Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Path to the River

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) wrote a beautiful essay titled “The Path to the River.” Written when he was 63 years old, the great author, thinker and social critic reflects on growing old. “My most astonishing realization is that I have lost a great deal of luggage,” he writes.

Not physical luggage, but metaphorically speaking. Nock finds that much of the cares and worries he carried as a younger man no longer interest him. Here is a great passage:

“I discover that my interest in many matters which I thought were important, and that I would still say, offhand, were important, no longer exists; interest in many occupations, theories, opinions; relationships, public and private; desires, habits, pleasures, even pastimes. I can still play good billiards for instance, and if anyone asked me, I should reply unthinkingly that I enjoy the game; and then it would occur to me that I have not played for months running into years, and that I no longer care – not really – if I never play again. As an item of luggage, billiards has gone by the boards, though I do not know when or how; and many matters of apparently great importance have gone likewise.”

Ah, this is very interesting! We have had such conversations with Bomstein before, lingering over beers at our favorite alehouse, which we’ve dubbed Absurd HQ. We, too, have noticed a more disinterested view of things that before concerned us greatly – and we have also, almost reflexively chalked it up to age. (We are nearing our 40th birthday and we can’t help but notice certain changes taking place). We have recognized for instance our gradual disinterest in sports, both in watching and playing. Like Nock, if asked, we would answer without hesitation that we play golf and enjoy the game. And then on reflection, it would occur to us that we haven’t played for months. And yet… we don’t miss it. Not really. Likewise, we enjoy watching sports, so we think. But then we haven’t been to a game of any kind in years. We watch games on TV. Sometimes. And when we don’t, we don’t really miss it. Not like we would have years ago. It’s a strange thing.

This may seem a trivial matter. But we find the same phenomenon with other interests and topics as well, things you might think more important – such as politics, work, whatever. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that the concern has reached a level of disinterest. We still enjoy certain things very much. But our relationship to these things is more detached than before. It is hard to explain. Let us turn to Nock again:

“Awareness that this process of unconscious sifting and selection has been going on is presumably final evidence that one is off the main road and well on the path to the river. It is called, rather patronizingly, ‘the acquiescence of age’: but may not that mean no more than an acquiescence in matters which has in the long run proven themselves hardly worth troubling one’s head about? ‘The fashion of this world passeth away,’ said Goethe, ‘and I would fain occupy myself with the things that are abiding.’ If that be the acquiescence of age, make the most of it.”

Indeed. That is it. And, instead of ‘acquiesce of age’ might this not be ‘acquiescence of absurdity’? The path to the river is a path to the absurd. And yes, we agree with Nock: Make the most of it! There is much in the world that societal pressures tell us are important things. But they are not. They are all equally unimportant.

We were thinking of these ideas on our walk recently. It was a bright fall morning. The sun still low and rising in the east, the grasses shimmering with dew and the air crisp with the woody smell of damp earth and rotting leaves. We walked amid towering oak, maple and pear trees alight in autumnal colors – fiery red, blazing orange and gold. A breeze rustled the trees and sent a gentle shower of leaves down around us. It was quiet, save for the rustling trees, the twitter of birdsong in the distance and the crunch of dead leaves beneath our feet. It was an enchanting scene. It was magical and wonderful. And we thought, reflecting afterwards, how nothing mattered in that instant. We were in the moment as much as we could ever be. We cared for as little then as at any time ever. And we thought about Nock and his words about aging. Might the acquiescence of age also stem from a growing awareness of the absurd? Unconsciously, over time, we arrive at this stage by degrees, as concerns fall from us as a snake sheds its skin.

Or, to use Nock’s analogy, we are like travelers who go through life picking up all kinds of luggage… and then, we find, somewhere and somehow along the way, we have lost a great deal of it. And yet, we are not concerned. In fact, we don’t miss it at all. Then we realize we are well off the main road… and on the path to the river, or absurdity.

P.S. You can find Nock’s essay in the book The State of the Union. It is a worthy introduction to the work of Albert Jay Nock and his silky smooth prose.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Paradox of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and the creator of numerous innovative technology devices, died yesterday. Within minutes of his death, we hear, the Internet filled up with tributes to him and the legacy he apparently left behind. (Twitter reportedly almost crashed due to the overwhelming number of messages.) Bill Gates, for example, said "The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come."

