It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a bit like drowning. There’s no way out. The positions I’ve staked out suddenly seem utterly indefensible, socially ruinous, and outright immoral.
Given all the need in the world, I hear myself asking, how can anyone in their right mind and righteous soul, spend the kind of money audiophiles regularly spend on such irrelevant junk?
I don’t usually get all self-reflective … okay, that’s not true … but it’s not usually about my lack of engagement with the world around me. Being an introvert, it’s usually more about me defending myself from the world at large, but I digress. Anyway, Bill Caraher’s article last week got me spinning down that familiar drain, and it’s one I’ve never really had a totally satisfying answer too. Sometimes, it does feel that spending on myself is precisely what I’ve been told (since birth) not to do. That feathering my nest is not only “somehow wrong” but pretty obviously so. That I owe far more than I give. And maybe just perhaps, more than I have — or ever will.
Take that $25,000 amplifier you’ve been drooling over and finally managed to save up for over the last five years of your miserable day job. Giving that money, to a “good” charity, might well feed five needy families for what, a year? Or maybe it could dig a well in a drought-ridden savannah and bring life-giving water to hundreds of desperate children, orphaned by war. Or maybe rebuild that one-room school in a corner of a third-world country utterly devastated by an earthquake, and breathe inspiration into the next Jonas Salk. Yes, that’s all a bit of a cheat. Don’t find these compelling? Well, use your imagination — or rather, don’t, because it’s all rather horrifying to contemplate exactly how selfish you’re being, you lazy, passive-aggressive first-world oligarchic asshole, you.
Laugh if you want, but to me … sometimes this is all a little too compelling, and it creeps up like a wave, black and inexorable, and I’m stuck with no way to outrun it.
Truth be told, not everyone will feel this kind of tug on their souls. Quite a few of you, reading this, probably got a little bit angry and started unloading a few cargo container’s worth of indignation. You worked for your toys. You deserve them.
I’ll simply grant that you’re special. So am I.
But as the waters swirl around our metaphorical feet, I have to acknowledge that you and I are … unusual. You see, most businesses fail. Some fail due to stupidity, laziness, or corruption — but most don’t. Similarly, for every hardworking nutter putting in 120 hour weeks and pulling in their entirely justified six-figure salary, there are thousands that work as hard or harder — for a tiny fraction of that. There are a lot of people out there. Yes, there are lazy a-holes out there. “Takers”, to borrow a current (if poisonous) term. But contrary what we may have heard, for each abuser, there are thousands who aren’t and wouldn’t dream of it. It’s a sad fact that most of the world’s population have not had the good fortune to be born able to take advantage of first-world benefits. Of those that have, most of them don’t get that one lucky break that launches them up the ladder to fame or fortune. And of those that do, most of them get knocked down by something completely out of their control. They’re brave. They’re good looking. They’re intelligent, clever, hard working, committed, and have great, timely ideas. And they’re still shit out of luck.
So, maybe you do deserve your good fortune. I won’t argue with that as it’d be a bit like spitting in my own face. But I do wonder if I don’t have some obligation to make sure (again, at the very least) that it isn’t my boot in the face of the one coming up the ladder behind me. And maybe, just maybe, I ought to do a bit more than simply “make room”. And no, I’m not looking down my righteous nose at you if you don’t sometimes feel that way. Quite frankly, I don’t care — this is something I wrestle with, which is why I am writing about it.
Unfortunately for me, perhaps, it seems that I’m also not the guy that’s able to donate my worldly successes to the betterment of the needy. I suppose that I am not strong enough to ever pass through the eye of the needle, as it were. The whys and wherefores of my spiritual failings I’m quite sure are long and boring and cliche, but the short of it is that I have a family I want to provide for. I want to leave my kids farther ahead than my parents were able to leave me. That’s important to me and I couldn’t give two figs what you think about that. But then, if I’m being honest … I have to confess that I like being comfortable. I’ve made a whole slew of shitty decisions that I’m not happy with all so that I can stay that way — and make progress on what I believe I need to be making progress on as a parent.
