"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 31, 2018

Why It Is Better To Be Rich, Beautiful, And Famous–The Boredom Of Routine And The Interminably Ordinary

There is a commonly advised but strange relationship between longevity and wisdom; longevity in acceptance; and longevity in understanding.  Old marriages, while they may have lost their juice and  interest are still institutions of value because they teach compromise, patience, and respect.  Old friendships teach the value of persistence and origins.  Anyone who still has a childhood friend must have put up with a lot, for what person is ever static enough to retain enough of his original allure over fifty or more years?

There is something to be said, it is argued, about putting down roots and living a long life in one place.  There is an intrinsic value in cultural stability, social familiarity, and permanence.  The longer one remains in place, the more one appreciates the little things – the fine growth of the boxwoods and holly trees which have overgrown backyards and front walks; the sycamore trees too tall and too shady for ornamental gardens or a front lawn; the new curbs, the new lingo of the playground, and the increased traffic on the cross streets – all of which modify but do not change the neighborhood, distinctly homogeneous, familiar, and permanent.

Thornton Wilder in his play Our Town described Grover’s Corners as the perfect place to live for its ordinariness.  Little happened in Grover’s Corners, life went on between births and deaths with little drama or exception, associations were friendly, congenial, and never demanding.  Because of its ordinariness Grover’s Corners lulled and deceived.  Only after its residents were dead did they realize the infinity in an unremarkable life.  Looking down from heaven the departed regretted having to leave such a life – one without excitement or surprise, but one as rich and nuanced as any.

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Wilder’s play was about ordinariness and the infinity with in it.  ‘We are all eternal’, he wrote, but few of the residents of Grover’s Corners even had an inkling of their potential and the richness of their town.

The opposite is just as true, however.  Hobbes was not the first nor the last to see life as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.  Most people, even supported by the philosophical insights of Wilder, the wisdom of the Bible, or the more subtle suggestions of Buddha and the Tao, have little patience with sameness, routine, putting one foot in front of the other, living metro, boulot, dodo as a sacramental routine, eating the same meals, travelling the same highways, and making love to the same wife for decades on end. 

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Konstantin Levin, a major character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, wondered at God’s supreme and arrogant irony, having created man with wit, intelligence, insight, talent, and humor only to allow him a few short decades of life and then consign him for eternity in the cold, hard grounds of the steppes.   Dostoevsky’s Devil tells Ivan Karamazov that without him life would be a bloody bore.  if everyone were good, people would die of despair, loneliness, and fatigue.

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There is no intrinsic value to a long marriage which is bookended by sexual interest on one end, mutual desperation and support on the other.  The interim years are those of dissatisfaction and unhappiness – the abrupt end of a promising youthful adventure, long years of routine and deceit, the obligations of resentful children and aged parents, physical decline and dementia, and a fearful death.  Yes, those without encumbrances may die alone and disconsolate, but at least they have lived an enviable life.

The December-May love affair, as rejuvenating and affirming as it may be, is a false reward.  A man in his sixties who has enjoyed a few years with a thirty-something lover is worse off at the end than at the beginning.  At least his decades of predictable ordinariness offered nothing special, nothing hopeful, and nothing exciting.  Life on cruise control might not be anything special, but it knows no existential letdowns.

When the December-May affair ends, the older man feels suddenly and unexpectedly cheated, deceived, and at sea.  By reliving his youth – or better, recapturing it – he is deluded into thinking that life can be an affair of wonder, not one of pacing and trudging towards the exits.  After the early Christmas gift, he feels special, lucky – even anointed – but when the gift is taken away and given to someone else, he is disconsolate and depressed, far worse off than before. 

There are those, however, who do not wait for the young thing, whose life has never been tethered and worn; who risk all, demand all, and chance all from the very moment out of the gate.

Nietzsche wrote of the Übermensch, the Superman who rides above the herd, who understands that the only validation of life in a meaningless, dull, and predictable world is the expression of pure will.  The Superman is beyond good and evil, an amoral, active, deliberate, and guilt-free rider who never looks ahead nor back; one who has conceded all to innate will and is totally willing to take whatever consequences may come.

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The more routine one’s life is, the faster it passes.  With routine not only does every day look like the previous but becomes the previous – the same collection of the morning paper from under the privet hedge; the same measured coffee, the same errands, the same appointments, work, and daily prayer.  Interrupting the daily routine is akin to the December-May affair – it disrupts enough for one to pay attention and take stock, but never as exhilarating (and of course later depressing).  No serious highs and lows, but enough bumps and irregularities to give a boost.

Yet even such attempts to alter time – to slow it and give each segment more meaning – are silly.  Nothing but Einstein and quantum physics have suggested anything other than the permanence of time and the necessary plodding through it.

Which is why it is most definitely better to live life as a movie star, a billionaire, or a Don Juan than remain stuck in the mainstream.  If life is indeed a bookended affair, then those who make hay in the middle are those better off, happier, and existentially satisfied.  For the rest of us  life is a matter of compromise and cold dinners.  The best we can do is to extract some larger meaning out of a mundane life.

All of the above is discounted by most as superficial, selfish, purposeless, and without meaning.  But the few who get it know that life between the bookends is all there is to life.   Better enjoy it while you can.  Forget investment , grandchildren and legacy, or the future of the planet.  Life is the here and now unless the end is far closer than its beginning and the last boat has already left the pier.

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