22 May 2015

The dimensions of success and failure

Eduardo Galeano is one of my favourite authors. He writes things that can be read over and over again. They are always fresh and they always offer new perspectives.  ‘Walking words’ is one that I particular like. I’ve not read it ‘cover-to-cover’.  Some books are not meant to be read like that. I read it random-page by random-page.  

Last night’s random page was about success and was titled ‘Window on a successful man’ (applicable to a woman as well, with replacement of ‘he’ with ‘she’, and ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and vice versa.  

‘He can’t look at the moon without calculating the distance. He can’t look at a tree without calculating the firewood. He can’t look at a painting without calculating the price. He can’t look at a menu without calculating the calories. He can’t look at a man without calculating the advantage. He can’t look at a woman without calculating the risk.’

It is all about a definition and value.  Fascination with value makes us blind to that which enters the universe of our consideration.  Valuation is a convenience.  We measure what we can and disregard that which we cannot.  In the process we strip the particular thing (moon, tree, painting, menu, man, woman etc) of many a key and defining attribute.  It’s a kind of logic that persuades us to believe that something that defies definition or is not amenable to calculation is of little or no value.  

Market-related value, perhaps, is the appropriate qualifier here.  It’s about things that can be bought and sold, or else use to fatten wallets, bank accounts and investment portfolios.  

A Brazilian worried about the fact that he didn’t have a girlfriend wanted someone to teach him ‘how to get babes’.  The exact words were, ‘teach me how to optimize’.  That’s what it is about.  It is about what you gain, what you may lose, what you can multiply and what you are prepared to share. It’s all arithmetic. For some. Well, perhaps I should say ‘for most’.  

Shade cannot be quantified. The serenity of moonlight and its worth at night over fluorescence lit garden cannot be measured.  An expensive painting decorates and at the same time asserts ‘I am connoisseur’, ‘I am wealthy’, but price-tag has little to do with the honing of sensibilities and a particular perspective on the human condition.  

Life is a menu and we pick that which we expect to titillate palette. Our choices are informed less by what we really need than by what we believe we are expected to need.  The business of creating these needs is exactly that: a business.  You cannot buy and sell everything.  Things that are not amenable to quantification cannot be traded.  Things have to be valued before they can be sold and therefore only those attributes of a particular ‘item’, for example timber value of a tree, are measured.  You purchase the timber and the seller loses both timber and shade which the earth is simultaneously robbed of lung-part.  In the end, we contribute to our own asphyxiation.  

Success is subjective.  It is up to each person to decide whether or not to value/devalue things in terms of measurability.  We live in a trading world, we all buy and sell and the relevant prices are fixed or arrived at by considering that which can be measured.  This is incomplete and erroneous calculation, but some might say, ‘inevitable’ and others brush off concern with ‘so what?’  

It’s a personal thing too.  We all indulge in outside-the-market-forces valuation and this does not require ruler, weighing machine and such.  Seldom, however, do we bring that thinking into our calculations when buying this as opposed to that.  We don’t ask ourselves what kinds of outcomes (negative or positive) we contribute to in the choices we make.  

Our consumption patterns are our business.  If our children and their children and generations down the line who carry our blood and genes also happen to be our business, then perhaps we would do well, to make more informed business decisions, especially with regard to our consumption, preferences, indulgences etc.  

Look at the person next to you.  Is he/she made up of a business proposal?  Is he/she exploitable?  Does he/she constitute a threat and a source of possible loss or disadvantage?  Should we check whether the person next to us has something to sell or whether he/she is a possible client, a purchaser of something we want to sell?  The answer to all these questions could be ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  

Who is the man/woman next to you if not a repository of your own will to live and your own fear of death?  Who is the man/woman you find attractive if not someone to love without reservation, without being mathematical about it; without wondering what you would get in return and what you stand to lose?  Is this earth deserving of the tag ‘real estate’, considering all that it gives us? 

‘Menaladaputhekiridunne mama numbata?’ is a question all Sinhala children have heard (did I carefully measure the milk before feeding you, my child?).  If all mothers did make such calculations, would those who calculate most accurately the marginal costs over marginal benefits (of that which can be categorized and measured) be considered the most likely to succeed?  

If failure is the opposite of success, I offer that if this world and our species have a tomorrow worth moving towards it is because there were people who knew the meaninglessness of certain kinds of calculations, certain types of valuation, and because there are still people who are not afraid to wear the ‘failure’ tag because they have humility and are more conscious of the enormity of their ignorance.  

Siddhartha Gauthama, immediately after The Enlightenment, is said to have engaged in an animisalochana puja, where the tree that had given shade was gazed upon for an entire week. That’s gratitude. It is more than that.  Perhaps it is not a bad idea to meditate a few minutes every single day on a tree.  We will, I believe, stop seeing ‘timber’ and we just might carry the lesson to other things we consider as we seek ‘success’. Or ‘failure’, if we acquire that kind of wisdom.

Malinda Seneviratne can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


Anith kona said...

Splendid read !every one of us are in a struggle to overcome financial difficulties in a money oriented society. Felt that many connections and relationships are solely based on money. Thank u !