This is quite a statement. And indeed, on first blush who can argue? Jobs certainly changed the way people live and work, and for millions of people life would be well-nigh unthinkable without his products, none of which they realized their "needed" until he invented them.

Hmm. In fact, this plays into something we have been thinking about lately, which is essentially the problems created, paradoxically, by our current excess of abundance. As we see it, there are two related issues. First, the world has never seen the sheer number of "comfortable" people who exist today. In the US, for example, the vast majority of "poor" people have such extravagant luxuries as air conditioning, cell phones, and cars; in fact, there is little question the average welfare recipient in the US enjoys a far superior quality of life--measured in terms of access to food, possessions, etc.--to the richest medieval king.

Second, the instant availability of "stuff" has led to a virtual absence of delayed gratification, and consequent annoyance when such delays are imposed. We find ourselves wondering why the book we ordered from Amazon has not arrived--after all, we ordered it last week! Not that we were planning to read it right away, but what kind of operation are they running, anyway?!?

In short, as we have collectively moved up the "quality of life" ladder, not only has happiness not shown much particular progress (countless studies show happiness more or less levels off after basic needs such as food and shelter are met), but in adjusting to this new, more prosperous way of life, we have exposed ourselves to huge risk of disappointment when things do not go as expected.

What does this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, consider how much easier his products make certain tasks. When we were a teenager, we had a mishmash of records, cassette tapes, and eventually some CDs, as well as a Walkman that played cassettes and the radio. In other words, it was not at all simple to make sure we had exactly the song we wanted, when we wanted it. Sometimes, we had to make do (gasp!) with whatever we had.

Similarly, we had an extremely simple computer that was basically a word processor. There was no Internet, no Facebook, and no Google. No Twitter, either--it's hard to remember how we expressed condolences back then...

Tangentially, we have always found one of the early scenes of Scarface instructive--the scene where Tony Montana runs into his best friend Manny Ribera in the Miami slums. It is interesting because the two friends are surprised to have found each other; 30 years ago (only 30 years!), if you lost touch with someone it was conceivable you might never see them again. Again, there was no Internet, no smartphones--if someone disappeared, they might well be gone for good. Now, by contrast, we are constantly being told by friends about the 4th-grade classmates they have "reconnected with" on Facebook.

So, if we are no happier, but have become increasingly reliant on an ever-complex societal and technological system just to maintain that happiness (what do you mean you don't have environmentally-friendly Salmon?!? This is an outrage!!!), it seems we have, in financial parlance, more downside risk than upside reward. In other words, while ever more efficient and technologically-advanced stuff seem unlikely to make us much happier, as we will quickly adjust to our new reality, the loss of even a fraction of our current "status quo" could be devastating.

Peter Whybrow, a neuroscientist and the author of American Mania, argues that the instant gratification culture in our society, most prevalent in the US, is something for which our reptilian brains are particularly ill-suited. In short, Whybrow's argument is that putting a piece of chocolate cake in front of someone on a diet is asking for disaster--while we may intuitively understand the tradeoffs involved, we are almost always going to choose to eat the cake rather than exercise self-control. Quoted in a recent article, Whybrow says "We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

So what to think of Steve Jobs? Well, of course it goes without saying that Jobs didn't "exist" any more or less than anyone else--that is to say, he was an illusion as we all are. But ignoring that, we are honestly not sure what to think of his impact. We use an iPod when we walk our dog, but we don't find ourselves feeling a whole lot different about the walks than we did before. We do not have an iPad, but our wife often spends long hours on the computer at night--is this preferable to when we lacked this option?

This is not some Luddite argument that technology is bad and we should all go back to living in caves. But we cannot ignore the paradox that despite all the wealth humans have created in the past couple of centuries--the lives of unimaginable luxury so many lead, even compared with a few decades ago--the levels of human happiness have barely budged. And now that happiness rests, or so it would seem, on ever-thinner reeds of more and more stuff.

A paradox indeed...