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Thinking about Tainter...

It seems to me that his analysis of collapse occurring when marginal returns to investment diminish holds true for the individual as well. Eventually your return on the investments of your life's time diminishes: when you have read many books, each additional book you read returns less knowledge, interest or emotional engagement; after you have learned your trade, each piece of work you do adds less to the sum of your knowledge, experience and value to your employer; after you have met enough people, each indvidual person you meet means less to you; and after you and your beloved have made your mutual commitments each extra minute of engagement adds less to your relationship. And when in juggling all these things the costs of managing a complex life get too much for you, then your life collapses to a simpler state, whether you will or no.

Sometimes your collapse is forced on you: you lose your job or your health or both, alienate your friends, your partner walks out on you. Sometimes you can choose to lose a whole element of your life: you leave the job, withdraw from your friends and books, leave your partner.

The question is, when you value all the elements of your life, and wish to manage your collapse gracefully to a simpler state in each area, how do you do that?

This question is of pressing concern to me.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
19th May, 2010 04:51 (UTC)
Thank you for this comment - it is useful.

Replying as a partially collapsed person, I _didn't_ mean that each book, person, etc. are the same - that is manifestly not true. But the rate at which you meet significant books and people slows down, and you have to work harder to recognise and enjoy new ideas and people. You need to keep space in your life for the possibilities, ideally without throwing away the things you already have and value.

I don't have a job at the moment, but the experience of not having one makes me realise how much I value the other things (books, people, gardening, opportunity to write) I had less of when I had a job and have more of at the moment. I would like a job again, but not one so all-consuming that I have to lose these other things in order to do the job (an all too real possibility, imho).

Management is what you do when you are trying to stay within your limits, in this case the limits of time and health to maintain my own life and meet my obligations. The alternative, in my case, is to reach one of several limits and find I cannot actually cope at all any more.

19th May, 2010 03:48 (UTC)
Declare some downtime (go away if you can). Decide on your priorities. Go to see your GP if you want some temporary chemical support. Learn to value the marginal returns for what they can be - smaller maybe, but more refined and exquisite.

Yes, exploring a new cuisine will not have that broad brush of excitement it did even twenty years ago, but finding one new successful recipe or ingredient is a delicate joy. Think of it as the Girl with the Pearl Earring versus the Nightwatch.

The time and emotional energy you have invested so far is what is now allowing you to appreciate refinement - it is unfortunate that it also makes you more critical of the wider picture.
19th May, 2010 05:19 (UTC)
Thank you Fran. This is good advice, in itself. The thing is, I do value the marginal returns, and I know my priorities. The problem is, I think, quite simply that there is not time enough in the week to maintain my own health and sanity, discharge my personal obligations to other people, and earn a living.

So I am deeply conflicted about job hunting because if I get a job I will have money but will lose many other things I currently have time for, but if I don't get a job then bit by bit I will lose much of the rest anyway.

I'm determined for a variety of reasons not to get to the point where I need chemical support. Not the least of these is that taking the time and trouble to manage medication and/or councelling to keeps one off the floor is an awful waste of energy offering extremely low marginal returns!, and I'd rather use the energy to manage something more productive (for example, my garden, or a decent job that was not all-consuming) instead.

Analysis provides a framework for decision, and I personally find having such a framework helpful. The problem is that I don't want to make any decision that involves unbalancing my life, but I can't see a way to earn a living that allows me to keep my life in balance.
19th May, 2010 05:08 (UTC)
I don't know, but let me know when you work it out because you have just managed to sum up what I have been describing as "not depressed but struggling".
19th May, 2010 05:23 (UTC)
Exactly! I'm very much not depressed right now, today (been there, done that, know how it feels), but I am wandering along the boundary of depression, dipping in and out, and very much at risk of going in deeper if I can't find a way of resolving these contradictions.
19th May, 2010 07:47 (UTC)
I don't know. I have some doubts about the model here: the amount that is added by each new book, or each minute of engagement with your beloved, does not always decrease. There are fewer really engaging books at 46 than at 16, but that doesn't mean that every book I read then brought me more than any book I read now, much less that everything read in 2008 was more valuable to me than anything read in 2010 will be. But while that's reassuring on some levels, it doesn't answer what you actually need to know.

I know that it's also possible for one of the elements to get more complex at a point when you think it's stable, and take time/energy from elsewhere, because there are still only n hours in a day, and if you're suddenly committing, say, a third of your weekends to someone or something new, that's a fair amount of time that has to be taken from somewhere else. And from the outside, that can look like a collapse: whether it's a new hobby, a new relationship, or taking an advanced degree, what someone else sees is you not turning up where you used to.
19th May, 2010 08:16 (UTC)
For your first paragraph, please read my comments to other people.

For the second: You are quite right of course, but your examples relate to choices under your own control. But we aren't in control of some of the elements of our lives, so one aspect (most commonly work, or family) can suddenly expand to fill all the time and energy available and/or drive catastrophic collapse if you can't cope. And speaking of not turning up when you used to, it's one of the advantages of fandom that it can cope with people vanishing for a while and then turning up again; it allows you to collapse relative to your friends without the friendships taking terminal damage.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline M

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