These days, events on the order of a human lifetime are outside the scope of thought for this time and generation. The concept of seeing things in the context of a few years seems odd and even a year is difficult to approach. We in this world and time have accustomed ourselves to a life composed of moment to moment instantaneous experience. People follow one event to the next as if to blindly follow steps in the sequence without stepping back to consider the sequence itself.
This Fall found me working my way through Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which is another fantastic success from an author who understands this message. He and a growing community of similarly minded thinkers have come together to contribute to the Long Now Foundation. The foundation describes its purpose thus:
The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996* to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mind set and promote “slower/better” thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.
The foundation aims to further its goal through seminars, essays and projects serving to redirect attention towards more significant and deserving ends. Check out some of the plans, discussion, and images of the 10,000 year clock and take a minute to think about some of the ideas behind it.
Though generally serving as a waste of time and not-so-clever procrastination device, there are a few occasions when lists step in to keep me sane. I’ve recently begun a list of things – random things – I’d like to know more about.
- how to make pad thai
- weather prediction
- the workings of nuclear power
- how plumbing works
- the art of the symphony
- early modes of transportation
- venture capital
- transatlantic ocean currents
- national parks of the us
Often when I’m biking home from work, or falling asleep, or making dinner, etc. I think of things that would be worth knowing. Sadly most of these thoughts are discarded and lost in the depths of my terrible terrible memory.
Try keeping a list – a leftover envelope, a notepad file, whatever – and take note of these things to look up later. There’s the kind of knowledge we learn in classes where we memorize the names of elements in the periodic table, physics equations, dates of important events or classic novels. Then there’s the kind of knowledge that really enriches the mind.
To fully digest something, it needs to be interesting enough to drive you to dig in and do move beyond memorization. This list is my way of setting aside some time to set aside the stresses of life and immerse myself in things, random things, that enrich my view of the world.
I am a geek. I read technology blogs, carry an iPod, work for a tech company, receive regular tech support calls from family and friends and am never too far from internet access.
Lately, though, I’ve discovered a rather unexpected trend in my habits. Nearly all of the things I truly love to do for fun are conspicuously devoid of any technological component. It’s almost as if such routine exposure to technology drives me to places where I won’t be reminded of it at all. Strange, huh.
When I was younger, I was the kid who brought his laptop to the campfire circle while camping on the family trip in Canada. These days the thought of sitting in serene silence without any hint of developed civilization have replaced the need for constant connectivity to the outside world.
Contented shivers make their way up my spine at the thought of a week in the woods. I sit and wonder whether the constant drive to develop new more powerful forms of technology is the only way to improve civilization. After all, the capacity for happiness has existed way longer than the knowledge of electricity or industrialization.
I’ve discovered about myself that I crave attention more than I’d generally be able to admit to myself. When I’m depressed, it generally has some basis in the fact that I believe myself to be uninteresting, unworthy of attention, or generally alone. These feelings stem from an innate belief that to be happy I must be worth liking, and to be worth liking I must be noticed as demonstrating skill, wit, intelligence or other beneficial traits. So, despite my desire to claim selflessness and a lack of dependence on trivial gains, here I am, superficial.
The thing that troubles me, though, is the lack of reason to this whole idea. I shouldn’t need anything more than a clear mind to experience happiness. Frankly, the most true and sincere joy I’ve felt, has come in the clarity after tossing away all thoughts of body or self and delving into experience.
I’m not sure when today, but for a few small moments, I was pondering this particular obstacle to happiness and it occurred to me that in times such as these when I fall into the trap of so desperately needing affirmation, there might be a better alternative. Maybe what I need to remember is that, given the time to think about it, there is no greater joy than at the thought of touching someone else in a powerful way.
I guess the lesson to myself is this: in times of self-doubt, loneliness and hardship, solace comes from the knowledge that I’ve given someone else the self-assurance they need to carry on in a difficult world. If I can’t come up with recent experiences fitting this description, then I have some work to do, and a clear and definite purpose to fulfill. And what could be more joyful than the knowledge of a clear and definite purpose.
“Please turn off all portable electronic devices.”
