Escaping The Cyclops

I recall a couple of years back hearing a prominent politician remark that television enriches our lives. Well, it may be enriching her life but it is not, to any significant extent, enriching mine.

The one-eyed monster – reminiscent of Polyphemus, from whom Odysseus so cunningly escaped – is capable of sucking our brains out. This might have been easier to envisage years ago, when TV sets were constructed around cathode ray tubes, each of which contained a vacuum. Nowadays, the more appropriate metaphor has the vacuum inside the viewer’s skull sucking up the garbage being broadcast like a Dyson greedily hoovering up dirt from a neglected carpet.

As with many other technological innovations, television is a great concept but all too often, driven primarily by commercial factors, it delivers instant gratification at the expense of knowledge and enlightenment. Bah! I hear you say, television is all about entertainment! Well, perhaps it is but entertainment is not usually the same thing as enrichment, which is what we are talking about here.

When I look at the fare being shoved down our throats (or not, ironically, in the case of the ever-proliferating food programmes), I see several problems. But if I had to sum up my dissatisfaction in a single phrase, it would be “lack of subtlety”.

As in literature, television often adopts as a theme the eternal struggle between good and evil. But televised dramas, in an effort to be visually captivating, rely on formulas that stretch credibility beyond sensible limits and desensitise us through the overt use of violence, sex and other devices designed to shock us.

Of course, the more shocks we absorb, the more shock-resistant we become, perpetuating the vicious cycle. Graphic mortuary scenes, once novel, are now used routinely in the ever popular forensic science crime shows and are losing their effect through overuse. Our appetite for gore is ultimately limited.

Although I am a little disturbed by the popularity of dark crime fiction on television, I have to confess that it is a compelling genre. I watch it myself sometimes – especially in the form of the brilliantly conceived and executed “Scandi’s”. We all like something a little noir once in a while but I cannot help feeling that the balance has become too skewed to the dark side.

My overriding view of television is that it encourages us to be lazy. It works best when there is a fortuitous alignment of our mental state with the programme scheduling. I arrive home at the end of a long, hard week and my brain wants mild stimulation without the need for much effort. If there is a first class drama, a fascinating documentary or a classical concert airing, viewing is a pleasure.

If, however, television starts to take over our spare time, becoming a sort of addiction, we should take decisive action. Perhaps, like Odysseus, we could plunge a sharp stick, hardened in fire, into the malevolent eye. If you find this idea too extreme, The Knot Garden suggests you simply think about how you could spend the time more constructively. Go for a walk, have a drink in the pub with your partner, read a book or do some writing.

Whatever we do, we must make sure that we are able to escape the evil clutches of the Cyclops.

Waste Not, Want Not

Waste not, want not. As far as proverbs go, this is a good one. It was, I believe, my Mother’s favourite. And, in common with many other people from her World War Two generation, she lived up to the sentiment.

Every day, wherever I look, I see waste. I work in Information Technology, an industry that seems to breed expert money wasters. Hardware is underused, business losses are incurred when systems break, outdated security allows criminals to wreak havoc and projects hoover up funds out of all proportion to the value they deliver – if, that is, they ever see the light of day.

When I look critically at my own life, I have to concede that I have been as profligate as anyone. Time lost to no avail, wasted money, squandered opportunities and unexploited potential. The pivotal question remains to be answered: will I manage to waste my entire life? Fortunately I am not one to persistently look backwards, wallowing in “If only’s”.

I imagine that few people, aside from the most devoted Zen practitioners, would fail to acknowledge the importance of purpose in their lives. Recognising that we do not have a powerful sense of purpose actually represents a great opportunity, which leads to the bold assertion that “I can set for myself whatever purpose I choose!”.

Happily there is no time limit on defining our true purpose in life, although leaving it too late is to be avoided at all costs. I have been developing mine for several years and it is still not fully formed.

I am going to stick my neck out here and venture that I have spent significantly more time formulating my true purpose than most people. I do not say this in order to appear virtuous but the observation may nevertheless offer some insight into my nature. On the one hand I consider the whole business of purpose to be crucial, while on the other I find that setting it in stone is not a quick process.

I suspect that there are those who find their true purpose with very little effort and those who never discover it.  Those who procrastinate and spend their whole lives seeking enlightenment and those who never give the matter a second thought, believing the very concept of purpose to be irrelevant to them.

What does all this have to do with waste? Well, it has occurred to me that there is an inverse relationship between sense of purpose and waste. I have not had time to develop the idea, but it sounds right.

Why should this be so? The better the use we make of the limited resources at our disposal, the faster the progress towards our goals. Unless, of course, those goals require us to achieve a state of atrophy or indifference.

It has not escaped The Knot Garden’s perception that purpose and waste can exist in a recursive relationship, such that we may have a primary objective of eliminating, as far as is humanly possible, all waste from our lives. This perhaps reinforces the idea that we should look upon purpose and waste as opposite sides of the same coin.


