“Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.”

This quote is out of context, but then that does not matter so much. One might have to explain the use of “squareness” here as it is not really as much a part of common vocabulary these days as it was once upon a time[1].  But then taken in context this actually fits the argument rather well. The statement is part of a… well an argument I suppose, one that involved the “value” of the sometimes common greeting “What’s new?” As I recall, the gist was that perhaps asking “What’s best?” would be preferable. Now this whole paragraph is out of context. *sigh*

OK, so I have been thinking some about “values” recently and last night came across the following quote in a fine little book that I am reading:

“I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are.”
Haruki Murakami

This really fits quite well into my thought patterns of late and one of the things that struck me about it is that while questioning how we might best “value” our lives, it sort of implicitly challenges us to question the values we use to measure our lives. Similar word, but slightly different meaning. There is another blog that I have mentioned recently that would likely due more justice (given that the author had the time and inclination to do the necessary research) to this linguistic, or at least semantic question… actually I am not really sure how best to classify this; that is the relationship between the word value and the word values. Same word in some respects, yet in regards to definition the former implies “the importance, worth, or usefulness of something” while the latter refers to “a person’s principles or standards of behavior”[2]. Does one rely on or beget the other? Are they two sides of the same coin, as it were?… ugh, sorry about that.

Anyways, to get back to that quote. Is how we value our lives defined by the values we hold? I guess it makes sense but I am not sure that I have really thought about it before in quite those terms. While I was pondering this the question, “What’s best?” popped into my head and I realized that I have in fact (sort of) been here before. All of this has happened before and of it will happen again I suppose. The question and the title quote, if you had not ferreted it out on your own, are both from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAAMM for laziness’ sake) by one Robert M. Pirsig.

I wrote once about experiencing a similar quandary in life in regards to trying to understand morals… you can read about that here if’n you have not and care to. Anyway, that particular quest involved a word and a book. The word seemingly came out of the ether and the book was suggested to me by my father. Turns out they were the same…in a sense. My father also suggested the book noted above (not the one that I am currently reading, although I bet he might get something out of that one too), but really that does not have too much to do with the current discussion.

Actually I am starting to lose track of where this was supposed to go…

Ok, so Pirsig’s book happens to be all about values. I sort of forgot that until that question popped into my head this morning. So naturally I chased the thought down the rabbit hole as it went flitting off. It has been a long time since I read that book. I tried to read it several times, but it is a bit of a bugger and this was in my late teens and I was a bit scattered. Actually, a couple of things happened before I was able to get through it. First, I picked up and finished a different book; Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. Second, I took a long motorcycle trip. I tried to get through ZAAMM while on the trip because well… you know. I did finally plow through it once I returned and remember having grand ideas as a result. That is about the time I really started writing in those now tattered notebooks I have referenced here more than once in the past. There was a lot of angst back then for a lot of different reasons. I am not sure that I really addressed the question of values however.

Looking back on it all that was a time of big change; of casting off old ideas and struggling to find a place in the world… Although in thinking about it now, I was much more concerned about meaning back then. Now I think I am more interested in… well, just getting along, in finding my way. Hence the values questioning I guess. What is it that guides my sense of SELF and the decisions and/or choices I make? I tried good ol’ western philosophy for a while, but did not follow that too far. I guess I turned next to a sort of new age Taoism, books like Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Tao of Pooh.  That carried me pretty far I think and still holds a pretty big influence[3]. I then starting mucking around with Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts and rather than illiciting any sort of changes it just added to the existing repertoire, but it still was not quite right. Turns out the god of Israel isn’t doing a whole lot for me either, but the church idea is really great and I am really enjoying the community and friendships made through this new foray.

So why am I telling you all of this? I am not really, I am just writing what comes to mind and for some reason rather than just let that mill around on the hard drive here, I chose to post it to the cyberverse to give it a home I guess. That said I always enjoy a good discussion…

