Monday, October 20, 2014

What is exciting?

I apologize in advance if this reads like an exercise in self indulgence. I wrote this after a conversation with a friend which basically went like this:

Her: "I'm going to go whitewater rafting next month, doesn't that sound exciting!"
Me: "Kind of. I think it would be more exciting to sit under a tree and read a good book, though."
Her: "What!? That doesn't make any sense."

It made perfect sense to me, so I wrote this essay and sent it to her. And now I'm posting it here for my throng of fans to read:

What is exciting? White water rafting?  Paragliding? Sky diving? Bungee-jumping? Roller coasters? Motorcycles? These things are exciting. They are fun (at least those of these that I have experienced).  But it is a short-lived excitement.  It’s there, and then it’s gone.

To me, a deeper kind of excitement, one that lasts, one that I can return to again and again, comes from learning.  Any idea that changes my perspective on the world or deepens my understanding is an exciting idea.  It’s an idea that makes my heart beat faster.

Learning anything is exciting, but the most exciting ideas are the ones that cause the greatest change in one’s understanding.  “The Loss of the Creature” by Walker Percy
is an exciting essay.  So is “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus,
and the book “The Kingdom of God is Within You” by Tolstoy,  They were/are exciting because they presented radically new perspectives on concepts that I thought were familiar to me.

Learning how to cook and bake is exciting.  When I realized that the difference between a delicious dish and a disgusting one is often nothing more than a few teaspoons of herbs and spices, that was exciting.  Learning to draw is exciting.  Learning that to make a really good sketch of something, you should use as few lines as possible, rather than trying to follow every detail in the original object was exciting.  Mathematical proofs and computer algorithms are exciting.  Learning how to make websites is exciting.  I’m currently a terrible musician, but I think learning about music theory, and how to play an instrument well would be exciting.

Languages are exciting.  The most exciting things about a language are the features that are new, the ones that are surprising, the ones that maybe even change the way you think about your native language.  The two languages (other than English) that I have put considerable effort towards learning are Spanish and Esperanto.  Both have changed the way I think about language.  For example, Esperanto uses a lot of consonant sounds and combinations that appear to be unpronounceable to an English speaker, like words starting with “kv”, “kn”, “pne”, learning how to pronounce these combinations was exciting (perhaps even more exciting was realizing that English speakers already know how to pronounce most or all of these combinations, they just don’t realize it: say "broke knuckles", now say "bro 'kn'-uckles"pronouncing the "k").  The way Esperanto words for complex ideas can be built from simple parts is exciting (you can tell English is an ossified language -- though it need no remain so -- by how often creative wordplay is greeted by people sneering "that's not in the dictionary!").

I can remember when I was white water rafting, I can remember riding roller coasters, I can remember watching action movies.  But these memories are not exciting, they are a shadow of the original experience, an almost imperceptible shadow.  To some extent the same is true of the excitement of learning, new ideas become old ideas, but I've read "Loss of the Creature" five or six times, and I still think it's exciting. And there are far more exciting ideas than there is time in a life to learn and understand them all.  So for all practical purposes, learning in an inexhaustible font of excitement. Whereas, I think that the various forms of excitement from perceived danger are all essentially equivalent.  There is not much difference between bungee jumping and skydiving, they are both a quick burst of excitement induced by perceived danger.  I’ve been on a roller coaster, I don’t need to jump out of an airplane.

When I step off a roller coaster, I am the same person who stepped onto that roller coaster, my heart may be beating faster, my hair is more messy, but I have not changed in any meaningful way.  When I finished reading “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” I was not the same as when I started reading it, the way I perceived myself and the world had changed.  That’s why it was so much more exciting (to me at least) than any roller coaster could ever be.  That’s why, given the choice between sitting under a tree reading a book, and paragliding off a mountain, I would choose to read (unless of course, the only books available were particularly boring books).  That’s not to say that getting excitement from simulated danger is a complete waste of time and should never be tried, just that in general I don’t see much of a compelling reason for me to do it (and then again, I may just be rationalizing my own over-cautiousness).  I think there is much more to be said about this topic (in particular, about the difference between creative activity and consumer activity, and how the former is more exciting than the latter), but I’ll stop here.

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