Monday, November 22, 2010

Wishful Thinking

My sister asked me today that if I could have three wishes (as in from an all-powerful genie) what would they be, and then hinted that she had the prefect answer but wouldn’t tell me until I came up with three of my own. I said something about land, power, billions of dollars, a wife and immortality but I was surprised at my inability to put it concisely. I could think of several futures to aim toward but mixing goals would be pointless and I wasn’t sure which one I would actually wish for if I knew the wish would be granted. She had evidently thought about the question substantially more than I. Her first wish, she told me, would be to succeed at everything she tried, with this she could have any of the normal desires, wealth, power, love, but also virtually any superpower. Her other two wishes were less ingenious but her third does bear mention, she would wish to know ahead of time of her death and for it to be sudden.
The genius of her wish is that it concurrently avoids the traps of wishing for infinite wishes, which is often expressly forbidden, and the problem of shortsightedness. The man who wishes for power or wealth will find it difficult to maintain and quite possibly end up worse than before but the man who wishes for success in everything can have almost whatever he wants, as long as it is possible to attempt. A wish bound only by what can be attempted though, has some fascinating implications. A common wish is to be able to fly, yet no man can attempt to grow wings, some men however, have attempted to be another species (specifically referring to that one freak who tries to be as similar to a tiger as possible). Many people however, attempt to live forever (or rather to avoid death), and to stay young forever, and so immortality is here a possibility, if not an inevitability.
The issue that then emerges is what constitutes an attempt, how hard does one have to try for it to be considered a try? If one tries to get a job but this involves nothing more than perusing a few job search websites would one have to succeed? And can one consciously dictate one’s goals? Would the wish operate on stated attempts or mental patterns of thought, would you succeed at what you were trying to do or what you thought you were trying to do? And what if this is applied to the wish itself, what is one trying to do by wishing such a thing? And would success be nothing more than the wish being granted? People like the idea of limited wish granting because it gives them an opportunity to think about their priorities, to condense all of their wishful thinking into a few relatively simple requests. What one is trying to do by wishing for success in all things is to eliminate the possibility to failure, but the phrasing of the wish would not actually accomplish this. The critical term of the wish was “try” - one must try to succeed. So suppose one attempts to fly by launching oneself off a tall building. Having made an attempt, success would be assured, and so one would indeed fly, but only as long as one was trying. As soon as one became comfortable with it and started to consider other things one would cease to fly and begin to fall (the same occurs when driving on familiar roads, without thinking about it, without trying, one can find one’s way home). If the wish itself is acted upon by its granting however, this would not occur: by wishing for success in everything one is trying to avoid failure, and if one must succeed in avoiding failure one would not fall from the sky the moment they ceased to try to fly. There remains though, the issue of whether one can fail to do something one is not trying to do, and for some instances it would appear not. One cannot be said to have failed to run if one is sitting down, but conversely one can be said to have failed to graduate from high school without ever having made the least attempt to do so.
The actual implications of never failing though, have more dire consequences than logical dilemma. Humans need adversity, without it our efforts have no meaning. We judge the value of an endeavor by how difficult its completion will be and by its risk of failure. If one knew that one could not fail, that all one had to do in order to insure success was try, some element of this challenge would be lost; one would never know doubt and would be solely dependent on oneself. The nastiest consequence of this would be in human interaction, specifically romantic human interaction. With this wish granted anyone one attempted to attract would be attracted, rejection would be impossible and other people would cease to have any value or significance.
The crucial point in all of this though, is the definition of “to try.” It can be validly argued that if one tries one must eventually succeed regardless, and that we only fail when we cease to try. There are of course extreme cases that would seem to contradict this - no matter how hard one tries to swim into the Mariana Trench one will fail. But as we are human a more intellectual definition of try is necessary. To try does not mean to approach in the most direct possible way, if faced with a tall fence a man will not press himself into it until it breaks but will attempt to climb over it. Thus to try to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench men invented the deep-sea submarine; to truly try to do anything is to approach it in the most intelligent possible manner. If this is to be the case it must be shown that any time man has failed it has been because he has not truly tried.
In the field of warfare this is clearly true - few battles are fought to the last man, most often the losing side retreats or surrenders before they are destroyed, thus they stop trying to win before they are defeated. The few cases to the contrary, the Battle of St. Jacob’s, The Alamo, etc. (in which the defeated side refused to surrender and was massacred), would contradict this if a wider idea of success and failure is not adopted. In both cases the “defeated” were not trying to achieve victory in the normal sense, they were trying to have an effect on their enemy other than defeat, to deter them, to cause them to reconsider the cost of victory, and in both cases they were successful. And thus in trying they were successful.
In the various scientific fields this is generally the case as well, man did not discover flight in the years before he did from failure but from lack of a genuine attempt (Da Vinci never built his machine). The Romans had much the same technology as the 16th century Europeans, yet the latter discovered the heliocentric universe and the former did not. Motivation and compulsion are much more powerful forces in science and engineering than ability.
The field of politics offers the most difficult challenge to this theory. Men have been trying to invent a stable political structure for millennia and no one has ever succeeded, the rule of man has defied all attempts. It is possible for the theory to be maintained only if one sees the decay that infects a state in its middle and later years as a product of changing efforts, as the state begins to appear secure, men stop trying to secure it and begin to further their own personal aims (at times at its expense), and the state begins to collapse. The try-succeed idea then becomes continuous; constant trying is necessary for success. And success, once achieved, is easily lost. It almost appears that success is never actually possible, one can only approach it as a man pushing a bolder up a hill, unless constant pressure is exerted the bolder will begin to roll backwards. And even if the crest of the hill is reached the bolder is apt to roll down the other side, in keeping it at the summit the man has an even more difficult task to getting it there in the first place.
If then “to try” is as it has been here described the wish for success in all one tries would be no different than the normal course of life, and therefore quite foolish thing to wish of a genie. And even if it is not, and trying can be as simple as original intent, such a wish would make one prone to either sudden reversals of fortune (as one stopped paying attention) or success in ways one never intended (trying as underlying motivation) and regardless one’s treatment of and relations with other people (as other people and not as slaves) would undoubtedly suffer. If I am ever confronted with such an opportunity I think I’ll stick to wife, property and literary talent.

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