So what IS it that guides… well, me? I was going to say us, but I do not have the where-with-all to ask these sorts of questions of, or about, the rest of humanity. I have a difficult enough time with the SELF. It is a funny thing though because one of the themes that keeps coming up while I traipse through this navel gazing wonderland is the concept of connection. You know like The Force, or whatever they called it on Pandora. We are all in some way or other a part of everything else. Like some universal, mutual… inter-influence or something. But it goes beyond things like “causality” or “synergy” or “the butterfly effect” or whatever. It is in no way related to “string theory” or “42”. I don’t know how to explain it, but somehow it is what makes sense to me. Ok, that sounds a little bit insane, I admit. I guess what I am trying to say is that the way I sort of fundamentally understand my experience (not quite the same as my existence as that is a different question I think) probably would not really make sense to anyone else as it does for me. Ok, let me try that another way. Everything is unique and individual, that is why there is such a concept as SELF, and I do not believe for a second that this is just a human “reality”. Grains of sand in the desert. The desert is a thing in and of itself that is made up of a whole damn bunch of other things. All unique and individual. Or perhaps, the mountain and the glacier and the river and the ocean and the silt and the fish and the clouds and the rain and snow… same thing…different things. Does the fish influence the mountain? Well maybe not until you find a fossil of a fish at 20,000 feet. Time and space and matter and the rest of it all, one big experience that is one big tangled up beautiful mess.

What does that have to do with values? Well for me, everything. Sometimes “things” have to work together – have to all be in their right place – for another “thing” to happen or to be. I cannot explain the how, nor necessarily the why of it. But then I do not feel the need to. That is why I am maybe not the best scientist. But somehow, “knowing” that this is right is truly a guiding force in my life. I like to put things in order because sometimes that is what makes sense to me. Just don’t try to tell me what that order is because that is impossible. Without the things the order does not make sense, maybe does not exist. THEREFORE, there can be no right way. When something makes sense, it just works. When it doesn’t well, then try something else. That said, I understand (from personal experience) if you do not put an engine back together in JUST THE RIGHT WAY, it will not work. But I think that this proves my point more than detracts from it… but I am not going to argue that further at the moment.

I realize now that in some ways I did not address the idea of “quality”, as in “What’s best.”  Neither did I address the idea of “efficiency”. On the other hand, maybe I did. There is no one true “best” thing, no universal “quality”.  At least in the way I understand things. But then that was not Pirsig’s point… or maybe it ways. And efficiency? Well that is essentially a concept designed for defining some sort of measurement and is variable depending on what is being measured and so is more of a tool than a value….best not to bring that into the business of assessing one’s life. In some ways it all comes down to the problem of the shim… for those of you in the know you will get that. For the rest, you will have to find out on your own.


[1] Once upon a time the opposite of “coolness” or “hipness”, or something.

[2] Interestingly when I called up the word “value” on the interwebs the main part of the result page presented the definition, in two part harmony as it were, while on the right hand sidebar there was an ad for a local thrift emporium known as “Value Village” with which I am quite familiar. This might say something about the expression of both definitions in my own life…

[3] Interestingly the interaction – or clash if you will – between Western and Eastern frames of thought and reference is a pretty big element in ZAAMM.

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One thought on ““Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.”

  1. Interesting the contrast between your quest for “meaning” earlier in life and “value(s)” now. Taken on face value (no pun intended), the quest for meaning is seemingly about what lies outside of oneself – the quest to understand the order about the great big wide world, if there is any such thing – but is perhaps secretly motivated by the felt need to understand one’s own place in such order (and with the risk of discover just how trivial one’s place is in it). The quest for value, on the other hand, puts the self in the spotlight, and I am not sure where the rest of the world fits in at all, save perhaps around the margins. The hierarchy of importance is very much inverted between the two quests.

    In any case, I think that the many senses of the word ‘value’ are related to each other but are subtly different from one another. There is ‘value’ as a singular noun (plural ‘values’), which we tend to use to refer to possible states of reality that we believe are worth dedicating our energies to, to make them come true or to sustain them. In this first sense, ‘value’ becomes almost synonymous with one’s life-orienting convictions, guiding principles, ethics, or principles; ‘my values’ refers to the codes of behavior that direct my actions. Then, there is ‘value’ as a collective/mass singular noun which is roughly synonymous with ‘worth,’ usually with a strongly subjective connotation. “What is it worth to me?” This second sense of ‘value’ is related to the former because we allow ourselves to ascribe to codes of ethical/moral conduct because we assign special worth to them. And then there is the verb ‘to value,’ which is of course the activity of assigning worth. So, we value our values by investing them with value.

    (On a side note, the long-delayed post to my blog will hopefully be up soon; it is mostly outlined and will dismantle the idea of parsimony. But, life just got really busy, so unfortunately I have not been able to make the final push to roll it out.)

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