Thursday, September 25, 2014

And Those Who Study History Are Doomed to Misconstrue It

How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life

It’s tempting to say—so I’ll go ahead and say it—that this is one of the first bold thrusts of a no-doubt-soon-to-be-popular kind of thinking, and we shouldn’t carp that it grows straight out of self-help literature. I’m talking about “lifestyle philosophy,” the attempt to find a way of living, though it be unconventional, that maximizes personal fulfillment and remains friendly to the planet.

Lifestyle philosophers—god forgive my language—lifestyle philosophers go beyond your typical self-help fare—remain positive, work and play well with others, exercise frequently—to question why we might wish to follow this advice—to ask, indeed, if it be the best advice after all.

A lifestyle philosopher is willing to question certain always-unquestioned premises—more is better, easier is better, faster is better, a rewarding job is naturally the best way to spend one’s life, entertainment is the best recreation—and, after a gentle tap with a hammer, knock them to the ground. Lifestyle philosophy promises the twilight for some very popular idols--if anyone takes it seriously. And it is not stamped out by the police.

So you will find nowhere a list of bullet points saying smell this or eat that. Or reach your target weight by June. Or smile as you claw your way to the top. Instead you will find discussion, always interesting though sometimes off track, that serves as prelude to the hints he offers for living a richer life. The suggestions he offers, I have no doubt, will provide a rich trove of new possibilities to those unsatisfied with their current lot, and will no doubt go down in the annals of lifestyle philosophy when such annals come to be written. (I suggest writing them in pencil.)

To name a few:

•    Try to lessen the “tyranny of the eye,” and develop the other senses. This will bring a fuller love of that ambrosia of life we so often quaff without tasting.

•    Carefully evaluate the place of market activities in your life, including paid employment. We all believe that time is money, that time is wasted if not exchanged for some improving medium, such as cash. At least we act as if we do. But this concept has captured us only very recently. Before the Industrial Revolution self improvement had nothing to do with labor, or money accrued. Perhaps a better quality of life is available to those who search this question.

•    Give your traveling a deliberate meaning. Don’t be in thrall to your guidebook. Travel in the guise of a nomad, a pilgrim, an explorer. Krznaric offers suggestions how to do this,  but the baseline intention is to add a spiritual component to your journeys.

“We ought to spend time travelling, giving ourselves enough headspace for contemplation and going at a sufficiently slow pace to appreciate the beauties and sorrows of the landscape, whether it is a mountain range or an inner-city slum. Forget the car: put on some straw sandals and start walking under an open sky.”

•    Be brave enough to challenge your beliefs. As Nietzsche said, it’s nothing to have the courage of your convictions; what takes courage is to attack your convictions—an edict this book clearly takes to heart.

•    Reject the social norms and develop your own perspective on the art of living.

•    Find satisfaction in doing more things for yourself. In other words, be creative where you can. Cooking, for example, is a great channel of creativity and a means of self expression. And it hasn’t been taken out of the individual’s hands by an industry.

“Creativity does not require the bestowal or inheritance of genius. Above all it requires the self-confidence to believe that we are capable of finding ways to express our uniqueness.”

•    Bring the shrouded aspects of life—in other words, death—into the light of day. Why can’t funerals be as creative as marriages? Why can’t we develop our own rituals of death to substitute for the festival approach to death that is now in steep decline?

It’s not difficult to range Krznaric’s book among others Instructions For a Happier Life. The difference is, he claims history as his justification. And I’m not sure it works.

I am all in favor of sleuthing out how civilization has stolen a person’s means, and eventually his desire, for expression. Commerce has co-opted the creative. Singing in public is now rarely done except before a karaoke machine. The creativity once exhibited at Halloween within living memory been replaced by a shopping opportunity. But how history can justify personal behavioral changes--how vast chronicles of the political and military movements of a people can suggest one small twitch for modification—goes beyond me. One might as well say history justifies dumping sewage in streams

Nevertheless, Krznaric is onto something big. He has opened some big questions it behooves all of us to ask. How many of our social conventions disrupt the quality of our lives? How much of what we’re taught isn’t true? Can we reject these unquestioned conventions and live better? Most important, he has rescued history from inclusion in that squash-all-debate refrain about how, no matter how awful it is now, in the past it was worse.

As Krznaric shows, it often wasn’t. For that we owe him a lot.

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