Friday, 26 January 2007

Superb summary of Ishmael

Just came across this essay on a blog I was reading this morning, and had to share it with everyone. It is a superb, well written summary of our relationship with the world - how we got to where we are, and why it must change - as described in the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It's only a few screens long, so take the time and trouble to read it - it's worth it. Not only is it well written, it is by a 17 year old. Which shows a great level of maturity, intelligence and true understanding of reality in this person.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Growing Up and Changing My View of the World

I read a post at Dan Bartlett's blog the other day (22nd January), and I felt a lot of resonances with what he described. It made me want to say - "Yeah, I know what you mean" - and - "A lot of that sounds like what I went through". Similar, but not identical experiences. Rather than clog Dan's comments page with a long post, I decided to describe my own growing up experience and how my perspective on the world has changed.

Reading Dan's and other people's posts, such as Casemeau's at Living in a Van Down By The River, it made me realise that not only are there other people out there with similar experiences and viewpoints on the world, but that sharing these experiences helps us all. It strengthens my viewpoint on the world by helping me realise that I am not alone. I am not unusual, or weird. There are others who have gone through similar thought processes and come to similar conclusions. And it reminds me that this is a journey worth taking, even if very few other people in modern civilisation can be bothered to go on it too.

Much of what Dan described is similar to what I went through in the UK, but not identical. Even though I am over twice his age, from what he says.

I too liked to read, and discovering the library around 8 or 9 was wonderful. I mainly read science fiction in those days - classic space ranger on Mars, laser guns, and other simple stuff. I wasn't an out and out bookworm, but when there was nothing else to do I would quite happily grab a book and read it. I was escaping to the worlds those books described, so different to the mundane reality that I was living every day.

Up to eleven I wasn't anything special at school, but then when I went to Comprehensive (state secondary education school in the UK) I found I could do the maths and the sciences really well. Not easy peasy, but if I thought about it I could make sense of it, do the homework, and remember it later for exams. I developed a good memory for details, and related information.

Likewise I started to become a perfectionist. Mainly I think due to the maths - there should be one and only one answer, and it must be absolutely correct for the given problem. This continued to haunt me into my first few jobs, until someone explained the concept of "good enough" or "fit for purpose" to me. Literally - "stop when it becomes just good enough for what is needed".

I was, and still am, useless socially. This was a combination of parents who themselves did not socialise, a father who worked shifts and was often not around, and other factors. A move to another town at seven and a half did not help. Losing everything I was familiar with, and being thrust into a new school where everyone knew everyone else, but I knew no one. Who were the good children and who were the bad? How was I to know? Rather than improving my social skills, I just retreated, not knowing what to do.

The other factor was a Catholic upbringing and schooling which included frowning upon relationships with the opposite sex. Being Catholic when no one else in your street is, means that you have two sets of friends - your neighbours in the street you see at weekends and in the summer evenings, and those at school you see for 7 hours a day. But they are completely separate, isolated groups. Anything you do with one group, is unknown to the other group. You cannot share anything with both groups together. You have two independent sets of experiences as you grow up. Anything you do well in one group that earns you some respect, is totally unknown in the other group - as if it never happened. I virtually had two lives, even though I was only one person. I was the same person in both groups, but the context was always different, and I had to be aware of which group I was with and who was who. Again, I ended up switching off and tending to retreat to make things simpler - reacting to situations, rather than creating them. I did make some good friends then though - mainly at school, because you share more of the growing and learning experiences there. But socialising was always very hard work for me.

I literally reached 18 virtually not knowing what to say to a girl, or being able to hold a casual conversation. At parties I just sat there, not knowing what to say or do. Over the years I have developed a number of techniques to compensate for this, so that I can appear to be almost normal. But they are techniques, crutches to get me through awkward moments and out the other side, rather than natural activities for me.

I guess for me the changes in my view of the world happened in a number of steps. First I stopped believing in God around six. I remember being in church (Catholics must go every week!) and doing the same things we always did in mass, and thinking "What does this really mean? Why is it always the same prayers, like robots?" And at that point I decided it was rubbish, and stopped believing. And I've not looked back on that, ever. I didn't tell my parents until I was over 18, just in case they threw a fit. They took it reasonablly well when I did tell them, though my mother was adamant that I would repent one day and come back into the fold.

