Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Finding beauty in commonality

I wish we would embrace a little pragmatism sometimes, I respect that life-goals obviously need to be a little bit ambitious but making them unrealistic serves no one and one of the most painful things we can do is walk a path we are unsuited for. We need to be able to criticise ourselves effectively, to get what we want that involves analysing our strengths, weaknesses and make reasoned assumptions about what we can achieve and what we are likely to achieve. Not just what we want. How many of you have asked your friends what you think you should do? If you find what they say jarringly different from what you want its probably time to have a think about who you are. Never be quick to dismiss the opinions of others they always have reasons for having them. Never view your ambitions as absolute.

Now consider this for a moment, Robert Burns cottage attracts many tourists from across the globe. It is a boring place. A fairly ordinary cottage of no particular architectural or historical note in a fairly bland part of Ayrshire. There is nothing remarkable about the place. Yet tourist flock to see what he saw and yet they cannot. The bizarre contradiction is that Burns poetry takes the ordinary and makes it come alive with a poetic vision of the world. The importance is not what you see but rather how you choose to see it. He made the humble Louse, mice or Haggis items worthy of poetic idolatry. I think this is an idea that can be carried across into our personal lives and goals. When did the pleasure of an ordinary life get so eroded by the media's thinking on what we should be doing and how much we should be earning? I wish people would stop hating the ordinary, it forces the world to be such an ugly place.

Burns teaches that there is grandiosity in the most average of lives, a richness and depth that exists if only we would choose to see it. Everyday billions of people take a wry smile as they look at the clock and see five minutes to finishing time. A very ordinary experience but we keep smiling. I would invite you to keep smiling. Doesn’t commonality have its beauty too?

This doesn’t mean we should all focus on being mediocre, one of lovely things about being human is we have an unrivalled capacity to develop ourselves, it is very much the defining feature of our species. This level of investment does not have to be a chore at all, I for one love having hobbies and see it as far more critical in my personal development than my studies. I might even suggest to you, that making yourself a more rounded individual, one capable of greatness of any kind is probably easier than you imagine. Do you really know what you like doing? Do you spend two hours a week doing it? Even if you and your hobbies get lost to time, if you are 20 now and die at 65 you will have spent 4,680 hours doing something you loved doing. This can be anything from reading a good book, drinking a cup of tea or staring at a lap top screen hoping some words will appear on the page… Although the latter contains quite a tidal mixture of grief and happiness. Numerical value aside (and I do love numerical value) just investing time in oneself carries inherent value not only for ourselves but others too. A silly little Harvard professor called William Lyon Phelps thought similarly on the issue.

“The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others.”

Quite simple ambitions aren’t they? What this quote says to me is that what we do isn’t important, its what we love doing that is. It only makes sense that we might attempt to combine the two. When that’s not possible take solace in the fact you at least have another 4,000 or so hours to look forward too. Having a nice chat is precious. Treat it as such.

Finally as last time, I wish to finish on somewhat of a personal note. I want to concentrate on the “moral” aspect we often forget about ambition. I had originally planned to talk about Abraham Lincoln who to his merit had a lot of engaging things to say on developing moral ambition. Alas his was superseded by a far better candidate- my mummy. My mum like many mothers is quite unremarkable, half educated from a shitty part of Glasgow and a single mum and to this day is phenomenally poor. Yet in a very ordinary past time of reading to her child she at a very young age imparted the moral wisdom of Rudyard Kiplings “Just-So Stories” They are lovely tales I would recommend to anyone regardless of age. These memories to this day fill me with a great deal of happiness and influence my writing this. She only sought ambition of the moral kind and no other. Simply to love her son. This made her happy and is something 98% of mothers do. She taught me there is incredible beauty to be had in the living the ordinary life.

That knowledge makes me happy too.

Thanks mum.

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