Sometimes in life we make wrong choices, we take the wrong turning or we say the wrong things or we execute the wrong decisions. In life’s often peculiar manner, we remain ignorant of the wrongness of our choice until well after its terrible retribution commences. If we are stubborn we stay the course and sometimes it works out and we are celebrated as heroes and pioneers. If we are wise though we change course and we never know what might have been.
Sometimes it’s not us who made the choices but our ancestors. Jared Diamond’s insanely enlightening book “Collapse” runs through how communities/societies especially isolated ones that had existed probably for thousands of years run out of luck and come to a final gruesome end. They run out of food or get hit by an environmental disaster and, being human, eventually succumb to fractious tribal conflicts and over-religiosity in the praying to deaf gods. Eventually death comes to the last person.
Some of us will soon see this scenario (minus the last-man-standing scenario) on the isles of Kiribati. Their 3000 year existence at ‘home’, those precarious islands at most 3 meters above sea level, is about to be snuffed. Out. The excellent Bloomberg Businessweek article (link below) describes with poignant ruefulness the tragic and unravelling fate of these people. Cause: climate change compounded by poverty, isolation, ignorance, poor cultural practices, illiteracy and religion.
“Good morning, Jesus,” the preacher says, and his flock responds with alacrity, “Good morning, Jesus.” The minister—the youth pastor in the village of Te Bikenikoora—holds his Bible aloft. “Let us sing a song to ask the Lord to protect us from climate change so that we can remain in our homes.” Many of the worshipers look up to heaven for salvation.”
The minister continues: “God has such great love for us. We praise you, God, for your protection. You, God, are our No. 1 helper. We will be strong when the wind hits us. We will be protected by you. We need to be strong in our faith.”
Unfortunately, not even God can help them now. It’s too late. Anote Tong, the London School of Economics educated president of the country, gives his country 20 years. “If nothing is done, Kiribati will go down into the ocean. By about 2030 we start disappearing. We would not survive a Hurricane Sandy. We would be finished.”
If nothing is done? But who is going to do the doing? America? China? India? Those guys have bigger fish to fry. In the grand scheme of things one hundred thousand people on flat islands in the middle of nowhere are just not significant enough to stop the economic cycle; the business of feeding, clothing and enabling the 2.8 billion consumers in these countries plus of course there’s the rest of us. The Kiribatis will have to find somewhere else to live.
I was reading this on my journey to buy groceries in Brixton (an economically-challenged part of London once famous for ethnic minorities and riots but now being spectacularly gentrified) when I was accosted by the spectre of the old black man begging outside Sainsbury’s, the large grocery chain. He was without doubt not too far now from the end and there was no hope of redemption from his misery. What choices had he made? What choices did his parents make that screwed up his childhood? How had he compounded this during his twenties, thirties, forties and so on till his sorry present state? What cruel cards had life dealt him with which he had been too poorly skilled to play?
For several years I worked in London’s financial services sector investing money on behalf of well-to-do clients hoping to earn them a princely 4-6%pa from which my firm earned a commission and I was paid a barely living wage (“barely” – ha! after all this is London. It’s expensive. Try buying a flat white coffee!) Six weeks ago I left the money-pot investment world for the real one to do something on my own and for myself: with all the terror and excitement that striking out, perhaps on a limb, bring. It may end well. It may end in a disaster. My previous colleagues are still inside the mothership cocoon earning salaries and planning skiing holidays; perhaps not so free and brave as I (or foolish).
So here I am with one question on my mind perhaps like the ancestors of the Kiribati who struck out for those once pristine islands that had arisen out of some cataclysmic event and are now about to sink beneath another one: have I made the right choice?
All great deceivers proceed in a way that is worth noting, for to this they owe their power. In the actual act of deceit, among all the preparations, the awe-inspiring features of their voice, expression, gestures, amid scenery contrived for effect, the belief in themselves comes over them: this is the one who then speaks so wondrously and so authoritatively to the surrounding people.
