The Way of the World

I once knew a woman who gave up a man who loved her deeply to pursue what she called her “personal legend.”  Having taken The Alchemist to heart, the lady believed there was a yet-to-be-realized achievement in her future and the quest for this achievement was incompatible with love, at least love with the man in question.  I don’t know why, but this came to mind today while watching the finals of the 2012 European Championships.  Spain won, spectacularly, 4-0 against Italy.

Earlier in the day I told a friend I was heading down to North Beach to watch the game in one of the many Italian cafes, sure of finding a crazy scene of avid fans. (I did.)  My friend said, “I never could get into soccer, there aren’t enough goals to make it exciting.”  This is a problem only in the United States, where sports fans are never more thrilled than when their team wins by factors of ten.  Imagine a Super Bowl score of 6-0.  You can’t.  Or an NBA Final Four finish of 12-2.  But in soccer, a shut out of 1-0 is a terrifically exciting game.  It’s all about the play: the passing, the footwork, the speed and agility of the players, the goal keeper’s saves, the headers, the near misses, and yes, spectacular goals.  It’s not called the Beautiful Game for nothing.

Americans always want more: more goals; more cars; more TV’s; more everything.  If it isn’t growing, it’s dying.  The stock market is predicated on this principle of growth.  Everyday life is predicated on acquisition and personal “growth.”  Some people are even willing to walk away from the only unconditional love they will ever know to seek the chimera of a personal legend.  As with all pursuits of growth, it’s a fool’s mission, founded on the fear of emptiness.  We are a society that fears emptiness, so to compensate, rewards growth at all costs.

Marketing is the toolbox of growth.  Advertising is its hammer.  Everything we do is designed to persuade more, sell more, influence more.  Now we also connect more, share more.  We create social ecosystems that spread like viruses. We achieve status by the number of “friends” we have, Robin Dunbar’s How Many Friends Does a Person Need notwithstanding.  Is there a limit to this?

Our greatest philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is the remedy? Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be a unit; –not to be reckoned one character; –not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand…Not so, brothers and friends—please God, ours shall not be so.”

I’m afraid we are reckoned in the gross.  And everything we reckon is in the gross.  There’s no singular achievement in a social network.  Charles Pierce in Idiot America writes that the value of the crank, once a valuable—and local—counterpoint to the status quo, has been set free by television and the internet to spread fraudulence and stupidity at light-speed to an ever more uninformed and gullible audience. The growth of bad ideas has become exponential.

I wonder if there’s an answer since there’s no turning back.  Americans are never going to learn to love professional soccer.  Or be content to maintain a stable business.  Or find happiness in the here and now and not in an elusive legend.  The Alchemist is, after all, a work of fiction.

When the pursuit is growth for growth’s sake, what is left behind?  Sometimes it’s failure, which is proper however unfortunate.  Sometimes as a business or an industry grows it fails to adapt, to look at “today” squarely.  Digital Equipment Corporation grew to the point its hubris blindsided it to the future—and it failed.  As a teenager in Pittsburgh, I witnessed the last days of the steel industry, when survival was no longer an option, much less growth. These are simplistic analogies, I know, but with these, people are left behind, too, as they are when lost in love. Most never recover.

I wonder tonight what the Italian National Team must be feeling. 4-0 is a stunning victory in championship soccer.  It was an historic win for Spain. I know, too, how that man feels having lost to another kind of victory. Detroit feels that way.  Undoubtedly Greece feels that way.  The problem with all these examples is that romance always fails.  It’s the way of the world and we make it so.

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  1. Kelli Tejada

     /  July 16, 2012

    Heady thoughts, Niland. Hope you’re well. Please give me a ring when you get time. I’d like to connect with you on a couple of things!
    Kelli T

  2. Thanks Kelli for reading! I will.


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