On the feeling of tremendous well-being

One bright winter Thursday, in my last years of high school, I went for a bike ride in the morning. Thirty kilometres, quite hard, with plenty of hills. I didn’t have to go to school until 11 o’clock because I had a double free period. After arriving home and having a shower I went into the lounge room, put on a record – Schumann’s piano concerto – and made myself a cup of instant coffee (this was long before the days of personal espresso machines, not that my parents could have afforded one anyway).

The lounge room had a large window into which the sun was streaming, and outside I could see the nearby gum trees and the far off blue-green hills. My leg muscles had that pleasant, achey feel that tells of a hard job, well-done, and I felt very relaxed – full of endorphins perhaps.

It was the first time I had fully realised how marvellous Schumann’s piano concerto is. It has great swelling surges and a captivating momentum, especially in the last movement. It is deeply romantic in its expressivity, yet has a classical sense of drive and purpose. I had read not long before someone’s opinion that Schumann was only really a “miniaturist”, writing well for solo piano or accompanied singer, but that his attempts at large orchestral works were failures. “How wrong that critic is!” I thought as I thrilled to the surges and rhythms of the orchestra and the piano in response. Relishing the music, relishing the warm sunlight (on a chilly but bright winter’s day), relishing the coffee, relishing the gentle, worthy ache of my quads. Relishing the fact that I, a mere schoolboy at an undistinguished Catholic school, was free until 11 o’clock, and that the ride to school was mostly downhill.

This, I thought, is an excellent experience. I must remember this.

And I have. More than thirty years later, the sounds of that Schumann concerto still transport me back to that sunny lounge room.

Last week I had another great experience. I was just riding along a bush-lined path next to the airport. I had been feeling a little seedy earlier but now, after about half an hour on the bike, I was warmed up and felt a harmonious unity with nature as I swooped around corners and over dips and bumps. I am dancing Nataraja, dancing the cosmic dance that is the universe.

I doubt I’ll remember last week in thirty years, should this body last that long. I’ve already forgotten key elements – there was more to the feeling of well-being than I can remember even at this short interval. Perhaps I need a musical accompaniment, a taste or a smell, to really fix something in my memory.

My life contains these rare moments when there is a feeling of tremendous well-being. There are many more moments of dullness, routine, embarrassment, discomfort, sadness, fear and anger, as well as plenty of feelings on the positive side – relief, comfort, amusement, intellectual stimulation, success, kinship, love – that are appreciated, but not remembered for a lifetime.

People sometimes talk of wishing to “bottle” a special moment, to make it last. I can’t make it last, and I realise that trying to do so would be counter-productive. Clinging destroys the beauty and pleasure of the moment. In fact, part of the reason why such moments are so special is that they are different from the everyday. They are precious because they are rare of occurrence and finite of duration. But we can preserve all of the moment that is worth preserving by fixing it in our memory. We can write it down, or just set some mental markers to make it easy to recall. The Schumann and the coffee are the markers for my marvellous Thursday in 1979.

Each life is a work of art, a pattern, a dance, a song, a tapestry, and each individual is the creator of their own artwork. The artworks of all the different individuals mingle to make a grand panoply of colour and movement. We can make decisions and perform actions that enrich our own art work and those of others as well. Works of art need contrasts: highs and lows, louds and softs, fast bits and slow, pastels and primary colours, rough and smooth textures. If we can internalise the understanding of that sufficiently well then perhaps we will appreciate times of sadness, fear or pain as well as times of pleasure.

So I will pay more attention to the feelings that life arouses. If they are negative, I will try to view them as interesting, curious anomalies, phenomena to be studied. If they are positive I may do that too, but I will also try to make mental bookmarks to be able to recall them later on. Perhaps at times of great sadness it will be helpful to view the strife in the context of past joys, to reclaim, at least in part, the feeling of aesthetic necessity of such times as part of the grand pageant that this life is.

Perhaps it’s even worth mentally bookmarking some negative times for later reference. That may enhance the enjoyment of the positive ones, as well as assisting the holistic perspective. I can think of some past experiences of fear, pain (physical and emotional) and embarrassment on which I can look back quite equably now, perhaps even fondly.

But I’ll not pretend that I don’t enjoy the good experiences more. I do. Even one of those experiences is enough to justify this life. I have been very fortunate. I hope that everybody can have at least one experience like my Schumann moment before they die.

