April 21st, 2009
|12:51 am - A tale of two friends|
This is a post I've had saved up in me for a very long time. Along with all the other posts.
One of my friends is a colleague of mine. He's been single for a while and he's approached his relationship problem with what he perceives as a logical approach. One of the easiest ways to meet people is to make an impression on them. If you seek to be good at a lot of things that you can show off at, then you can show off a lot and potentially impress a number of people.
I am a man of many talents. Most people are and certainly all of my friends are. I mentioned to him one day that I wouldn't do the things he does to attract someone. It's not a matter of being talented enough at something to do it -- it's a matter of understanding what that relationship is going to be founded on. Trying to impress someone is going to base a relationship on your talents rather than a mutual interest. Ultimately, there's no way to sustain that interest unless you dedicate yourself to it. If you dedicate yourself to it, then you're going to spend your life in the pursuit of someone else's likes and dislikes. It's self defeating.
Furthermore, there are people who spend their lives trying to achieve those talents for the same purpose. This lends itself to a very common pattern in human thought -- that there really are a set of virtues and that achieving them makes your life worthwhile or good. This pattern is pervasive -- it's in almost everything we do. Look at the books out there which tell you what you should see before you die. Consider the number of things that people try to introduce you to on the principle that it'll make your life better in one way or another.
The truth is that there isn't a checklist for life. There isn't even a high score list because there really isn't a way to judge it.
The problem is that we all know of famous people. Moreover, we celebrate the good parts of their lives. In doing so, we associate these with qualities which we'd like to have. Tesla was a genius, but he died penniless and suffered a number of mental illnesses. Edison was driven, but he did a great deal of damage to a number of people's lives. Einstein spent most of his life in a lowly position as a patent clerk -- he didn't manage to do anything major until his 40s.
(This is something that is very easy to lose sight of. My other friend complained that they've reached their mid twenties but they haven't accomplished anything. One of my favorite episodes of the Twilight Zone involved a headmaster's quote: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind."
There's a formulation of that which I prefer from Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." This isn't an approach towards a prescription for what is right. This beseeches you to always do what you think to be right in a situation.)
We think about all this in the context of being able to achieve what they did, but without the bad parts. We end up driving ourselves utterly mad. Kant discussed this concept of life in his discussion of morals. Nietzsche saw (in his madness) that this was madness and sought to tear it down by expressing his will to power. These are prisons that we build ourselves. They aren't ladders which we climb. They aren't roads for us to drive. They narrow our pursuits into a small area.
We tend to form plans that we see as ways of achieving our dreams, but we end up with lives like those that John Lennon characterized with his famous quote: "Life is what happens when you're busy doing other things." Jobs with set hours and set schedules lock you into a way of living because they limit your freedom. You see yourself making money and you think about that as a way of paying for the things you enjoy. Moreover, you form a resistance against changing it because you lose sight of ways to pay for the bills.
William Gibson had a couple of interesting characters in his novels. One of which was a martial arts expert. The most interesting part was that whenever he was presented with an objective, he objected to ways of solving it that involved planning. He claimed that it hindered him too much. This was most pressing when he was along with five other people and trying to find a way down from a tower on a bridge and a mob had taken the bridge. The five other people tried to think of a way down and the guy in question said "Meh, too much planning. Too much foresight. I'm going down and I'll find my way out."
Von Moltke once said that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy". Mike Tyson once said that "Everyone's got plans...until they get hit". I contend that David Farragut answered these quotes after a fashion when he said "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" at the battle of Mobile Bay. We're human beings. We're creatures of habit because habit brings consistent results, but consistent results are not what life is about. Robert Heinlein wrote "Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites! Moderation is for monks!"
I encourage you all to try not planning things in your life for a period of time. Just go out and do things -- what's the worst that could possibly happen? It is when plans go awry -- and they inevitably do -- that we see objectives slip away and we develop stress.
When I was in Poland and we had several bottles of beer, but no way to open them, I insisted on going out and looking for a bottle opener. On our way to doing this we learned a little bit of Polish that I'll never forget ("Otwarte butel" is how you say "bottle opener" in Polish) and we chatted briefly with an interesting couple. Sure it was around midnight on a Sunday -- but why not? You never know what'll happen unless you go out there and do it. If you learn how to roll with the punches, then why is there a reason to fear the unknown?
