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Falling into the wisdom trap

In an age of fast food and knee-jerk emotions, pop philosophy is not surprising. It’s part and parcel of the zeitgeist of our times, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2007, 01:43 IST
Sunday sentiments | Karan Thapar
Sunday sentiments | Karan Thapar

In an age of fast food and knee-jerk emotions, pop philosophy ought not to be surprising. It’s part and parcel of the zeitgeist of our times. We look for gimmicky expositions, swift understanding, simple conclusions. We’re captivated by paradox and contradiction or, conversely, similarity and comparison. But we never look beyond them. We don’t ask what they signify or why they’re significant. The juxtaposition is mistaken for wisdom. Its meaning is unexplored and never explained.

Last week I received an email that’s a delightful example of what I’m referring to. It suggests weighty thinking, deep reflection, insight and analysis all neatly wrapped up in clever writing with a dash of humour and a parenthetical echo of self-criticism. The problem is it doesn’t explain what it’s saying. What does all of this add up to? What should we conclude from it?

Judge for yourself: "The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We’ve conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things.

We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete...”

Is this viewpoint claiming we were better off 50 or even 150 years ago? That advances in science and changes in our lifestyle have robbed us of values and an ability to appreciate things? Or is it saying that human beings are becoming narrow, even parochial, cut off from others, like islands in an ocean? Is it harkening back, even yearning for, a lost golden age of virtue and innocence? Or is it proclaiming the onset of a new kalyug, a second fall, another banishment from the Garden of Eden?

Honestly, I can’t tell. My conclusion — and let’s see if I can phrase myself in the same style — is that it says a lot but means very little, it’s clever but it’s not necessarily wise, it’s well-written but not well-thought out and, finally, it’s fun to read but not rewarding leave aside enlightening.

The real problem with such pop assessments is that they could — once you add a few details here and remove a few there — apply to any time in human history. Could not the first pastoralists have looked back on the lost valour of the cave age with parallel sentiments? Certainly those who worked in the dark satanic mills of 19th century England dreamt of a forsaken rural idyll. Even Mummy, who’s 90, recalls her youth in a very similar way.

So beware of emails proclaiming wisdom. They trap you into feeling you’ve learned something profound when, in fact, you’ve just been spun round and round by smart tricks and slippery words.

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