Friedrich Holderlin’s marvellous poem “To the parcae” expresses this rather well:

Grant me but one good summer, you Powerful Ones!

And but one autumn, ripening for my song,

So that my heart, fulfilled by sweet play,

Might the more willingly die, contented.

……

once I lived as the gods live, and more we don’t need.

A postscript. It’s not just about the bike. The two positive experiences I relate above involve bikes, but that’s not always the case. Many involve exercise, it’s true. I can remember running around Centennial Park on a sunny winter morning about twenty years ago (there’s something about sunny winter mornings that seems particularly conducive to well-being), watching the fence fly past me and thinking “I’m running so fast, and I can’t even feel my feet touch the ground!”. There are also wonderful, memorable moments involving one’s children or spouse. I have less of them though. I think the mind is too distracted during the years of child-rearing, by tiredness, busyness and endless to-do lists, to be able to focus well enough to form sustainable coherent memories. But the rareness of memories of such moments makes them extra special.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 May 2013


In Praise of Selective Ignorance

 

I think I used to know where Timbuktu was. I seem to recall looking it up once, many years ago. It was somewhere in Africa, I think. But now I am glad to say that I am no longer sure where it is, or even whether it exists in the real world, rather than just as a metaphor for an obscure, faraway place.

That may sound strange. Why don’t I just google it, you may wonder. It would be the work of a handful of seconds to obtain all the information one could wish on the subject. The answer is that I prefer not knowing! As long as I don’t know, it remains a mystical, semi-magical idea – perhaps the sort of place that dragons live, or a land that can only be reached by climbing to the top of the Faraway Tree. Not knowing is so much more intriguing and exciting than knowing.

Don’t get me wrong, I think knowledge is a wonderful thing. Continuing one’s education as long as one lives is one of the things that makes life truly worthwhile. But accumulating bare, dry facts is not what I consider worthwhile education. There is magic in understanding the theory of relativity, or quantum mechanics, there is fascination in analysing the structure of language and meaning, and there is enduring value in studying ethics so that one can develop a consistent system for making important decisions that affect others. But names, locations and principal exports are facts that are fit primarily for laundry lists. They hold no poetry for me.

The internet is a marvellous tool. It has enabled me to further my education in a number of fascinating directions. For a while there, I also revelled in the ability to instantly look up a name I hadn’t heard before, to dispel my ignorance of some obscure fact at the click of a mouse. But now, as often as not, I choose not to search. There are many things I want to know, things I need to know, and things that others will benefit from my knowing. But there are also rivers of useless information that merely clutters the brain.

When I was three or four, we used to go and stay in my grandparents’ hotel in Lisdoonvarna in Ireland. It was a rambling place that seemed enormous to us little kids, even though it probably wasn’t that large. We used to wander into the kitchens and talk to the cooks and wander about the hotel. My older brother and I found what we regarded as a ‘secret passage’ from the kitchens up to the upstairs guest rooms. I expect that really it was just a rear stairway topped by a short corridor that gave onto the guest corridor through a ‘Staff only’ door. But because it was not apparent from outside the building, and was hidden behind small doors, we imagined that it was secret, perhaps even that it was in another dimension – hyperspace perhaps. We delighted in going from the kitchens to the guest corridor via this route, feeling as if our sudden appearance on the upper storey would seem like magic to any casual observer.

Had a floor plan of the hotel been available we could no doubt have seen instantly how the corridor fitted in, with geometric precision, and every square metre of floor space was accounted for. There would have been nothing secret or magic about the passage any more – just another dingy service thoroughfare. But we never saw one, and the excitement remained undisturbed, free to be recalled with pleasure forty years later.

I rail against those who loudly proclaim political views founded in a combination of tribal ideology and ignorance. I castigate who are not prepared to take time to understand the threat of global warming. I mourn the poor literacy and knowledge of hygiene, sustainable agricultural practices and contraception in the poorest countries, that causes them so much misery. In so many ways, and in so many contexts, ignorance must be fought and dispelled, if we humans, and the other animals on this planet, are to flourish.

But there are times and places where ignorance can be enjoyable. I delight in not knowing where Timbuktu is. I leap to switch the radio off when the news comes on to tell me unnecessary grisly details of some horrible murder. I get a kick out of muddling up the names of the world’s favourite teen pop idols. And I’m even starting to enjoy not being able to name an actor in a television drama whose face looks familiar (which uncertainty a couple of minutes on the internet could easily clear up).

