The Enlightened Caveman


In Dire Need of Perspective
March 10, 2005, 4:59 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve spent the past five days snowboarding in Whistler, British Columbia. What a staggeringly idyllic place, even if this year’s snowfall has been only a fraction of what they usually get. As cancellation policies prevented me from choosing another destination, I resigned myself to short days on the mountains accompanied by aesthetically-inspired writing sessions. I was wrong on both accounts. It turns out that even when Whistler only has 50% of the snow it usually has, it still beats the shit out of most resorts – it’s huge. So I spent as much time as possible on the slopes. And the writing, well, they didn’t have high-speed internet in my condo. Really.

I actually had to walk 10 minutes to an Internet Cafe to get connected. That oppressive burden was enough to prevent me from spending anything but the bare minimum amount of time in front of my laptop. Instead, I investigated the temporal limits of what is known as the apres-ski, but not without a bit of underlying indignation at being forced upon such a task. It wasn’t my fault. Really. And now that I’m home and jacked in wirelessly (ahh, that’s more like it), I can take a step back.

It’s amazing how quickly we Americans get used to things, and it’s even more amazing how irritated we often get when proceedings deviate from the new norm. How could such an obviously planned and well laid-out village such as Whistler not be blanketed in Hot Spots? The nerve of some people. But as trivial (and absurd) as my whining is, I think it points to a larger trend in this country. It seems that American culture promotes a tendency to regularly recalibrate expectations about how life should unfold. As they say in the world of finance – past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In fact, the past is becoming more and more irrelevant every day.

Think of all of the ads that gently bombard us throughout the day. They’re all about the future, the better future, the one that is only a truckload of products and services away. Want something now, but can’t afford it? No problem. No interest till 2006. Want to be thin? In just a few short weeks, with the right book, diet, meal-plan, and/or pill, no problem. Still paying for your past mistakes? It’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up. The future is about second chances. It’s about third, fourth, and fifth chances. Chin up. Tomorrow is a new day…provided you drink enough coffee. The rat race moves forward, always forward, and faster, always faster. In its path, it leaves the tattered remains of perspective.

It’s not that we need aspire to be active historians, holding candlelight vigils for the “best of 1997.” We need only widen the lens through which we view our lives, and this is hard at high speeds. Moving at a fast pace necessarily requires focus. Going a mile at a walk, we can take in the scenery. We can see the details of our surroundings, and if we look close enough, we can often see what’s come before. We can get a feel for how far things have progressed. Going the same mile at 60 mph offers us no such opportunity. We have to keep our attention mostly forward – to navigate, make necessary course corrections, and to avoid obstacles. There’s simply no time for taking it all in. Our lens is too narrow. The same is true in life, but here lies a dilemma – what do we do?

The obvious, but, in my view, incorrect answer, is to simply drop out, to get off the wheel, to quit the rat race. This is certainly the cure for the perspective problem, but it often brings with it the kind of scenery that doesn’t make much use of a wide-angle lens. Yes, you can despise the rampant consumerism that, perhaps more than anything else, regrettably defines this country today, but I don’t know how you can reject it without hopping from the frying pan into the fire. The fact is that life in this country can be as blissful as it can be anywhere on the planet. You can shape your environment in any way you like, and you can surround yourself with wonderful, like-minded people, even if you’re a total wackjob. But – there’s always a but – there is a direct correlation between the degree to which you can manipulate your environment and the amount of money you have.

These are the kinds of statements that prompt outrage in some people. Hands will wave and dust will fly at the injustice of it all. But as David Hume warned, it is a mistake to confuse what we want with what is. So, while others will reject the rat race out of hand, I think we should accept it and endeavor to get what we want out of it…without getting sucked in too far. Our harbor in the storm is perspective, and it works in two ways.
First of all, perspective is what allows us to realize that we have it good. I try to step outside myself and view my world with a wide lens. I try to remember that, in pure prosperity terms, I have it better than 99.99% of the humans that have ever lived. You do, too. We have come an amazingly long way, baby. Items that were once only available to the tippy top of the upper crust are now household items for most everyone. Not so long ago, a trip to Whistler, BC from Atlanta would have taken weeks, not hours, and I’d have had to either plan my trip months and months in advance or hope for the best when I got out there. Nevertheless, we curse the gods when we have to take our shoes off to go through security and we fly into fits of rage when our cell phones drop calls. It’s pathetic, really. Life has never been so comfortable for humans, and while the information age makes me keenly aware of what the other guy has, I try to remember that there is always more. You can always be richer, more powerful, better looking, smarter, and so on, which brings me to the second thing we get from perspective.

When we take a step back, it becomes easier to see that there is a very real point of diminishing returns with respect to the rat race. Not only do we recognize that we have it seriously good; we recognize that it may not be much better if we get what the rat race directors are pushing on us. Books like Gregg Easterbrook’s, The Progress Paradox, and Barry Schwartz’s, The Paradox of Choice, make it clear that increasing prosperity is not bringing a corresponding rise in individual happiness. (FYI – I generally disagree with both authors’ conclusions. However, their statement of the problem makes sense to me.) That means that, at some point, good is good enough. Though our caveman minds will urge us to keep chugging along the wheel (anything to keep up with the Joneses), perspective is what allows us to determine when every extra turn is a waste of time and a distraction from what really matters in life. The only folks I would exempt from this are the folks who should be covering the world with wireless high-speed internet. Just a couple more turns, fellas.

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