I have been reading a book of essays by Aldous Huxley, Music at Night. It contains several fine essays, including the title piece. But there is one, “Obstacle Race,” which contemplates the possible benefits of obstacles in life and reflects on how few obstacles there are in modern life. In addition to running water meaning no more trips to the well and central heating meaning no more chopping wood, Huxley thinks we have also removed the obstacles that religion used to provide. Huxley posits that these theological hurdles were often insurmountable for mere mortals, but they made life interesting:
…having to climb over obstacles is in the last resort more pleasurable than trotting along on the flat. . . . Absurdly enough, men like obstacles, cannot be spiritually healthy without them, feel bored and ill when they take to flat racing.
And, suggests Huxley, if religion is no longer going to do this for us, maybe science must:
It will be the business of science to discover a set of obstacles at least as exciting and sportingly difficult as those which Octave and Armance [from a novel by Stendhal] had to surmount, but less dangerous to sanity and life, and in spite of their absurdity, somehow compatible with an existence rationally organized for happiness and social progress. It remains to be seen how far, without the aid of a mythology, it will be successful.
Well, I would not say that our science has been very good at this. We have not developed a “mythology” (can science develop a mythology?), so people have stepped back haphazardly into old mythologies or just plowed along in furrows of sheer selfishness. The results have been climate change, overpopulation, and increasing peril for the planet. We could certainly use the “aid of a mythology.”
Interestingly, many years after Huxley wrote this essay, he completed Brave New World, the most well-known of his works. In that book, the workers play “Obstacle Golf,” a game intended to give the bland life of the proletariat a false sense of overcoming obstacles. In the same book, a character notes that science has gotten rid of all the “physiological stigmata of old age… along with all the old man’s mental peculiarities. Characters remain constant throughout a whole lifetime.” How boring. And yet, is this not the magic formula that modern medicine is looking for?
But what does this need for obstacles have to say to us “retired” people, especially those of us who are not battling major health obstacles (yet) and have enough money to meet our needs (assuming those needs don’t keep expanding)? Are we just amusing ourselves with forms of Obstacle Golf rather than the satisfaction of overcoming real obstacles? Some of us set up our own obstacles – through volunteer work, learning a new skill, tackling a project that might just be a little beyond us. But most of the advertising for retirement villas, cruises, and financial plans for the elderly promise the elimination of all stress, the removal of all obstacles. Sounds wonderful, but Huxley would question what kind of life that would be.
Other people provide the most challenging obstacles, of course. Remember what Sartre said about them. But all the data says that social isolation can kill us. So it might be worth thinking about obstacles in our lives, and perhaps welcoming a few more. Life will not be so easy, but maybe it will also not be so flat.
Of course, some of us are all too attracted to challenges. Yeats complained poetically about his “fascination with what is difficult.” He said it “ dried the sap out of my veins, and rent /Spontaneous joy and natural content /Out of my heart.” Sometimes we overchallenge ourselves with difficulties, other times with over-scheduling, over-commitment. The best advice, as always, is probably Aristotle’s Golden Mean.
I have put up a new story this week, “Why My Aunt Josie Has a Limited Vocabulary,” which is, in its way, about a woman who finds a way to minimize obstacles in her life. Sometimes minimizing obstacles can be a challenge in itself.