The founders of religions differ from those great deceivers in that they do not emerge from this state of self-delusion: or they have only on very rare occasions those clearer moments when doubt overpowers them; but they generally comfort themselves by imputing these clearer moments to the evil antagonist. Self-deception must be present for these individuals, as well as those, to bring to about their great effects. For human beings believe in the truth of what is quite manifestly strongly believed. – from Frederich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human I (40, 52)
We sometimes come upon pronouncements that are such perfect reflections of our own mind that we wonder if coming upon those words was just pure chance or instigated by divine intention.
“Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere … this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible hypotheses…it is the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the… hope that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised. There is no scientific concept, in any of the sciences, more destructive of anthropocentrism than this one.” – Jacques Monod
“Cafe wit may be divided into jokes about those who are absent and jibes at those who are present. This kind of wittiness is known elsewhere as mere vulgarity. There’s no greater proof of an impoverished mind than its inability to be witty except at other people’s expense”
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
That just about rules out all comedy and satire which, to be candid, are only funny when you’re not the butt of the joke. Still …
‘Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that’s the intelligence of this stupidity.”
It’s the second day of the tenth month of the second millennium (and thirteenth year) since Time Zero (AD) and this pudding of a calendar year is rapidly going off. For humans a year is like “oh my god, it’s been like a year!!!” and our bodies age, our careers careen and our graves siren ever louder and grimmer. But let’s face it, the concept of time is a meaningless construct. It feels like ‘only yesterday’ I celebrated last christmas (in cold Chicago) and New Year a week later (in warm California) but I’m hard pressed to name all the exciting things that have happened to me since (a new MacBook, does that count?).
To spend a year on Earth is to spend one month on Jupiter and two days on Neptune and while in my imagination I see galaxies where a ‘lifetime’ is forever and where the dazzling luminary that colours the sky never dims; yet this dreamland is odious to me for I am married ’til death do us part to an evolutionary body that can’t deal with the concept of not sleeping. A place where eyes remain wide open? Oh no. It is good to sleep – in fact I am quite looking forward to a few days hence when I can (and shall) poop for twelve hours in one swoop. Yes, I know Solomon in his famous proverbs was quite severe on sluggards but what did he know of resting tired bones, he being a king and all? If I had three hundred concubines on top of seven hundred wives I think I could also find the energy to stay awake for some extra jiggy jiggy.
The obverse of sleep is not wakefulness but death: when the lights go out and life can go fuck itself. If I’m honest my life is pretty banal most days and so are the lives of the legions that I see boldly rushing to jobs that pay just enough (except for those in the top 2% who are granted the luxury of working from home or from the golf course when they feel like it). Our whole existence is aimed at just that: existing. We don’t get to ride a sunbeam at lightspeed. We don’t get to camp a night on Mars or the dark side of the moon. We don’t get to traverse black holes and live to retell the tale. The closest we get to magic is when babies are born or we come up close to animals we’ve only seen on TV or in books. Or when we dream.
Banality is the one certain bane of mankind. And each year we are weighed down more and more by the banality of life trying well-tested tricks for fun: from class A drugs to X-rated sex; from reality TV to absent-mindedly surfing the net. [Actually reading good books is pretty cool; and so is good music; and high quality theatre; and of course intelligent conversation and long rambunctious dinners with good friends settled with excellent wine – gosh there’s a growing list of things that make living worthwhile].
I feel somewhat like those poor souls sent to training courses only to return to the office to continue doing what they always did (and expecting different results) and I shall wake up tomorrow morning with a rotten sense of how much of my time, tomorrow, will be spent doing things that are … trifles, all in the name of a job that looked like a truffle when I started. Unlike Fernando Pessoa whose words I quoted above, it’s not stupidity that I marvel at; what astonishes me more than the banality with which most people live their lives is the intelligence of this banality.