These rationalizations bring my head above the rushing tide, at least for a while. But … there’s always a but. “But then,” I ask, “what about what’s left over? After I’ve satisfied my priorities, isn’t there more that I can do? Isn’t there more that I should do?” And … down I go again.
Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.
Happily for my sanity, guilt is something that ebbs and flows, even if it never leaves me entirely untouched, or for very long. For better or worse, I have now carved my own Scot-shaped space out of the world around me, and I do what I do and ends get met. And when I find my thoughts swirling around the guilt-drain, I tend to think of audio as a reward for decisions that I simply have to live with at this point. Audio, and writing about it, is what keeps me sane and (somewhat) grounded, and greases the grinding wheels, keeping them going as they travel round and round on the hamster wheel of my life. Perhaps at some point, things will change, and I’ll be free (or at least, more free) to reconsider many things — my social responsibilities among them. Whatever those are. In the meantime, I’ve been exploring charities. Who knows, maybe it’ll help.
Speaking of which, for those of you that are socially minded, there are a ton of charities out there that do good work — and even more that totally suck. There’s quite a few articles that talk about how your money get’s spent, so take a few minutes and do some homework. Not that you asked, but I vastly prefer to donate locally — local food banks or programs that live and work in my community tend to get the nod. For non-local stuff, I’m a fan of Remote Area Medical (US), and internationally, Doctors Without Borders USA and Heifer International.
Anyway, it’s something. But, still …. [sigh]. Sometimes … sometimes, I am sure I’ve just got everything exactly backwards. Of course, this usually is coincident with theological conversations about the Nature of God, the Problem of Evil, the Meaning of Life and many other thought-puzzles I find endlessly diverting. I’m very deep, you see. And those deep waters only look still.
Of course, I’m also a pompous, arrogant ass. “Know Thyself,” cried the Oracle. So, let’s call a spade a spade and move on.
No, the world is not my responsibility, and neither is the welfare and well-being of everyone in it. I’m pretty sure this is an ethical trap and a logical fallacy, but I’m too arrogant to look that up. Ahem. Anyway, while I do feel that I have no little bit of husbandry that falls within my purview, being my brother’s keeper cannot be my one and only Purpose. And if it is, well, that’s just dumb.
Here’s the poop — a martyr’s life is a tedious, stressful waste of innumerable gifts and aiming at such a life is an exercise in hubris unlike any otherwise imaginable. Such utter crockery! When I was a kid (read: until I was about 35 or so), I fervently believed that immortality was the goal of life, and that it was one’s deeds, writ in fire upon the canvas of History, that were the sole judge of one’s time on Earth. Yes, how very Joseph Campbellian of me, but whatever.
A little John Lennon (“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”) and a couple of kids later, and I suppose you could say I finally have my priorities straight. If asked, I now can recognize that life is precious in and of itself. It is, in fact, the most precious thing. Yes, Buddha, life is pain — but that’s simply not all it is. Life is also beautiful. If all you ever do is feel for thorns, you’ll miss the rose entire. What an unutterable shame that would be.
Which brings us back to music. In many important, fundamental ways, music (and Art, more generally) is the most human thing we do. It’s not unique to us — precious little is. But art, for the sake of art, is so bizarre, and so mind-blowingly un-Darwinian, that failing to cherish it when it speaks to you is a rejection of your potential to be something more. Back to the Wheel for you — you have more lessons to learn. Look, feel free to be all red-in-tooth-and-claw if you must, but to me, that shit gets old and with a quickness.
Your ethical responsibilities, in my mind, are pretty light. “Do no harm” is a most helpful start, but it’s kind of a lame place to stop. Say, rather, “Be excellent to each other” (thank you, Bill and Ted) — that one actually takes effort and it’s amazing how much happy shit falls out of that.
This is where the sun comes out to shine on my ethical rainy day. Yes, I can do more — and I’ve resolved to do so. But I’m also required to enjoy what I can, however I may, and like everyone else, I’m entitled to drink deeply and regularly from the cup of Life. Music makes that draft much sweeter, to me. And probably to you, as well. So mote it be.
All that said, I still feel a shameful sigh that sometimes, perhaps at night, whispers softly: “do more ….”
What tangled little beasts we are.