Modern Times | The Other T-Rex

In his latest column, Corin Faife reflects on how, in trying to impose order and control over our modern lives, we've gained in efficiency but at an enormous cost to our individual and communal well-being.

Modern Times, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 16:25 - 2 Comments

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(Photo credits (c) DanD3Dman)

 

I won’t deny that I’m currently very much on a spiritual trip. I went to India; I stayed in an ashram; I meditated; I practiced yoga; I chanted Om and stared into space, wistfully, grappling with profound spiritual truths.

But unless you’re Kerouac or whoever wrote Eat Pray Love, there’s only so much you can talk about your journey on the path to enlightenment before people start scratching their eyeballs out. The world is too full of anecdotes that don’t translate into good conversation, and talking about your dreams, drug trips or personal epiphanies is bad etiquette, so let’s cut to the chase.

When I was younger, my mother used to say that the best part of going away was coming home. Personally, I’ve always found coming home to be the worst part of going away, but I was raised well so I didn’t argue. If you’ve journeyed far enough and wide enough, coming home is a crucial time, because it’s at this point you realise that, somewhere along the way, you lost something you’d been carrying with you, something like a set of tinted shades that had perched on the bridge of your nose for the longest time before.

Imagine if you will a set of 3D glasses, not the black framed hipster numbers of modern tri-dimensional cinema but the cheap, cereal-box-toy red eye/green eye kind. Put them on and close one eye, your left eye, say, the green one. So now you’re looking out of your right eye and the world is all a hellish crimson red, and on the back of your cereal box is a picture of a prehistoric scene, maybe a hunting T-Rex, and right now it all looks perfectly normal because you can’t see any of the red lines through the red lens, they just blend into the background.

And then all of a sudden your little sister, hyperactive from the high sugar content of her cereal, rips off the glasses, and you realise that the T-Rex is not a clean line drawing, no, there’s a whole load of other stuff going on there that you couldn’t see, and wow, there’s another version of the picture right there beside the first one; in fact, the whole thing is just one giant blurry mess which only made sense when you had the glasses to filter out the stuff you weren’t supposed to see.

With me?

From the day you’re brought into this world kicking and screaming, people around you do things a certain way, live in a certain style, and little by little this crystallises into your calibration for what’s ‘normal’. You stop considering the alternatives, put on your coloured glasses, filter out the rest and everything makes a certain kind of sense. Eventually you don’t even realise that there’s a whole load of stuff that you’re unable to see.

Some would call this a paradigm, but for the sake of a metaphor I’ll name it “The Other T-Rex”.

You get a fleeting glance of ‘the Other T-Rex’ when you return to your own culture after being immersed in another for a while. Many of the things you have taken for granted your whole life suddenly seem strange and illogical: new possibilities and avenues of thought present themselves, and the ordinary becomes the absurd.

For instance, a few days ago I walked from the city centre of my hometown to my parents’ home in the suburbs. There came a point in my journey, a little way over the halfway mark, when I realised that I would not pass a single shop in the 2 miles before I reached my doorstep.

In the course of that 2 mile walk, at roughly 6pm BST, I could have counted the number of pedestrians I passed on one hand. Two miles through residential districts in early evening and the streets were birdsong quiet. The chance of a meaningful encounter with another adult human being in this area must approach zero, since everyone commutes to work by car in the morning, returns the same way in the evening, and the neighbourhood contains no amenities within walking distance except a single tawdry pub.

THIS IS MADNESS, roared the T-Rex from behind a piece of elegant topiary, SUBURBIA IS BARREN, WE ARE LIVING IN DEAD SPACE. Yet this is where I spent the first 18 years of my life, and none of it seemed at all unusual at the time.

Another example: now as I walk through crowds in the busy London streets and find my path blocked, I miss being able to lay a friendly hand on a fellow pedestrian as I pass. Instead, I dance precariously through pirouettes and side-steps to avoid any contact beyond the strictly unavoidable. I have no right to touch anyone I do not know, it seems, and vice versa.

But from a paternal pat on the shoulder to a passenger on a crowded bus sitting half on your lap, physical contact plays a huge part in Indian society, and many others besides. When I first arrived there I would tense at the feel of any unsolicited touch: I was on edge, with a constant feeling that my defence mechanisms were being triggered.

But over time and with repeated (and unavoidable) exposure, I came to expect it, enjoy it, and feel it as an expression of generalised human warmth. To enter a crowd of Indians is to really become part of the crowd; to forbid and avoid that touch is to be alone even in a sea of people.

On a final note, I leave you with this: we live in a country where the forces of order are winning the battle against the forces of chaos, creating a life in which nearly everything can be relied on to run on time, operate correctly, behave consistently. But chaos, whatever faults it has, is the best inoculation against stagnation. And the feeling of stagnation brings untold evils – alienation, depression, substance abuse, Heat magazine – that could be avoided with the addition of a bit of chaos: maybe a few judiciously placed cows in the road, sporadic power cuts, unlicensed festivals, that kind of thing. It might be an unpopular move at the start, but give it a few years and we won’t know how we lived without it.

At times, I think that what we’ve gained in organisation and efficiency has been accompanied by a loss in spontaneity, vibrancy, excitement. I for one would like to see a little more chaos in our lives. I think we could learn to embrace it – for the T-Rex’s sake.

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Malte Ringer
Oct 11, 2011 17:53

Good column, but that picture isn’t a T-Rex 😉

Ceasefire resumed | c0rin.com
Oct 12, 2011 10:22

[…] you can read the latest edition of my Modern Times column here. It’s about dinosaurs. Sort […]

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