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April 21st, 2009

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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.

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[User Picture]
Date:April 23rd, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
I have a lot to say about this, but moving is hard right now, so I will just say a few things:

I think you are basically right in noting that we ought to abandon plans (and in abandoning plans we precisely abandon this "ought"), but perhaps there is one exception to this rule; if your only plan is to continue living, maybe you should not abandon this plan. I say this in the midst of a debilitating depression. Right now I am looking at what is by turns a Kafkaesque nightmare-scape of bureaucrats and doctors in the days and months to come, and a divine comedy of errors only seeking its own resolution. My biggest problem has been with finding reasons to continue living. At this point the only reason I have is that I might eventually have a reason, that I might eventually feel like moving again, that I might eventually feel something again, if only pain. If only I could feel pain! Then at least that would be something. But I wonder if I can ever even feel pain without the prospect of pleasure. I wondered if I would ever feel good ever again. I wondered also, if I only had a choice between total resignation (hollowness, death) and a life of pain, which would I choose? I ask this full of a laughter so effortless it is almost frightening. I suppose Hamlet was asking himself the same question.

I am taking time off from school and I have what I think will be more than enough time and money to get through this for the time being. But I worry that in the future I may have people dependent on me, I may not have resources available, and what if this happens again? This is why I am trying to become as informed as possible, about my disease, about my options, about what could happen, what to expect. The problem with depression is that it is caused by itself. This makes it very hard to get out of. After losing almost every source of pride and pleasure I had had and resigning myself to near total dysfunction, I began to wonder what the point was of continuing living. I realized that the only reason I had left was a sense of duty to others, who would be devastated if I died. And then I realized that this too would become a matter of unconcern for me, if I dealt with it in the same fashion with which I dealt with all of my other problems: by ceasing to care.

I realize now that the one thing I want in this life is a sense of my own agency, however limited, however futile, however doomed. I want to feel capable of being a rational human being, but everywhere I feel confronted by unreason. It is precisely in my confrontations with unreason that I feel most animate; there is a sense in which I could approach life with the utmost equanimity if only I could just be animate again, if I could confront unreason with reason, instead of more apathy. I have already stared the prospect of death in the face. It does not frighten me any more. The only thing that does frighten me is the fact that I am not afraid of death. I have come to realize that all plans are futile, but planning is necessary. We must approach life with authenticity, but authenticity can only be realized in inauthenticity. We can approach life authentically, but that means approaching life. As Nietzsche said: the good thing about nihilism is that in nihilism, the weak either die or they become strong. But the reality of death must be there, in order for the possibility of strength to be real.

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