in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, March 17, 2008

Believe and Achieve (or just keep on being pathetic)

As a child I once became incredibly depressed. Not from the usual childhood stuff (ennui, Ambien, and hard liquor) – the thing that really got to me was Mozart. I was reading an illustrated biography of the composer, and learned (to my juvenile chagrin) that at seven Mozart was already publicly performing minuets that he’d written at six, pieces you or I would have struggled to play badly at nine. ‘Good God,’ thought nine-year-old me, ‘I’m hopeless. Over the hill. Past it. Useless.’ Then the biography ended, the feeling dissipated, and I went back to playing Space Quest II. By the following Tuesday (the time of my piano lesson), I had almost cracked Space Quest, while the minuet… it’s too depressing to think about.

From this experience (Mozart, not Space Quest), I developed a deep hatred of prodigies. I’m not talking about people who are talented and hard-working, I’m talking about those people who appear to float on a flooded river of talent: winning fame, bursting dykes and floating cattle with power that’s as overwhelming as it is oblivious to the devastating swathe it cuts through the world.

Prodigies are irritating because they are not only so inhumanly good at whatever it is they do, but they’re also almost indifferent to their advantage – they appear to produce excellence with the same natural, unclenched ease that the average human produces excrement. Incidentally, did you know that the average human produces twice their own body weight in shit each year (more on a leap year)? Humbling, isn’t it? For some of us this is the greatest thing we will ever produce, if not in quality, then almost definitely in terms of quantity… (Bear in mind that this is the average human – what of digestive prodigies?)

But worse than the prodigies are the do-gooders, who should (if there was any consistency in a world that also includes ‘woodpeckers’), be called ‘good doers’. Do-gooders – Bono, Mother Teresa, Young Rotarians – are infuriating not just because they remind us of our limited abilities, like prodigies, or even because they remind us of our narrowness, our complacent self-satisfaction, our deep selfishness and our inability to ‘take action’ or ‘give generously’. More than anything, they’re hateful because they have this horrid whiff of certainty about them. They really believe, and they really believe they can make a difference. If the prodigy shits us with their talent, do-gooders do it by their privileged possession of ‘the truth’. Art worships the former, religion the latter… meanwhile, maybe you’re somewhere in the middle: confused, despondent, dubious of your talents and doubtful of the truth… so what are you to do? The answer?

Don’t be pathetic.

To me, the only thing worse than prodigies and do-gooders are pathetic people, the kind who carry with them (and live by) the following unfortunate combination of sentiments: on the one hand, they think, ‘What I do/say/think makes no difference’; on the other hand, they behave like they are the most important thing in the world. What you get from this is that unfortunately typical combination of egotism and apathy, the kind that marks (and mars) lives. Never mind smoking or drink-driving: being pathetic is the real killer, and the worst thing of all is that this is a condition that leaves its victims apparently unharmed. Worse still is that some people will never even realise they’re sufferers.

I wish prodigies would realise the swathe they cut (or at least be really, really bad at something), just as I wish do-gooders would show a little cynicism and self-doubt – but more than anything, I wish that pathetic people would realise that they’re far less important than they think they are, BUT, at the same time, I wish they’d recognise that what they do is more important than they give their actions credit for. Fact is, everything a person does, says or thinks makes a difference – it’s just that it’s a tiny one. ‘Making a difference’ is much more subtle than people give it credit for, and this is why it so often passes un-noted. This is what good parents, great musicians and the best school teachers understand… the way you treat your kids, no less than the hi-hat you choose or how you dilate the minds of your pupils – it matters. No, more than that – it saves lives. Be sure to be reading next week, when we’ll be looking at the roll that Body Thetans play in preventing you from achieving this.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.