Monday, October 10, 2011

Seen Through the Fog

[Overthrow the Bastards!]

The Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur high holidays have left me still in a quandary about what to with myself. At long last I have achieved some modest security of means and still enjoy good health. I live in arguably the most beautiful area in the world. And now in a particularly good part of it, with a woman who loves me and whom I am coming to love. She takes care of me and there is a view of city lights from above from our bedroom.

Now what? When life's problems of subsistence and comfort are solved, what should one, I, do? The obvious answers are all wrong.

Doing charity work without changing the system that makes it needed, has long since been shown to be a waste of time, counter-productive even. It is simply doing for free individually what should be done collectively and paid for by taxes on the rich.

Making revolution has been shown by a lifetime of listening to idiots talking about "building a movement" to be a fool's errand in a plutocracy with a show of elections. It was once said of William Randolph Hearst that there is no point in getting into a shouting match with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

Besides, life has taught me that I don't really want a revolution. In each of the great revolutions, France, Russia, and China, the wars and mass killings were caused not by the destruction of the old order but by the instability of the new one. Yesterday's massacre of Coptic Christians in Cairo shows that the Arab Spring will be no different.

Reformist politics, at least in the US, have once and for all been given the lie by the election of Barack Obama. His campaign rhetoric of hope has been followed by endless concessions to those whose excesses one hoped would be restrained by his reforms, reforms which never came to pass.

So what does that leave? One listens to the voice of the master, Voltaire. His advice was "tend one's own garden". I take that to mean that one should try to live a good life on one's own and not imagine grand social reforms nor any other great work.

So of what does a good life consist? According to another master, Aristotle, the good life consists of developing and exploiting whatever talents one has. Not even to excel, but to live to one's own limits - not to throw the discus further than anyone ever has, but to throw it as far as one can possibly throw it oneself.

I am either particularly unfortunate or particularly blessed in this regard. I once took the Johnson O'Connor Foundation's three-day battery of aptitude tests to find out what sort of career I should take up. I was dismayed to learn that according to the Johnson O'Connor Foundation my talents and aptitudes, while uniformly high, were all roughly equal. Which told me exactly nothing about what I should do.

In the exit interview, the regular guy was on vacation so I got a substitute, a hippy airhead, who suggested that what I should do with my life was either to end world hunger or build a starship. I am not making this up. I paid $300-odd dollars for this back in the 1980's when $300 was a month's rent.

But in retrospect the Johnson O'Connor Foundation did give me a valuable bit of information. It told me that there is no help, that experts are worthless. I could have prayed to G_d for guidance and saved the $300. Whatever one is going to do with one's life, one must decide on one's own.


  1. Your view on doing charity work is off. To not help others because the system that created the need should to be changed is foolish. It is not living in the present. Besides, revolution changes nothing but the characters.

    You do not feed a hungry person because you want to end world hunger, but because he is hungry now. There is no end to the projects you can do.

    Several year ago I got a grant to build sukkahs for people who never had one before. (Chico went from 2 sukkahs to 8. Earthshaking? No. but a nice difference) I bake and distribute challahs free to people on Shabbat. (One person told me they were just going to have dinner, but because they received the Challah they set the table, lit the candles and had a family Shabbat dinner.) My project to make and distribute tsitsit is taking off. A number of people now wear tsisit, a reminder to be a good person and to consider your actions.

    Small steps on a small scale. Not as big as feeding people, but at least it may be feeding hungry souls. Or maybe not, but it is what I can do. The talmud says if you save a life, you save the world. That's big.

  2. Anonymous7:41 PM

    You sound good. Happy for you.

  3. Nick Danger12:55 AM

    I like Harvey's example. Using one's skills and gifts for the benefit of a group or community you value is probably the best use of one's time, once subsistence and comfort are achieved. All changes in society, good and bad, have begun with only a small number of people. Unfortunately, it seems that more bad people than good have been active, even up to recent times. We need more good people to upset that imbalance.

    Focus on one or two things you do well, and put it out there with the intent of helping others, but without the expectation of changing the world.