So, while I still earnestly adjure my fellow humans to join me in trying to learn the important things that will help us get along and prosper, I hope that we will all have some space left in our life to whimsically wallow in selective ignorance of those things that don’t matter.


Relativity and regrets

Einstein’s solution to nostalgia

One of the sure signs of success for a newspaper columnist is for an idea they have expressed or a phrase they have coined to survive long after the column has become a fish and chip wrapper. Many years ago, somewhere between twenty and thirty I think, I read an opinion column by Ian Warden, a humorous writer for the Canberra Times, in which he coined the phrase ‘daguerrophobia’. Mr Warden used this phrase to describe the pang of regret he felt when he looked at photos of his young children that had been snapped six months or more earlier, and saw that the children were already noticeably different and more grown-up than they were in the photo, and that they would never be that sweet young age again. If I remember correctly, the column went on to say that he was developing an aversion to looking at photos (‘daguerrotypes’) of his children because he wanted to avoid these pangs.
A quick Google search on daguerrophobia reveals that this coined term never caught on – not a single genuine hit. But it certainly had an effect on me. Over the intervening decades, especially after the birth of my children, this concept of regret for times and events that are gone and will never be again, has come back to me repeatedly. I didn’t suffer from it in the near-paralysing way that Mr Warden described, but it certainly made me think, and caused the odd regret. As far as actions went, it had the opposite effect from that which it had on Mr Warden. I think it was a major motivation in my buying good cameras and taking plenty of photos and videos of my children, as well as making regular entries in an exercise book about their development stages, characteristics and cute (or not so cute) sayings and actions.

But let’s think about the basis of this regret of times lost (this may or may not have some similarity to Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. I don’t know as I haven’t read it). What are we regretting? Think of the joy a parent has when their children are young, sweet, simple and devoted to their parents. After a time, most or all of these characteristics will be replaced by those of a more mature person – simplicity by sophistication, devotion by independence (but hopefully not without affection). But those changes don’t alter the fact that the child did once have those characteristics, and that the parent did obtain happiness from them. That fact is a fact forever, or at least for as long as the parent remembers it, perhaps longer if they write about it.

But I think we can actually take this reality of good times past a step further, with the help of those great theoretical physicists Hermann Minkowski and Albert Einstein. Einstein published what is now known as the ‘Special theory of relativity’ in 1905. The key observations of this theory were that time slows down, lengths are shortened and mass increases for an object in rapid motion, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and matter can be converted to energy (E=mc2). In 1908, Minkowski observed that Einstein’s theory could be best understood by regarding time and space as part of a unified four-dimensional continuum called ‘spacetime’, rather than as separate concepts. Einstein adopted this idea and it became central to his development of the ‘General theory of relativity’, published in 1915, which explained how the effects of gravity we observe arise from the curvature of spacetime caused by massive objects like the sun or the earth. Black holes are amongst the more exotic and exciting concepts to arise from this theory.

Minkowski’s view of the world as spacetime is very useful for practical calculations in astronomy, rocket science and particle physics, but I think it also has philosophical connotations, for those that are interested in such things. Under Minkowski’s view, our life is a set of events in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum, with no special distinction attached to events that are in the past rather than the present, or indeed in the future. We can view time just like any of the three space dimensions, so that an event in the past is just ‘over there’ on the continuum, separated from our current spacetime position (‘Now’) only by a certain distance in time. Think of it as if you were standing back from your life, admiring it from the outside, taking in the full panorama of events, thoughts and feelings from all the combinations of places and times that make it up. Strictly, you need to enter a five-dimensional world to properly view this curved, four dimensional continuum, just as you need to live in three dimensions in order to read a two-dimensional map. But a little imagination can make up for our lamentable human shortcomings in the dimensions department.

So when you look back on an event, be it a beautiful sunny Sunday morning or your daughter taking her first tottering steps, you don’t have to use the past tense, as in ‘I had a lovely day’ or ‘my daughter was very sweet’. You can use the present tense with equal validity if you think in four dimensions – ‘back then’ becomes ‘over there’. ‘I am having a lovely day on 10th September 1973 – see over there, just down and a bit to the left?’ ‘My daughter’s first steps fill me with joy, see up there, it’s so heart-warming isn’t it?’

