I am in the midst of Ian McEwan’s Atonement – a long overdue read – and I was struck by the following passage relatively early in the book. It unfolds inside the mind of Briony, the precocious 13-year old girl at the center of the story, and reflects her developing realization of the difficulties of being who she is and relating to an entire world of people around her – particularly her family, in this case – who are also busy being who they are:
Was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did she, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claims on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelmingly probable that everyone else had thoughts like hers. She knew this, but only in a rather arid way; she didn’t really feel it.
I think McEwan brilliantly captures the human condition here, and though I’m sure it was not even remotely his intention – particularly given that Attonement was published in 2001 – I think the passage also encapsulates what often troubles us, more or less consciously, about the hyper-connected, social overdrive world in which we now live. In pondering it, I’ve come up with three key thoughts so far. More to come, I’m sure, and I welcome yours:
1. The world is, in fact, complicated. I don’t just mean busy or noisy; I mean truly complex and not susceptible to neat plans or to the sheer force of our own wills. There may be formulas and “best practices” that are of some help, but they will only reduce the complexity by so much. We have to be willing to take some risks, try things out, see what works in any given time, place, or context. Build on what works until it doesn’t – and then change. Hope for some luck. And, of course, expect that others are doing the same for their own reasons.
2. Whether or not you “drown in irrelevance” is a matter of your own mindset – and the corresponding actions – as much as anything else. Have a vision. Have a “why” – in both business and personal life. (Also, see Simon Sinek’s thoughts on this, if you haven’t already.) And have a compelling strategy for making consistent progress toward your “why.”
3. If you do ever find yourself “surrounded by machines,” run. Don’t waste your time and efforts in places where people aren’t really engaged and are producing much more noise than meaning.
There’s more to be mined from McEwan’s words, but I’ll stop there and make one final point – to myself as much to anyone else: reading high-quality fiction is valuable. I know I need to do it more often; chances are you do too.
For me, this is ironic: I majored in English in college and spent years working toward a doctoral degree in comparative literature, teaching Great Books of the Western World for much of that time. I find most of my reading is non-fiction these days, though, and I think that represents a gap in my learning. Great fiction – and McEwan definitely writes great fiction – can prompt new insights or help clarify old one in ways that I think even the best non-fiction is incapable of doing. (I also strongly advocate reading and memorizing some poetry from time to time.)
So, don’t underestimate the value of fiction. Make it part of your learning. And while you are at it, why not comment and share your thoughts?