Friday, March 27, 2015

Ruminations about the Good Life

Last week I ran across a video from the Getty Museum that showed how illustrated manuscripts were made around the year 1000. The process began with transforming animal hides into parchment. That was a long, laborious undertaking of scraping, stretching, treating the hides until they became soft and smooth surfaces that would take up ink and paint and would, unlike paper, last literally for more than 1000 years.
Preparing the parchment was just the beginning, then a scribe would slowly and laboriously write out the text after having prepared his ink and cut a goose quill just right. The letters were placed on the page one by one, one next to the other, each exactly the same size, each straight up and down.
Once the text was done, came the illustrators with their elaborate designs and miniature

paintings in gold leaf and many colors.

This work took a very long time and a great deal of effort. It required enormous concentration. Multitasking was not possible when the task at hand required your complete attention. Not everybody could do this work. It took many years of patient apprenticeship and practice to acquire the necessary skills.
Two characteristics stand out in this process. Whatever people did in 1000 took a great deal of effort. That was not only true of producing illuminated manuscripts. It started early in the morning when someone had to revive the remaining coals in the stove or the fireplace to make a new fire for cooking breakfast. No automatic coffee makers or other labor saving devices. Every part of the day required physical effort, concentration. Life was a struggle.
Our life today is totally different. Ease and lack of effort are supreme goals. We buy many devices because they will, their manufacturers tell us, save effort and make life easier. An easy life is nice. But after you have run 5 miles as fast as you can and are really out of breath you have accomplished something. After driving 5 miles, what have you achieved?
It is not an accident that having children is so important to us because having and raising children has not become any easier than it was a long time ago. Children still are new persons every day, and will challenge us in many ways. There is no way of automating child-rearing. There are no machines to deal with uncomfortable questions, unreasonable demands, or temper tantrums. When your children are grown up you know that you have accomplished something very difficult and you take pride in it, however it works out.
You do not take pride in the coffee your automatic coffee maker made during all those years.
To the extent that life has been made easy by all sorts of labor saving devices and by having other people do things for you that you used to do yourself, such as buying ready-made clothes sewn in China or Thailand instead of making then yourself, life has become awfully convenient but not very satisfying. After a long life you may take pride in all the good bread you baked, but you will not take pride in all the sliced bread you bought in the supermarket.
What we do is worth doing when it requires an effort. Challenges are worth taking up. Having exerted yourself to accomplish something that you found difficult, that you barely pulled off because you put in some extra energy and concentration, gives real satisfaction. Popping a TV dinner in the microwave and pushing the button does not. (Obviously not everything difficult is worthwhile doing, but few things that are easy foster contentment.)
There's a second way in which our world is very different from that long gone day when life was difficult and challenging.
I learned about the illuminated manuscripts from a video. I stumbled on this video through an app called "StumbleUpon" which literally provides you with a series of random websites some of which may interest you, many of which do not. There are millions upon millions of websites, every day brings more. There are Facebook pages, twitter messages, etc. etc.
There is the Super Bowl, and hardly is that past when we have March Madness while we already follow our favorite baseball team in spring training. Soon it is opening day and then there are the golf tournaments and the car racing.
And all the while people are making youtube videos that go viral and which you don't want to miss. There are not only new trends but millions of people pretending to start new trends and in all this madness you are rushing as fast as you can and you can't keep up.
The most common description of who we are, these days, is "extremely busy." We do too many things. Few of any of them occupy as fully. Our attention is scattered and concentration lacking. We are extremely busy with things which require few skills, require no physical or intellectual effort, are done in the blink of an eye, and do not require concentrated attention.
At the end of a busy day what have we done? What have we accomplished? Who are we?
In this setting it is very difficult to have a sense of oneself as a clearly defined person, who does a difficult job patiently with concentration and considerable effort. In this setting it is very easy to lose oneself, it is very difficult to have any sense of oneself at all.
The lives we lead in this supercharged culture overwhelm us with stimulation but make it very difficult to take satisfaction in accomplishing challenging tasks. It is difficult to be in touch with who we are in a world where innumerable things constantly demand our immediate attention.
Is ours the good life in 2015?