A Little Too Much Balance

You will by now be aware that The Knot Garden pays attention to the idea of balance. In many areas of our lives, maintaining a constructive tension between two opposing forces is important. But elsewhere too much balance can be undesirable. We do not, for example, seek equal quantities of good and evil or honesty and dishonesty.

Following the unexpected (at least by some of us) outcomes to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and the US Presidential Election, we have now experienced another curious political event in the shape of a General Election that, having been hastily announced and poorly campaigned for by the prime minister,  reached a conclusion on Friday morning.

Although I try to keep as far away from politics as I can, having no stomach for it, I am not unfamiliar with the practice of political spin – the last thing we are looking for in those we elect. And I had no trouble recognising it at work across the political spectrum during the election coverage on television, which I managed to endure for a few hours.

Even though the electorate has been delivered the worst of all results – a hung parliament – the leaders of the two major parties have nevertheless both claimed a victory for themselves. From where I am sitting, they have both failed. I don’t recall either party stating beforehand that it was seeking anything less than a full mandate to govern.

An enduring image from Friday morning had the leader of the Labour Party beaming radiantly while embracing his colleagues, who poured out their heartfelt congratulations. He then calmly announced, with total conviction, that he was preparing to form a government. One could perhaps be forgiven at this point for overlooking the minor detail that the Labour Party had secured more than fifty votes less than their main rival.

At the same time, the Conservative Party, who lost their absolute mandate to govern and are working frantically behind the scenes to form some sort of alliance, are likewise jubilant in their self-proclaimed success. As a side note, the former leader of UKIP, which happily won no seats whatsoever, was also surprisingly upbeat and authoritative in his views, considering his party has been decisively consigned to the dustbin of history by the British people.

I made a big effort to make sure that I was able to vote on Thursday night but, given the poor campaigns of the two primary players and the behaviour of their most prominent representatives, I wonder why I bothered. And, to cap it all, we now have a more finely balanced arrangement than we wanted, making it hard for decisive action to be taken in important matters of government.

There is a case for asserting that a certain degree of balance, in the form of a strong opposition group, is a healthy state of affairs in a democracy. But if this paralyses the government then we are all losers.

Let us embrace balance in areas such as collaboration, where it can increase fulfilment and enhance our lives, while recognising that too much balance is not always a good thing.

About Time

But at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity

From Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress

I thank my good friend Rogan for bringing to my attention the words from Andrew Marvell’s evocative poem, which express so well the feeling of time running out that intensifies as we grow older. It is hard sometimes to shut out of our minds the image of an hour glass with its grains flowing unremittingly from the top chamber to the bottom one. This device, perhaps used for the first time in the eighth century, is the best metaphor I know for the relentless passing of time. There is no way of interrupting the flow except by turning the hour glass over – a technique not available to us in life.

It is commonly said that “Time is our most precious commodity”. While I agree with the sentiment, I do not consider time to be a commodity. Classifying it alongside such tangible goods as crude oil, live hogs and greasy wool diminishes its unique and fundamental nature, which give it such supreme importance in our lives.

Time does nevertheless have a characteristic that it shares with commodities. The more its supply decreases, the greater the value we place on what remains of it. One interesting aspect of time that sets it apart from mere commodities is our inability to determine precisely how much of it we possess.

While we think of time as a diminishing resource, ebbing away with each tick of the clock, it is possible that our own personal supply of it may increase – at least during certain periods of our lives. If we no longer need to work fixed hours five days a week as an employee, our supply of high quality time increases. And if we recover from a life threatening illness, our absolute supply of time increases. In fact, we can increase the time we have left simply by looking after our health.

The problem I have, along with many others, is that there never seem to be enough hours in the day. I am constantly working to reduce the number of activities in my schedule and also to use my time more effectively. It is remarkable how much time we waste every day of our lives. The Knot Garden abhors waste. I believe that in order to succeed in both of the afore-mentioned endeavours, we need to invest a little of our time in organisation and planning.

If we believe in the principles presented in Gary Keller’s thought provoking book The One Thing, we might try to spend all of our time in pursuit of a single goal. But the reality of modern life is that we need to pursue multiple activities in order to sustain our One Thing – and also to achieve some balance in our life (an idea that Keller rejects).

To help me navigate my web of interconnected tasks and objectives, I am working on adopting a set of five thought modes based on the important areas of my life. I will rotate through four virtual spaces in my mind that are arranged like giant caverns around a central void reserved for my belief system, meditation and sleep. The structure resembles that of The Knot Garden itself.

By means of this mental device, used in conjunction with a form of time-boxing, I aim to work effectively towards my goals. The key of course, is to minimise thought leakage from, and between, the silos.