Opinion & Thought



Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

William Morris

Matters of opinion are difficult; what can feel like a self-evident truth to one person is nothing more than unsupportable bias to another, and none more so in matters of culture and taste. It doesn’t matter: in one sense we are all alone in this world. No one but us can experience what we experience and so insofar as that is true, it doesn’t unduly matter whether others agree. This blog takes as its premise the belief that an innocent appreciation of the qualities and details of things and experiences can enrich our daily lives, a form of creative mindfulness, the opposite of taking life for granted.

But that in itself is nothing more than an opinion, albeit one borne out by repeated personal experience, not only mine. Day-to-day life would suggest, however, that it is a minority view with anything that makes life instant, easy and undemanding generally commanding far more popularity (and profit). You can live life deeply, or in the shallows; if we accept for a moment the possibility that you get out of life what you put into it, then that raises quite fundamental questions about the world-views and the value attached to life by many of our fellow humans. Too busy to see the wood for the trees?

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched this issue in depth, through tens of thousands of individual studies across cultural boundaries. He found that people reported their greatest life-satisfaction when having to strive, but not so much that they failed. The complete absorption that people experience under those conditions, he named Flow. I am greatly persuaded by this concept: my secular view is that in the (probable) absence of an afterlife, the best thing we can do with our time is to live to the full and help others to do the same. That is entirely independent of any personal preferences that are implied: the only arbiter need be oneself.

This might sound like the ultimate self-indulgence, but it is not necessarily so: I don’t mean just being hedonistic. True, one can become grossly narcissistic in one’s indulgence, but equally one can simply enjoy for what it is, an uncomplicated appreciation of the more pleasurable aspects of life. Even where status and perceived luxury muddy the waters, this can still cut through. The supposedly finer things can be consumed for the status they are perceived to confer (label on the outside) – but they can equally be appreciated simply for what they are (label on the inside).

Oliver James and others have reported higher life-satisfaction amongst those of the world’s (economically) poorest people who (provided they did not lack the basics) were able to meet their expectations and enjoy simple pleasures, than amongst the ultra-rich whose motive was often competitive ostentation. Things that are done for show or to impress are far less likely to achieve Flow than things done for their intrinsic personal reward, even when the results superficially look the same. There is a lesson for us all in there.

Satisfaction is not only found from big achievements; the appreciation of the niceties of anything can contribute at least as much to the sense of a life well lived: even learning to appreciate the quality of sunlight falling on woollen rug or wooden floor. The concept of mastery is very important to one’s sense of self-efficacy and fulfilment, but it is more about one’s powers of observation as the size of one’s wallet. That is why the notion of sprezzatura is attractive: understood non-judgmentally it implies a refined knowledge of a subject in a way that glories in the detail, without taking itself too seriously. I would also argue that those who revel in the fulfilment of the Mind but neglect their physical worlds miss out on as much as those who do the opposite.

But aiming at perfection brings a problem, and I don’t mean the likelihood that it is unachievable: kept in proportion, precisely therein lies the challenge. More problematic is defining it in the first place. I’m not sure what society at large makes of the matter; common wisdom seems to have decided that it is better to lower your expectations and not to aim at the seemingly-unattainable (except with your credit card), but that very word can only be defined by having tried and failed. I think the secret lies in accepting that one will never entirely succeed before one starts, but still being prepared to value what one can achieve for itself.

Perfection implies the acceptance of a gold-standard, and gold appears to be out of fashion. Fusion food, for instance, relies on blending – some might say bastardising – traditional recipes. One may read this as the worst thing to do if one is aiming for perfection; another may argue that it is the way new forms of perfection are created. The same can be applied to pretty much any creative endeavour, at any level of competence. Who is right?

Personally, I take a gentle pleasure from attempting to appreciate the niceties; a fortunate side-effect of my new, non-employed status is the time to do this, and I am happily making up for lost time. Sometimes that means mastering established forms, though I am not so conservative as to reject everything new. But if there is no accepted standard, there is no way of even attempting to agree on how good something really is, new or old alike.

Many of the benchmarks of perfection are arguably little more than the preferences of those who claimed to know enough to lay down the law. Or is there more to it than that? The only way to know something to try it.

There is pleasure in learning to appreciate the finer points of things – most things – even accepting that judgements are, ultimately, arbitrary. This is why some people embark on personal quests to ‘perfect’ their musical, sporting, linguistic or practical abilities. Part of that is learning the time-honoured practices that have been found to contribute to excellent results; arbitrary perhaps, but validated by longevity and consensus. Even if one then chooses to break the rules, one really needs to know what they were to begin with, otherwise one is simply left with ignorance.

Even when one falls short it permits an appreciation of the expertise of others, that one simply cannot attain if one has never bothered to try.


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