30 May 2011


Wolfgang Goethe spent 25 years perfecting his two-part play Faust, completing it in 1832, the year he died.  It is considered one of the greatest works of all German literature, and is truly mesmerizing.  It is a very complex play - too complex to even outline here - but at its core is a man seeking ever greater knowledge, and who makes a bargain with the Devil to get it.  In return for granting everything he wants and seeks, Faust must sign over his soul. The story has a bittersweet ending, and unselfish love is a key element. Faust did not seek power through this knowledge, but instead he wanted access to transcendent knowledge unavailable to science and the wisdom of his age.  He was bored: felt trapped, limited.

Over the years, many have interpreted the bargain as one that a lot of people make: to take great risks to live an exciting life - to potentially sacrifice everything to avoid being bored.  In our modern culture this is part of what is now called the Faustian Bargain, an idea that predates Goethe and is widespread in western culture, found in many fairy tales with a typical slant: a warning lesson.

I recently wondered if I had made a Faustian Bargain: In a document I filled out recently I had to list all the countries that I had spent any significant time in, and that list came to 33.  All the continents save Antarctica.  WooHOO - what great adventures! Yes... but what great cost in permanent physical consequences.

There’s an old saying that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  You could condense all the conservation laws of physics in these words; nothing comes without a cost.  Nothing.

I sometimes look at life’s passages as a wave-train passing through space.  If the wave has a large amplitude there are great highs (thrills) - but corresponding great lows (penalties). The deep Amazonas forest is an enthralling place - but I nearly died a number of times there.  In Jerusalem I visited the Garden Tomb - and stayed awake all night in 32 C weather in the White Sisters Convent, hiding under a wool blanket to avoid the mosquitos screeing in my ears. I had a room with a view of the flood-lit walls of the Old City - but no glass.  In Kamchatka, a visit to a suddenly activating Mutnovskiy volcano involved two close calls, and required a 22-hour prostate-busting ride in a Russian troop-carrier.  Another 22-hour “field trip” in western Mauritania traded the volcano for a very close call with a sand cobra.  I’ve climbed Mount Roraima at the junction of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela - and nearly froze in what for all the world was a sleet storm on the Moon. I camped overnight inside Mount St Helens’ crater - and lost a toenail and permanently damaged my right knee.  The list goes on and on: every great adventure is tinged with a price I seemed to always have to pay.

There's a larger lesson here.  I’m not sure I would trade any of these experiences away in retrospect, but I also think: if I knew ahead of time what the long-range price would be, would I still board that plane?

Isn’t that what life is about, however?  We make choices and there is always a price affixed to each one... but we may not see that price and we may not want to see that price.  A good friend wanted to know if the guy proposing marriage was The One, but was afraid of the answer she would get - so she just married him.  She's divorced now, living with a mentally-challenged son in Colorado.  My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather each made a choice that left their wives alone and their children fatherless.  They each ended their long lives very sad and lonely.  

I cringe when I see someone make a family-changing decision like a marriage or a divorce or to have an affaire - and commonly they deliberately choose not to consider the long-term consequences. We don’t need to seek out adventure - it generally seeks us out anyway.

The measure of wisdom is to always weigh the downrange consequences before we board that plane.  Weigh that Faustian Bargain carefully before you sign with your blood... because the consequences always last longer than the reward up front, just like that last car-loan.

Also keep in mind that wisdom correlates rather poorly with IQ and education, so don't trust your emotions but ask the wiser people around you.  You know who they are.  Then listen.  


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