Being your own philosopher

“And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.” -Mad Max

What’s the cruelest thing you can do to a battler? Give them a billion dollars, give them whatever they want, and tell them to choose whatever life they please. Don’t you hate it when you go to the shops to buy some washing powder, and there’s an entire isle filled with all different types, and you now have to figure out exactly what special type you want? Powder, liquid or cube? Top or front loader? Regular or concentrate? Environmentally friendly or standard? Pink or blue? Colour-fast or whites? Scented or not? All you actually want is some fucking powder to clean your clothes, and not spend your whole day squinting at the fine print.

If you give a person everything, you take away one of their principal comforts – the ability to break life down into a series of simple choices. Survival forces on us a system of very basic considerations – how to get food and water, how to pay the rent, and how to stay alive and be reasonably comfortable. When you’re poor, the choice is easy; you pick the cheapest powder you can find (or just use soap) and hope for the best. The poor person is far happier than we are, because we’re still standing here staring at shelves of Spree scratching our heads. Give a person all the choice and freedom in the world and you leave them with a very tough task – that of defining themselves. The only thing left for them is to find out who they are and what their purpose in life is. In the old days, this was a problem that only the very rich had. As a result, it was the aristocracy that became the philosophers and scientists, pondering the deep questions about life. Today, given the ease of survival in the civilized world, we are all forced to become philosophers.

How many times have you heard the refrain “I still don’t know what it is I really want to do” from people who often have a degree, or maybe two, and have held several jobs and been traveling? We are a deeply unhappy generation, because we can have anything we choose, but we can’t for the life of ourselves figure out what we want. Previous generations struggled and fought and died for us, so that we could live in this modern world of clean water and abundant food; this world of easy shelter and convenience for our every need. What would they all say if they could see us now – getting drunk, having relationship problems, waking up at thirty no wiser than we were at twenty, frittering our way through random careers, feeling like it’s all a pointless chain of events leading nowhere while we slowly get old? We are burdened with the pressure of previous generations wanting us to appreciate what we have, but we find that having it all is not as satisfying as one might naively think.

There are two ways to remedy this. The first is to restrict your own choices. This means going to live in the desert or in a poor country or in someplace where the comforts of home are far away and your survival is no longer assured. Now you have to struggle again, to fight for your existence, and make do with what you get. This fight gives you a renewed purpose day-to-day and makes you appreciate the small things that you gain by it. You justify your flight from the luxuries of western society by calling your decision an adventure, an expedition to `find yourself’; perhaps you are following a moral or political cause and this then becomes your banner – either way, you come up with some reason why you need to be struggling and fighting instead of making use of the comforts available to modern civilization. This seems anti-survivalist because we are choosing a life in which survival is harder over one in which it is easier. But the survival of the mind and the spirit is just as important as survival of the body. A person who is depressed by the decadent society they live in and from which they gain no pleasure will just turn to drugs or become an obese habitual TV-zombie or perform some other kind of self-destruction in order to relieve their frustration – and that is no kind of survival. If it takes facing danger and suffering to make you feel purpose in living, then that is they best way.

There is another solution that is much harder – it is to follow the old academics and become your own philosopher; to define a set of principles that will determine the choices you make. In the example of choosing washing powder, if you are an environmentalist, you’ll pick the green option; if you’re a person concerned with your image you might have fancy clothes that require delicate washing powder, and if your principles don’t extend to washing powder, you may decide that it’s best to choose randomly each time until such a time as a preference emerges. In all of these cases, consideration of your personal philosophy avoids the time spent agonizing about what to pick. Being a personal philosopher requires much more research and time spent thinking about things, but it is also very rewarding.

It is better to become a personal philosopher than to seek out a tougher life, because to do the latter is to take a step backwards. The truth is that the apparently luxurious and easy life we lead is still a struggle for survival, but not survival of the body. It is a struggle for survival of the mind and spirit. People in the corporate world claw at each other like it is their very lives at stake – when what is really at stake is their own morality and psychological well-being. Losing your job in the western world is not a death sentence, but sacrificing your integrity is; it is a death of the spirit. To truly survive is to find your own path through the world of easy living and difficult decisions.

