Sunday, July 17, 2005

Balance

Larry, in a comment below, wonders how "simple" fancy-ass French pastry school can possibly be, i.e., aren't I being disingenuous by yammering on about simplicity when I'm doing something that's pretty complex (in some ways, not so much in others). Here's the thing: I think that sometimes being "simple" means doing something complex. (It doesn't necessarily mean being complex, however; people who aspire to that give me the willies. It's like aspiring to being neurotic.)

It is true, of course, that I, and probably those of you reading this, have the luxury to think about these things. Despite our (at least in some cases) working-class origins or experiences, our lives aren't nasty, poor, or brutish. We have the wherewithal, and the safety net, and the means, to make more active choices about what to do with our time and energy, and none of us seems particularly inclined to give it all away, to give up the iPod and the flush toilets and the little bits of security we have to go feed people in a war zone, for example.

So, given all that--and it's a big "all that"--what shall we do with our lives? Some people like to make money--big heaping piles of it. Indeed, the gospel of capitalism holds this up as a worthy end in itself, and the South Park Underpants Gnomes' business plan applauds it as well; to make lots of money is also supposedly a sign that one is "self-made" in some important way. (This despite the fact that many, though not all, of the people we think of as paragons of money-making had a head start from a parental unit **coughcoughDonaldTrumpcoughcough**, meaning, to me, that they're not the self-made people we're supposed to believe they are. They know how to take a pile of money and make it into a bigger pile; that's not the same thing as having no money and coming up with a way to build a big pile of it. I'd argue, as well, that many people in the latter category do not have building a big pile of money as their primary motivations, but, rather, the piles of money are a result of exactly the kind of ambition and talent that people like Donald Trump and George Bush like to portray themselves as having but don't.) (Yes, I know that was a particularly long-winded parenthetical comment, even for me.) But, really, to get back to the point raised at the top of this paragraph, most of the visitors at this little blog aren't in the big-piles-of-money group, even as we're also a little suspicious of too much navel-gazing.

Here's the thing: I think there's something intrinsically worthwhile in a job well done. I don't much care what the job is (though I think we should all work toward Good rather than Evil)--I don't care if it's sweeping a floor or filing papers or making French pastry or whateverthefuck. I also think there's something intrinsically worthwhile in finding a way to occupy ourselves that not only works toward Good and turns away from Evil but that also makes us happier people. I just picked up Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (the subtitle of which is "Steps toward Enhancing the Quality of Life") from my shelf in order to get his name spelled correctly, opened the book at random, and found this sentence on page 67: "The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding." (Csikszentmihalyi also notes at the end of that chapter that flow is not necessarily good in and of itself, that it can be brought to bear in ways that are ultimately harmful in some larger sense. He notes that a religious belief, for example, may benefit a person or group but repress many others, or that a scientific advance may be good for science but bad for humanity.)

And here's where we can turn to Marx, and come back to the concepts of alienation that were so central to his work. It's not just that capitalism, for example, is inherently a bad thing: it is bad because the conditions of its existence and functioning require that some, perhaps most, people be alienated from their labor, from themselves. (Oddly enough, that's actually something that Marxism and its antithesis, Ayn Rand's objectivism, have in common: in both critiques, it's the fundamental alienation from one's self and the product of one's work or labor that is regarded as the evil part of the system.) Csikszentmihalyi notes (pp. 68-69):
So much of what we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to do it, or because we expect some future benefit from it. Many people feel that the time they spend at work is essentially wasted--they are alienated from it, and the psychic energy invested in the job does nothing to strengthen their self. For quite a few people free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.
Is that any way to live?

If you say no, that you want some kind of fulfillment, some kind of optimal experience, some sense that what you're doing is worthwhile, then you really do have to participate in activities that are capable of involving you, not just occupying or entertaining you.

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