What's it all about?

In a classic display of the innumeracy that is apparently endemic in the UK, the Guardian (one of the UK’s leading broadsheets) is running a special edition “looking back on the ‘noughties'”. Guys, 2009 is not the last year of the decade; 2010 is the last year of the decade. Sigh. I had the same experience around the time of the Millennium; the UK, and I suppose many other countries, decided to have large and expensive celebrations welcoming in the new Millennium…. and managed to do it in the wrong year… I had to give up with complaining, people just won’t go against the crowd, and don’t like being shown they’re wrong. No wonder we’re in the middle of a financial crisis. I mean, I know from my MBA that accounting is not my strongest subject, but at least I can count using my fingers, which seems to be beyond most Brits these days. I mean, we have ten fingers, there are ten years in a decade, how can you get it wrong?

Anyway, one of these articles in the Guardian, by David Hare, ended with a conclusion that struck a chord:

Well, you may ask, what has changed? Human beings have always found that life has a curious way of slipping away from them. You reach the end without feeling you’ve done anything you meant to. For that reason, I’m reluctant to speak ill of Looking Away. I do a great deal of Looking Away myself. Who knows? It may be the only way of getting through. But our inclination to Look Away is the reason we invented professionals. Their job, after all, is to Look At.

Meanwhile, out of my RSS reader popped a blog post by Robert Twigger, of Angry White Pyjamas fame, with a quote from Robert Heinlein:

“ A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly: specialization is for insects.”

This synchronicity resonated with a recent train of thought. What’s it all about? Perhaps because I was bookish child, spending my time with Beowulf, Vikings, Alexander the Great, and Caesar, I’ve always felt that life was to be lived fully – so as I became an adult, I sought experience, the opportunity to do great things… Of course, we live in a diminished world – not just in terms of natural resources, but of imagination. John Buchan, in his novel ‘The Three Hostages’ recognized this back in the 1920s:

There were people there who wanted to turn Sandy to other subjects, especially Fulleylove and the young Cambridge don, Nightingale. They wanted to know about South Arabia, of which at the time the world was talking. Some fellow, I forget his name, was trying to raise an expedition to explore it.

‘It’s the last geographical secret left ‘inriddled,’ he said, and now he spoke seriously. ‘Well, perhaps not quite the last. I’m told there’s still something to be done with the southern tributaries of the Amazon. Mornington, you know, believes there’s a chance of finding some of the Inca people still dwelling in the unexplored upper glens. But all the rest have gone. Since the beginning of the century we’ve made a clean sweep of the jolly old mysteries that made the world worth living in. We have been to both the Poles, and to Lhasa, and to the Mountains of the Moon. We haven’t got to the top of Everest yet, but we know what it is like. Mecca and Medina are as stale as Bournemouth. We know that there’s nothing very stupendous in the Brahmaputra gorges. There’s little left for a man’s imagination to play with, and our children will grow up in a dull, shrunken world. Except, of course, the Great Southern Desert of Arabia.’

It occurs to me as I write this that this is another reason why I came to Asia, where life as yet isn’t quite so grey and regulated and stifled as the UK. It puts me in mind of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, where Renton’s soliloquy became the wall poster of a generation of students:

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life .

That’s a selective quote, though. It actually ends with:

But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

That’s where I part company with Renton. I don’t use or need heroin. But the rest of it? Amen. I don’t want that kind of life. That’s me though; so many people settle for it, and good for them, and then find that they’ve spent their lives Looking Away, and on their deathbeds perhaps look back and wonder if paying off the mortgage and owning a flat-screen plasma TV was a worthwhile reward for forty years of servitude, and say yes, yes it was… And why do we Look Away? I have to conclude that it’s fear. Fear of being made to look stupid. Fear of failure. Fear that we might not be able to succeed. Fear of other people’s opinions. I’ve never been able to accept that. I’ve often been told that I’m being unreasonable. I’m fine with that. As a better man than me once said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Me? I’ve seen witchdoctors dance in hidden valleys on the roof of Africa. I’ve drunk beer with Chinese shamans. I’ve studied with masters of little-known arts. I’ve dabbled in politics, and did OK. I’ve been successful professionally.

Once upon a time, that wouldn’t have satisfied me. I wanted more. But, you know, there’s always someone like Antonio Graceffo, or the modern explorers like Ranulph Fiennes. There’s always someone better. What do you do then? Strive to match them? Give up? It brought me around to questioning “the great life” as a motivator. Why do it? The danger is that it becomes a craving, a desire to tick boxes, a need to complete that which can never be completed and ultimately, like Alexander, be forced to weep (as John Calvin expressed it):

setting no bounds to their hopes and desires, and scaling the very heavens in their ambition, like the insane Alexander of Macedon, who, upon hearing that there were other worlds, wept that he had not yet conquered one, although soon after the funeral urn sufficed him.

So, drawing a line on the pursuit of endless experience, and accepting that one must content oneself with certain limits… what then? What’s left? No going further, no conquering endless worlds. No going back, no return to the dead world of mortgage payments, reality TV, and the Spectacle. I’m seeing that the remaining path is the inward path. More on this to come, I suspect.

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