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Farewell

I sold my car.  I am parted—permanently—from something cherished, from something that had grown to be a part of me, a mechanical appendage, something that really felt all mine.  There is an empty pit where it used to be.

Loss is not for youth.  Acquisition and the requisite excitement are for youth.  When I bought my car, I was a jittering teenager, clapping and skipping, grinning widely at the old man who sold it to me.  He gravely signed the papers, gave it one last pat, and watched it make for its new home.  He remembered buying it, remembered sitting in it for the first time after acquiring it, remembered Saturday mornings washing it, remembered taping bits of it back together post-kangaroo and post-garage door encounters, remembered adventures lasting days growling down endless dusty highways, with flat tyres and sticky speedo and faltering electrics.

Now I am that old man, and I have exchanged my rough, rusty sidekick for a wad of fifties.  I have handed over the keys—clasped by St Christopher—as they were handed to me.  I have seen things and done things, tasted my first freedoms, but find myself on the other side, lonelier and more subdued.  I suppose this makes me older and wiser, a car-selling sage, who knows that loss follows gain, that parting is as integral to life as exhaling after drawing breath.  Like learning to own something for the first time, I am learning its mirror.  I am back where I started, but I have a secret bundle of learnings and memories tucked away.  I will hold them tight on the old man’s side.

But I saw the spark in the young man’s eye when it roved across the dulled, striped frame.  ‘It’s beautiful,’ he said, and I knew he meant it as much as I did.  ‘Car drove wonderfully and was great on fuel,’ his text gushed, and I knew his words were true.

Where I can give no more, more can now be given.  My car gets on without me, but most importantly, it gets on.

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Scholarly and dapper

J got his very own Danish-designed, Italian merino jumper to keep him looking scholarly and dapper, hand-made by me.  Unexpected disasters led to the customisations.  The patterned block is an unrepeatable stitch invented by me, in a fit of failing to interpret a chart correctly.  The collar is a lovely hipster amalgam of the initial olive wool, some cherished beige wool and some nifty forest wool.

Here he is staring down the fascinating and somewhat frightening bird of prey that has taken up residence in the vicinity of The Duchess, hugged in merino-warmth.

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“To the girl with the bougainvilleas”

I was crossing the Green bridge from UQ on Thursday when I saw this piece of paper taped to the hand-rail. It was a note.

Yep, I’ve definitely been there – walking that fine line between sweet and creepy. It’s a pity this Romeo didn’t leave any of his own details – that kind of renders the note redundant. Perhaps the author was not as concerned with getting the girl as with being self-absorbed in his own romantic tragedy?

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Old shit / new shit

It seems to me that one’s occupation may fall into one of two broad categories:  The former, that of creating things—of constructing, inventing, and thereby adding something to the world, perhaps something of value and beauty that increases happiness; and the latter, and perplexingly more highly esteemed (in some pseudo-moral sense), that of ‘helping people,’ or, as I understand it, of fixing things that have gone to shit.

I understand that the undoing or removal of shit is likely to make the world a more pleasant place.  Wiping the arses of people who cannot wipe their own must surely make their days sunnier.  Fretting about those born into disadvantage and plotting to match them with homes and jobs and to repair their crumbling relationships gives people a lift up where they previously had none.

However, I had an epiphany, and my epiphany was this:  Fixing peoples’ shit is boring.  I don’t want to trail around after people, sweeping up what they scatter wantonly, or what they spew up uncontrollably.  I can make peoples’ lives sunnier—because I can create.  I can mix my labour with ordinary objects and make them into pleasing, desirable things.

But my philosophical indignation rises, a boiling pot, when I am confronted with the attitude that repairing hovels is more morally admirable than building castles.  Yes, you are a good person if you spoon food into old peoples’ mouths.  But you are merely artificially replicating what has heretofore occurred naturally.  You are a good person if you pull people out of hopeless situations.  But I want to know:  Pour quoi?  For what have you raised them?  To tarry on, self-sacrificing and having a miserable time wiping the arses of others?  Surely you have saved them for yet higher things, for lavishing grande opuses on the world, for shaking themselves completely of the filth of waste and decay, in which they will consent to wallow no more.

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