Monday, February 23, 2015

The Journey Of A Lifetime

I’m in a somewhat philosophical mood this morning, partly because of some reflections over events of the weekend just behind us, and partly because anything too political will push my blood pressure past four figures. (I can’t write unceasingly about political subjects. It’s been slowly but steadily boiling all the happy bits right out of my brain.) So forgive me, Gentle Reader, if you find the following disconnected from your mundane concerns. I assure you, it connects quite well to mine.

A question I’ve recently tried to keep continuously in mind, which I commend to all of you, is:

“Why are you doing this particular thing at this particular moment?”

Much of what any individual does is habit-based. The habit in question might be an important one, perhaps even a survival imperative. Nevertheless, habitual actions are undertaken automatically, nearly always without thought. It refreshes one to remember the whys of such actions; it makes them seem less mechanical and more purposeful.

Many of one’s remaining decisions and consequent actions arise from an aversion of some sort. To be more precise, we think of something to do – something that might get us nearer to some goal – and immediately find ourselves thinking of the negative aspects. In many cases, we turn aside from the action we’d thought to take – and in many of those cases, the deep reason is time preference.

In the simplest terms, we value a near-term reward over a long-term reward when the two are nominally equal. A dollar put in one’s today beats a dollar to be delivered tomorrow. Indeed, we value a dollar in hand today above a dollar and some cents tomorrow. There are several reasons:

  • Gratification of desire is difficult to defer;
  • Promised rewards sometimes fail to materialize;
  • An asset currently in hand can often be used to generate a greater reward than what one was promised in return for one’s patience;
  • If further investment, whether of time, money, or effort, is required to win the promised reward, those things have their own costs, both materially and in opportunities forgone.

The struggle to overcome our time preferences is summarized by a lapel button I once saw:

Hard work pays off tomorrow;
Laziness pays off today.

It also explains Americans’ willingness to finance current consumption with long-term indebtedness.

Before the weekend, I had promised myself that I’d get some work done on Statesman, the sequel to Polymath. (Regarding which, I could still use reviews. Hint! Hint!) Well, to cut straight to the chase, I didn’t. What stopped me wasn’t an overload of more urgent tasks; it was time preference. It takes me about a year to turn out a novel. I can’t confront that extensive an effort without being beset by reluctance to begin, no matter how ardently I want to see the book finished. This past weekend I simply needed more get-up-and-go than I possessed to set to work on a project whose completion is so far away.

You’d think a writer with nine novels already out would have conquered that hill by now, wouldn’t you? Yet that “potential well” of reluctance has grown deeper with each completed book, because I know how much effort and suffering another one will cost me. This past weekend, a little immediate gratification from a quick short story seemed far more appealing. In case you haven’t already noticed, here’s what resulted.

My case is surely not unique. Only a writer of absolute and unfailing discipline is unaffected by this problem. And of course, it’s not confined to writers. The dissuasive power of time preference afflicts us all.

In Freedom’s Scion, at a critical juncture for Althea’s emotional development, she has the following exchange with her “dead” grandfather Armand:

     Grandpere! It’s been—
     —Nearly two years. I know, I know. You needed the time to yourself. Never fear, I’d have been there if you ever really needed me.
     (grimly) I had plenty of needs!
     —Nothing you were unable to handle by yourself, dear.
     And you knew
     —I know
     It halted her in mid-flight.
     My self-imposed exile wasn’t for any particular purpose. Maybe it served one even so.
     —No maybes about it, Al. You are not who or what you were. You’re far more. Some of it is invisible to you yet, though it won’t be forever. Just one of the unacknowledged laws of human nature at work.
     Which is?
     —At every moment of your life, you are everything you have ever been. It’s all there, from the instant of your birth onward to this very moment. And it all plays a part.
     Even the pain?
     —Especially the pain.

That “unacknowledged law of human nature” is more frequently overlooked than observed and respected. (Why, we might even call it “obvious!”) It has a clear application to our relations with others, but what I have in mind this morning is how it affects our preconceptions and decisions about our own lives.

What we “know” is really more often than not what we “have known:” i.e., what we have experienced in times past. We did this and then that happened. Sometimes we infer causal relations from those sequences of events. Sometimes our inferences are correct, and sometimes we’re merely being superstitious. Nevertheless, it’s the way the mind works: we associate our undertakings both with the rewards we got for them and with their costs in time, effort, and suffering.

However, there’s an important component that’s often left on memory’s “cutting room floor:” the pleasure of the moment.

I’ve told my Gentle Readers on several occasions that I mostly write these pieces for myself, as a way of reasoning out my intuitions. It happens to be true; I did it before there was a World Wide Web, and I’m certain I’d continue to do it if the Web were to be shut down forever (shudder). This is just one more example of the practice.

What I’m going to try to do, when next I have time to work on Statesman or any other extended project, is to focus on the pleasure inherent in the instantaneous act of writing: the specific and immediate reward of getting the next scene, paragraph, sentence, or word exactly right. Narrowing my focus down to the very instant in which my fingers touch the keys might just be enough, not to “overcome” my awareness of the pain and struggle that lies before me, but to forget about it entirely for as long as I write.

