The Pursuit

I have become uncomfortable with my American pursuit of materialism. No, I am not having a crisis of identity wherein I abandon all of my possessions for a Modernist, minimalist house in the forest. I have no plans to empty my home of all that I own. To be honest, I couldn’t afford the luxury of minimalism — and it would take entirely too much effort (do you realize how much work it is to donate or sell things?). I have instead, simply, reached a point in my life where the pursuit of things has become burdensome. I am having an adverse reaction to the continuing accumulation of stuff. I find that I shop when I am restless or unhappy. I shop to fill my life with novelty, as a distraction from that which is unpleasant or difficult. I am not unhappy, though. I am, on the other hand, in the habit of shopping — and that has become bothersome to me.

I must react this way, I suppose, because of my career change. Once a lawyer with a respectable salary, and now a teacher and student with a less respectable salary, I find myself wanting to live as if nothing has changed. But my life has changed, and I therefore question my choice to fill up my shopping cart. I endlessly browse for new board games, or for new computer accessories, or for new books. I want to replace my old kitchen gadgets with new kitchen gadgets. I want to buy a new jacket because my old one is more of a winter jacket, and don’t I deserve a springtime jacket after all? Haven’t I worked hard?

(Too bad!)

I once worshipped the wisdom of Thoreau when he warned that my possessions would end up owning me. I have betrayed him; he was correct. I own piles of books that I don’t read, and a stack of DVDs that I don’t watch. I maintain a collection of more than 150 board and card games, only a few of which I play regularly. I have time for a few pursuits, and yet I continue to accumulate hobbies and accessories with the voracious appetite of a young man convinced that he will have the time to sample all the world has to offer. I do not, and I will not. This is a coming to grips time of being. This is me attempting to accept my limitations. It is a struggle I have pursued since I left for college in 1999. It is a struggle, I suppose, that I will continue to pursue until I die. It will never be one that I become comfortable with. I suspect that my accumulation of things is just a symptom of this ongoing debate with myself. Should I continue as a great sampler, or focus my time and effort on the handful of hobbies that I enjoy most? Why am I talented at many things, but expert in none?

(First world problems, I know. But this is my life. I won’t make it petty.)

My friend, Seth, recently wrote an essay about his love for the game of Go. Seth has a knack for taking a passion and relating it to the larger themes of his life like family, religion, and the pursuit of becoming a better man. He writes about Go with passion not because it is a great game (it is), but rather because of what it means to appreciate the essence of what makes the game great. That is a fine distinction I am making, but an important one. I can appreciate many things because of what they are objectively. I know that a painting by Monet or Hopper is beautiful. I know that a book by Steinbeck is powerful. I know that Go is a game of immense depth. I try, always try, to appreciate someone else’s creation for what it is, on its own terms, because I believe that that appreciation broadens my perspective and makes me a better person. What I have recently come to believe, however, is that there are certain things that I must choose to pursue more completely.

I want to build off of Seth’s thoughts, and talk about my own fledgling experiences with Go, not because this one game is the answer to all of my struggles, but instead because, in studying the strategy and culture of Go, I have discovered something about how I would like to look at the world and my place within it. For those of you familiar with the game, what I am about to say my sound clichéd. That’s okay. I would rather find meaning in clichés than stumble around in a forest of affected originality.

The reason I appreciate Go now more than ever is because it speaks to me in two seemingly opposite ways. First, Go’s depth of strategy is so great that people have pursued perfection in the game for a lifetime without success. All this for a game that is 3,000 years old! Lifetime after lifetime has passed, and yet there are still innovations to be made in Go. I play Go, and feel as though I am staring into an abyss. However, in the opposite direction, I will never achieve a level of play that even approaches the best in the world. This dichotomy of infinite possibility cruelly limited by my own mind and the time I have on this Earth parallels the struggle I face every day. I must always hold in my mind the many different paths I might have pursued in life, and yet face the reality of knowing I can only travel down a mere handful. All of the hopeful possibilities I dreamt about in my youth are capped by time and ability. This truth is a source of frustration like no other I experience in life. It is in Go that I saw a reflection of my struggle, and it is in facing that reflection that I find that I can cope with my limitations.

My great relief is the knowledge that I can accomplish something worthwhile merely by pursuing a goal. I can play Go not to achieve perfection, but merely to strive towards perfection. I can learn to live within my limitations in much the same way that, on the Go board, I must learn to carve out territory within the larger bounds of the board and my opponent’s stones. That territory, that pursuit, can be my own, and it can be worthy of the time and dedication that I have chosen to spend.

I was watching a documentary on Netflix the other night about the history of China. Michael Wood hosts, and he had an insight into a particular way of thinking that seems to apply here. In discussing why the Chinese ceased their explorations of the globe in the early 15th century, Wood ponders:

And perhaps then the Chinese saw, quite sensibly on the face of it, that their true interests lay here, inside their own borders, cultivating their soil, cultivating the inner life, searching for the harmony that had always been the goal of their civilization. And that it was the West, on the other hand, that had a compulsive desire to change, a compulsive need to invade other people’s space, both moral and physical — and the refusal to accept limits on its own. Since the 18th century, it’s been customary to talk about the East needing to catch up with the West. These days, that’s obviously happening all around us materially, if it’s not happened already. But it takes two to make a dialoge. And perhaps the West still has some catching up to do. Perhaps the West still has to learn from the East a way of cultivating its inner space, of accepting limits on desires and space in an increasingly finite world.

The Chinese invented Go, and I would like to think that their game reflects some of the values espoused by Wood: cultivation of inner space and the acceptance of limits. I would also like to think that I can be happy within the confines of my own personal limitations, free from the materialistic symptoms of my unease, in pursuit of a goal that I will never quite achieve. In that pursuit, I hope for fulfillment.

18 Feb. 2013