Monday, March 28, 2011

The Devil is in the Details

Generally speaking one is admonished to pay attention to the details in whatever one does. The motivation is seemingly to do a thorough job and avoid unexpected traps. While this counsel undoubtedly has its place in things like architecture, law, medicine and a variety of other disciplines including carpentry, plumbing and painting, I think however that the adage can be viewed in a different sense; namely, that if one becomes too detailed about life, the attention can contaminate the broader more sustainable brush strokes of living. Construed in this alternate connotation, the warning is directed to the avoidance of minutiae which can overshadow the more generalized principles of conduct which form the pillars of existence.

In one’s youth, when the world about one is unfolding, there are limitless attractions, the lure of some of which can be very costly if heeded. In order to rise above such temptation (and to dodge the unnecessary erosion of one’s limited capital) one needs to adopt a more universal view of the world, which by definition is abstract and removed from particularity. There is some basis for considering this approach to be counter-intuitive in that it goes against the grain of most recognized thinking to extrapolate the specific from the general rather than the other way around. That is, when it comes to the cultivation of a guide to living one doesn’t normally expect to derive the lessons of life except from the daily specific experiences either of oneself or others. Nonetheless it is in this sense that the devil is in the details, for it is the very adherence to low-level empirical data which can end by polluting the more ethereal realm of thinking whence our vitality so often derives.

It requires little examination to conclude that a preference for generalized thinking, as opposed to particular experience, is hardly bound to appeal to the senses; by definition it is more cerebral than visceral. This only heightens the significance of the approach. Eventually we are all destined to remove ourselves from the world of sensibility. Even if we linger for a thousand years it is fairly certain that the attraction of the material world will diminish commensurately with our longevity.

One has heard of the monks who chose to dedicate themselves to asceticism, a philosophy of strict self-discipline and avoidance of any sensory pleasures or luxuries. This is hardly a practical or desirable alternative for most people. It illustrates the other end of the spectrum opposite the hedonistic alternative. Within the middle there is scope to develop habits and patterns which can perhaps satisfy the best of both worlds, proving once again that the devil is in the details.

I have often marveled with nothing less than contempt that our educational institutions, while seemingly dedicated to the improvement of our minds, do nothing to improve our lives, by which I mean there is a preponderance of knowledge disseminated about this and that, but hardly anything about accomplishing something as simple and necessary as a happy existence. If the message of instruction is merely that higher learning means better living, I think the object is open to some contest if for no other reason than that if more education means more money, then the secret to enjoying or managing it is still woefully lacking. The abounding relevance of the details in one’s life - and the complementary negligible irrelevance of the broad principles of living - is a recipe for potential disaster. While it is true that the universe is ultimately personal, and that we engage life on an immediate and subjective level, this should not be confused to mean that the more abstract and generalized theories of behaviour and conduct are irrelevant.

In a world where things regularly scream for our attention it is not surprising that the less vocal stratagems of deportment take a back seat, at least that is until the details wear off and we are left facing the less cluttered landscape and canvass. Anyone over fifty who has children or nieces understands the need to be didactic from time to time. It is likely nothing more or less than a species’ instinct for survival. It would however be deadening to a fault to trot out a litany of prescriptions by which one should live. Suffice it to say that one has to keep one’s eyes on the distant horizon. I recognize that in a world mad with war and terrorism, in a world where disease continues to wipe out even the most athletic among us, there is a temptation to live life now and indulge oneself in whatever one desires. Such a thesis, while understandable and perhaps defying contradiction on a certain level, still overlooks the significance of the motive to adopt a more generalized and abstract approach to living. It is not for example to suggest that abstract thinking is unrewarding. In fact anyone who has ever suffered a hangover knows only too well that indulgence is not always the desired course of conduct. For my money, the balanced approach to living gives the best of both worlds; viz., adopt neither the excesses of each. Instead, draw from the specifics rather than indulge them. The devil is in the details.

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