Not waving but drowning

“Just smile and wave boys,” he said, as he walked out of the office door. We were going for lunch, and our poor colleague was stuck with the boss.

It was a Madagascar reference. A cute, funny scene.

But what it reminded me of was a poem by Stevie Smith; not quite as funny; not quite as cute; but just as apt.

“You know,” I said, “this reminds of a poem called ‘not waving but drowning.'”

And something in me made me google the poem and share it.


To be honest, I felt a bit uncomfortable doing that – he wasn’t/didn’t look like a poetry buff.

And I was afraid of coming across a little too bookwormy.

But I couldn’t help it. Not Waving but Drowning was one of the first poems I’d ever read and loved; one of the first that made fall in love with poetry:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

It was a poem that made me realise that not all seemingly happy people are happy, myself included; that we may not be waving, but drowning.

 

On reading novels and living the life you cannot live

I’m an avid reader, but have grown up reading almost exclusively non-fiction.

Not because I don’t enjoy them, or think any less of fiction than I do non-fiction; it’s mostly because I can never remember the names of all the characters! (Especially in novels…)

In non-fiction, the cast of characters tend to be ideas. And ideas I can deal with – most of them already exist in some shape or form in my head, so it’s a matter of associating or hooking these new ideas to existing ideas.

For example, the first time I read about machine learning, I hooked it onto existing ideas in my head related to data mining, as well as ideas related to probability. When I first read about baseline happiness (did you know our happiness tends to be somewhat set regardless of circumstance? And that the happiest among us tend to be those who have won the predisposed-to-happiness genetic lottery?), I hooked it onto ideas related to Buddhism, psychology, and biology.


And since I’m writing about this already… to me, it’s true: I find that the more I know, the easier it is learn. How about you?

On the flip side, it’s also true that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Which can make you sad.


Back to the names of characters though…

I remembered once reading through a novel and thinking it didn’t really make any sense. I just couldn’t understand why the main character was treating his wife (ex-wife?) in some way, and his mistress in another, while it many other parts of the story it seemed to be the other way around.

Frustrated, at about the halfway point I googled the plot summary and realised I got both characters mixed up; and they weren’t the only ones.

I decided to re-read the book, armed with the plot summary and the full cast of characters.

This time the book made all the sense in the world, and was an intensely satisfying read.


Armed with the newfound power of the internet (newfound for me), I’ve recently taken up reading novels again. Remembering who’s who is no longer a problem!

And that has added a wonderful dimension to my life. Novels really create this “mind space” unlike anything else. Well, sort of like movies, but one in which you’re much more involved. When you’re spending hours upon hours with a book, it’s hard not to be.


What I especially like about about novels is that it gives me a chance to live a life I never/cannot live; or lives I choose not to live.

Novels have given me a chance to feel what it’s like to:

They break the mundanity of everyday life.

Used to be: to work; back from work; to work; back from work; into weekend; out of weekend; etc.

Now it’s: to work; back from work; become POW working on the Death Railway; get flashback committing adultery; to work; back from work; get transformed into insect; into weekend; work on Death Railway; out of weekend; etc.

It’s quite a varied life now.


Rreading novels is not just the “escapism” part of it, though.

It’s also about learning how your mind reacts to different circumstances.

“What would I do? What would I feel?” are two questions that constantly pop up when I’m reading, and answering those two questions makes me far more aware of who I am, and the kind of life I would like to live.


Just to end on a rather depressing note, this time courtesy of the non-fiction that I’m reading: The problem with being more aware of who I am is that who I am may well be a bunch of algorithms.

My being more aware may just be a feeling of being more aware, which despite sending a hit of dopamine does little else.

Why do I run?

When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place. Why does Polly want a cracker rather than a cucumber? Why do I decide to kill my annoying neighbour instead of turning the other cheek? Why do I want to buy the red car rather than the black? Why do I prefer voting for the Conservatives rather than the Labour Party? I don’t choose any of these wishes. I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free.

The above taken from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I thought I’d not enjoy, but which gets better with every page.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, as God and dice have determined, I have a run to go for.

Two Quotes from Søren Kierkegaard

I came across two quotes from Kierkegaard recently, from two very different sources. It was quite a coincidence, and I thought that it must have been a sign.

Here’s the first, which funnily enough came from a book on IT leadership, called A Seat at the Table, by Mark Schwartz:

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.

Schwartz had this quote at the top of a chapter on “IT requirements”, which, as he quite rightly points out, are more of a “work item”. Technically speaking, a “requirement” if not met should cause the project to fail or the business to fold. It is required after all.

But in his experience as it was in mine, that seldom is the case.

The second Kierkegaard quote I came across came just a day after the first. This time it was from an Alain de Botton talk, very baitingly-titled Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. At the end of the talk, de Botton shares this quote:

Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.

This is, I think, one of the most de-stressing quotes I have ever come across.

Came at an important point in the talk too, given how half the audience (myself included) were in deep despair at probably having chosen the wrong mates.

Video of the de Botton talk below – starts at the quote, which he just says so beautifully…

The passionate introvert

This TED talk really surprised me.

The content was great, but it was Brian Little’s delivery that really made me go “wow!”

So many times during the talk it felt I wasn’t listening to him talk on the subject of “personality” but rather his grandchildren. His passion was evident, and his joy contagious. I couldn’t help but give him a personal standing ovation at the end.

It is with this sort of passion that we should approach our careers; our lives.