Later at Comprehensive school, probably 14/15 I started to wonder where all this teaching was leading to. Yes, very nice to know all this stuff, and I was doing really well at the tests and the exams, but what are we going to do with it afterwards? And how does it prepare me for the outside world? And if science is the way to all the answers, why don't we have all the answers? And why is the world such a mess? And why does most science result in weapons used for warfare - nuclear power, rockets, computers (guided missiles), chemicals, etc? Or the exploitation of natural resources? I started to see a detachment between the rosy picture of "learn all this, and you will be okay" and the state of the world itself. Reagan was in power, as was Thatcher, and there was a real standoff going on with Russia. And then Three Mile Island and so on. Science was not the answer.

I kind of chose computing because I was good at maths, and did it at University for a degree. But after my first year I realised that most of the university lecturers were idiots, or at least borderline. Some of them knew their topics really well, but that was all. They couldn't put their stuff into a wider context, or deviate from their fixed material in any way. I realised that they were just regurgitating the same stuff each year for the next set of students. And their "recommendations" about the key subjects and topics to study were really about trying to get you onto their course, irrespective of whether it would ever be really useful for you or not.

So I decided to play the system at its own game. I decided to choose the easier and more interesting courses, whether the topic was "offically important" or not. I also based this decision on how difficult the coursework and exams were. In the next 2 years I was able to chose a much more interesting set of topics, have less coursework and exams, and still come out with the same degree qualification as the other people who had done the awkward courses for the lecturers that really wanted to make them work for their grades. I remember pitying the people who had to write a complete working compiler for their final year coursework, when I had chosen a course where all you had to do was write a paper on any esoteric subject you could come up with. As long as you showed some level of research into your topic you were guaranteed a pass by the lecturer.

Musically I love the Blues. I really do (each to his/her own). But it took me until I was about 25 to get any exposure to it. I quite liked some pop and rock music, but didn't get really excited about it. I could listen to it, but would never want to listen to it all the time. It was a combination of circumstances - the Levis advert that used Muddy Water's "Mannish Boy", and a friend who actually knew some Blues music - that led me to my first Blues album. I'll never forget it - "The Healer" by John Lee Hooker. When I put that album on I was blown away. This was what I liked! This was what I had been waiting for! But why oh why was I so unaware that this type of music existed? In simple terms, because I did not fit into the mainstream, and because I did not react to what was being offered by civilisation like everyone else did i.e. what was being thrown at them by mass advertising.

That's when I seriously started to deviate from the mainstream on everything. If this had been kept hidden from me for 25 years, what else was there out there that I had missed out on? That had been kept secret from me, because civilisation did not want me to know about it, because civilisation could not exploit it.

Like Dan I came across Taoism, but just before I was 30. Somehow I ended up with "The Taoism of Pooh". I started reading it expecting to not understand a bit of it, but having completely the opposite reaction. I remember reading the passages about working in harmony with nature rather than exploiting it, and thinking "Yes, that's exactly my point of view. And it's the opposite of western civilisation." I view Taoism as a philosophy rather than a religion. A way of looking at the world and what it is all about, and putting into a context. That made me realise that other people must have had the same realisations that I had - that civilisation wasn't working, and that it was just plain wrong. Constant greed and expansion was not right. Being content with what you have is.

Most of my life, up to about 30, I had kept going forwards on the premise that there was a place for me within the modern world (civilisation), and all I had to do was find or discover it. I had presumed that school and education and work was about finding your niche within life, and you would get different kinds of help to point you in the right direction, and you would be able to recognise your place based on what you saw in the world around you. If you waited long enough, you would find your place.

My problem though was that I had no reference points. No one could tell me exactly what I should do, and no one would introduce me to other people that seemed the same as me. This is civilisation - if you don't conform to what we want, then we don't care about you. You are basically abandoned by civilisation, and must find what is right for you yourself.

It's taken me many years to reach the conclusion that there is no 'right' place for me within civilisation, because I don't want the same things as civilisation does. I am not greedy and do not want lots of money, material things, recognition and power. At most I want a decent job, decent pay, the feeling of doing something worthwhile, and freedom to do what I want the rest of the time.

But that's not what civilisation wants. Civilisation today is really all just a collection of companies. Strange how a collection of people doing work has now become a legal entity, with its own separate existence and rights of its own upheld in law. Companies want to know what you can do for them, so that they can make even more money. And as I put myself first and the company second, I don't get picked for the top jobs or promotion. But then I don't want those top jobs or the promotion and the greater responsibility and longer hours anyway.

And that's where I am now.