Tuesday, October 5, 2010
“And what, in God’s name, is all this pother about?... When nature is “so careless of a single life,” why should we coddle ourselves into the fancy that our own is of exceptional importance?”
- Robert Louis Stevenson, “An Apology for Idlers”
We have been traveling again. And travel often inspires absurd thoughts to one extent or another. This last trip got us thinking about how unimportant we are and how life would go one whether we were here or not.
This thought, while hardly original, is always striking when we go away for awhile. We are much less diligent checking e-mails and the like when traveling. Alone perhaps in the universe, we have not yet succumbed to those little devices that everyone carries around, pushing buttons constantly – even while in the car or using the toilet. No, not yet anyway.
And so, many e-mails are left unanswered, sometimes for days. And guess what happens? Nothing. Nothing at all. All these things that seem so important while you are in the office – being available and answering e-mail – look especially ridiculous when you are away. We have all had this feeling that we are “missing out” when we are away. But upon our return, we find things managed to get done without us. Somehow people soldiered on without our all-important presence.
It’s not the hustle and bustle, or the work itself that we object to. It is the feeling of self-importance that comes with that. It is the stresses and anxieties that we put on ourselves that is, shall we say, anti-absurd.
As Stevenson asks above, what is all the pother about?
Stevenson’s “An Apology for Idlers,” published in 1876, is one of our favorite essays. We had a collection of his essays in our carry-on while we traveled. The old Scot is an inspiration. On this idea of self-importance, Stevenson was wise to the deception. The world rolls on…
“Suppose Shakespeare had been knocked on the head some dark night in Sir Thomas Lucy’s preserves,” he writes, “the world would have wagged on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any the wiser of the loss.”
Indeed. And so too, do not fret over unanswered e-mails. Do not worry over work left undone. Don’t let society lay guilt upon your conscience for getting up late. Don’t let the fact that you let that big client get away ruin your afternoon. Don’t let your neighbor’s financial success plant envy in your heart.
Instead, be carefree. Be detached. Recognize the futility of it all.
Another one of our favorite philosophers is Lin Yutang, who wrote The Importance of Living. (Well worth it – you will always keep this book around. You will find you dip into it now and then. You will find inspiration and soothing words from a man who knew how to live.)
Lin Yutang, wrote “the most bewildering thing about man is his idea of work and the amount of work he imposes upon himself.”
That’s what the absurd helps us understand. It’s all self-imposed. “One must start out with the belief that there are no catastrophes in this world,” Yutang says. Nothing matters. Nothing at all.
But before you can get there, you may have to start small. That means laughing off a spilled cup of coffee… not fretting over missed appointments… meeting disappointment with a shrug… not worrying over things left undone. “On the whole,” Yutang reminds us, “if one answers letters promptly, the result is about as good or as bad as if he had never answered them at all.”
It really doesn’t matter. That’s the freedom that comes with the absurd. The weight of the world’s troubles – all its noise and clanging and banging and bright lights and violence – slips off your back.
Posted by Inigo Montoya at 10:35 AM