I have been getting this feeling lately about the big historical sweep of things and of our individual seemingly insignificant part to play in it. It’s a feeling of how mostly things don’t change, and yet how they do, how greed and powerlust seem to be in the driver’s seat, and yet that they are not the whole story, how everything seems to point to an undesirable outcome, but that there is always enough to point to that gives one reason for hope.
I've come to believe that a sign of the people who are living well is that their lives are a kind of wandering in the wilderness, of being neither here nor there, of being satisfied with their daily manna allotment, which is just enough to keep them alive and moving. The great intoxications are not for such wanderers; for them it's always just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and of doing what is required of them on that day and in that place.
We’re at a point in history now where it seems that things will play out the way they will play out. There’s not a lot the wandering folk can do, except what is in front of them to do. The world is in the grip of people who are driven by compulsions they don’t understand, and their compulsions are the root cause of so much needless suffering--for themselves and others. I can rant all I want about the stupidity and selfishness of so much of it, but it’s always been this way. Anything else has been the exception.
The world has always been driven by a quest for the great intoxication. Is it really about money and power, or is it about the momentary states of intoxication that come with their acquisition. And enough is never enough because the intoxication is momentary, and life without it is so empty and drab, and so like addicts in desperate need of a fix, they are compelled to get more power and more wealth, not for there own sake, but as a means to an end, and there is never an end to it.
That's what motivates the great ones, and the rest of us settle for the little intoxications that likewise never satisfy, hedonic adaptation and all that, so we look for love in all the wrong places, play our little ego games at work or in relationships, and in general muck things up because we are in the grip of compulsions we do not understand.
It's more complicated, of course, because the intoxication isn't the problem so much as the compulsive need for it. The problems do not lie so much in being in the state of intoxication itself, but rather in the way people behave when they are not in it. I recently watched The Hustler and The Color of Money--both great films about phenomenally talented pool players played by Paul Newman and Tom Cruise--and they're a study in what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow". When they're in it they believe they are invincible, and often they are. At one point in The Hustler, the Newman character, Fast Eddie says to his girlfriend:
Fast Eddie: . . .When I'm goin', I mean, when I'm REALLY goin' I feel like a... like a jockey must feel. He's sittin' on his horse, he's got all that speed and that power underneath him... he's comin' into the stretch, the pressure's on 'im, and he KNOWS... just feels... when to let it go and how much. Cause he's got everything workin' for 'im: timing, touch. It's a great feeling, boy, it's a real great feeling when you're right and you KNOW you're right. It's like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue's part of me. You know, it's uh - pool cue, it's got nerves in it. It's a piece of wood, it's got nerves in it. Feel the roll of those balls, you don't have to look, you just KNOW. You make shots that nobody's ever made before. I can play that game the way... NOBODY'S ever played it before.
Sarah: You're not a loser, Eddie, you're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.
Was this the feeling that Homer’s Greek heroes had? Eddie's jockey-on-a-horse reference brings to mind the theme explored in Peter Shaffer's Equus.
Whatever the source or cause of experiences like these, they are like being possessed by a god because when in a flow state one operates on a level that transcends one’s ordinary level of talent. As with Homer's heroes, the difference between the good and the great is this capability to move into this other dimension when one is taken of hold of by the god. I’ve sniffed it now and then, enough to know what it must be like, but never in a way that led me to have any impact. And it's probably just as well. I'm sure I would have become an addict.
Because if being in the flow is mostly a positive experience, the problem for people who experience its intensity lies in its becoming addictive. When they are not in it, the only important thing is that they get back into it. And sometimes when they are playing they're not in the flow, and they lose, but they think it's just a matter of time before they get back into it. I imagine something like this happens to gamblers who once had a lucky streak and continuously seek the elation it brought them losing untold sums in the quest, thinking they will win it back when their "luck" returns, i.e., when the god once again deigns to lift him above other mortals.
Both the Newman and Cruise characters, who have this experience of being in the flow, are rather guileless and uncalculating--at least in the beginning. The important thing is for them to be in that state, whatever name they give it; it's not really about the money--the money is important for the people around them, their stakeholders, and the stakeholders are continuously frustrated by their players because they have no interest in the hustle game. There is no payoff for these players in the hustle. Making money does not give them the intoxication that they crave; they want that feeling, to be in that intoxicating state of invincibility that comes with being in the flow.
And when they lose, no matter how badly, they think it's just a matter of time before they get back to it, and when they do, all will be well. And they will win back all they have lost. It's just a matter of having enough time and the money to stay in the game.
Isn't this what we are seeing on Wall Street. The big players there are intoxication addicts.They see themselves as invincible. If things have gone south, it's only temporary. Sooner or later they'll be back in the flow. Look--isn't the stock market at an all-time high? They are winners, and the rest of us should trust them, and rely on them as the Achaeans did Achilles.