Saturday, January 06, 2007

Professional Spectator


I'm always amazed by the number of people who insert the following phrases into their conversations: "I turned around one day and...", "I was so busy with...", "I never got around to...", "I always wanted to...", "I used to...", "I wish I was...", "I'd never be able to...", "...but I had to give it up.", and "At one time I loved to...".

All of those utterances are sounds of regret and passive abdication. We all, certainly, must see to responsibilities at various times in our lives. Some responsibilities are embraced voluntarily and happily (children, new job, etc.) while others are foisted upon us (anything done through guilt or manipulation, life-altering illness or injury, family crisis, etc.) There is certainly room for compromise on either side. At those very moments when our lives change it invariably brings a death. The death isn't physical but it is psychological or spiritual. I feel that we "grow up" when we become responsible for something. The extent of our growing up is related to our responsibility, but not directly. I think there is a point at which we can grow up no more and I don't think it takes too much to get us to that level. Upon growing up, we are often forced or believe we are required to, as the Apostle Paul encourages, "put aside childish things." We are told by society and civilization that a grown-up person acts in a certain way, so we must live up to those expectations. Since physics teaches us that no two pieces of matter can occupy the same space at the same time, the space now occupied by "childish things" must be vacated so "grown-up things" can take residence. This, far too often, is the tragedy of our modern world.

I am not giving advice either way here. I understand that the configuration of our civilization makes assumptions and requirements upon those who live therein. The doctor doesn't go out drinking hours before surgery. The expectant mother doesn't go rock climbing a week before delivery (does she?). The cable repairman doesn't go to the houses he feels like visiting. The fireman doesn't continue to play cards when the alarm goes off. The babysitter doesn't decide to leave the kids when she gets a better offer.

Modern life increasingly requires more and more specialization. The vast amount of data to be sorted and internalized requires more and more time. The pace of change is such that the ink isn't dry on a software manual before it has been updated. Techniques which once endured generations are swept away week to week for a modern spin or a more efficient adaptation. These requirements, added to the already overwhelming number of options, choices, varieties and possibilities has wrung us of much of our humanity. In a post made a couple weeks ago, I lamented our lack of time in the modern world. Another casualty of civilization has been the "amateur". No, the amateur is not gone or forgotten, but increasingly rare in the true sense of the word. The gist of the word amateur is "one who performs a task for the sheer love of the task." If I go to work and landscape for eight hours a day and get paid for it, I am a professional. If I go home and work on the lawn and gardens for eight hours a day, I am an amateur.

In days past one would aspire to a level of facility in home repair, auto repair, gardening, etc. My dad always made me help work on the vehicles and around the house. My father-in-law would rather get a beating than call a repairman. Today, we commonly contract out those tasks. We bring the car down to the corner lube shop for an oil change. We have someone come to take care of the lawn and garden. We order out. We drop off the laundry. We watch the game. We rent a movie. We buy a music CD. We listen to a sermon. We read a book. We go to the museum and look at paintings. We watch "reality shows" on TV.

We have become the nation of the "compulsive abdicator" and the "professional spectator." Time, certainly, has much to do with this. We've allowed our lives to become so complex and harried, we have no time or energy for extra pursuits. And, since many of us were reared in a home with a family in similar circumstance, we were never taught how to do many of these things. Lack of time is one reason for our incompetence but our lack of role models and mentors is another. Many never learned to change the oil from their mechanically inclined parent. Children have never learned how to cook for a large group.

When skills are not handed down, accessible or valued, they tend to die off. We tend to defer to, so-called, "experts". An example of this is how my wife always says, "You are so much better at that than I am," when I'm doing the dishes (at least I think it is when I'm doing the dishes). I generally quip, "It is because I practice. Maybe you need to get some experience?" I say it half-jokingly, but there is a serious aspect to it. People who wish they were better or even basically competent at something often do little to change the circumstances. Again, there is a limited amount of time and energy, so we must make difficult choices. The sad part of this situation is that we have less and less time to give an ever-increasing number of tasks, options and responsibilities. Also, when you learn a skill, you often learn why that skill is important (the skill's place in the universe and its purpose), not just the rote performance of the task. It is just as important to know why you do something as it is to know how to do something.

