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ON MATTERS OF COSMIC INSIGNIFICANCE


I have the nettling tendency to read myself into every book I pick up. This has never more been the case than with Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness, an exquisite book in scintillating prose on the titular subject. 

For me and Big Daddy Bertrand it was love at first sight. I had only to read the first paragraph of his In Praise of Idleness (1932) and I was smitten. He writes: "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries" is "to do nothing." 

Okay perhaps doing nothing is a bit of an exaggeration. Russell proposes a four-hour work day for all who wish to work, work being defined as a constructive endeavor that you are skilled enough to perform. Or "to make something well," as I like to say. I'll leave it for you to decide how much or little of what passes for work in the modern world can be rightly placed in this category. Many of the jobs that exist today had not yet come into being a century ago. Then as now there are many who work 8 or 10 or more hours a day, and others who wallow in boredom and malaise without a job. By sharing the wealth, as it were, between the have (work) and have nots, everybody can be a constructive and contributing member of society and still have enough time for recreation and leisure, or for reading these posts. Who's with us?

In his book on happiness, Russell advises against success for success's own sake - success here being defined conventionally as making a lot of money. He is of the correct opinion that being well-off is only "one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it." Meaning wealth is not all that valuable, in which case I who am not successful by the standard definition may not be missing much. He laments the fact that far too many working individuals have no hobbies, that for instance the successful entrepreneur will scarce pick up a book if the book does not make him more money or at least feature pictures of naked ladies (addition mine).

I have never earned much money, but I am rich in hobbies. Take conversation, for example. Talking is a cherished pastime of mine. I can do it for hours, and plumb the depths of another's personality. And I am not without precedent. Indeed the art of conversation, as Russell notes, which possibly arose with the philosophers of ancient Greece, was perfected in 18th century France. Sadly this art, which is sometimes also called dialectic, has died off in the texting age. I don't own a smart phone, and so I have nobody to do it with.

Russell assiduously advises against boredom, since "at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it," and also against excitement, which is boredom's antidote. Boredom explains the current mania for obstacle races, and bungee jumping, a thrill you'd recognize if you were alive in the 80s. I am never bored, or have great stamina when it comes to enduring idleness, for I am always in the mood for a good nap. And my somnolence makes me feel expansive even when I don't dream, for "a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men."

In this little book, which is offered for a low price of $3.00 - and by neither little or low do I mean to slight his prose, which is monumental - I also found solace in being such an incorrigible home body. "Kant is said never to have been more than ten miles from Konigsberg in all his life. Darwin, after going round the world, spent the whole of the rest of his life in his own house." I have seen as much of the world as the father of evolutionary theory, and written just as many books. And so I stand with some of the greats, albeit each of us is alone.

I sometimes enjoy a decent cigar and an occasional or daily glass of liquor. I used to say I could never be a saint on account of these vicious sense pleasures, but not according to Russell, for whom a virtuous person is one who "permits the enjoyment of all good things whenever there is no evil consequence to outweigh the enjoyment," and I can think of nothing evil about a little tobacco and tequila.

Russell's secret of happiness lies in varied interests and friendly rather than hostile relations with people. I have varied interests. Besides the above named, I like to exercise and to cook and to garden and to clean and to read and write and to think, and also to try not to think. But only in moderation, because too much meditation, if practiced improperly, can make a person self-absorbed, or lead to too much sleep. And with sleep as in all else, moderation is key. 

The secret to self-realization is, rather, to bring the subconscious mind into the realm of consciousness, and to thereby rid oneself of the passions and prejudices inculcated upon us in the early youth that we otherwise wouldn't remember. And such a daily practice of reasoning and reflection can be done in mere minutes, a time-saver for those unwilling to chant "Om."

Of course, my hobbies are in the main solitary pursuits that only involve inanimate objects. And I wonder why I have no friends. At least in my leisure I try not to become a slave to routine, which my man Bertrand says is never a good thing.

He says: "To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level." I of course, believe that I am among these select individuals. "A man of easy good nature, who inherits an ample fortune and enjoys good health together with simple tastes, may slip through life comfortably and wonder what all the fuss is about."

I feel that I am such a man. And as such will continue my carefree life of reason and reading and reflection, of spending solitary hours in nature, for this life of contemplation suits me, and with Kant and Darwin and Christ and Buddha I stand in good stead. I am arguably superior to Socrates, another of my idols, for he wrote nothing, and I have written reams that no one has read. I instantly felt okay about my failures, that I could never make a living doing what I enjoyed doing (putting words on paper), but stood to earn a fortune doing what I despised (prescribing medication). It's all just meant to be, and life is good. Or was, until I read on.

Well, I should have put the book down then and there. But no, I was determined to reach the final digital page, and diligence can sometimes be an awful thing. For in the very next passage I learned about another type of man. This type, a pathetic and deplorable figure, "who has suffered such fundamental defeat that he has given up hope of serious achievement may learn the resignation of despair, and, if he does, he will abandon all serious activity. He may camouflage his despair by religious phrases, or by the doctrine that contemplation is the true end of man, but whatever disguise he may adopt to conceal his inward defeat, he will remain essentially useless and fundamentally unhappy."

Oh, no, is that me? Am I a man of "easy good nature" or am I "essentially useless and fundamentally unhappy"? Whatever I may be, the answer to this question is not to be found by analyzing myself any further. Because that would mean becoming self-absorbed. And you don't need to interview the patients sitting in a psychiatrist's waiting room to know that self-absorption is not the road to glee. 

While it is natural to apply what you read to yourself to some degree, to be supremely content, as Russell argues, turn your attention outward, express benevolent and zesty interest in people and things and pastimes rather than remaining locked up in your own head, mired in fears and doubts and persecution complexes. I mean in the grand scheme, what cosmic significance does any single event really possess? Everything by itself is rather insignificant, really.

So rather than regard your proverbial features in the metaphorical mirror, adopt another hobby, which will come once you stop contemplating your nose. Don't rush it, let it just arise. Russell mentions everything from reading Chinese to collecting stamps and playing chess. He can be excused for not including running barefoot as he lived before this fad, or maybe we should ask the caveman. In other words, do something to get out of your own head.

"Nothing diminishes not only happiness but efficiency as a personality divided against itself." Therefore, thinking I'm either of the two types above may be a sign that I should stop thinking about myself altogether, because who needs the confusion. So enough about me, now what do you think of me? I cannot determine whether a true friend would view me as a sage or a sloth, or both or neither. Let's you and I find out. Maybe we can make magic together.

We can make something, for as Russell says, "we have reached a stage in evolution which is not the final stage. We must pass through it quickly, lest we get lost in the forest of doubt and fear. The right road out of the despair of civilization is to enlarge the heart and transcend the self." Whether sage or sloth, the secret is in transcendence. But not in a job, oh no. At least not in construction, because bright orange is never very flattering.

And so I await the day in which "everything uninteresting is done by machines, and human beings are reserved for the work involving variety and initiative." When such a day comes, I fear that in the bin labeled "uninteresting" will also be lumped these posts. But I'm done thinking about all that. 

To close with one more quote, "Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness." So let's take a walk somewhere we can go beyond thought, and maybe go a bit crazy together. Or at least have a heart to heart talk. In our world, we can rediscover the lost art of communication and discuss matters of cosmic insignificance. The road to glee may lead to you and me. Just, you know, leave your phone at home. Until then, this is me talking to myself.


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