential moment … blasting alien invaders from a computer screen or hanging on a rock wall at the local mall.

Yesterday my day was spent planting strawberries, tilling potato beds, making kraut, feeding bottle lambs, and preparing a venison roast. It was not a planned gaming experience to evoke a sense of activity and purpose; it was genuinely experienced, unmediated by apps and digital connectivity. My days and nights engaging in this life may not offer the thrilling victories of a well-played Warcraft game. Yet I’d still maintain that a full day’s farm work, capped by a fine dinner with friends and a good book at evening’s end, is sufficient.


Reading this weekend: The Agricultural Fair, by Wayne Caldwell Neely (1935). Letter to a Young Farmer: how to live richly without wealth on the new garden farm, by Gene Logsdon

19 thoughts on “The Experiential Life

  1. Living your life through a computer doesn’t require true personal commitment, real consequences or meaningful relationships. It’s a very sad way to live your life. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to be choosing this lifestyle…all surface and glitz with no nourishment for the soul.

  2. I’d frame it more positively:
    Frames, once missing, need to be reinstituted by whatever means are available.

    Experiencing life on his own terms for someone like your father is dependent on multiple existing terminologies. Those that were available during his time.

    We are merely seeing a transient state of people having to invent the very foundation to their life as they go.

    To suffer from this condition in terms of the foundation of the structure of one’s language would be called psychosis.
    And psychosis, as you’ll have noticed if you know any sufferer, is a lot of hard work. For basically ‘nothing’.

    The same frame of ‘nothing’ that “naturally” mediates your unmediated experiences 🙂

    • Well, I’m all about framing things more positively. My first couple of versions were a bit more sarcastic. Yet, we all have the choice to live a contributing life or an “experiential” life. And, it is beyond my understanding how to deal with a mass psychosis of disengagement.

      So, Michael, how does your late winter garden grow?

      • Ah well… 🙂
        Another dozen trees are planted, and the first three beds with broad beans and a few other things were sown.
        The cranes are back.
        A red kite really is quite a large animal.
        Do all ravens sound like drunken chickens?

          • Broad beans are dividing the public.
            Quite a few the people I’ve asked want part of the harvest, a few don’t know what they are and maybe half of them remembered being tortured by broad beans smothered in white sauce when they were kids, declining the offer.
            Harry Dodson mentiones that the young pods were served to the Victorian lords and ladies, while the ripened beans were staff food. I’ll try them both ways.
            With onions and Speck.

            “My” raven seems to be the only one around. Crows and magpies dominate the ‘improved countryside’.

          • Speck can even fly.
            If prodded.
            And unlike relatives, there can never be enough of it.

  3. My son-in-law tells of his days in college when, as an RA, he would have to check on several students to see if they were still alive after a full weekend of gaming. Some were inventive enough to wear Depends so they could play uninterrupted.

    The organizations I belong to are all suffering from the same malady-old age die off.
    Young people just aren’t interested in joining anymore. I wonder what will happen when virtual reality becomes commonplace.

    On another note, I have a pair of ravens nesting in the beef barn this Spring. Is this a sign of bad luck, as some of the old timers say? It’s a big nest.

    • Depends, eh? That certainly conjures up an image.

      Yep, the demise of all the old style service organizations is troubling. On a related farm note, I mourn the decline in the county fairs. Our county hasn’t had a agricultural fair since 1999.

  4. Ahh – Gene Logsdon’s last book. It hurts to type that. I suppose someday it will hurt as much or more to type “Wendell Berry’s last book”. Did you read Gene’s ‘Living at Nature’s Pace’ ? You may have mentioned it already in your “Reading this Weekend” – but I’ve either missed it or haven’t been hanging around long enough. Just picked up a copy of LaNP a week ago.

    • Gene had so many books. It is a bit like collecting Liberty Hyde Bailey. You pick up an interesting titled book, start flipping through it, only to discover another Logsdon work. Haven’t read the LANP. Let me know if it is worth it. I admired Gene and his writing. But some of the books were a bit repetitive. Holy Shit! remains one of my favorites.

      • Clem,
        Something occurred to me this evening while reading. A difference between Berry and Logsdon is the Ohio River. Berry writes with a Southern heart, carefully written, but using artful language to discuss agrarianism. Logsdon writes with a Midwestern mind, carefully written with a pragmatic workshop language, to address the same.

        • Astute observation sir. I recognize this as a great reply to the English Professor’s request, “Compare and contrast the writing of G Logsdon and W Berry”.

          Faced with the same assignment I might tilt toward the sense of loss I detect in much of Wendell’s work. Gene’s writing seems more resigned to the changes in the rural life and possessed of a mind to get on with making the best of it. I think both capture the beauty of rural opportunities, and these motivate the heart. But reduced to a single sentence I’d offer that Wendell has said “See what you’re missing?”, while Gene has said “See what you can witness?”.

          Perhaps it comes back to their individually perceived audiences. For me – just happy to be a member of both.

  5. Beyond framing and approval/disapproval is an immense sadness about flight into the virtual world. That so many believe fallaciously such “experience” translates into the real world is a further insult. Just try driving a race car or flying a plane after sitting in a virtual cockpit; I dare ya. Society has progressively boxed itself into a corner in the First World so that most of us (including me) have no idea how to manage without regular provision of services such as utilities and groceries. But at least I don’t delude myself that managed experience is a substitute for true engagement.

    • I’m still shocked at the houses in our valley where the only indication of life is either the absent car or the car in the driveway. You’ve done some good work on the invasion of our lives by the small screen. My own pet peeve dates back a bit further to the invasion of the TV into public spaces. We dined at a small hole-in-the-wall Salvadoran restaurant last night. 6 tables and the largest TV on the market on one wall. Not sure I wanted a four-foot head of Trump hovering over my plate of tamales.

      • Not convinced Trump wanted his head hovering over a plate of tamales either… so perhaps you’re even?

        This is hardly an American problem. The ubiquitous tube seems set up everywhere the signals reach and the locals can afford the technology. Other animals can be fascinated by the small (huge) screen as well. Where’s that silly silver lining when you need it?

Any thoughts or questions?