The Choices We Make

What do you believe, what do you believe, what do you believe is true?

— Midnight Oil, “Power and the Passion”

I’m going to take a brief break from the usually lighthearted tone of this blog and link to a post written by Sky, a friend of mine from Perth: “My trusty teaspoon”. Go on, click the link and read it; this post will still be here when you come back. It’s not actually about teaspoons, and I suspect a few of my regular readers will find it interesting. It’s good to remind oneself every now and again about what you believe in, and how the way you live your life reflects that. I especially like Sky’s sentence, “What I want is a world that is more caring, more interesting, more beautiful than what we have now, and I think that world exists in the cracks, here, now.”

Looking at my own life, my lifestyle choices aren’t quite as directly influenced by my philosophical and political beliefs and Sky’s, but there are a few examples. Encouragingly, some of these are recent decisions. I’m a vegetarian, for both environmental and animal welfare reasons, and have been for three and a half years now. At the moment, I don’t own a car, which I’m considering a bit of an experiment—but so far, there have been very few occasions when I’ve wanted one here in inner Melbourne. I won’t pretend that that’s purely an ethical decision; saving money was a big concern, too. Then again, in a capitalist society, how we obtain and spend money is one of the biggest choices we have available to us.

I’ve been trying to trying to change my own attitudes a little: realising that contrary to the implicit values of our society and what advertisers would have us believe, sometimes you can have enough and don’t need to continually aim for perfection in every aspect of life. I may be studying the mathematics of optimisation, but treating life as an optimisation problem doesn’t lead to happiness and it doesn’t lead to being a fun person to be around. A while ago, I read the book Enough by Patrick Rhone which expresses this view quite cogently, although by the time I found the book it was a concept that I’d already stumbled upon by other means. The book doesn’t present any brand-new ideas, but it does nicely explain a whole lot of different ideas relating to its general theme. This way of thinking also fits nicely with the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence which also intrigues me. It’s something I’ve contemplated quite a bit, especially after travelling through areas of India and Nepal with substantial Tibetan Buddhist populations.

The biggest life decision I’ve made recently was the choice to leave full-time employment in the oil industry, travel the world for a while and then return to university to do a Masters degree in mathematics. Travelling has reinforced the idea that whatever work I end up doing, I want it to be something where I feel like I’m making the world a better place in some small way. There are definitely applications of mathematics in humanitarian work, e.g. improving logistics for disaster response, and also to improving our environmental impact. Perhaps I’m a overly optimistic that I’ll be able to find work in these areas, but it seems crazy not to pursue those possibilities while I can.


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