Paris Hilton and the monk who grabbed a bush

As I was buying gas for the lawn mower today, I had the thought that buying gas for her mower probably isn’t something that Paris Hilton does very often. If I had paparazzi six-deep lining the street out front, and three helicopter loads of paparazzi circling overhead, mowing the grass wouldn’t be the same for me either. I usually mow in paint-spattered pants with a zipper that won’t stay up, so that could be a problem right there—all those telephoto lens catching a view of old underwear and flashing it (pardon the pun) around the globe.

The thing that interests me most about Paris Hilton is how much people care about her. You might say they care for all the wrong reasons, but they still care—at least to the extent of being interested. If I died tomorrow, I would get a small write-up in the back of the local paper alongside the twenty or so other people who just died in Eugene. A longer obituary or a postage-stamp size photo would cost extra.

My entire life is of less interest to my fellow human beings (en masse) than how Paris Hilton’s hair looked in court (messy ponytail). This is true of nearly everyone. No matter how much we achieve or what obstacles we overcome, our lives are of less concern to society than the life of a twenty-something heiress who is possibly alcoholic, probably not too bright, and without any obvious talents. So has it always been. Even in the history books, few are remembered, and a large percentage of them for their silliness if not their evil.

But as with all things, there are different ways of looking at it. For all that Paris Hilton has, she can only find privacy indoors. She is not only followed, she is mobbed. No quiet walks in the moonlight; no tranquil moments in the forest; no possibility of taking a class or joining a club. The sad thing about Paris Hilton—and most of us, I suspect—is that we could have done so much more. Or at least, it looks as if we could have done so much more. What stopped us? If I were to die today—and I had the time and inclination to ponder my life first—I would feel awfully bad that I did so little and that so much of that was ill-advised. Sometimes it seems as my days are but a succession of missed opportunities.

Why is this? Two reasons. One is that I have little faith in what I perceive as my talents (or at least in society’s interest in my talents), and the other is that I have few standards by which to judge what is important. Should I write a book, start a school, or devote my life to rescuing abandoned dogs? I feel paralyzed by a surfeit of options.

I have garnered a great deal of practical wisdom about the details of living, but I know next to nothing about why I should live, about why any of us should live. I’ve read various versions of a story that goes like this:

A monk falls off a cliff. He grabs a bush on the way down, but, as he hangs there, he sees that the bush is about to come out by its roots. However, the bush contains a plum, and the monk plucks that plum, and eats it. He thinks it might be the best plum he has ever tasted.

The trick is to believe that the plum matters, but does it? I don’t think “matters” is a quality that exists. Like beauty, it is a subjective valuation that has no reality in the external world. Instead of enjoying the plum, the monk might have spent his last moments in terror. The plum was more pleasant, but was it more important? What would make it more important?