Monday, November 26, 2007

No lasting city

Today, I read an essay by Paul Graham, a fairly well-known venture capitalist, entitled "Stuff" (Go read it, it's pretty short, and my post will be here when you get back), and it tied in with a chain of other thoughts that I have been having lately. I've been thinking about my stuff... partly because I'm going to have to move stuff home over break, partly because I have a box of stuff that I want to get sent over and that's expensive, partly because I don't have a lot of stuff here, but also because I want more stuff. I want more books, I want more music, I want more computer games, and I really want the lunch stand here to find the chocolate muffins so I can consume them greedily after lunch.

I think, to a certain extent, nearly everyone wants more stuff. It's our unfortunate, fallen human nature, to search for ways to find fulfillment. To different people, the amorphous concept of 'stuff' is different. To some, it may be actual physical objects, more books, a nicer car, a fancy house, furniture, collected items. To some, it may be a set of circumstances, like an enjoyable job, the success of a project, a fun vacation. To some, it may be external fulfillment, like being praised for accomplishments, a favorite sports team winning a championship, a political candidate being elected. To some, it may be a set of relationships with friends and family. Finally, to others, it might be a collection of knowledge or philosophies about life. If we abstract 'stuff' away from merely physical objects, we are left with all sorts of ways that stuff can overtake us.

Is all our 'stuff' necessary? I find myself wondering more and more every day about the stuff that I have. About my physical possessions (most of which are in a different country, and I probably wouldn't miss if I lost them all.), about my circumstances (which I just can't bring myself to describe as challenging or tough), about external fulfillment (Go Wildcats Basketball!), about relationships (which I find increasingly complicated as I grow older, and have had to form new ones rapidly in a new place), about my knowledge or philosophies (which are definitely incomplete and not as satisfactory as I would like), all these things which tie me down and weigh me to this world. I like my stuff, with some exceptions. But to hold onto them? The physical possessions I definitely am growing less attached to, even though it would bother me to lose my computer and all the accumulated data on my hard drives, I really can't think of many other physical possessions that are irreplaceable. Circumstances, I find wanting to grow more and more comfortable with their fluidity, even though I'm not totally comfortable yet. External fulfillment, I've never been too attached to. Relationships are growing and changing for me in ways while I am here that I'm not entirely comfortable with (the distance from the established and the closeness of the developing can be a tension at times), and my knowledge and philosophies just don't seem to suffice for long term benefits.

I have also, of late, been reading a set of correspondences, and one of those is from an indeterminate author, to a group of people who were experiencing major turmoil in their lives, related to the destruction of their physical stuff, their circumstances, and their relationships. This author is trying to help these people understand how their lives have been fundamentally re-arranged, but how it is happening in a predictable manner, consistent with what they had already been taught. Towards the end of the letter, he is encouraging the readers to press on, to endure through the trials for the hope of the better things that will come after. And he says to them something very interesting, something that I will now be seeking to integrate into my life.

He says, "... Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come." This is the perspective on stuff that I want to have. No lasting city, nothing that will stay untouched by moth and rust, all of the stuff in our world is this, and seeking to retain it is striving after wind. And though my human nature will seek stuff, and seek the temporary and the quickly erased, I will strive for another course. Sure, not everything I have talked about here is valueless, and some of the things are very valuable indeed. But are they to what we should fix our eyes? Especially our possessions and our circumstances, when we have no lasting city, can we do otherwise than to acknowledge their transitory nature?

I've also been reading The World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman. Mr. Friedman makes a set of points about how the encroaching globalization of the world is making the world 'flat', which seems to be his metaphor for connected, immediate, or synergistic. He just picks an eye-catching title for it. Anyway, one of the things that he hits on over and over again is that the industries and jobs that people have 'lived their lives in' are jobs that may be fading away in America, and redistributed to other parts of the world, or to the automated, computerized domain. He argues that the way people live is about to change because of the explosive growth of telecommunications, cheap transportation, and capitalist market factors. The upshot is that this is just another form of 'stuff-competition.' People in developing countries want to be bootstrapped up to the standard of living enjoyed by people in developed countries, while the developed countries (America in particular) don't want to lose their amenities and their niceties. He says that Americans must be prepared for the status quo to change, because economic dominance is not permanent or assured. He does, of course, provide a whole list of steps to follow that will help America and Americans retain a top spot in the new global economy he envisions, but that the 'top spot' is going to be radically different than it was in the 50's-90's.

In essence, he is saying that in economics, there is no lasting city.

There is no lasting city, my stuff is going to go away with the waves and the fires one day, and there is more to strive after than the wind. Patiently endure, obtain the Promise.

1 comment:

nln said...

That's a really good essay. I don't find it extremely hard to identify with the cost of owning "stuff" But your comments take it further, to all of this world, and that makes it more challenging. (i.e. it's a lot harder to turn your focus beyond this world than just to turn it beyond stuff.)