Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Being what it is

Because almost everything I say feels insincere to me (although at the same time I don't feel I am ever exactly dishonest), I feel surprised when I let the truth leak out. It seems almost corrosive.

A small example: we are waiting by the lights to cross George St to go into the pub. A rough sleeper comes up and says, can you give me some money so me and my mate can get hamburgers? I say, no. And he says, why not? It's a long time since I've encountered anything resembling an aggressive beggar and it jolts me into being frank with him.

I don't give a fuck about you, I say.

What. Did. You. Say.

You asked me why I wouldn't give you money. The reason is I don't care about you.

And I realised that I was like a man who finds himself naked in the middle of the village green in midwinter: unshielded, out there. Because you are supposed to have some socially acceptable reason: I don't want to encourage them to harass others, or they'll only spend it on booze (like I wasn't planning to myself), or whatever you feel excuses you.

But he is nothing to me. I did not know what happened to him before I encountered him and will not know what becomes of him. And I have no interest in finding out. But if you do not care about the beggar, you are paying him money because of some other thing you care about. I won't speculate about why one does; it's easy to imagine all sorts of motives for it. But I have no other thing I care about in that way and I am left only with the truth.


I have been talking with A about what it is, which led me to ask myself, what is it? Leaving aside the answer to that, what if galaxies were like atoms and our universe merely an object like a stone in some greater universe? It would be the same to us.

I was talking to her about throwing a stone into a pond. Say a beetle was on the surface of the water near where the stone splashed, it would experience the ripples as waves. It would have no concept that the waves had any particular cause, and less so that they could have an agent. You are on a scale far too large for the beetle to comprehend. Not only is the beetle's viewpoint different. Its conception of what is in the world is different from yours (and I am not doing a "what is it like to be a bat?" excursus into how a beetle is different from us; my beetle is comfortably anthoropomorphised).

The point being the world seems a particular way to us because of us, not because of anything about it. We are active participants in how the world is.

Why talk about what it is? Well, you need to see what it is before you can change anything about it. And what is it? It is what it is. It is like glimmering froth, nothing permanent or immutable, all destined to change endlessly, while we try to tie ourselves to it, to pretend it can be held static, to create fixed points and hammer ourselves to them.

A asks whether I am following my own advice. I say something flippant but the truth is that I would be scared to. I have been thinking about poker, and how I was surprised to see that over my "career" I have been neither lucky nor unlucky. I do not believe it says anything flattering that I would feel I had been unlucky but had not been. We understand that poker is mostly luck, with the main purpose of the skill to navigate that luck. So if you cannot feel you underperformed because of luck, you must now conclude that it was skill you lacked. You weren't as good as you thought you were. Seeing what it is can, you see, be scary.


A weird thing is that I stopped tilting at poker. Well, not stopped tilting, but stopped feeling the injustice in a bad beat, that particular form of tilt. I don't know how I stopped. I just didn't feel it any more. I lost to a stunning bad beat and didn't care. I didn't feel enraged. I felt good about my play and content that the same spot would bring me money in the future. But how did I learn that? It's something that wasn't rational, by which I mean that I didn't just need educating in the reality of ups and downs and probabilities, I understood all that, but rather I needed my emotional response to be trained. But one day it wasn't, the next it was. I suppose it's a bit like learning to type, where you labour at a particular level and then, all of a sudden, you are 10WPM faster or you have realised just how to hold your fingers.

I am not totally over it. The injustice of a bad call rewarded still stings, but it's not my losing I mourn but the inequity of cruel chance. But even so it is like I started not just to see it as it is but to know it, so I know that seeing it can have good outcomes too.


It is frightening to feel that you might drown. You only know it is a real feeling if you have felt it. Otherwise it seems wrong that you should not just see what is good in your life and pursue it. But if you have felt that you are swimming in a rough sea on a dark night, with too many hours till dawn and fear that years of trying to keep out of the water have left you too weak to keep your arms moving, then you know how real that feels.

I envy those who are certain that their god will pick them out of the water. I mean, even if he doesn't (I know I should say even though he doesn't, but without certainty how can you dishonour the thing someone else sees and you don't?), the notion that he will serves to buoy you up.

Eventually it is like learning how not to tilt. One day you realise you are just swimming. Or at least I hope it is.


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