It is another perfect day in the desert. It’s early still, six o’clock, and the day is pregnant with possibilities. I read my mails, scan Facebook. It is a more remarkable day than usual. Today I turn 31. Lots of messages of congratulations and well wishes. I really appreciate each of these, take time to think about each friend. When did we last speak, have a drink or dinner, laugh together?
31 is a special number for me. It happens to be a combination of my two favourite numbers, 3 and 1. Like most habits, I don’t know when it started. It happened to be my first-year room number in Eendrag. In the off chance that I play roulette, I always bet on 31. Mostly I lose, but I remember the one time it actually won me something. When the world was my oyster, it was also the name of my fictional company – Group31. I think the plan was to own 31 farms across South Africa and Africa. Yes, farms. A tourist-farm where visitors can enjoy the delights of rural living while the farms, each carefully selected for its diversity of produce and experiences, produce organic goods for the top-end of the retail market. Or Hotels31, with boutique hotels in my favourite university towns; Utrecht, Coimbra, Geneva (photo), Lund, Tuebingen. Or Books31, because, well, it’s books.
31 is also the division, for me at least, between young and old. It is complete fabrication, I know. I’m in no way more older from yesterday to today, than from two days ago to yesterday. But it does feel as if I’ve turned a corner. My body is less malleable; training and running will only make marginal differences from now on. My future is less malleable. At school, I used to play a game where I would imagine five different futures: Johan the jet-setting businessman, Johan the publisher, Johan the history teacher, Johan the architect, Johan the Protea cricketer (don’t laugh). Aside from the small issue of talent, those were all potential options for teenager Johan. Not any more (although I still harbour a faint hope that somehow I’ll discover a new variation of spin-bowling that will catapult me into cricketing stardom).
So what determined that I now teach, do research and write a weekly blog? I don’t know. It was never just one decision. I never decided to do this. It happened, but also not in a fatalistic, deterministic sense. It happened through the cumulative effects of millions of tiny, every-day decisions. Yes, some were bigger: my choice of university programme certainly influenced my future options, or my choice of where to apply for jobs, and whom to marry. But these bigger decisions, I would argue, were contingent on many smaller, earlier decisions. Take my PhD, for example. Had I not met Jan Luiten van Zanden at a Social Science History conference in Lisbon, where we happened to be at the same meeting for economists, and, if several months earlier, I had not come across a link to the conference website while browsing online, and a few months before that happened to find a dataset that intrigued me (a dataset I wasn’t searching for), Utrecht would have been nothing more than a pretty Dutch town. And so on, and so on.
Life is a happenstance of uncoordinated decisions. The bigger ones we tend to overthink: we try to analyse the costs and benefits much like an accountant balances books. I think these ‘decisions’ are overrated. The smaller ones, the ones we make without thinking about it, are sometimes vastly more important. The future, then, is the outcome of thousands of small decisions, each the result of an earlier one. Like sending that last-minute email – Drink jy koffie? – to the girl that would later become my wife. Or the smile, only visible for an instant, that made me send that email.
And yet, we don’t celebrate these little decisions. We often don’t even take notice. We tend to live from one special event to the next – birthdays, anniversaries, business targets, sport milestones – all the while forgetting that life is in the detail. We may have big plans, dreams, aspirations, and that is certainly not a bad thing. But, now that I’ve moved through my proverbial veil of ignorance, perhaps I understand better what Paul Cilliers meant when he urged us to ‘make every act in one’s daily life a quality act’. Note the difference between ‘Enjoy every moment’, the cliched phrase of Supersport commercials, and ‘Make every act a quality act’. Not all moments are enjoyable; I certainly don’t enjoy washing dishes. But the next time I watch cricket with buddies, talk to students, walk to work, or, as Cilliers recommends, eat an egg, I’ll try to rush it a little less, to occupy the moment a little more. Because, to quote another famous 20th century philosopher, you never know what you gonna get.
Being in Tucson, we don’t have big plans for today. I’ll miss watching the Boks play Wales. Instead, I’ll attend my first game of American Football; it is Homecoming weekend here and, thanks to Price Fishback, Helanya and I have tickets to the big game between UofA and UCLA tonight. I can’t see how this will help me reach the goals I’ve set myself. Or help me realise those disillusioned dreams.
Instead, it promises four hours of fun and laughter. Perfect.