Thursday, January 20, 2011

Living in the present

We’ve often wondered whether we could be absurd if we were in more – let us say – uncomfortable circumstances.

In other words, is the absurd a luxury? And could we be absurd if we lived more closely to a kind of subsistence living?

We like to think so. And we’ve found evidence of people who become absurd only after some trying experience, as we’ve written about before on this blog. We have yet another shred to add to our anecdotal pile.

Recently, we were reading Travel & Leisure magazine and came across a story of a woman who went hunting with the Hadzi, a tribe of hunter-gatherers on the shores of Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.

These hunters depended on what they caught that day. If they don’t have a successful hunt, they don’t eat as well as they might.

Ironically, given those apparently high stakes, the Hadzi are remarkably calm and cheerful even when they have an unsuccessful hunt. They seem to be having a good time, enjoying each other’s company and the process of the hunt, even though they catch nothing on this particular day.

Here our intrepid author speculates as to why the hunters have this calm and seemingly care-free demeanor, and hits on an absurd observation:

“I chalked it up to an enviable acceptance of their limits of control – something many of us spend years with therapists and yogis trying to develop. Even more than the natural history, anthropology, and zoology we were studying, this example of living in the present – and not getting hung up on outcomes – seemed to be the most important lesson we could take from Africa.”

We pass this along as a little reminder, if nothing else, of the benefit of living in the present. It allows one to remain cheerful – and view life with a kind of ironic detachment – even in the face of seemingly large setbacks. In the case of the Hadzi, it means not eating dinner.

Makes you put your own concerns in a new light, doesn't it?


  1. I live and work with a very prominent group of North American aboriginal people, so I understand a bit, I think, the attitude expressed by the hunters. There are many things to say, but I'll mention just a couple of points here. One is that people are prone to evaluate their own lives in terms of the well-being of those around them (this is very well-documented), rather than in any absolute terms (think how differently we would view things if SOME people were able to buy immortality); in hunting societies the people SHARE the game, and they share the HUNGER. Sharing anything is a lost art in our society, and this burgeoning HATRED for sharing anything (e.g., contempt for social security, any kind of compassion-based health care, demonizing public employees, etc.) is a massive step backwards in terms of the quality of our lives. T.S. Eliot, in his beautiful Choruses from "The Rock," says: "The desert is the heart of your brother." And I think where this comes, for me at least, into the script of the "absurd" life, is that we all just have so much time in the day, and so much mental energy to invest in our day. In our society, almost all of that energy is invested in getting ahead of others, or protecting ourselves from others, whether in the gym or in the stock market or in our jobs. Our neighbor is our competitor, really, our enemy, the potential destroyer of the things we feel we cling to. In this IRONIC (to use a favorite word of this blog :-)) sense, it is the sweetly "absurd" life you guys pursue which is the LEAST absurd in terms of the quality of anything that ultimately matters: it allows us to SEE other people, what a revelation. The hunters too invest their days IN THEIR DAYS and thus quite naturally, in the lives of those around them. They know hunger, and they recognize the joy of both not being hungry and helping others to not be hungry. No one who has experienced this has come away unchanged. I was sea-changed. IRONICALLY, it's also what the gospels preach. But being changed, now I feel I am better able to see you in your lives, and to value these charming gifts you share in your blog, and to recognize therein the generosity, with a resonance not unlike the good spirit I see when certain "primitive" hunter-gatherers cheerfully share with me their catch or walleye or moose. So, thank you, as always, for the feast of your good thoughts.

  2. Only two entries in January? Absurd!