Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lost Art of Living -- Writer's Poke #383

“Measuring Happiness” is one of my more recent Writer’s Pokes. According to the blogger stats, it’s generating more hits than any other post within the last few weeks. In fact, it’s generating about ten times the amount of interest of any other post. The key word in the title is “Happiness,” and apparently people are searching for it.

Living is an art, or should be. For a long time I had Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” up on my office wall. This is a fairly iconic painting that probably most people know, but why is it so popular? Is it true that most of us live lives of quiet desperation? Am I, and others, attracted to this painting simply because the central focal character is no longer staying quiet?

What makes life so difficult? Many of us may think we’re “connected,” but more and more we spend our lives isolated from real human contact. Even saying “hello” to someone passing by in the hallway may seem pointless, especially if “hello” is the only thing you ever say to that person. Why even bother to go through the social niceties of a greeting? Just walk on by and go about your business.

Kurt Vonnegut suggested that people need to create extended families for themselves, and how these extended families are created doesn’t really matter. We could all pull numbers out of a hat, and all the people that pull twos, for example, could be the Two Clan. People, Vonnegut thought, don’t do well alone. Alone, we tend to break. Go off. Get loopy.

And yet many of us spend the majority of our time alone. We may even think we like being alone. After all, dealing with people is tiring. They don’t always understand. They’re as preoccupied about their own lives as we are with our own.

But finding a group of people to share experiences… what’s better than that? Robert Pirsig observed that reading a classic, for example, is a lost art. People used to read a classic a sentence at a time, stopping at the end of each sentence to discuss it with somebody else. I don’t know if that’s “literally” true or not, but I do know that the power and the joy of discussing a book or a movie with someone can far surpass the act of reading the book or watching the movie in solitude. I also know that as much as I like to write, I find it far more satisfying to discuss my pokes with others than to write them late at night, alone.

Through discussion, the potential for connection; through connection, the potential for art. Without connection, no art, and really, no life.

How “connected” are you to the art of living?

“I do not seek. I find.” – Pablo Picasso

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No Instruction Manual -- Writer's Poke #382

At the end of Chapter 2 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes, “We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.” Now, assume for a moment that “motorcycle maintenance” is a metaphor for life. How do people live? By a instruction manual? Can an instruction manual teach caring?

Granted, some people may claim that an “instruction manual” for living exists, but does any written document really explain how to live a purposeful life? And, how do people use the written documents they claim as “life’s instruction manual”?

Pirsig’s friend John is dependent on his instruction manual. He doesn’t know his motorcycle, and therefore, he falls back on what the manual tells him to do. He doesn’t have the ability to deviate from the manual. He assumes the manual is 100% accurate, and if Robert offers advice, John refuses to take it. Moreover, he refuses to learn. In essence, the manual stunts his growth and understanding about motorcycles. Again, think about if the discussion is about really about life and not motorcycles.

Have we lost the ability to examine our own lives? I had a conversation with a friend recently, and she said she has been exposed to an instruction manual her entire life. Not surprisingly, she strongly believes that her children should be exposed to the same instruction manual. Why? I asked. Can your children really understand the instructions? Is providing them the manual too early crushing their ability to develop their skills divergent thinkers? Can early exposure to a manual kill free will? I don’t believe that she understood my concern, and I don’t think she valued the concept of divergent thinking. For her, it was all there in the manual, and thus, she didn’t need to worry about alternatives or asking questions or even thinking for herself, or allowing her children the privilege. In my view, however, she is little different from John, who doesn’t know his own motorcycle.

Is life the journey or the destination? Often times, people will admit that it is the journey that counts, and this is the philosophy that Pirsig subscribes to as well. Are people that rely on a manual of instructions too preoccupied with the “destination”? Not necessarily, but based on my own personal experience, it does seem to be more likely.

What are your thoughts on instruction manuals for living? Do you agree or disagree with Pirsig on their possible limitations?

“I hate having to read the manual.” – Trevor Horn

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Key -- Writer's Poke #381

Lakshmi doesn’t know much of anything about the outside world, but like the other girls who live at Happiness House, she is fascinated by television. When she first came to the city, she thought that the roofs of houses would have golden roofs, but even though that turned out to be false, television didn’t disappoint her. In fact, television is better than golden roofs. Even the commercials.

What the girls most like to watch is American soap operas. What do they think when the watch Days of Our Lives or One Life to Live? Do they assume that what they are watching is real? Remember: these are the same girls from the country who didn’t even know what to expect from the city. The city didn’t turn out as they expected, but can they still believe in the magic of America?

Americans, they all know, cannot be trusted. Is this lesson reinforced by the soap operas they watch? America is undoubtedly a strange and mysterious place, but perhaps there is no real to assume that all Americans are bad. Perhaps there is every reason to keep believing that the American man who says he wants to help her leave Happiness House is telling her the truth.

Lakshmi is convinced that there are two kinds of stupidity: the stupidity of naïve belief, and the stupidity to keep believing when one has the experience to know better. Nevertheless, Lakshmi makes up her mind to believe in the American, and when he finally returns, trust allows her to escape. Hope might be an illness, but Lakshmi walks out of Happiness House with the American when her friend Anita can only languish in the despair conditioned by mistrust.

After all Lakshmi has been through, where does she get the strength to continue to trust?

“You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you do not trust enough.” – Frank Crane