Most of the following examples are nothing more than bitches and generalities, but I think some have merit. Some examples of our abdication:

- We defer to a professional class when it comes to the spiritual rather than seeing to our own needs.
- We are more likely to listen to a music CD than to write our own songs.
- We are more likely to buy a book than to write one.
- We prefer our elected officials handle all political issues rather than becoming involved ourselves.
- We hire someone to grow our food for us rather than grow it (or some of it) ourselves.
- We will go to a play before we write and act in one ourselves.
- We will participate in less sports than we watch.

All generalities, yet all likely true. Something I will wager, though, is that many of these items would be less true for younger people. A child would likely feel more inclined to play sports, write a book, write a song, write a play (and act in it, of course) than someone who is an adult. For children, living is a spiritual, participatory adventure and they look to one another for answers to many questions ("What do you think happens when we die, Skippy?"). Kids may beg off politics, but I think they'd be more into participating than observing. That is, until they are told they are not competent. "A bee isn't blue, honey!" "Oh, you colored outside the lines!" "That is nice dear, but those words are nonsense!" "That's not how you do it!" The child learns they are incompetent and that their parents are not willing or able to make them so. I guess it is easier not to not try, eh? Of course, their parents are qualified to teach them one thing: It is easier to denigrate than to educate.

Our civilization has evolved into the mess it is with our complicity. We've abdicated our spirits to priests and holy people. We've given over the running of our lives to politicians. We wouldn't know how to grow our own food even if we had the land upon which to do it. We've allowed ourselves to be commodified. We've allowed ourselves to become parts of the machine. We are cogs, not kings.

This is the world of the specialist, the expert, the holy, the annointed and the gifted. No one dares intrude on that sacred ground. Yet, there are a few who still have the audacity to ask questions, bang on tables, pluck a string, paint a picture and tell a story. I think those who have that spirit will do well in the days to come. They won't need to wait around to be told what to do by an expert. They don't need a priest. They are the true renaissance men and women who give our world hope. They know the joy of dancing without knowing the name of the steps. They dare to write a poem without understanding the intricacies of meter. They will repair their shoes before throwing them out. They play games they make up rather than watch people play games in a stadium. They can hear nature speak clearer than they can hear the TV. They prefer to have a meaningful conversation with friends over renting, "My Dinner with Andre." They draw strength from community rather than experts.

There is a place for experts and seers. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary skills. Everyone is made a better person by experiencing a performance by gifted musicians. Everyone marvels at the craftsmanship of a master builder. We are inspired by great writers and thinkers. But relying on them too much for too long has dulled our skills. Worse than that, by allowing technology and experts to perform these and other tasks, we become less human. We feel we are unable, unworthy and unwanted. We are step-children of the human condition and the human experience. We are helpless invalids in many aspects of life. We've abdicated the thrones of our own lives and given them over to strangers. We no longer pilot our ships. We make more "You Tube" videos showing us lip-syncing or covering a song than we do performing an original composition.

There is no way to recover all that was lost. We are not the same Americans we were in the 1700's when a man would walk behind a plow by day, read philosophy by candlelight and plan revolutions on the weekend. We are not the same people who could play multiple instruments, quote lengthy passages from key works, understand the rhythms and cycles of nature and fabricate our own tools. We do have modern skills that have some merit, but our souls are not modern. We are ancient souls in a modern world.

While we need such humans now, it won't be long before such humans are indispensable. Many of them read these sites. I pray that I live next to people like Comrade Simba or Kevin and Rebecca when the shit hits the fan. We need people that are not only competent, but human. Human in that we understand what makes us human and what nourishes our humanity. There is still time for many to turn their wheels just a bit and regain some of their sovereignty and humanity. For others, I fear it is too late. For them life is truly a spectator sport.

“Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the ground rules of society. The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and specialize, to accept uncritically the ground-rules of the environment. The ground-rules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is contentedly unaware. The 'expert' is the man who stays put”

Marshall McLuhan


4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that we "grow up" when we become responsible for something. The extent of our growing up is related to our responsibility,

I must say, I disagree wholeheartedly with that statement. It's our culture and society that brainwash us that we aren't grown up until we are responsible for things. But sometimes all responsibility does is limit our freedoms and keep us slaving and working and on the consumerist treadmill.

Some people are responsible for everyone but themselves. Some people don't know what they are actually responsible for, so they feel responsible for their loved ones happiness, for example. Or they feel responsible for someone else's feelings.

If you look at responsibility as "ability to respond," then it's a fine word. If you look at responsibility as duty, obligation, taking care of people who can and should take care of themselves, then it's a disgusting word.

January 07, 2007 4:07 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Good post. I really resonate with a lot of what you said. I didn't even learn to cook until I was 22. My general attitude about many things is still, "Why bother, other people have already done it much better than I could have." Or, "that's too complicated, there's no way I can learn that." Makes for a very limited world.

January 07, 2007 7:19 PM  
Anonymous Don said...

You are getting into several things I have thought many times about. One is the general attitude that only "experts" should be doing things, especially things that are dirty. Don't do any garden work or car work, leave that to others while you sit around watching some dumb sports or tv program. Another is the general decline in hobbies other than that accepted by mass media. I am involved in many hobbies, model railroading, Ham Radio, antique tractors, just to mention a few. In every case the magazines and associations in those hobbies lament the continuing decline in numbers. No one does anything but watch TV or play computer games.

Another thing is the lament that we do not have the time to do simple things like change oil in a car. Just think of all that time you spend sitting in front of the glass tit soaking up mass media garbage from preachers wanting you money to sports shows wanting you to spend your money and all work on guilt.

How much time does it take to drive to the quickie change place, wait around while someone fills out paper work, then wait around while someone gets around to doing a half a job, spending most of the time trying to find something else to sell you, then waiting around while they complete the paperwork and you pay. Compare that to my experience. It takes me less than fifteen minutes to change the oil and inspect things. Other things are the same, I replaced the steering drag link last week, it took me maybe a total of 45 minutes to do including stopping off at the parts house and cost $64. A shop would have kept the pickup for several hours and charged me several hundred dollars.

As for teaching kids, I taught my kids how to maintain cars and how to rebuild them. They both know a lot about cars, one runs a parts house and the other is an account executive for an automobile ad agency, he also has a book out on rebuilding transmissions.kld

January 08, 2007 12:03 PM  
Blogger Frank Black said...

Anonymous:

I must disagree with your disagreement, but only in terms of semantics. :)

You will notice that the term "grow up" was put into quotes. I did that because I know the term can come with baggage and have different meaning to different people. But, the understanding is maturity, self-reliance or the natural growth process. Children depend on adults. When they no longer depend on adults they are themselves adults. It starts slowly with things like learning to feed themselves or learning to dress. It may next go to taking care of a puppy or cleaning their room. That is how we measure progress. That is the order of nature and of our world. Certainly we all depend of someone for something (doctors, mechanics, etc.), but that differs from the basic tools for functioning in society. I really don't think requiring one's child to do chores or learn to read is unreasonable. If you can't feed yourself, clean up after yourself, contribute to your own well-being and assist others who need it, then you are a dependent and, in my mind, a child. Children need help and attention to survive. Grown-ups provide the help and attention needed to survive. It is neither good nor bad, it just is. Some remain children through no fault of their own (medical/psychological issues, etc.) and some do it through choice. In the end, the child cannot survive without the grown-up. Sometimes the child grows up when the help is removed intentionally. That is good. In order to have balance in the world we need to watch the levels of giving and taking. A prime example of this is eating more food than you plant or using more energy than you can recover. It is the same in society. If you have one child you will likely handle it well. If you have 15 kids at once, it might be an issue.

Again, this isn't an issue of good or bad, just what is practical.

January 21, 2007 10:18 AM  

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