Saturday, January 31, 2015

Thank goodness for the 'useless'

I was talking today with an older man. He would be at least ten years older than me. For my part I had assumed my grumpy-old-man persona and was bemoaning the fact that pretty soon (if it’s not already the case) no one will have heard of DH Lawrence (for instance). He responded by saying, ‘Good! What’s the point of literature anyway? I could never understand it.’

He was reflecting a very common, probably dominantly male (and perhaps Australian) attitude that only ‘practical’ things matter. Hammers and nails. It’s an idea that our politicians and society in general has pretty much swallowed: that for something to have value it has to be ‘useful’. The only value of any importance is practical value, often reduced to monetary value.

I managed to call upon my civilised self and refrain from punching him in the nose. But what he said triggered a thought process.

I love science. I love mathematics. I love the processes of logic. But, as I look back over my education and my life in general, I recognise that the things that have shaped me—have shaped me—are those pointless things like literature, art, music and philosophy. They have made me who I am, not the practical things. Of course I need all the practical skills to cope with life and society; but what has given me my values, what has coloured the way I see life and think about the world, is the ‘useless’ things.

Without these useless things human beings would be diminished, and our society severely impoverished. Indeed, are we not there already? We have made great progress towards developing artificial intelligence. Soon there will be human-like robots walking the earth. And, when we look closely, we will see that they are us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Be selfish

It’s been almost a month since I wrote anything here. I won’t force myself to write, neither here nor in my creative writing. One of the things I am trying to do is to live life more freely, without that sense of obligation that others would impose upon me, and which I have long since imposed upon myself.

It’s all part of the process of accepting who I am. If I’m successful at this, others are going to have to accept that too... or not, as they choose. If I decide not to be who I actually am because of that non-acceptance, then I will have failed myself.

Is this selfish? Possibly. I am, in fact, quite a selfish person. It may be a kind of self-justification to claim that all of us are ultimately selfish, but I claim it anyway. It’s okay to be selfish. Some animal parents will abandon their young to a predator if protecting them means that they would die too—leaving the young to die in any case. It makes more sense to save yourself and live to breed another day.

Does this mean I wouldn’t dive in front of a bus to save a child, even at great risk to myself? No it doesn’t. In this case it makes ‘sense’ to save a younger member of the species, who probably has far more to contribute at all levels to the future of the species than I do. Not that such thoughts enter into consideration. Such a response is instinctive, not considered. It is not heroic. If I had time to think about it, I might not do it.

By being selfish, by focusing on the things I enjoy doing, rather than those I feel I ‘ought’ to do, I am actually far more productive. The things I enjoy doing are the things I do best. Or the things I do best are the things I enjoy. That chicken-and-egg debate is purely academic.

Of course, sometimes, to be able to do the things I really want to do, and to enjoy the things I want to enjoy, I have to do and endure some things I don’t particularly want to do to prepare the way. I am prepared to sacrifice my immediate happiness or satisfaction in favour of future happiness and satisfaction. This is something children—and politicians—and perhaps ‘society’—find very difficult to do. Our culture of instant gratification has no place for the postponement of gratification. The postponement of gratification is no less selfish, though. It may be more selfish in the end, because the ultimate pay-off is greater and more enduring. Is the alcoholic more selfish who continues drinking for the sake of the immediate pay-off? Or is it the reformed alcoholic, who sacrifices the immediate pay-off in favour of greater and more enduring benefits?

Let me be me. Let me do the things I want and need to do, and I will be both happier and more productive in the world.