What I have learned so far. By Neil.
I seem to remember that at some point in China’s imperial history candidates for the civil service were required to sit an exam which consisted of writing down everything they knew.
I realised this morning that this would have been perfect test for me as I could have been back home in time for a second breakfast. Before you dismiss me as a half-wit, I speculate that I am far from being alone with my croissants.
If I approach the matter with a smidgen of structure I could perhaps classify my knowledge under headings such a practical knowledge, theoretical knowledge and acquired wisdom.
This is the hands on stuff, the making and the doing. I am quite shocked to realise that I actually do or produce very little. I have never repaired a car, rewired a house, installed plumbing or produced a Baked Alaska. I have never knitted a pullover, darned a sock, bottled conserves or smoked a fish.
I drive a car, I call an electrician or a plumber when needed, I order a dessert, purchase a pullie, throw away holed socks, raid the freezer and fire up the microwave.
Stone Age man, the great hunter, forager, maker and mender, would be thoroughly ashamed of me.
Take me away from the civilised framework of the 21st century and I would wither. Whither I would wither I wot not as I am lost without Google maps.
(Yes, yes, yes, I make a mean scrambled egg or omelette but I don’t think that alters the balance of things.)
This I will describe as background knowledge that largely influences or informs the way I navigate through life without necessarily requiring me to do a great deal. You can have some idea of what theoretical knowledge you possess if you imagine being whisked back to the court of Elizabeth I or the Roman Senate and being asked, as the Ambassador of the Wonderful 21st Century, to explain space flight, the jet engine, the piston engine, any engine, electricity, atomic power, television, the internet ….you get the idea. Very few of us could explain any of them. And while you might find it normal not to have Elon Musk’s grasp of space travel it is a touch more alarming that most of us could not explain or throw something together to generate electricity, which has been at our service since the time of our great great grandparents.“Electricity comes out of plugs and sockets” doesn’t really cut it and would leave Bess less than impressed.
But on a daily basis each of us blithely avails ourselves of the greater part of these wonders without having the slightest idea how they work. Not only do I not do or produce much I consume in near total ignorance.
Score so far in the Imperial Civil Service Exam? Zero.
This is the box in which I can place the tips and tricks I have amassed for living a fulfilling life with a degree of contentment and happiness; perhaps even joy. Unfortunately it resembles not so much a house-moving box as a family pack match box.
I had been kidding myself that this area would be my forte. The domain from which my added value would flood the page and carry you forth on a tide of wisdom.
Instead, after two divorces, a very hard separation (although I suspect the lady must see it as ‘The Great Escape II’), the bringing up of several children and a whole working career I find myself reading through a series of self-help, psychology and philosophy books in the hope that somebody else’s wisdom can be plugged into my life to jump-start it.
And yay! I rather think it can. After all we would be a very sad species if, capable of the technological wonders listed above, we were reduced to finding our way through the moral and emotional maze of life based solely on our own limited experience. That would be the equivalent of each of us having to discover fire for ourselves.
Right now I’m plunged into the David Brooks book ‘The Second Mountain’ which fills me hope. The idea that we can eschew the Instagram life and the pursuit of instant gratification in favour of achieving joy through commitment touches a chord. Perhaps the resonation of that chord can only be detected if one’s own life experiences have prepared one and readied one to hear it?
Where am I going with this? Well, as usual I only begin to perceive my destination dimly as I write to you. Which is a very good reason for writing to you. But I think my conclusion is that I need not worry unduly about how few ‘external’ skills I master. It is part and parcel of the nature of civilisation that, as it advances and deepens, it specialises exponentially and it is beyond any one man or woman or any hundred or thousand men or women to master the full skill set. It is not for nothing that Mr. Musk sees one million as being the number of people needed for a Mars based civilisation to flourish independently.
So, for very many of us including me, the acquisition of highly practical skills is not as important as it once was.
So it is wisdom that I am placing my money on. Learning how to live a good life in the sense of a life where I am 'in the flow', needed, loved and loving. The kind of life where I might well be exhausted and exasperated but where I would not contemplate stopping. A life where I can feel needed and of service. In view of moving in this direction I am now contacting organisations to do volunteer work to help younger (everybody else), less advantaged people. In my application letter I have written that it is either this or golf, and if they possess even a shred of that pure form of love for a fellow human which is caritas they will spare me from becoming a golfer.