Saturday, 14 January 2017

Calibrating life

When things turn to shit, we tell ourselves life could be worse.

I've lost my job, but I've got my health. I've lost my leg, but I've got my life. They lost their life, but they lived it well.

It helps a lot of the time. In If This is a Man, Primo Levi wrote this of his time in Auschwitz:

Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy [...]

It's a good way of stopping yourself from smothering on the stench.

But what about when life gives you roses? If something good happened and a friend told you it could've been better, you'd slap them.

Unfortunately, life is always telling us it could be better, via advertising, and social media, and media of any kind, and generally having eyes and ears...

Plus, the reason you'd slap the friend is because they'd be right, and they'd have killed your buzz.

That blog post you wrote? It was good! It wasn't a novel...

When are our friends - and, more importantly, our own minds - right to tell us things could be better?

Philip Larkin is best known for his poetry, but he was also a critic. In Further Requirements, he said this about criticism:

It is no use remonstrating with a reviewer for speaking of the latest Poetry Book Club choice in terms that leave no adjectives for, say, Hardy, Tennyson, and Pope. If he tries to keep the same critical standard for the lot he will find himself unable to say, not only anything favourable, but anything at all about the month's poetry, simply because critical perspective means that if the classics are in focus then ephemera are not even visible, and vice versa.

Is the same true of life?

I think it is for things that aren't personal achievements. This morning's sunrise might not be as spectacular as that one in 1998 with Barbara on Machu Pichu, but it still looks pretty damn epic, so shut the fuck up about Peru.

This Friday night in Dalston might not be as thrilling as a first night at Glastonbury, but I've still got chills up my spine...

It's tricky when things get personal, though.

When I write what I think is a good blog post, should I remind myself that it wasn't a novel? It would kill my buzz, but maybe all those small buzzes from all those small blog posts give me just enough satisfaction to stop me from ever writing that novel, and maybe the buzz from the novel would be a whole other world of buzz I'll never experience because I blog?

When I write a good article at work, should I remind myself that I haven't exposed any corruption or impeached any presidents? Would I be more likely to topple presidents if I was that hard on myself? And if I did eventually take one down, would I be able to feel happy about it, or would I have lost the ability to feel anything positive?

Likewise every achievement that provides small satisfactions or burns off small frustrations. If I didn't have Tinder, would I eventually get frustrated enough to approach people I like in bars, and if I did would I take more of them home? If I didn't run and do weights, would I go to Syria to fight Isis, and if I did would I consider my life more worthwhile when it ended 3 months later than if I'd lived 60 more years in suburbia?

There's danger in letting off steam as well as in bottling it up, I suspect.

In general, I think we have to re-calibrate our expectations every once in a while to make sure the ephemera remain visible. I don't think there's any danger in this: I'm pretty sure nobody has ever blown their mind like a set of overloaded speakers through an unexpected pleasure surge. There is no Stendhal syndrome of the streets.

But for maximising your own potential, I don't know. We can't all be Thomas Hardy, but nor would Hardy have been if he hadn't tried.

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