Monday, April 11, 2011

Optimal Flight Distance

"If you see an animal feeding, you can measure its 'flight distance' by seeing how close it will let you approach before fleeing. For any given species in any given situation, there will be an optimal flight distance, somewhere between too risky or foolhardy at the short end, and too flighty or risk-averse at the long end. Individuals that take off too late when danger threatens are more likely to be killed by that very danger. Less obviously, there is such a thing as taking off too soon. Individuals that are too flighty never get a square meal, because they run away at the first hint of danger on the horizon."

- Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show On Earth 
  I read the following quote from Samuel Beckett a couple of days ago: "We spend our life trying to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench." Its been swimming around in my head since. I've never read anything else from Beckett, so I have no idea in what context this statement was made, and I am therefor equally uncertain of the sentiment he intended to express. As it stands alone however, the statement comes across as an endorsement for what we generally call the simple things in life. An acknowledgment of the value of finding yourself where you want to be, doing what you want to do, and being with the people whose company you want to share. Its a view of life that has been reinforced over the years by proverbs and folktales, movies and popular songs, and it has such an air of truth about it that it hardly seems to warrant discussion. 
  Of course everybody's sunny bench is different. Some people can find peace through fixing an old washing machine. For others, its a fall day on the couch watching football with friends, or cooking dinner with a favorite aunt, or a long drive with no company but the stereo. Or peace might literally be found by sitting on a park bench on a sunny day. It seems like a simple enough idea on the surface. Recognize the things that truly make you happy, and find a way to make them a regular part of your life. 
  But its never that simple. There are countless obstacles. We have obligations to work, to our friends and family, and to the day to day chores that are necessary to keep our own personal lives in order. And the clock keeps ticking while all of those obligations are being met. Our lives are being lived at work, in the grocery store, and on the bus. And while we're trying to navigate our way through those duties, and somehow come out on the other end with enough time to do what we'd actually like to be doing, we are constantly peppered with offers of phantom relief. 
  Advertisements for new shoes, deodorant, and kitchenware will make a strong case for those products as the reward for your toil. And because those things can be easier to come by than the things that we truly crave, there may even be some legitimate short term value to the experience of buying those new ornaments for your life. But the purchases quickly become routine, the sense of fulfillment that they offer is often shallow and fleeting, and we're inevitably on our way back to work so that we can make more money for more exciting new stuff that quickly becomes boring old stuff. Likewise, the relief that can be found by sitting on a bar stool and having a cold beer, or passing around a bong in between video games, can prove to be a valuable pit stop. A brief respite from the cacophony of the world around us that is easier to come by than a weekend at the beach, or trip to visit old friends. At times, those moments can even give birth to some of our more rewarding and enlightening experiences. But it quickly becomes soul deadening and banal when its just the knee jerk reaction to every little frustration or anxiety that we experience. Our only means to unwind at the end of the day.
  Whatever form our quick-fix happens to take, it usually remains a poor (though at times necessary) substitute for the moments that we're waiting to really sink our teeth into. They're quick snacks that have little nutritional value, but that stave off hunger until we have the opportunity to put together all of the perfect ingredients that we need to cook up something that will truly satisfy us. Useful in moderation, but risky when we convince ourselves that a healthy life can be sustained by simply piling up these tiny bits of relative ease and comfort.
  On the other hand, we have the option of a wholesale dismissal of the opportunities for little indulgences. We can skip the new pair of jeans, always pass on shooting pool at the bar after work, and choose not to watch any TV. We can just plow head first through everything that we have to do, and squirrel all of our nuts away. We can save it all for a grand vacation or an early retirement. We can take our lumps now, confident that we'll have our reward down the road. But time is the currency that we're trading in, and we don't get to stash that away in a savings account. And it seems foolhardy to miss the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of a rainbow, in hopes that you'll find a pot of gold that you can not see and that may not even exist. 
  All of the little moments that make up our day to day (including the hours at work, at the grocery store, and on the bus) matter. There is no pause button, no time-out, no commercial break. It all counts. And if we lose sight of that, as we go chasing after some phantom grand prize, we run the risk of sacrificing a life that is already in our hands for one that we may never grasp.
  That is not to say that big dreams are not worth chasing. On the contrary, for many people they may be an absolute necessity. Even the chase itself may be exactly what we're after. 
  But an honest assessment of the value of what we are pursuing, and the cost of pursuing it, has to be made and constantly remade if we are to have any hope of achieving a sense of balance. And that is a difficult task. There is no universal formula that will work for all of us. We all have a different sense of peace. The thing that unites us is the desire to obtain that peace. But sorting through the web of hopes, fears, loves, and insecurities, and trying to understand what drives our thoughts and feelings is a process that is unique to the person undergoing it.
  And even if we do embrace that process, and we do seek that balance, we won't always be able to put together the sunshine and a free bench. Maybe it will elude most of us most of the time. And maybe that's what Beckett was saying. Perhaps to him, it was a dark and disheartening truth about what it is to be human. Something that is seemingly so simple, and is so essential to our well being, might be something that proves to be beyond us more often than not. 
  But anything less than this balance, or at least the quest for it, seems like little more than death. The slow incremental death of trading in dreams for trinkets, on the one hand. Or the accelerated death that comes from turning a blind eye to the real life in front of you, in order stare dumbly at a make believe life that is always just out of reach.  

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