Failure is not an option. That’s how my life looks right now as the days wind down to final exit from a 9-5 grind. The bugle calls: entrepreneurship!! Master of my own fate and captain of my own destiny. I’m no fool (I think). I am realistic and pragmatic but not necessarily practical. I know that I cannot do everything and anything. There are seven billion other buggers out there shuffling for space and recognition. Can I carve out a space where I can survive, succeed and be insatiably happy?
Failure is not an option. Hernan Cortes was said to have sunk (or burnt) his ships to give his army no escape options and thus no other option but fight to conquer Mexico. He did it for God and Spain. He wasn’t the first. Tariq ibn Ziyad is also said to have done the same eight hundred years earlier as he led his Islamic forces to conquer >> Spain/Iberia. It’s not unlikely that many others have tried this tactic unsuccessfully. Rather like the flightless birds of once uninhabited islands who cast off their flight skills only to face extinction at the arrival of a predator (most likely, man).
Failure is not an option. Who wants to be branded “loser”? The shame. Exclusion from the community. Being shunned and looked down upon. If you’re a loser you might as well forget about mating with desirable members of your species. Life for losers, if indeed one can call it that, can be grim. Life for losers can be fatal. Failure is not an option.
But failure is an option and if you think it through there really is no other option. Life throws so many curve balls that eventually we are bound to fail at something. Even the almighty Alexander the Great failed in his endeavour to conquer the world when his troops, homesick, finally had enough of fighting. He duly accepted that no man can conquer the world on his own and perhaps not at all. We can’t all be #1 at the same thing at the same time. Failure is very much an option. What is not an option is giving up.
Giving up is not an option. If you can’t be #1 or #2 (insert acceptable ranking) here you can be successful over there. You don’t have to bang your head against the same wall. If your dream is not working (say gold at the Olympics) then change direction, climb over the wall, dig under the obstruction or simply move to a different physical and/or mind space. These strategic options served our early ancestors well as they spread across the planet (destroying the local ecosystem) seeking new places where they could be independent of the old order they left behind. Moving is not always an option in our age when all the land’s taken and you need a passport to step across imaginary man-imposed borders. But in your mind you can always move.
Giving up is not an option because we can redefine our problems, reset our goals and sail in new directions. If we can’t have this then we will go for that. There’s no need to be stuck like a needle on a scratched vinyl record. You can’t go head-to-head with Microsoft in office software? Define a new market: creative software or games or something. You can’t go head-to-head with FaceBook in social networking? Create one for professionals or mums or [insert your passion]. You can’t get promoted at your current job? Move. Don’t die there. Move. You suck at maths but want to be an engineer? Can you code instead? Or are you good at drawing – you can be a designer! You hate your job but you love food? Cook but be creative about it and find a market you can shine in. You like beer? What about an independent brew? Your baby left you?
C’mon there’s no such thing as “He(she) was meant for me”. Nobody created any person for you – move your mind space and position yourself for another baby. [There’s only one person in the world for you. Really? There’s a Power out there who is ignoring all the problems in the world just to make sure you find that soul mate. Really?] And if you’re in the sort of job that’s truly dead end (street cleaner comes to mind) you have work to do to get yourself educated or vocationally trained in something that is worthwhile. Life is too short to be sitting on one’s ass or cleaning the street. Be part of the revolution: become an engineer and design machines for that sort of job – if we can think of cars that drive themselves then we can make machines to auto-clean our streets.
Use your head. Learn from failure. Don’t just pick up the pieces; sweep them away instead and start over, wiser and better.
“The notion that truths external to the mind may be known by intuition or consciousness, independently of observation and experience, is, I am persuaded, in these times, the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions. By the aid of this theory, every inveterate belief and every intense feeling, of which the origin is not remembered, is enabled to dispense with the obligation of justifying itself by reason, and is erected into its own all-sufficient voucher and justification. There never was such an instrument devised for consecrating all deep seated prejudices.”
Autobiography, John Stuart Mill