Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Modern Life

A.H. Cemendtaur

A fast-moving boat lost control and started shooting up into the air, a balloon glided down in a gentle wind, an old man stopped to pick up the newspaper that had fallen from his hands. Then words started appearing randomly on a big white screen: Life;meaning;evaluation;confusion;destiny.

Slowly I got cognizant of my surroundings. The day had grown and matured. The sun was trying to pierce through the curtain. I lolled in the bed for a while still thinking of last night’s conversation. She had said she wanted to escape ‘all that.’ Escape all what, I had asked. “Escape all this,” she had repeated herself; this time fluttering her hands in the air. I watched her quivering fingers looking for a clue. I did not find one. What did she mean? Why was it so hard for her to put her finger on ‘that?’ Then, in the tradition of our times, I tried to pigeonhole her. I told her she was a nihilist; that she was trying to escape from modern life; I told her that a lot of people were trying to do that. They wanted to escape “all this.” But before you plan your escape you must understand what you are talking about.

The whole experience of settling down in communities and then gradually using technology to make our life easier, and then continuous improvement in the ways we do things thereby increasing our efficiency, has thrust us into this new lifestyle that to many appears a quagmire. Ostensibly we have been trying to make our life easier; it seems we end up making it more and more complicated. Every scientific breakthrough brings more consumer goods, more comfort in our lives, but still ends up complicating things.

The modern system we have spun around ourselves has acquired a life of its own. At times it looks as if we have become slaves of our own system. This beast pulsates when people are stuck in their places, when they work everyday: people pay taxes, highways get built, system gets renovated, more material things get invented and come in public use, more complexity ensues. And in the middle of all this you find yourself standing fixed, working like a machine. You toil, you make money and then you write checks to all these people maintaining the infrastructure that hosts your existence.

The powerful wave of time takes you along. The scheme of things baffles you, and sometimes you wish to run away from the genie that has been created by people like you. You ask about the meaning of life. Why are you here? What is the purpose of your existence?

It is not only the religion that has answers to this philosophical question about life. Atheists and agnostics have their own ideas. When Bertrand Russell was asked such a question, he quipped, “What is the meaning of meaning of life?” In essence, Russell was saying that the concept of “meaning of life” is our own creation. That thousands of years ago when we were roaming the land, collecting wild fruits, hunting, and often going hungry for days, the concept of “meaning of life” never occurred to us; survival was the only goal at that time, and that was all there was. No grand philosophical queries presented themselves. The quest for finding the ‘meaning of life’ came when we invented agriculture and animal husbandry, and living a long natural life became a certainty. We then got bored by the predictability and the monotony of life. The “meaning of life” trap stems from that boredom.

But aside from the philosophical argument, what many find depressing about modern life is its mechanical aspect--when things become routine and everyday is similar to every other day, for years after years. It is this life of working fixed hours every workday, doing the same thing over and over again that annoys you. Many fall into the trap; they run the race to gather the most toys, collect consumer goods. The victims constantly compare themselves with others, and believe that whoever lives in a bigger house and drives a bigger car than them is “better off” than them. These rat-race runners are most likely to stop in their tracks one day and question the basic premise of their living. They long to find meaning in their lives. Drugs, religions, alternate lifestyles, all prescribe their own medicine.

And the idea of escape from the drudgery appears very romantic. Fed up with modern life some plan a big escape, something like what Alaska hiker Chris McCandless did (beautifully described by Jon Krakauer in “Into the Wild”). Others find nirvana in short periods of solitude. It is what made Henry David Thoreau live a solitary, contemplative life at the Walden Pond for two years.

I believe escape is a mental exercise and can be achieved while staying in the system. There is no need to go anywhere. Nirvana can be found right here in the midst of the cacophony. Inner peace can be found by understanding the game, recognizing its hollowness, and refusing to be compliant; by stopping to compare yourself with others; by wanting to live the life by your own rules.

And the emancipated modern life starts with the moment when you truly understand the economic system you live in. To relieve yourself from bondage to the system you need to get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck rut. Evaluate yourself. What skills you have that can be used to make money? How can you market those skills in the most efficient way? It is almost certain that you will have to make compromises; there will be situations when you will be working for money all the while wanting to do something else. Your triumph lies in making these episodes fewer and the duration of such compromises short. It helps to decide about a date when your compromise would end, expire. No matter how busy you get in life, every few days stop yourself and take time to see which way you are headed. Do you really want to go that way? Ask yourself if that is the shortest path to your long-term goals.

It also helps to have a very good handle on the concepts of cash flow, burn rate, and an estimation of time period you can survive if the source of your primary income is cut off today. By being financially secured you find room in your life to manipulate things in your favor. The sooner it happens the better, because financial stability marks the beginning of your real life. And financial stability doesn’t mean a very big balance in your bank account; you reach stability when you find a balance. The adage, ‘Happiness is positive cash flow’ comes to mind.

But what do you do when you have mastered the survival techniques? When you have understood the game, when you can clearly see the diapers in the beginning and diapers in the end, and the whole drama of life in between, from childhood to death? What do you do to not be bored? How not to be inwardly consumed by the frivolous reality of life?

The meaning of life is in living it. The base of your existence is like quicksand. You are better off keeping walking. Keep moving lest you start sinking under the weight of your own pondering.

You can relieve ennui by doing new things all the time, by refusing to be predictable, by taking risks, by finding causes to fight for, by lending a helping hand. If two consecutive days of your life are alike and if this happens over a long period of time then a change is badly needed.

Look at the safety network the modern society has laid out for you. There is no reason to dread the fall. The network is there to catch you. It is not like yonder years when taking risks could prove perilous; if you failed there was a good chance that you’d die of hunger. That fear is not there anymore. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen when you take a risk. You may lose a few things. On the other hand, think of the diversity of life that you enjoy by taking the risks.

And how do you know if you are being daring enough? It is said that if your life is free of failures, then you are not taking enough risks. In taking risks listen to Admiral Grace Hopper’s prophetic advice: "A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things."

And you can enjoy life by learning new things. There is so much to experience and learn. Look at the vast universe. It is begging to be explored. And this is probably what human beings will be doing far in the future. Having total mastery on all mundane activities of life, they will perpetually be involved in the exploration of the cosmos.

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