After all, I can hardly argue with Armand; he’s a planetary Overmind. According to him, at every moment of my life I’m everything I’ve ever been. If so, then each moment is the culmination of my life’s journey up to that moment. In some sense, it’s why I’ve lived – why I’ve done everything I’ve ever done.

Note how this perspective differs from the typical “life is a journey” platitude: you don’t have a finish line to reach before it can be significant. You’re standing at a “finish line” at every instant of your life. That you can’t always hear the roar of millions of adoring fans is of infinitely less importance.

That makes it a pretty important moment, one that deserves my full attention...and my full powers of enjoyment. I’ll try hard not to waste it.


Anonymous said...

Fran, When you write a novel is it pretty well outlined in your mind when you start, or does it evolve as you write it, or some of both?

Francis W. Porretto said...

RevJen: I always try to pre-outline a new book, but my outlines have a lot in common with battle plans: they never survive "contact with the enemy." The enemy, in this case, is my cast of characters, who always prove stronger than my intentions for the plot.

My most recent surprise in this regard was Freedom's Fury. I was certain I knew how that story was going to run. Yet by the fifth chapter the characters had ripped it completely out of my hands. I've had to swear to innumerable readers that Althea's love affair with Claire was her idea, not mine, but none of them believe me: They all claim I'm much too careful a planner and craftsman to let such a thing happen!

Tim Turner said...

This i gonna sound out of left field, but to quote Nicolas Cage's character from 'Lords of War,' : "In my experience, some of the most successful relationships are based on lies and deceit. Since that's where they're gonna end up anyway, it's a logical place to start."

It's all too easy to learn this lesson, once you've gotten past 3 years old with your hand in the cookie jar, 5 years old and realizing your parent's disappointment, and 12 years old and making a fool of yourself in front of a girl. (or boy, or whatever)

You begin to imagine an alternate scenario, over and over. It doesn't have to be true, it just has to WORK, or be plausible in your mind, somehow. And all of a sudden - but not sudden, it might take years - you are no longer everything you've ever "been." Your thoughts and imagination become doubts even as you're taught what's real and historically true.

And you become what you THINK. After all, isn't that the message? Everyone is worthwhile. Every yearning is an honest expression of the god within you?

Your accomplishments have been thwarted by events beyond your control. Yes, you're a good person, aren't we all? What are you NOW?

. . . and the guy gets a weapon, or whatever.

If you get to 50 or 60, you probably were careful enough in your delusions to not get swept up in "that stuff." Or, maybe you were lucky.

What the George Carlins and others of the world denigrate as Catholic or "right-wing assholedom" is the other possibilty: Maybe if you go to a school where you keep hearing the 10 commandments, humility, a belief in a higher power and a recognition that you are NOT perfect, you will at least entertain the idea that you are NOT the master of the universe and that every thought you have is not only sacred in your own mind for being yours, but possibly wrong.

I agree that at every moment in your life you are everything you've ever been. I worry that that, "HERE I AM NOW!" moment is sometimes animated by the lies and deceits we tell ourselves to get past those awkward moments we invented to ameliorate the pain of our wrong choices.

That is, I really don't trust "this moment" to be free of that wrong one.

I think, in a world of 6 billion people, that will be true of a whole heck of a bunch of people. So, if you're the Pope, or Obama, or some bureaucrat in the EU, you're gonna start thinking, "Hmmm, how can I help these poor kids make the right choices."

That's where we are now. AFTER the fact, we're trying to fix the problem, instead of trusting in biology, family, and local culture to do the job.

(Capitalism - the way we market it - isn't innocent. "Think ahead!" "Be proactive!" Whatever. But that was was kinda your pointin the first place.)

Tim Turner said...

Before this goes too much further, let me say, I'm a pussy.

I didn't watch that movie any further than after the guy got blown up in his car - 50 minutes.

I like Disney movies. But Nicolas Cage is pretty engaging.

I don't own a gun. What can I say? I'm they guy you are yelling at who knows we're going to hell in a hand basket but doesn't do "enough" about it.

My best - only - friends are liberals. (see above, reference to "pussy") Heck, my wife watches MSNBC 4 hours a day. And I can't tell you the scorn that's been heaped on me when I tried to discuss "Atlas Shrugged."

No excuses. I know it's as bad as you say it is. I hope I don't get swept under the first wave of violence and chaos. I probably will. I certainly haven't protected myself against the second.

But there's an inertia, you know? I kinda hope - really hope - that the inertia will swing us back to the center.

Not that this will "fix" anything, but that will avoid the cultural clash that surely needs to happen sooner or later.

(See "pussy," above)

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm taking time from my "busy" (falls off throne in hysteria...) schedule to read Polymath; and then be honest in my critique. Sheesh. The things I do for those who think like me. No offense intended. stormfriend