Monday, June 4, 2012

a life adorned

One of the internal bring-me-down's of these economic hard times is the constant drumbeat -- little and large -- of subtraction. What was steak becomes hamburger; what was hamburger becomes spaghetti; what was spaghetti becomes thinner and thinner soup. The old car will do; the vacation is put off; the designer-label jeans aren't necessary; a college education is thrown into question because jobs are scarce and there is no ready defense for the richness of the mind...

Lower your expectations.

Or, as an African security official once observed about the rising piracy rates off the Somali coast, "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you."

The dissolution of old assumptions feels like an open invitation to the barbarity of simple self-preservation. Take away enough stuff and the philosopher will buy the gun he once abhorred ... and those who already own guns may jeer, "See ... I told you so!"

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to drive 100 miles to Boston to see my then-girl friend. And one of the entertainments we enjoyed was a rugby match that was held each weekend. My favorite team was a group that seemed to be made up of British ex-pats. They were a rag-tag lot. They had no team uniform or logo but were dressed in cut-off jeans or chinos, scruffy sweat shirts or beat-up rugby shirts, and wore cleats that had long since seen a description like "brand new." Off the field, they were always laughing and joking among themselves, even as the blood seeped from one wound or another. On the field, they were fierce and focused. The ball was their grail and to cross the goal line was their mission ... period.

There were no substitutions. There was no protective gear. They played and they played to win.

On one particular Saturday, this scruffy lot was matched against some college team that trotted onto the field in resplendently clean college uniforms. It was clear from the outset that the college team was outgunned. The most salient bit of evidence was apparent in the fact that the college kids got angry. Tackles and pushes and shoves -- all part of a very tough game -- left them frustrated and whining with wrath. Their mental toughness had not yet evolved. The Brits stomped them and, as after every game, left the field joking and bleeding and covered in grass stains and dirt as they headed for wherever their favorite bar was located. What a lark!

I thought of that rag-tag rugby team with little more than a love of the sport and a field to play it on when I read a Reuters story this morning about the costs associated with school sports. Parents would do anything for their kids and when it comes to sports, they are willing to shell out more and more and more money to make athletic skills part of their children's repertoires.

More and more and more money ... but in hard economic times people rethink their expenditures... to subtract ... to lower their expectations. In rugby, the ball, the field and a willingness to play are all that's really necessary. Fine uniforms are not so necessary.

But, having grown accustomed to fine uniforms, it feels like a come-down, a subtraction and a dulling of some bright spot in life.

Isn't the mind like this as well -- growing accustomed to one upscale appreciation or another only to have that finery called into question?

And together with this lowering of expectations, this life of subtraction, there is often an ascendancy of those who make a grand philosophy out of simplicity. The new normal is simple pleasures, simple food, simple thoughts ... all of them infused with a certain grandeur and sometimes smugness: "I told you so ... slow down and smell the roses! Dig my spanky uniform!"

Perhaps there is just a human gene that is programmed for adornment: Wherever I am, that is important and has meaning and deserves the spotlight. True in times of plenty. True in times of want. My car, my job, my social standing, my goodness, my religion, my philosophy, my books, my children, my clothing, my opinions, my worries, my wisdom, my suffering, my bias, my abilities or ineptness ... my ... 'me.'

Gilding the lily, wherever it grows.

It's not good and it's not bad, but I do think it is a habit worth investigating.

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