Monday, July 14, 2008

"Set Time Co-ordinates to ... the Year 500!"

Why is it that my best thoughts come to me in the shower? I wish I had a dollar for every time I've wished I had a water-proof whiteboard! Seriously, are my brain cells just being jazzed up by chemicals in the tiles or does it have something to do with taking off my clothes? Maybe being forced to look at my naked body under that flattering fluorescent bathroom light is making my subconscious mind think, "Better get to work brain, 'cos she definitely can't use anything else to her advantage in this lifetime. GiddeUP!"

See, I'll be happily relaxing under a guilt-evoking stream of hot water, imagining that I'm soaping some other woman's homely body while mine has actually been stolen on account of its great beauty, leaving behind only its mental brain counterpart... when suddenly, thoughts will come to me. Sometimes stupid, often stimulating, sometimes damn brilliant. Today, such a thought occurred to me. Not a very happy one either.

What I thought was this: What are the things we really need in life to be happy? Apart from food, water and shelter, you would say family, friends and a job, right? A connection to society, a purpose to our life, a sense of continuity in our relationships. Well, if you take a look through history, no matter how rich or poor people were, they always had those things. Even the poor man sweeping the chimney, if he had a family, had a great end to his day. Maybe he would only get to eat watery cabbage for supper, but he would eat it hungrily and in peace. A worker on a lord's farm in the Dark Ages would have to work very hard but at moments he would take a stretch, look up and see the blue sky and breathe deeply of the fresh, clean air. He would enjoy the same nature as the rich lady, walking along the country lane to visit her friends. Rich and poor alike could still enjoy the world around them. For the rich man, it was an embellishment for his rich life; for the poor man, it was perhaps his only comfort in his poor one.

Fast forward to today. Most things have changed dramatically. One of the most dramatic is that what previously only the rich could enjoy the poor can now enjoy as well. For example, cars, nice shoes and meat to eat. Even the poorest among us can hope for some of these things today. Indeed, the world has become a place abounding in 'previously only for the rich' things. Many of us have appreciated this. Don't tell me you haven't, because you're either lying or you're a religious ascetic of some kind. We all drive our cars, catch our fast trains, take our trips overseas, take in a film or gallery, eat a sumptuous dinner, buy nice clothes, cars, furniture, electronics and cosmetics. This has become our way of life. Sometimes, it even overshadows what should be our way of life. For example, maybe we want to be reading up on a subject we love of an evening, but there's a really good movie or documentary on TV we can't miss. Or perhaps somebody at work has greatly annoyed or upset us and next thing we know we're spending that money we were intending to save for a house on clothes or shoes to make us feel better. Or heck, maybe we're the type who can just ease the boredom of a Friday night by jetting off to another part of the country to take in an opera, like Richard Gere does in 'Pretty Woman'. These luxuries have become our emotional crutches. But why do we need them?

Before TV, what did families do? Have your kids ever asked you this? I wish more kids would ask this question. Yes guys, families did used to actually sit together in the evenings and talk. Fathers would tell stories of their younger days to their sons and mothers would teach songs and poems to their daughters. Children would see their parents as fountains of knowledge, not black holes of shame. The extra time meant that families would get together with other families and connections would be maintained at a higher level than today. For example, you would see your cousins at a wedding, experience great times with them, and a couple of days later you would see them again in a different setting and you could debrief. This is what I mean by a sense of continuity. There was the feeling that life continued; there wasn't a sense of having to have a great time because you wouldn't see this person again for another 6 months or more. There wasn't stress on the job because this was a job you would be taught how to do slowly and surely by a true master (maybe your father), not as a cutthroat competition between you and 3 others trying to impress a boss who didn't know you and couldn't care less where you'd be in a year's time. You would have to save for a year for a decent pair of shoes but at least you had the hope and the vision that one day they'd be yours and that they'd be just as wonderful as you'd imagined. Today you buy them on your card because who knows if they'll be available in even a month's time or if you'll even want them if they are. And after you've bought them, they go into a cupboard full of other shoes that are in that slow, making-their-way-to-the-back of the closet queue.

Pleasures. Life today is full of them. But PLEASURE. Deep and lasting satisfaction, the kind you get from a 30+ year marriage or becoming really skilled in your job... where is that today?

