Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Well, You Never Do Nothin' to Save Your Doggone Soul

John Gray:

Soylent is the ultimate fast food - but it's unclear why we feel such an intense need for more time. If you're struggling to make ends meet, juggling the demands of family and several part-time jobs, you might well dream of having an extra day in the week. But I doubt whether many who are in this position would consider giving up meals in order to work even harder than they already do, and in any case they aren't the people to whom the food replacement is being marketed. It's those that are reasonably well off, and yet think of themselves as being chronically pressured, that are being targeted.

It's worth asking how we've become as time-poor as we feel we are today. I'm old enough to remember discussions of 40 or 50 years ago about how we'd fill our days when most kinds of human labour were done by machines. Technology is largely a succession of time-saving devices. It's strange, then, that an age of unprecedented technological advance should also be one of such acute time-poverty. Are we really dreaming of living more slowly? Or could it be that many of us are secretly addicted to the fast life?

One answer to these questions can be gleaned from the writings of the 17th Century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who invented the modern theory of probability and designed the world's first urban mass transit system. In his Pensees, a series of reflections mostly devoted to religious topics, Pascal suggested that humans are driven by a need for diversion. A life that's always time-pressed might seem a recipe for unhappiness, but in fact the opposite is true. Human beings are much more miserable when they have nothing to do and plenty of time in which to do it. When we're inactive or slow down the pace at which we live, we can't help thinking of features of our lives we'd prefer to forget - above all, the fact that we're going to die. By being always on the move and never leaving ourselves without distraction, we can avoid such disturbing thoughts.

Similarly, the late-twentieth-century philosopher Alanis Morrissette questioned our ability to handle silence without thinking about our bills, our exes, our deadlines, or when we think we're going to die, wondering if we merely suffer through it while longing for the next distraction. Well, she may not have been able to carry a tune to save her life, but she at least possessed more penetrating insight into the human psyche than a naïf like Nicholas Carr, who still gets called "essential reading" for peddling the sort of story that people love to hear, namely, that it's not our fault we never wrote that novel, seized the day, sucked the marrow out of life; technology rewired our brains and took our fate out of our hands.

This becomes a convenient excuse to avoid the introspection which might reveal some unpleasant personal truths. Maybe I don't enjoy reading books and living deliberately. Maybe I don't have any deep and meaningful friendships. Maybe I actually prefer to spend my evenings watching reality TV and snacking on junk food. Maybe I just realize that professing higher aspirations is what people of a certain cultural class are expected to do, and I don't have the courage to set myself against that. Maybe I'm just not particularly smart, brave, talented or special at all, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

These are the sorts of questions that will never be raised if you take people at face value when they complain about forces beyond their control preventing them from realizing their dreams. People want mutually exclusive things all the time without seeming to be aware of it.

Don't get me wrong. I wholeheartedly encourage people to spend time reading, focusing, introspecting, and all those other qualities that comprise the "contemplative literate subject".  I aim for that ideal myself. Achieving it on my terms, however, has required some tradeoffs. I've turned down a few opportunities for career advancement, which has probably reduced my esteem in the eyes of others in addition to the obvious financial downside. One reason why I've never wanted to have children (another choice with at least some social disapproval) was because of the cost involved in raising them, which would make it difficult if not impossible to resist such career opportunities. I'll buy my jeans from Goodwill for seven bucks apiece and have my $50 Kmart winter coat, which I've had for fifteen years, sewn and patched because I'd rather spend my disposable income on more books. (I'm not saying that's a hardship, just that I definitely do not cut a dashing, fashionable figure, which seems to be an important thing to many people.) And even if you do succeed in carving out enough space in your life to cherish contemplation, you may feel lonely upon discovering that almost all your peers and friends have no time or desire to join you there.

I'm fortunate in that none of this is too heavy of a price for me to pay. But I don't expect that most people can or should feel the same way. If you truly feel that your life is missing too much of the stuff that "really matters", what hard choices are you prepared to make to change that? Call me pessimistic if you must, but I do believe that there's a tragic dimension to life that needs to be confronted and accepted.

Abraham Maslow said that "It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement." In the absence of that knowledge, people at least understand what it is they're supposed to want and make impotent gestures in that direction which will, of course, do nothing to alleviate their existential aches.