Family Court Philosopher:
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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #36, 12/1/2006


By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

It is said that "a rolling stone collects no moss." A natural corollary is that non-rolling stones DO collect moss, lots of it. When one has been stationary for a while, one can become pretty much all moss, very little stone.

Everyone wants to be rich, happy, comfortable and free of pain, but once you achieve this blissful state, a disturbing thing happens: you start collecting possessions, activities and commitments that you don't really need. These things eventually take over your life, robbing you of what was once precious and meaningful.

I call this process "calcification," and it tends to happen to all of us once we gain some extra resources. Things that we once regarded as luxuries become essentials, and these in turn hold us down and keep us from experiencing life to its fullest.

What happens when we win 50 million dollars in the lottery? We're going to start buying the things we always dreamed of but don't need: A mansion, a boat, a vacation home at the beach, a horse and a stable to keep it in. All of these things, once acquired, demand ongoing maintenance and exert their own pressure on our future activities.

If you own an expensive pleasure boat, then you are going to feel obligated to use it. This may be fun for the first couple of weekends, but eventually it becomes a burden. It takes you away from doing more productive things.

Extra resources can buy you freedom, but for most people they buy enslavement instead. This applies both to money and to time, the other precious resource. If you find, after performing your necessary duties, that you have some extra time left over to do as you wish, this freedom tends to get quickly absorbed—by some hobby, perhaps, or some volunteer opportunity. This once discretionary activity eventually becomes an obligation, and soon all of your free time has vanished and you are enslaved once again.

Calcification, over time, results in the theft of all freedom, no matter how many resources you have. If you are "fat and happy," then you are going to start collecting moss, which is going to take over your life and rob you of those things that are truly vibrant and satisfying.

What are those things? You have to think back to your childhood. There was always a joy in play and discovery, in solving problems and in being loved and appreciated. The greatest pleasure, however, was in the transition, not in the state.

This is a key distinction that people tend to overlook when seeking their own happiness. Happiness can never be nailed down by one product or activity. True happiness is an evolving flux, a constant state of motion, emotion and discovery.

You laugh at a joke only when you first hear it. You don't laugh at it when you hear it over and over again. It is the novelty of the joke that makes you happy, not its static qualities.

As you go through life, you discover things that seem to make you happy: It is object "X" or activity "Y", both of which you have just discovered. Once you find these things and reach this satisfied state, you want to preserve this feeling, so you buy "X" and commit yourself to "Y" so you will have them for all of your life.

The trouble is, these things almost immediately start to lose their luster. All the wonder of discovery quickly vanishes, and these things, once guaranteed, become routine and even boring. When the magic is gone but you are already committed, then you start just going through the motions without much feeling, while chanting slogans about how happy you feel. You take the boat out on the water every weekend, but there is very little joy or wonder left in it.

Calcification should be as big a concern to us as our other great worry: not having enough resources. When we are hungry and can't pay the rent, then we are preoccupied with just getting by. It isn't pleasant to be struggling all the time, but at least it is efficient. When we are living life close to the edge, then we don't collect much moss.

Once we cross the break-even point and have more resources than we need, then calcification starts setting it. It is nice to relax and not have to struggle anymore, but now we face a new threat: that our own success is going to kill us.

It happens with food: It is terrible to not have enough to eat, but once you have more than you need, then you start eating too much. Once you have access to rich, luxurious foods that you always craved, then you start eating them instead of the simple, healthy things. Due to your extra resources, you start getting fat, and this condition may actually shorten your life and hurt its quality while you are still here.

It takes great discipline and strong philosophy to resist the forces of calcification. No one wants to be hungry, but being a little hungry all the time is probably the healthiest circumstance. No one wants to be uncertain about their future, but future flexibility, and its inevitable uncertainty and worry, is also important to your health. Maybe you should arrange your life to be always flexible and always a little hungry.

Even good works can drag you down. If someone asks you to volunteer for some noble cause, and you have the time, then you are probably going to agree. Soon, this activity takes you over, and your discretion slips away. Sure, it may be a noble cause, but is it the most noble thing you could be doing?

Once you have resources, the pressures toward calcification can be huge and almost irresistible. Sometimes, it is a blessedly relief to not have any. If someone asks you to volunteer your time or money to a worthy cause, but you have none of either, than you have a perfect excuse and the issue is moot.

Sometimes you collect so much moss that the only escape is some kind of unwanted disaster, like divorce, bankruptcy, the loss of a job or even the death of a loved one. Forest fires are terrible when they happen, but they often clear the environment for new growth. When unexpected changes happen, they may be an opportunity to clear out the dead wood.

Opportunities to "start over" in life are both frightening and precious. Maybe this time we can resist the forces of calcification and be smarter about how we use our resources.


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