May 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Outwardly, nothing has changed. I am the same. The life-plan remains the same; my work at it — constant. Yet, inwardly everything has changed. I am not the man I was twelve months ago. Seen from inside looking out, everything looks different. Totally new.
The cause of the change was an unprecedented — and unrelieved — sequence of betrayals which I have suffered over the course of the last year. It was a rare conjunction, certainly: I have suffered as much betrayal in the past, but the individual instances were spread out over years and interspersed with occasional acts of good faith, which allowed me to see the world as mixed, neither good nor bad. Now they all came fast upon each others’ heels, unalloyed, unvaried, relentless.
Why this should happen now is an interesting question.
It could have merely been a matter of bad luck, as when in a game of dice one keeps rolling low and his opponent high (and, to paraphrase a market dictum, one could remain unlucky longer than he is liquid).
But it might also be something about my age: there is a reason why so many men my age turn into curmudgeons: no matter how beautiful we may have been in our youth; and how well we have kept up over the years; come fifty or so our engagement with age begins to resemble a high-speed collision with a Mack truck; the aging process accelerates dramatically, there is a kind of instance of inflation (as a big-bangologist might call it1), or, perhaps I should say, saggflation; and now it is no longer possible to disguise or ignore the effects of age. And if, god forbid, we also drink and smoke, well, there is no hiding the fact that we’re over and done with and the only direction is south. We can see it for ourselves: we don’t like looking in the mirror when shaving: even to our own eyes we have become repulsive.
And perhaps, wittingly, or unwittingly, this is what people respond to: our value as a sex object has deteriorated and with it deteriorates people’s willingness to give us credit of any sort. Not merely because they no longer want to sleep with us but also because, in their correct estimation, no one else does.
Or perhaps it is that they can see death creeping up on us: their strategies with us become more short term, in search of a quicker payoff. They no longer bother taking time to set us up for the big fraud, but pass directly into a series of small frauds. Perhaps they fear we may not be around long enough for the big one.
So, while it is possible that my last 12 months were but an accident, a statistical freak, you can see why the same accident might happen to men my age with a strangely reliable frequency. And it does: many of us become bitter and cynical. This may well be a rule of life: and not only among humans.2 This just may be the way nature works with all pack mammals.
In fact, my first clue that my own series of unfortunate events may not be unique to me, came during my conversation with Chris, an old friend about a decade older than me. We met for lunch at a hotel, I had not seen him for about a year and I was shocked to see how he looked: he had been physically devastated by his struggle with his run-away wife over the custody of their son. (In fact, he died only days later from a ruptured aorta). “You try to be nice to people”, he said, “and they turn around and shit on you.” He was not lying: I knew him as a generous and kind person; and his death occasioned a feeding frenzy among his heirs and friends.
So, come to our age, we suddenly begin to see people in a new light; it is as if scales fell off our eyes; like the blind man cured by Jesus, we suddenly see the world we had never seen before. And the view which this new power of vision affords us is not pretty. It is hard not to feel hurt. There is a desire for payback, perhaps, but mainly a desire to change one’s life-strategy entirely to prevent the hurt form happening again. Something needs to be done, but what?
In the past, when I came to the decision to break up a relationship — whether a love or a friendship — I sometimes said nothing, and merely changed my behavior, letting them figure it out for themselves. I suppose I did it to avoid the melodrama of partings, but also as a kind of proof of disrespect: not telling people about an important decision you have made concerning your relationship with them is a way of telling them how little you value their opinion. The calculation was that, eventually, they would figure it out for themselves — and be hurt by my unilateral decision — and yet, if they ever confronted me about it, I could add disrespect to disrespect by denying that anything has changed, saying that I have merely been busy, have moved, changed my hours, etc.
This time, though, the change is more general — I have come to see all people in a new way; and decided to break off with all; by which I mean — never to cultivate a warm feeling towards another person again. And what could possibly be the point of letting everyone know that? In the past, abandoning a single person while retaining my friendship with others, could be calculated to hurt that person if they ever realized my abandonment of them was selective, personal. But this, of course, does not work if we abandon all people: the people abandoned would not so much see our action as somehow an effective punishment we inflict on the world (the world will continue as it has always done) as — a punishment of ourselves; a beaten retreat from the world: a defeat. They would not be upset to see it; but the contrary. Thus, visibly abandoning all would only increase their pleasure.
This is of course what the curmudgeons do: their bristling exterior is a kind of revenge against the totality of human race which has disappointed them in so many of its individual instances. But this sort of revenge is not just silly as shown above — it is also a form of whining: a kind of appeal for humanity to note how badly it has treated us, perhaps a desperate plea for it to mend its ways. (The Japanese have an special term for this behavior: amaeru, or solicitation of pity). In doing so, the curmudgeon persists in the misguided and fundamentally unproductive effort to seek comfort in the feelings and reactions of others, whether positive or negative. It only perpetuates the curmudgeon’s dependency on others. But this is not the point. The point is to end it.
Thus, grumpiness is not the way to go. Better do the opposite: change nothing. Smile. Trade complements and small favors. Do not let on that anything at all has changed, but keep your heart firmly locked against the least feeling of warmth, of liking. The correct way to deal with the duplicity and faithlessness of the human race is not to try to change the race (which will never happen); or to somehow trick it into changing its ways (it is an empty sort of victory to force people to love you); but to secede form it entirely.
It was observed by a commentator (may have been Russell in his History), that at the heart of The Great Man’s3 philosophy lay a paradox: his prescription to pursue individual pleasure at all costs seems to have quarreled with his genuine decency and generosity towards people: it gave Him pleasure to be nice to his friends and to spend time in their company. People like Him will find it difficult to secede: they will have to learn to control their natural impulses.
1 “In physical cosmology, cosmic inflation, cosmological inflation or just inflation is the theorized extremely rapid exponential expansion of the early universe by a factor of at least 1078 in volume, driven by a negative-pressure vacuum energy density. The inflationary epoch comprises the first part of the electroweak epoch following the grand unification epoch. It lasted from 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang to sometime between 10−33 and 10−32 seconds. Following the inflationary period, the universe continues to expand.”
2 Aged alpha-male silver-back gorillas (themselves a symbol of grumpiness) retire from their tribes to be left in peace. So do old alpha-male wolves.
3 Epicurus, of course. Who else?
May 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Roskam’s Live Unnoticed (that’s λάθε βιῶσας to you) is scholarly — i.e. not interested in the doctrine as a tool for life, but in the doctrine as it was, or may have been, its origins and later fate. It meticulously traces the history of an idea — but doesn’t seem to care a whit for the idea itself.
(Scholars aren’t philosophers. But give scholars a break: by and large, even philosophers aren’t philosophers).
Roskam’s interpretation starts with the assumption that everything ever issued from the lips of The Great Man had to be based on the strict hedonistic calculus (the philosophers’ quest being a kind of dumb calculator). And therefore, he argues, Epicurus probably didn’t dispute the pleasures stemming from fame, status and power, but merely suggested that the security of a low-profile life on balance yielded more pleasure than did the public life of success.
Or, maybe The Great Man really did not feel any pleasure in status and power.
Hard as it is for an ambitious scholar to imagine, such people do exist, and some of them even bear the name of “scholars” — though the word in classical Chinese context means something else than it does in modern Europe — dictionaries of prominent Ming and Qing figures are full of successful men retiring to small islands to raise storks. (And many more, mostly liars, I imagine, saying they want to).