This may seem contrived, but it’s not. It takes a bit of practice to think in four dimensions, but you get used to it after a while, and then you realise it’s just as genuine as thinking in three, perhaps more so. The traditional way of looking at time and space is at least as contrived. What, after all, is so special about the present? As soon as you think about it, it’s in the past! There is in popular culture at present a strong understanding of the need to ‘live in the moment’. I understand this to mean it’s wise to extract all the happiness you can from the present moment, rather than placing all your hopes on happiness that you expect to come some time in the future. Good advice, absolutely, but this affirms rather than contradicts the benefit of a four-dimensional view. By making the most of every moment, you are increasing the quality of the continuum that makes up your life path. You will have more happy events to look across at (not just look back on), rather than just one happy event towards the end of the continuum, which after all may not necessarily eventuate.

It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about ‘life’s rich tapestry’. But perhaps it’s also a more user-friendly way of describing the multi-dimensional spacetime continuum that was and is your life. Every bright spot in your life is another ornament on the tapestry, that you can sit back, admire and enjoy whenever you like.

It is regrettably quite common for women at any age over thirty to feel distressed about the fact that their beauty ‘now’ is less than it was ‘earlier’, and that it will be still less ‘later’. Men suffer less from this, but they may still be upset by declining athletic prowess or the fact that they are no longer besieged by offers from eligible women as they were in their early twenties (I speak only from personal experience here, I can’t comment on what others feel). Such distress is illogical and unnecessary. A woman will always have the beauty of her twenty year old self at the part of the continuum/tapestry that holds her twenty-year old self. Why should a woman bemoan at age forty the fact that she will be wrinkly at age seventy any more than she bemoaned it at age sixteen? It is a certainty at both ages. Most women will have beauty at some part of their lives, phasing to less beauty at other parts. The fact that ‘now’ is in one of those parts or the other is unimportant. I cannot run very fast at this point in my tapestry, but that’s all right, because I can run very fast in that part over there where I am twenty-four years old, and win trophies, applause and satisfaction for my efforts.

There is one thing that does distinguish the past from the present or the future though, and that is that we can do nothing to change it. Daguerrophobia may be very real and potent if, when we look at those toddler photos, we are reminded that we hardly spent any time with our young children, that they hardly knew us, and this causes us sorrow. If so then from our perspective it may have been a poor decision to spend so much time away from our children (Not necessarily though. We may have been frequently absent because, as a single parent on a low wage, we had to work long hours to keep the children housed, fed, healthy and educated.  If so, our sorrow at having missed parts of our children’s upbringing will be balanced by the satisfaction in thinking that we have done our best to give them a good start in life). Where we have made poor decisions in the past, we cannot undo them, although we may be able to take measures now to mitigate the effects. Such poor decisions will cause flaws in the tapestry, areas that cause no joy, perhaps even pain, to behold. Everybody has plenty of flaws in their tapestry. Perhaps the tapestry would be rather dull without them. But it’s probably a good guiding principle to do what we can to avoid major flaws. In many cases that involves thinking about how you will feel later about decisions you make now. You could try to avoid needing to say in future ‘I wish I had ……’, where the ellipsis could stand for ‘spent more time with my children’, ‘not given up playing the piano’, ‘been kinder to that unpopular kid in our class’, etc.

Is this way of looking at life selfish? Does it make it all about perfecting your own tapestry, so you can enjoy admiring it, without regard to anyone else? I think the answer to this is no because, unless you are a hermit, your tapestry is inextricably interwoven with those of all the other people with whom you come into contact, or who you otherwise influence. When you step back to look at your tapestry, you are looking at theirs as well, and it will be hard to take any pleasure from the prospect if you don’t see bright spots on the other tapestries that you helped create.

I have been a little loose in describing this as Einstein’s solution to nostalgia, when it was actually Minkowski that thought of it. I have taken artistic licence to call it Einstein’s because everybody has heard of him, whereas generally only physics and maths nerds like me will have heard of Minkowski. And it was after all Einstein that took Minkowski’s ideas and made them famous in the creation of his enormously influential, complex and famous General Theory of Relativity. But that Hermann Minkowski sounds like a pretty wise and cool chap, so let’s have three cheers for him!

Andrew Kirk
Sydney
July 2010