Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Ant and The Grasshopper

Among my favourite sitcom episodes is one from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, entitled The Ant and The Grasshopper. This portrays, in some comedic style, the contrasting lifestyles of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier; the career-minded and industrious approach of the former, and the life of leisure and relative indolence pursued by the latter.

The title of the episode is taken from one of Aesop's better know fables, which looks at similar, if not identical, themes.

In a more modern social context, the dichotomy is often expressed as that between rigid careerism and downshifting, and also as the desire for a greater work-life balance.

As somebody who has experienced both sides of this particular coin, I often feel that it is seen in simplistic,black-and-white terms, when in reality there are a million shades of grey in between. Generalisations and idealistic views abound, and most of these are often swiftly dispelled not long after people imagine that they have "crossed the line".

Downshifting, and its variants, are not necessarily the idyllic and carefree existence which those still embedded in the rat race think them to be. A salaried or 9 to 5 job has in-built motivatory factors, imbuing one with a sense of purpose, targets to aim for, and some semblance of structure and continuity. Those who embark on alternative courses may come to yearn for some of these things.

It is oft remarked that one of the drawbacks of living a regimented life is the tendency to experience "ruts", brought on by drab and repititive routines. However, downshifters can also fall prey to such difficulties, as a life without a sense of purpose and direction can become soulless, notwithstanding its apparent flexibility and other benefits.

So what is the answer?  Well, one thing to bear in mind is that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Pursuing both paths to extremes can represent a fool's paradise, and it is easy to be seduced by the platitudes of others. Self-awareness, being alive to warning signals, and a readiness to embrace changes, are all of benefit, but of course are not possessed by everyone.

It is tempting to reach the conclusion that each philosophy can learn from the other, in the search for a more balanced and fulfilling life. Combining the practicalities of "the treadmill" with room for hopes and dreams, or marrying a sense of excitement to some roots and foundations would perhaps be a more realistic scenario.  The very lucky amongst us achieve at some point a feeling of equilibrium, where the ideal becomes reality in one organic whole. The rest of us have to be content with reining in fanciful ambitions or notions, and coming to terms with the necessity for pragmatism and compromise.

If I have learned anything from my own experiences on both sides of "the fence", it is that mental complacency is the main enemy, and that this can lead to stagnation and disillusionment.  It sounds trite, I know, but variety is the spice of life, and this applies particularly to interaction with other human beings. We just keep on learning, often from our mistakes and traumas, and try to train our minds to recognise when the rot is setting in, and act accordingly.

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