Saturday, October 28, 2006

Saved by Voltaire again...

Let me tell you how. I have been in front of my machine for the last few hours trying to model some data. You know those times when intuition escapes you, you can't see features in the data that you could spot in a second at other times and to top it all the software gives you incomprehensible error messages - basically nothing seems to work. You're stuck. Tired. Frustrated. Eyes hurting. Head aching. But don't want to give up.

...and then you stare outside the window, watch the property maintenance guy with his girlfriend and a big smile on his lips...probabaly headed for a bar. He's got a better life than me - cool carefree life, live for the day, no need of breaking your head on 'generalized estimating equations'. Why the hell am i spending time on this? How is it really going to impact my quality of life? I wish i could trade places with him...

...and then strikes Voltaire. From his "Story of the good Brahmin":
"I wish I had never been born!" the Brahmin remarked.
"Why so?" said I.
"Because," he replied, "I have been studying these forty years, and I find that it has been so much time lost...I believe that I am composed of matter, but I have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought. I am even ignorant whether my understanding is a simple faculty like that of walking or digesting, or if I think with my head in the same manner as I take hold of a thing with my hands...I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking I remain confounded and ashamed of what I have said."
The same day I had a conversation with an old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made? She did not even comprehend my question. She had not, for the briefest moment in her life, had a thought about these subjects with which the good Brahmin had so tormented himself. She believed in the bottom of her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu, and provided she could get some of the sacred water of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women. Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom I thus addressed:
"Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?"
"You are right," he replied. "I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were but as ignorant as my old neighbor; and yet it is a happiness which I do not desire."
This reply of the Brahmin made a greater impression on me than anything that had passed.
Back to 'generalized estimating equations' with renewed vigour!

One question that i have, though - Is it right to characterize the lady in the story as ignorant? She is happy and that's what matters (to her), isn't it? How does it help being 'knowledgable' but unhappy? I think some part of this debate has commonalities with the Bhakti vs Jnana schools of philosophy. Probably, best to have a synthesis as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa taught.


Sandeep Bhasin said...

For the last couple of weeks, i have been trying to understand the purpose of my life. I read the book 'What should I do with my Life?' over the weekend (remember, you had recommended this book to me in 2004?) and again tried to address the same question. After reading this post of yours, I recollect a conversation with my wife of last night on the same subject and I can tell you with full confidence that in this world, most of us take life as it comes. We plan for investments… we plan to possess materialist things (now I want an IPOD…). Most of us are not bothered what are we going to achieve in our lives... most of us would die existing through our lives... completely forgetting how to live our lives!

Anonymous said...

In research we also go through these kind of emotions.
BTW, I have given a reply to your query on my blog. Sorry for the delay.

Kshitij L said...

>best to have a synthesis as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa taught.

True. Program computers by day, have LSD trips during night.