Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Desire to Know

The weekend was again spent reading too many books and watching DVDs. So much time is wasted with these activities that were previously thought as educational and mind expanding. Ordinarily, these were good activities to spend one’s time but now seem wasteful and self indulgent because it’s at the expense of other activities that one has considered important. Activities such as writing a novel, looking for college scholarships for one’s kids, exploring nearby towns, kayaking and hiking in the mountains. But the weekend was not all lost as I was able to visit the Greek festival and the nearby museum. It was a great 4-5 hours spent in a Sunday afternoon. But one still has the load of magazines, picture books and DVDs still unwatched and left over from the weekend. This brings to mind an old Chinese saying that knowledge not used is useless knowledge. This can also be re-phrased as experience without learning any practical lesson is useless experience.

It’s the same old desire to do everything and be alive. The desire to lead a good and exciting life. It’s the cause of stress where one is conflicted with too many demands on one’s time. It’s a question of choice and deciding on what task one should devote one’s time and energy in. The time for decision is never made because one just plunges along the road to distraction. Being well-rounded is an ego trip. The secret of great people is really focus and dedication. It is not doing many activities that make one successful but focusing on only one or two tasks. The enemy of focusing for some folks like me is the desire to know. To be in or conversant on the latest technical gizmo, gossip, spectacular picture, movie or hip novel. Perhaps it’s the fear of being ignorant and un-educated that is the root of this desire. A desire that is addictive and worse as any kind of addictive drug such as heroin or cocaine

Great people who can focus on a few tasks don’t have this fear. It’s these people who are the ones who are really free. The good thing is the realization that chasing an elusive secret is a waste of time. Perhaps it’s the tiredness of age or the realization that time is running out as one approaches middle age that brings a new awareness. The awareness is all the more important in this country where there are too many distractions. But it is also the land of re-birth or transformation or the second-act. So chasing the elusive secret is like a quest for transformation as well – to change oneself after one finds the ‘real’ truth. Unfortunately, one will only end up where one has started as the title of that famous book on meditation called ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are.’ It’s not the gathering of experiences or skills that matter as Eckhart Tolle often says but being in the moment.

People who can focus on a few things are confident people. They don’t care about being in the know. They have no desire to understand everything except for those few things that will help in the task focused on. I guess that is the fulfillment achieved by great craftsmen – people who are experts on the things they do like making great furniture or software. This is the lesson of Zen; of making tea or tending a Japanese garden or making a haiku – to be able to focus on a single task and be an expert on it. Unfortunately, when one is a technologist one is forever distracted by the latest gizmo or gadget that is forever being released in a never ending stream by giant multinational companies. It feeds into the addiction of wanting to know more and experience everything possible on earth.

Jonathan Franzen in his essay ‘Perchance to Dream’ says that today’s writers can never attempt to write a novel that will appeal to a mass or ‘general’ audience. Book reading is now a pursuit of a sub-culture of readers. Television has won according to his late friend, David Foster Wallace. Television and perhaps movies is now the better medium to tell a story. Franzen says that one should NOT have the general audience in mind but instead focus on that small group of people who remain readers despite the inevitable onslaught of technology. People no longer have the focus and attention to sit down and read a good book – forever distracted by the seemingly endless diversion available in the Internet. It’s an intriguing idea despite considering the success of their books like Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ and ‘Freedom’ and Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’.

Despite the death of the ‘social novel’ as proclaimed by Philip Roth, these books by Franzen and Wallace still succeed. But I think the greatest success will come to contemporary writers like Cormac McCarthy whose works are successful in both print and film. His works are also brief and focus on the truly relevant themes that are urgent today. Don DeLillo and William Gibson also have a focus and brevity of style that maybe more appealing to today’s highly distracted reader. Both Franzen and Wallace are a continuation of the stream of American writing populated by writers like John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer who have a certain verbosity and extravagant flourish. Perhaps it is the overabundance of words that fuel a feeling of wanting more, to be able to get everything and live a larger than life existence ala Ernest Hemingway, John Huston or Orson Wells.

I guess the idea is to focus on a certain theme and stick to it when writing. Focus on simplicity and the stripping of other useless (to the task at hand) external activities are the key to sanity and success. Perhaps this is the theme that one arrives at after so much thought and deliberations. I guess a re-reading to Eckhart Tolle is needed again. Simplicity is the answer to life’s stress. There is just too much thinking and churning of thought which feeds the mind and the desire to know. The antidote is to stop thinking and wake up and enjoy life. For instance, it was good to be out last Sunday and experience the Greek festival – to be out of one’s thoughts and just enjoy the exotic food, good weather and the performances. It’s the revenge of the un-nerd. One just needs to get the job done and do it - as some people would say.

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