Monday, January 17, 2005

The frivolity of evil, the marathon of Life

This article by the always lucid Dr. Dalrymple is sad and true, I think.

His patients never seem concerned about trading their own microscopically short-termed pleasures for the long-term misery of others who suffer the consequences, especially their children. However, I don't believe it's merely the frivolity of evil at work. How can someone understand the concept of lasting consequences with an underdeveloped sense of Time?

I do agree a social order that detaches acts from consequences is a necessity for this deterioration, but I would also point to a general devaluation of the substance and richness of life, because this appreciation requires an appreciation of time not only as something that should be shortened. Modern society seems to demand things move faster, and seems to discount the subtleties of things that are slow. Because of its nature as a medium, it's understandable why television operates in tiny, digestible, though incomplete, chunks of sight and sound. What most of current culture hasn't yet understood is that sizzle and spectacle don't reflect the total nutritional requirement of the human soul. When one never experiences unadvertised beauty or quiet stillness or the lovely experiences that require time and effort and involvement, mere short-term pleasure is the only analgesic in town. And superficial pleasure's habitual overdose is corrosive to deep human happiness.

It used to be taken on faith, even by those not educated enough to judge for themselves, that "elevated" experiences were worth pursuing and learning to appreciate. Now, there is wide cultural acceptance and even exultation in knowing nothing about the world or its wonders. People are not ashamed of stunting their own potential until it encompasses nothing beyond the workings of their own remote controls. Talents in music or dance that took years to develop are now often less valued than the spectacle of hypersexualized children showing off. People cook less, sew less, garden less, construct and craft less, and produce far fewer of the materials they consume. This is an unbalanced diet of low-quality stimulation with no time for reflection. Life-sized events fly by at a blur with a threshold for content that necessarily degrades in order to produce new shock and thrills among the jaded.

Part of this retarded understanding of Time I attribute to technology. Early inventors knew they'd made an impact when things could be done faster or with less effort. I'm not a Luddite. On the contrary, I think technology is humanity's gift. I don't suggest that anyone should be handwashing dishes for enlightenment, even if sometimes I find it soothing and unobjectionable. I think people should free themselves from things they abhor or can't do efficiently enough. I only suggest that all the "mod cons" supposed to free people from drudgery have produced free time that huge amounts of people don't use to improve themselves, their relationships, their communities, or the world.

And what about the children of the technologically liberated? Many of these kids grow up materially indulged, unaware that effort was ever required to acquire things. They're often strikingly ignorant, because their parents who've disavowed the backwardness of traditional, concrete skills for self-sufficiency haven't even passed on such training as they received. Their children are bred only to consume, an unsustainable situation where multitudes of infantilized adults without basic life skills or maturity are unable to leave the nest.

Then, there are the modern people who desperately shuttle from place to place so they don't miss anything. The ubiquitous cellphone-people I'm forced to overhear using the wonders of technology to escape developing foresight, punctuality, consideration, and modesty. Listen yourself, and you'll rarely hear anything anything other than logistics under dicussion: "When will you get here? I'm on my way. Bring it with you, I forgot. Meet me there and we'll see if anything's happening."

But Life is already happening. And its opportunities for glories and intimacies and memories unspool while many of us are concerned with faster-moving, transient garbage that's already out of date and/or fashion. And those slow moments to put your hands to something real, to develop skills that aren't easy, to learn something deeply, and to help or enjoy another person are lost to the commute.

I remember someone saying that Man is the best marathon runner on earth. We can't outrun a horse or jaguar over short stretches, but over distance, no animal outlasts a human. I'd suggest our minds and spirits copy our biology in this respect. The greatest human achievements of art and science are the results of dedication over time. In a recent example, we can see Saturn's moon, Titan, because of a seven-year journey, itself the result of years of investment and the sustained efforts of thousands of people. It is the application of effort over time that turns humans into miracle-workers and that makes the impossible possible. I'm afraid the cultural disregard of this dynamic impoverishes our spirits as well as lessens our ability to create future wonders. As we turn modern life into an ever-accelerating sprint, we ought to consider how it predisposes such as we are to failure, how little speed and superficiality play to our strengths.

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