The second character that I referred to was a guy named Rudy. Rudy was a very technical person and had a knack for dealing with technology. He collected junk so that he could use it later for projects -- one of which was a series of robots which went around malls looking for people wearing the latest fashions. When it identified them, it would set about the task of insulting them.
Rudy would never be famous, but he had many friends. He lived a life of simple convenience in that he did what he thought would be fun. In many respects, he provided a safe haven for some of Gibson's characters and gave them somewhere they could think things through. In addition, he had a talent for counseling people.
I have -- in spite of my words before -- sought to model my life somewhat like Rudy's. I strive not for fame, fortune, or life long relationships. I strive to be happy.
Indeed -- this is the end that Nietzsche thought people should seek. In Zarathustra's speech, he said that people are first camels -- they seek to bear burdens. Following that, they are lions -- they seek to use their strength to conquer burdens. In time, they conquer dragons whose scales are enscribed with "Thou shalt" -- commandments which tell you how you ought to live life. It is only in the end when you conquer those dragons that you become a human child.
It is when you are a child that you are happiest because you haven't a care in the world. Some of this might be because you have your needs fulfilled by your parents and you're free to seek whatever path you wish -- even if that path is watching Saturday morning cartoons with sugar-filled cereal.
(I know mine was.)
But that isn't what's meant. What Nietzsche meant by a human child was the same thing that another Twilight Zone episode tried to demonstrate. Ultimately, you're as young as the things you do. You might be in an old folks home, but if you go out there and play kick the can, you can recapture the same carefree ways that you had when you were a kid.
Friends, look not to your age, salaries, circumstances, or long range plans to provide you with the things you want. Do the unusual things. Don't keep regular hours. Don't keep habits for terribly long. Seek to experience life as other people do.
Go play kick the can. Go do the things that you're too old for. Go do the things that you're too young for. Go out there and live life. Think about it and break yourself out of patterns.
Only good things -- or at least, good stories -- can possibly come of it.
This does not mean that one should not make plans for the future, but that one's future should not hinder one's present.
It is my belief that one cannot plan for the future and live in the present on the aforementioned basis that planning for the future has a tendency to make one resort to known behaviors. By planning, you seek to make the future predictable. By making it predictable, we often think that we've made it safe.
By making it predictable, you remove the spontaneity which makes life worth living.
There is also nothing wrong with building a checklist of goals, be these short-term or long-term. One does not have to hold oneself to goals, but capturing what it is that one wants is a useful exercise in and of itself. Anyone who is living in the moment will find these goals changing frequently, but taking a moment to find one's bearings in a moving landscape is still of use. We may not know where we end up, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't steer towards something promising, or try to avoid the rocks.
I wouldn't call those "goals", so much as "desires". Desires are good to have -- they motivate someone. Goals implies milestones, timetables, measures, and all those other things which I think are best left behind us.
People don't base relationships on such skills, but such skills do make excellent ice breakers. They get people talking, and in conversation we find other points of commonality.
Long ago, it was possible for someone to talk directly to someone without requiring a gimmick to break the ice. It's an art that I think is better cultivated than most of the other things one might do.
Incidentally, the friend I was talking about wasn't you, but I can see how it applies.
To begin with, consider the number of random variables in meeting someone, viz.
1) Whether or not there is mutual attraction
2) Whether or not there are shared interests
3) Whether or not you like conversing about those shared interests
4) Whether or not you can start a conversation in such a way that they're interested in following.
5) Whether or not you happen to be in communicational proximity
6) Whether or not you speak the same language...
and this is long before we start considering the things that one typically defers until things seem to be going well.
There are weights attached to a lot of these and infinitesmal weight can be safely attached to things like "how good you are at a skill which breaks the ice". Sure -- I have every major video game console ever made (and some minor ones!), but that doesn't immediately endear me to anyone who might have an interest in that area. Nor does it ascribe me a better chance of success than someone who only has one console.
It follows a pattern similar to the one that Gladwell described in Outliers for basketball players. It's helpful to be tall if you're a basketball player, but there's a certain point at which the correlation between being good at basketball and being tall falls off rapidly. Essentially, there's a point where you're tall enough, and after that, it does almost no good to be taller.
In relationships, like in the game of Fluxx, the overwhelming number of things which are out of your control means that the best strategy is to gain as many cards as possible and attempt to play the winning sequence all at once.
In reality -- staying home and learning a girl's favorite song is likely to be the worst thing you could do for that strategy.