Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Nonlinearity of Life and Social Homogenization

Someone I know well—and this is where credit must go in this case—used the adjective ('non-linear') as applied to people's lives the other day, and as I thought about it, it did indeed make sense. As a former part-time 'mathematician'—not the careful phrasing—I was used to applying 'non-linearity' in the context of mathematics, but I hadn't thought about applying it to life, even though it's a prime example of the phenomenon, if that's what you want to call it.

Actually, life should probably be described as predominantly non-linear with a few minor discontinuities thrown in for good measure. Of course, the ultimate 'discontinuity' is death, but let's ignore that unpleasant final certainty. Still, with all the yak-speak extant these days in health bureaucracy—'negative treatment outcomes' and gems like that—I fancy we might feel inclined to rename 'death' to 'final life discontinuity', or something along those lines.

But I digress—e.g. I was being non-linear, which requires a discontinuity to get back on track.

'Linear' lives are predictable lives. There's a plan, and the execution of said plan—subject to there being no falling pianos or contingencies like that—proceeds more or less along the planned track. Things may not be entirely 'y=a+bx' straight, but the deviations aren't of too high and order. Maybe a small quadratic factor, and, if it really gets outrageously curvy, an even smaller cubic one.


Boy meets girl. Girl and boy like each other. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl and boy have sex; repeatedly. (The latter two may be exchanged.) Boy and girl move in together. Girl and boy get engaged. Boy and girl get married. (Somewhere in here, one or both have to get jobs, I suppose.) Girl and boy have kids. Boy and Girl buy a house with a whooping mortgage. Girl and Boy bring up kids. Kids leave home. Boy and girl divorce, because they really don't know what the hell to do with each other now. (Alternative: Girl and boy 'retire' and die; boy first.)

Quite linear, and, with some variations but clearly recognizable, the course charted by many, if not most—and stuck so, as if their lives depended on it; which they do, up to a point. People who adopt this course, usually because they don't know that there's any other way to live their once-off never-to-have-a-second-chance lives, are often happy enough; on average possibly more so than those whose lives don;t follow such predictable courses. For much of the time anyway. But their 'medium' lives—that's like 'medium done'—seldom interrupted by flashes of extremes of joy or sadness, can occasionally bring about surprises. Everything settles down into routines, from marriages to jobs, even those who might initially have appeared to be anything but routine. Like who would think that being, say, a successful author could be anything but not-routine. But there are those whose life stories, on a non-author level, are as tepid as stale dishwater.

Linear lives can, and often will, be disrupted, possibly forever by various types of internally-generated 'crises'. I've seen a number of linear lives serious derailed by accumulations of personal dissatisfaction that eventually become too powerful to fight. In many cases you wouldn't have seen it coming—except in hindsight when rationalization often provides "I saw the signs" epiphanies and retrospective narratives—while in others it's actually pretty clear fairly far ahead of any visible cracks.

And there are externally-imposed crises galore, of course. Catastrophes abound, their scope small to huge. Any of these has the potential for completely destroying linear lives, though not necessarily those who lead them.

What to make of linear lives, in any cultural context? I've come to the unsurprising conclusion that they are necessary—in the sense that people who lead them form the infrastructures of all societies, and especially those in the modern world, where linearity is actively encouraged by those who would try to determine the shape of societies. Linearity of life and social homogenization—not just of the gender kind—are essential to enable societies to exist, independent of their size and structure. You can't have a 'society' of people who act non-linearly, or who arrange their lives along non-predictable, non-conformist precepts. Because 'conformity' is the direct behavior-counterpart of life-linearity.

The other conclusion I've come to, equally unsurprisingly, is that those whose lives and actions do not follow the predictive schemes of the 'linears'—that's another word, closely associated with 'homogenis'—do so, and are still able to live in a social environment that will, to an extent anyway, tolerate and occasionally support their lives' non-linearities, only because of the infrastructure of linears surrounding them.

It's a humbling thought, and maybe it should give pause to those who look down their noses at what they might consider the dull lives of the rest of the ruck. Not that it should entice them to join the masses, but it's always good to keep things in perspective, lest one gets carried away by one's own tunnel-vision and one's overinflated sense of personal grandiosity.

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