Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Inside Story on Asceticism

You know how, by level 20 in a video game, you start noticing that all the levels are essentially the same, in spite of changing color schemes and updated monsters? You begin to see past the facade of diversity. The spell has broken. As you keep playing, you might sport a new gizmo, or develop a new skill, but the repetition becomes more and more crudely obvious, eventually making the game a complete bore. Check, please!

That's how I feel about life, and it's been a concern for a long time. I've had abnormally broad-ranging experiences in a wide variety of scenes and locales. I've been several different people, working five or six careers, and thinking and acting in different ways. It's all been about trying to stay ahead of the repetition by perpetually seeking out freshness. As I wrote here:
I agree with Jerry Seinfeld's insistence that life's not too short, it's too long. We do the same crap over and over for decades; it's mind-numbingly repetitive. While some people are comforted by familiar routines, I'm not wired that way. And I'm surprised less and less often as I get older, compelling me to try harder and harder to seek out fresh surprise.
See this, for example.

I spotted the repetitiveness early on as a child, prodding me to explore myriad branches, sussing out hidden snatches of surprise and delight. Fearful of being enervated by the repetition before my clock ran out, I scrambled avidly up the curve of declining results.

But you can't avoid the inevitable. Resources deplete swiftly as a mining operation is scaled up. Voracious for surprise, one finds oneself digesting it all faster and faster. It's a vicious circle. As I wrote here:
Things can hyperaccelerate. You find yourself learning and experiencing in lots of different realms in lots of different ways, perpetually thirsting for value and diversity (imagine a dog with his nose sticking out of a car window, hyperstimulated by the myriad passing scents).

The world is optimized for dawdlers who endlessly wander the same corridors. The world does not stand up to the scrutiny of those who resist the cheap allure of the various Skinner boxes. God, it turns out, pads like a motherfucker.
I mulled it over until the way forward was clear (this must be what people mean when they say middle age is about figuring out who you are and what you want):

Eventual boredom seems inevitable. Most people my age are, above all, sullenly, stoically, crustily, bored out of their skulls, and fated to remain so for the duration. As a kid, I felt I'd noticed a fundamental flaw in adults but couldn't quite put my finger on it. The truth was that in spite of their engaged appearance and get-it-done outlook, most grown-ups live in a state of abject zonked-out boredom far beyond anything even the most spoiled child could possibly imagine.

I refuse to accept this fate, as someone who's always been deeply galled and offended by bored people. Bored people are the cause, not the effect, of boredom, and I'd rather die than join their team. So I needed to figure out which realms of repetition I could zealously embrace ad infinitum.

Only three passed the test:

1. Finding and enjoying the fruits of human creativity. This quest is what chowhounding's always been about for me. I'm not a kooky glutton fetishizing toothsome yum-yums. I'm a devotee hellbent on discovering and appreciating the Easter eggs of creation. As I refine my appreciation, I find myself doting on ever smaller examples. Even mere specks can keep me going.

2. Committing fully to my own work - weighty or frivolous, appreciated or not - and working, if necessary, like an ant. The idea is to give myself over so utterly even to trivial tasks that it seems a bit demented. The fruits may or may not be worthwhile - I have no idea; that's for other people to worry about. I'm not here to view a cinematic experience of The Story of Me. I keep my head down and do what I do. And that never gets old for me.

3. Helping, whenever and however I mindlessly, stupidly find myself compelled to do so.

These are the aspects of the video game I can partake beyond level 10,000 without falling victim to the "B" word.

Since I figured all this out, I've been slightly alarmed by how many common interests have been let go of. To people who don't know me well, I seem diminished, detached, faded. Small, almost to the point of immateriality. It's because I've settled so deeply into what satisfies, and renounced so thoroughly what does not. To external appearance, I am a renunciate; an ascetic. But ascetics, perennially misunderstood, only look austere. Their internal reality is completely different. As you plumb beneath the surface, it all flips.

Our president has everything he ever dreamed of, but beneath his preening gold-plated surface, he's clearly miserable - hungry, needy, insecure, retracted, gnarled, knotted, angry, resentful, jealous, and desperate. Ascetics - having dropped their dreams (but not glumly!), leaving them with, effectively, nothing - are inwardly full and content. This dichotomy has never before been so intensely hammered home as in the age of Trump. So: which side has it better?

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