For a friend of mine at the time,
who took one path, me another
Sitting in front of the Aux Deux Marie café (which closed in 2014, after twenty years, because of a greedy owner), I observe a regular who performs his daily ritual of crossword puzzles—a venom swallowed in small doses empties existence of all meaning.
Around 120 BC, when decision-makers were usually being murdered by poison, King Mithridates VI decided to ingest small doses of various poisons daily to build up a tolerance, so that when the day came of his own attempted assassination, he would be ready. In other words, he poisoned himself in a civilized way in case others dared to do so barbarically.
The legend reminds me of how through our mechanized habit of passing time, we conjure up the boredom, of which, we ingest in small doses in preparation of some distant death threat. I remember an old friend of mine, Robert, who would occasionally tease the crossword puzzles of a local paper—not to kill time, (a strange expression in itself), but as a challenge to outwit the designer’s cunningness. Robert did not like the small words that the puzzle weaver would encrypt, in not so thoughtful a manner. No, Robert wanted to unmask the long words. He’d only use the weaver’s small words to test his findings but never wrote them down. Imagine the effect, when one came across the crossword—with only the long words visible, and the small words left blank. Classy.
A Pandora’s Box of Chocolates
And suddenly it came back to me. I and Robert had been talking about drug use, about its moderation and abuse. Robert was already a bit drunk that evening. He presented me with a quiz, part of which is outlined below.
Suppose you have a box of Magic Smarties. And this box contains a certain amount of chocolates of various colours. Depending on the colour, each one would give you some happiness for a limited time. A pink one would bring you the feeling of a love encounter related to a specific season—summer, winter, spring or fall; a yellow one—a sense of non-negligible and unforeseen monetary gain; the brown one would generate a sense of success at work for the next three months, while the purple one would offer up a euphoric but lucid state of mind, and so on, with the remaining colours generating various but limited forms of happiness. The only exceptions would be the red ones which would offer up a unique advantage to all the other colours—a combined effect of several colours at the same time (yellow, pink, blue and purple, for example). Of course, the size of the smarties’ box that we’re talking about is the big-box format you find at the movies, not the small convenience store size.
Since the smarties are not drugs, there’s no downside to taking them (it’s written on the box, let’s say). However, without necessarily being unhappy, sick, or unlucky, you won’t have similar joys outside these privileged times generated by the smarties. You’ll have to make do with the little crossword puzzle-like life with its little moments of ordinary happiness.
The deals offered by the gods: true love, becoming a millionaire, winning the Oscar, or the Stanley cup, are more akin to winning a lottery. It happens, but only to people, we don’t know. But with the Magic Smarties, it’s simple. Everybody wins a box. The idiot, as well as the geek, the poor, as well as the rich, the star, as well as the working stiff.
But each is entitled to only one box.
What are you doing with your box? We could apply this question just as easily to the consumption of drugs used for medications, or regarding our vacations, or with procrastination, the use of credit, with sex, or when playing games or watching reality television. But due to limitations such as money, time, capacity, or accessibility, we, more often than not, assuage our choices. However, formulated in myth, the box of smarties hypothesis can be analyzed to its limit, to the level of the gods, in all its purity.
Numerous possibilities came to mind. But it was Robert’s next question directed to me took me by surprise:
“So, what would you do with your smarties?”
A relevant question for which I did not have a relevant answer. I figured; Robert would probably eat his whole box quickly. But what would you do? Would you save the red ones for last?
Between Zero and Infinity
I decided to complicate the possibilities. Let’s say, eating two smarties of the same colour would increase the effect and the duration: 1 + 1 = 2.5. Or imagine, taking three would generate something like a 1+1+1=4 effect. You could also mix the colours: a yellow and brown one, to marry money and career more efficiently (a 2.5). Then imagine the effect of adding the red ones to the equation.
So how would you use your smarties? Are you going to be prudent and stretch your moments of grace for a spotless life; or will you be a shooting star?
Some will make up a game plan. For example, social success first, then love, or the other way around. There will surely also be phone apps on how to (optimally) manage your happiness capital (with options and presentations by an existential bank manager on Youtube). As a result, you may experience maximum happiness (zero-slope, a mathematician would say) surrounded by many humans living similar moments. We call that a generation.
You could nuclearize your happiness by joining a group. It’s common with showbiz, politics, cults and organized crime. You could go online via the Web, searching for offers from others wanting to exchange their least favourite colours for yours.
Would you risk your colours in a game of poker, hoping to win the happiness of others? Perhaps you would even try to sell them at exorbitant prices (defying the gods by pretending to be happy on your own)? Maybe you’ll hoard them like a miser, making sure you don’t run out. Or keep them till your old age as a good annuitant? Or decide to keep a few as part of your inheritance.
Some would perhaps eat them greedily similar to a drug addict, panicking at the news of a lull? Perhaps you’d swallow them all at one go, as an extreme exercise in life (such as in the concept of Totality, that Jean-François Lyotard discusses in his book, The Postmodern). You’d most likely get a maximum Himalayan effect, but nothing afterwards (but afterwards is negotiable, as the writers Romain Gary or Ernest Hemingway would argue). Or pass your life like a rock star (dying young, then being capitalized by the system, if I were to believe the details in Black Sabbath‘s biography or Virginie Despentes‘ novel, Vernon Subutex).
Knowing how we behave in this borderline situation means understanding our conception of happiness and life. It also allows us to grasp the hell in which any drug addict or inveterate gambler, lives—once his box is empty. Because life, in the end, can become a poisoned gift.