Be More Materialistic

This is the essay version of a recent Toastmasters speech. Hat tip to David at Rapitude whose piece We are not Materialistic Enough Inspired this speech/essay.

 

To be ‘Materialistic’ means ‘excessively concerned with material possessions, money-oriented’ and I’m not advocating that you, or anyone should be ‘excessively concerned’ with anything. But, in common usage, we mainly say ‘materialistic’ to describe people who aren’t sufficiently concerned with material possessions but who instead are interested in status and image and the appearance of wealth (and who are often quite unconsciously so). To illustrate, let me tell you a story about my daughter.

At two and half years of age, my daughter is innocently materialistic. This last Christmas was her third Christmas; her first Christmas was just another swirling cascade of sights and sounds without much context, her second Christmas was dominated by the crinkle joy of pulling wrapping paper apart, but this was perhaps the first Christmas wherein she understood that she was being given things that would be hers.

She would be given a present, a book say, and after opening it she would immediately want Continue reading

Writing is a Sacred Act

As counterpoint to tomorrow’s post about the absurdity of writing, I wanted to post today about how writing is a sacred, vitally important act for me.

When you compare human beings to our closest living relatives -the other great ape species- you notice several interesting and base physical characteristics: we have smaller jaws, we maintain our juvenile features longer, we are able to live and coordinate as part of larger groups, and so on. All of these are hallmarks of domesticated species. And so, one way to understand what a human being is is to consider them as a domesticated great ape.

If you accept this framework, you immediately ask well what domesticated us? We did, or dogs, or wheat are all compelling answers. But I think the most accurate way to consider us is that we were domesticated by story. And just as dogs have been selectively bred to better manipulate us (and we have been bred to better function as part of dog-human teams), so too have we co-developed with stories, our abilities to tell and shape them growing in tandem with their ability to guide and shape us.

To be a writer is to commune, argue, shape, fight, love, remake, and be remade by story. You don’t have to invent any fictional entities to understand that writers & storytellers of all stripes have always been doing the same sort of work; communing with stories to guide their communities and (if they are skillful and good) reshape their social world for the better or (if they are unskilled or bad) lead their people to ruin.

The use of word, the use of story is the prerequisite for everything not determined by biology and it is a fundamental tribute to the success of past writers that the most successful stories have been rendered invisible, are -for most everyone- indistinguishable from our biological imperatives. Long term, the stories we tell about ourselves lead us to heaven or hell, thriving or extinction.

Words are our escape from atemporality, like the ‘words’ of our DNA they allow communion over vast gulfs of time; the chance to preserve something worthy, transcend the limitation of our present moment. As writing/story weaving can be used to help or harm, reveal truth by inducing a sideways glance at it or lie; there is no greater sacred trust: Writing is a sacred act.

In My Friend’s Story, I’m the NPC to Their High Level Bard

Note: ‘NPC’ means ‘non-player character’ in a video or tabletop game which is contrasted with PC or ‘Player Character’ the avatar of a real person in a game world.

 

I have a friend, let’s call them the bard. The bard is kind, enthusiastic, and playful. They talk a lot about how much our friendship means to them, have given some wonderful gifts, and we’ve had some great times together. And yet, there’s a something there that frustrates me… a way in which this friendship feels unsatisfying that is difficult to wrap in word and explain.

And I think I’ve finally realized what it is: to my friend the bard, I’m an NPC. An NPC they’re fond of certainly, but like all NPCs there is a way in which I’m not truly real. Oh, certainly, the bard will act like I’m real; when they’re interested we’ll go on adventures together or fight monsters. But the moment the bard isn’t interested, they’re fully not interested. We only hang when I’m relevant to the adventure or crisis de jour for the bard; they’re fundamentally bored by the details of my life (as a Player Character in an RPG would be uninterested in the mundanity of an NPC’s farming unless therein lay adventure to be had there).

The bard’s problems are always the bigger issues, the ones that are more pressing and need to get worked on first. There is also the assumption on the part of the bard that I will be interested in whatever the bard is working on/that I’ll be along for the ride; but this never works both ways.

I’ve begun to suspect that, moreso than my other friends, the bard doesn’t quite see me; they see (and interact with) a simplified version of me.

Is this bad? No. Am I being mistreated? No. But it takes work to remind myself that when I’m shiny, when I actually have their attention it can feel amazing; it can feel like we have this amazing depth of connection but that it will always shift off of me when they find something more compelling to focus on. We’ll still go on adventures together now and again, but ultimately I’m increasingly interested in all the work I do tending my shop, practicing my craft, and thus I end up spending my time with people who want to share in all my life; whether we’re adventuring or not.

On Problems

When I was much less mature, I was fond of bandying about with the phrase, ‘The reward for a job well done is a harder job.’ I used the cliché to signal that I wasn’t a sucker; that all the ways I ‘didn’t try’ were indicative of me ‘sticking it to the man/refusing to play his game’ as opposed to the more honest conclusion that I (often) didn’t give my all to ensure that I could dismiss any failure as not ‘real.’ Nowadays, I’m fond of reframing of the phrase. ‘The consequence of a problem well solved is a better/harder/more interesting problem.’ And that’s an outcome I’m actively working towards.

While I’m alive, there will never be an end to ‘problems’ and, most of the problems I/we have now are due to the solutions of the past. Trying to finish a book is a *much* better problem than figuring out how ingest enough calories so as not to starve (which had been largely ‘solved’ by my ancestors). Trying to figure out how to use my limited financial, political, and emotional resources to nudge my society towards being more just and humane is a *much* better problem than trying to figure out how to keep a larger animal from eating me and –again- my ancestors pretty much took care of that. But even though these are better problems… these are still problems.

Likewise, it’s helpful to remind myself that, as I raise my daughter, I can’t actually protect her from challenge; the *best* I can do is to suitably equip her to solve the problems of her life and (hopefully) give her better and more interesting problems than I myself had to deal with. I’ll give my all, and in so doing I’ll solve so many of problems (some with such completion that I’ll risk being able to even recall that the issue was once a problem for me) but the reward is *never* the cessation of growth and change and hardship – it is only the transmutation of these forces into a different form, possibly even one that would be unrecognizable by the standards of the past.