Monday, June 6, 2011

Fleeting Rituals

     Michael O'Hare reflects on the ways in which we design our lives - consciously or unconsciously - around meaningful interactions:

The dishwasher displaced a family ritual of washing dishes that has no good substitute (I wonder what kind of social interaction rich people with servants have/had?).  Sitting around the table at dinner, people are looking at each other and anything that comes up, especially if it’s at all risky or awkward, is an agenda item.  But washing the dishes, we were ‘officially’ doing a chore, and not face to face. It was a lot easier to bring up a touchy or risky question.  Not being face to face has a lot going for it in enabling honesty, I think. As in being side by side in a car seat, or sitting around spinning or sewing, as women used to do for hours.  Aaron Wildavsky was famous for having meetings on the hoof, which was a good idea partly because using large muscle groups seems to be good for mentation, but also because the setting was better than sitting across a table looking at each other, and on a walk, the time to the end is implicit physically, and the meeting can’t be ended unilaterally on either side. So one knows when there’s just enough time to open the kind of difficult issue that begins with “By the way, I was thinking…”

     It seems more and more that as the pace of new forms of living quickens, we are challenged to engage in this kind of insight. As it becomes harder to rely on forms of living that we had previously gravitated towards unconsciously, or through vaguely tacit approval of traditional structures that may have lasted centuries or more, we can no longer rely on tradition to provide at least a benign guidance. Of course you could argue that tradition hasn’t always been benign, but if you’re going to embrace iconoclasty, you must first be conscious of what it was your were doing and what you are now going to do.

     And here maybe is where we all find ourselves faced with the existential angst of change and relativism. “Oh my God, I no longer wash dishes by hand – how can I replace that meaningful exercise?”, or “Why bother collecting records when everything is online, all the time?”. As the pace of economic and cultural change only seems to grow, our worlds can seem to unravel.

     This is also likely a function of age as well. Now in my mid-thirties, I think I’m just beginning to grasp the age-old lament of mid and later life: that the world seems more and more like the view out the window of a speeding train, and less like the view of the interior cabin. I suppose this has been classified as a fear of ultimate mortality. But it seems more a recognition of the transient nature of time itself.

     So what to make then of attempts to find stability – to find a sense of real meaning in this modern chaos? What if an increasing effort to be conscious of what we are gaining or losing as modes of life change, turns out to simply create a net increase in stress and anguish? Karen Armstrong and others have claimed that the extreme version of this sense of threatened rootlessness and assault by modernity is the driving force behind fundamentalism. Its hard not to see their point.

     Ironically, when one is in a permanent state of reaction, one would also seem to be quite rootless. The more one attaches oneself to moving targets, always allowing oneself to be framed by them, defined by their gravity, the more chaotic the world becomes. Like a boat caught in a fast-moving river, resisting the flow is a full-time job. Of course, the only alternative is to let go.

     And yet here we are again (in the same boat?), struggling to orient ourselves and try and steer however we can. It is an unavoidable fact that the modern river is all around us and there is no stopping it. I suppose the question to ask ourselves is how much worrying we can withstand as we sail into oblivion?

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