Which leads me to an anarchic conclusion. We've all been fooled. The big rich guy has fooled us into accepting a whole lot of things that originally were intended only as embellishments to a normal, healthy life, but in return, we have lost our normal, healthy life. The condition in the fine print which we didn't read was that we would accept these things in exchange for our normal, healthy life. Because it occurs to me that a normal, healthy life needs 3 things: a belief in a higher power (granted, for many this takes the form of spirituality or belief in self or a higher calling or the higher virtues); a family (again, this has many forms); and a job (something to do). Without even one of these 3 things, we don't seem to be as happy as we could be. The thing is that in the past, these things could be enjoyed by both king and peasant. Today, our families, our jobs and our relationship to the higher things are all being ripped apart. Divorces, breakdown of churches, unemployment, disconnectedness to neighbours, ugly, blocklike buildings in imaginationless cities... etcetera. They're all illustrations of this breakdown. But now I come to my point. The reason I'm writing today. The thing that came to me as I gazed at my oh-so-not-like-Venus-de-Milo body in the bathroom mirror this morning.

This breakdown is hitting rich and poor alike. Yet the rich don't have to sit there and take it. They can board a plane to another country, buy a new car, meet a famous person, have someone throw them a party to console them... Diversion. They can gorge their diverténte bug until it's stuffed and forget their pain. But the poor man, he has to get up, start his car in the freezing cold morning, forget his woes and get ready to face his working day. Or go out and get a job, if he's unemployed; all the while feeling like a burden on society. His wife may have left him, he may have lost money gambling at the myriad places the rich have supplied for this purpose, or become a drunk by drinking the alcohol big rich companies have manufactured and his family has broken down, but he can't just leave it, get on a plane and leave his worries behind. He has to get up day after day and face them. Then, when it just becomes too hard, because nobody around him is interested in the plight of a sad, lonely bugger like him and none of his good-time mates come round to visit anymore, he gets depressed. His daugher, drunk herself on a steady diet of attitude TV and music, tells him to snap out of it. His son left home long ago to pursue his 'dreams', just like all those Hollywood movies inspired him to, and is now working odd jobs while holding an armful of degrees and diplomas and scoffing at the unromantic mediocrity of the average working life.

So here's our old man now, alone, depressed and feeling damn cheated. He goes to a therapist for help and is diagnosed with depression, put on drugs. Poor sick fella, his body doesn't make enough endorphins to keep him on top of things; not his fault, it's all to do with genetics. Some people just aren't built with the optimistic streak.

And here's where I set poor little old men and women looking anxiously out of their windows for the source of the animal-like ferocious hollering noise...

WHO THE FUCK IS ?!?!?!?!?

We have managed to allow the creation of a society where, if you're rich and privileged, you are operating at a normal level. Just normal. If you have family problems, self-esteem issues or bad friends, you can still come out even - IF you've got money. You will be living life at approximately the same level of enjoyment as a peasant back in the year 500 AD. Unhappy about some things, happy about others, accepting most of it. But if you're poor today, you are to be pitied more than anyone who has ever lived before. Because at least the poor of history had their close families, their close-knit communities who gave a shit about them, their good sense of self-esteem, their knowledge that children would respect them as they got older and wiser. Today's poor truly have nothing. Their flashes of genius are wasted away and rot in front of brainwashing TV programs; their relationships are dictated by what the rich think and want for the world (why can't your husband accept your hairy legs? why should you wear heels?); they could go out for a walk to clear their heads if the polluted air, noisy streets and dull cement-coloured surroundings allowed it. They could enjoy the sense of being human if every step they took they weren't confronted with some stranger's blank, unfriendly face avoiding their gaze, some impossible woman's half-naked figure on the side of a bus or some rude group of teenagers trying to push them out of the way just because they're there. Poor people have no way of getting away from the underbelly of all the marvellous things the rich have lavished upon the world, while not getting to enjoy even the simple pleasures that have always been the boon of the poor and the glory of their humility, because the lavish pleasures, like technology, have made these things (a satisfying job, a happy family that communicates, faith in a good future) seem secondary to happiness and productivity. The blindingly exultant things of today have completely eclipsed everything else; we've shut the curtains on the sun to enjoy the amazing miracle of electric light, not realising that this humble sun is the source of everything.

Perhaps one day it will all break down. All the contraptions, devices, new-fangledisms and technological innovations will just disappear. We'll be left alone; just us, our empty brains and our earth and sun. We'll have to learn everything all over again. Maybe we'll have fun doing it.

There's always a silver lining.