Okay, so I’ve read reports about the mostly cautionary purpose for this request, protecting against hypothetical interference with airplane-to-tower communication among other things (see CNET: Cell phones to take flight). Studies have shown that the tiny amount of power drawn by little iPods and DVD players is no threat to the massive equipment those planes pack.
Still, though, where I might have once rebelled and used my iPod anyway, I’ve changed my mind. I now agree wholeheartedly with the stewardess. Sitting in the back of Sun Country flight 395, I watched the passengers, previously distracted and occupied with music and games and news and movies from every direction, stop. The father points out the window at tiny rows of house lights, a new sight for the 6-year old peering out beside him. The mother sits and reads a novel with real words on real pages with a real story. Two strangers talk about Thanksgiving plans and family and kids and life, growing closer for an instant than many do living side-by-side amongst the business of connected, high-paced society, before flowing back apart to different destinations.
No ears are plugged; no eyes glued to the screen.
Every of us within this flying shell is hit with the majesty of existing actively in the world for a moment, and we’re always slightly surprised that it’s not as boring as we expected.
“Hey! We’re going to land!” pipes up the kid across the aisle.
And then we’re back on the ground – back in the real world.
“You may now turn on all portable electronic devices…..”
Upon the shores of an endless sea
rests noble Thomas, a honey bee
whose thirst is for the finer fruit-
riches like tunes from the gentlest flute.
Though large the span, no awful feat
for the small one to grasp such things so sweet
at the horizon’s edge for him to see,
a modest contented honey bee.
To his loyal peers, taking pause,
he speaks his joy, such urgent cause
of things to see, to know, to do
just beyond the rolling blue.
I’ll have you know, he booked a flight
and gathered those fellows without a fight.
They all were strapped in good and tight
and arrived contented that evening.
“Life is bitter, sweet and tough.”
Why believe that sour bluff?
Things are ours to love or hate.
Why turn down a happier state?
Have you ever found yourself sitting in class, or reclining on a hillside beneath a beautiful sunny day, and realized the depth of things within which you were immersed? Walking along, deep in thought or worry about the difficulties of the day, it’s pretty easy to walk along a path or through a front yard, lost in the list of things to do.
But sitting among blades of grass spiraling up out of the earth, I look out around me and open my eyes. Life is sorted into layers upon layers; first details of the grass, before the grass itself, before blades together composing the field into which each is lost. Beyond that are the hills whose curves the field blankets before reaching to the trees just over the ridge, where shadows from clouds in the sky lazily skim across the horizon before getting lost in the curature of the earth itself.
What could be sorrowful in a world such as this? I imagine sitting there, camera raised up before my eye. I slowly cycle the lens, focusing close up and slowly panning out until those things nearby are lost in blurred fuzziness and the horizon is framed in crisp detail.
Does a stream of consciousness need explanation? Does an article need a title? Stop for a moment and try a new lens. There’s so much to see.
Lost in a world, fresh and vivid, the weary and seeking mind of a man beneath the blossom of branches and colored leaves begins a journey. The novel, whose pages flutter like the leaves above on the autumn breeze, could be a calculus text, or a romance novel, or a simple story with plot and climax. Vast bookshelves whirl past the imagination with the endless possibilities and collections and genres.
Yet, tossed among the rising seas of published knowledge, this book rests on the surface with few others worthy of our adoration. The young man passing his autumn afternoon in the cradling comfort of nature’s vitality could memorize a text book or skim the cliff notes of every honored classic. Educating himself thus he might be called learned; seen as respectable. He may claim this knowledge as his, but he does not absorb it; cannot so easily integrate the lessons into his flesh and soul.
There are those we encounter passing on the road who radiate wisdom. there are these who care in face more about the process of exploring and learning for the sake of itself than the information obtained. The wise need not speak, but embody themselves the wisdom they’ve gained.
Human life shuffles along in ebbs and flows while maneuver highs and lows as each soul searches for meaning and purpose. We cannot navigate struggle by simply grasping for achievement, in the same way success in knowledge doesn’t come from equations and aggregation of detached facts. A human soul embodying curiosity, a seeking consciousness and a loving heart, resting against the trunk of a solid oak doesn’t need the half-truths of ‘success’.