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Today's quote:

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Importance of Living


Most people, the vast majority in fact, lead the lives that circumstances have thrust upon them, and though some repine, looking upon themselves as round pegs in square holes, and think that if things had been different they might have made a much better showing, the greater part accept their lot, if not with serenity, at all events with resignation. They are like train-cars travelling forever on the selfsame rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron ..."

So begins W. Somerset Maugham's story "The Lotus Eater" but not so my life. As refugees from communist East Germany we had moved five times before I had even entered primary school. And, following my articled years in Germany which I endured to gain my professional qualifications, I continued to move and live aboard many different train-cars, from old rattlers to TGVs, and everything in between.

I changed gauges - and often went off the rails altogether - in more than fifty jobs in fifteen countries. My work was my life to the exclusion of everything else, and I spent many weekends as well as nights at work. People thought me foolish but I ask you, who is the greater fool, he who spends his waking hours doing what he doesn't enjoy, or he who spends all his waking hours doing what he enjoys most?

All good things must come to an end, and in retirement I embraced the art of loafing as wholeheartely as I had embraced work , greatly assisted by Lin Yutang's beautiful book "The Importance of Living". Here's the part that helped me most in my conversion:



ThE feast of life is, therefore, before us, and the only question is what appetite we have for it. The appetite is the thing, and not the feast. After all, the most bewildering thing about man is his idea of work and the amount of work he imposes upon himself, or civilization has imposed upon him. All nature loafs, while man alone works for a living. He works because he has to, because with the progress of civilization life gets incredibly more complex, with duties, responsibilities, fears, inhibitions and ambitions, born not of nature, but of human society. While I am sitting here before my desk, a pigeon is flying about a church steeple before my window, not worrying what it is going to have for lunch. I know that my lunch is a more complicated affair than the pigeon's, and that the few articles of food I take involve thousands of people at work and a highly complicated system of cultivation, merchandising, transportation, delivery and preparation. That is why it is harder for man to get food than for animals. Nevertheless, if a jungle beast were let loose in a city and gained some apprehension of what busy human life was all about, he would feel a good deal of skepticism and bewilderment about this human society.

The first thought that the jungle beast would have is that man is the only working animal. With the exception of a few draughthorses or buffalos made to work a mill, even domestic pets don't have to work. Police dogs are but rarely called upon to do their duty; a house dog supposed to watch a house plays most of the time and takes a good nap in the morning whenever there is good, warm sunshine; the aristocratic cat certainly never works for a living, and gifted with a bodily agility which enables it to disregard a neighbor's fence:, it is even unconscious of its captivity it just goes wherever it likes to go. So, then, we have this toiling humanity alone, caged and domesticated, but not fed, forced by this civilization and complex society to work and worry about the matter of feeding itself. Humanity has its own advantages, I am quite aware the delights of knowledge, the pleasures of conversation and the joys of the imagination, as for instance in watching a stage play. But the essential fact remains that human life has got too complicated and the matter of merely feeding ourselves, directly or indirectly, is occupying well over ninety per cent of our human activities. Civilization is largely a matter of seeking food, while progress is that development which makes food more and more difficult to get. If it had not been made so difficult for man to obtain his food, there would be absolutely no reason why humanity should work so hard. The danger is that we get over-civilized and that we come to a point, as indeed we have already done, when the work of getting food is so strenuous that we lose our appetite for food in the process of getting it. This doesn't seem to make very much sense, from the point of view either of the jungle beast or the philosopher.

Every time I see a city skyline or look over a stretch of roofs, I get frightened. It is positively amazing. Two or three water towers, the backs of two or three steel frames for billboards, perhaps a spire or two, and a stretch of asphalt roofing material and bricks going up In square, sharp, vertical outlines without any form or order, sprinkled with some dirty, discolored chimneys and a few washlines and criss-cross lines of radio aerials. And looking down into a street, I see again a stretch of gray or discolored red brick walls, with tiny, dark, uniform windows in uniform rows, half open and half hidden by shades, with perhaps a bottle of milk standing on a windowsill and a few pots of tiny, sickly flowers on some others. A child comes up to the roof with her dog and sits on the roof-stairs every morning to get a bit of sunshine. And as I lift my eyes again, I see rows upon rows of roofs, miles of them, stretching in ugly square outlines to the distance. More water towers, more brick houses. And humanity live here. How do they live^ each family behind one or two of these dark windows? What do they do for a living? It is staggering. Behind every two or three windows, a couple go to bed every night like pigeons returning to their pigeonholes; then they wake up and have their morning coffee and the husband emerges into the street, going somewhere to find bread for the family, while the wife tries persistently and desperately to drive out the dust and keep the little place clean. By four or five o'clock they come out on their doorsteps to chat with and look at their neighbors and get a sniff of fresh air. Then night falls* they are dead tired and go to sleep again. And so they live!

There are others, more well-to-do people, living in better apartments. More "arty" rooms and lampshades. Still more orderly and more clean! They have a little more space, but only a little more. To rent a seven-room flat, not to speak of owning it, is considered a luxury! But it does not imply more happiness. Less financial worry and fewer debts to think about, it is true. But also more emotional complications, more divorce, more cat-husbands that don't come home at night, or the couple go prowling together at night, seeking some form of dissipation. Diversion is the word. Good Lord, they need to be diverted from these monotonous, uniform brick walls and shining wooden floors! Of course they go to look at naked women. Consequently more neurasthenia, more aspirin, more expensive illnesses, more colitis, appendicitis and dyspepsia, more softened brains and hardened livers, more ulcerated duodenums and lacerated intestines, overworked stomachs and overtaxed kidneys, inflamed bladders and outraged spleens, dilated hearts and shattered nerves, more flat chests and high blood pressure, more diabetes, Bright's disease, beri-beri, rheumatism, insomnia, arterio-sclerosis, piles, fistulas, chronic dysentry, chronic constipation, loss of appetite and weariness of life. To make the picture perfect, more dogs and fewer children. The matter of happiness depends entirely upon the quality and temper of the men and women living in these elegant apartments. Some indeed have a jolly life, others simply don't. But on the whole, perhaps they are less happy than the hard-working people; they have more ennui and more boredom. But they have a car, and perhaps a country home. Ah, the country home, that is their salvation! So then, people work hard in the country so that they can come to the city so that they can earn sufficient money and go back to the country again.

And as you take a stroll through the city, you see that back of the main avenue with beauty parlors and flower shops and shipping firms is another street with drug stores, grocery stores, hardware shops, barber shops, laundries, cheap eating places, news-stands. You wander along for an hour, and if it is a big city, you are still there; you see only more streets, more drug stores, grocery stores, hardware shops, barber shops, laundries, cheap eating places and news-stands. How do these people make their living? And why do they come here? Very simple. The laundrymen wash the clothes of the barbers and restaurant waiters, the restaurant waiters wait upon the laundrymen and barbers while they eat, and the barbers cut the hair of the laundrymen and waiters. That is civilization. Isn't it amazing? I bet some of the laundrymen, barbers and waiters never wander beyond ten blocks from their place of work in their entire life. Thank God they have at least the movies, where they can see birds singing on the screen, trees growing and swaying, Turkey, Egypt, the Himalayas, the Andes, storms, shipwrecks, coronation ceremonies, ants, caterpillars, muskrats, a fight between lizards and scorpions, hills, waves, sands, clouds, and even a moon all on the screen!

O wise humanity, terribly wise humanity! Of thee I sing. How inscrutable is the civilization where men toil and work and worry their hair gray to get a living and forget to play!

Click here to read the rest of the book in separate window


Busily living his advice, I hadn't looked at Lin Yutang's beautiful book for over twenty years, but as a friend of mine is about to go through the same transition, I dusted it off to give me the right words in reply when, like Mole in "The Wind in the Willows", he might ask me: ‘But isn’t it a bit dull at times? Just you and the river, and no one else to pass a word with?’

You will soon know, my friend, and I'm sure you will enjoy it as much as I do!

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