MONDAY, 5 JULY 2004
“The Personal Agenda of Brand Smit” is a collection of more than 100 pieces dealing with one person’s ideas of what it means to exist, what humans need to survive and to function relatively successfully in the modern world, and what it may mean to be “happy”.
The material is rooted in my own life for the simple reason that I used myself as chief test subject – because there is no one that I know better than myself. The fact that it is autobiographical does not imply that I think my life is, or has so far been more interesting than other people’s lives – the opposite is most probably closer to the truth.
Especially the last five years of my life [1999 to 2004] have for several reasons been conducive to asking certain questions about my own life, coming up with a few answers, and to identifying certain principles on what a “happy” life may possibly involve. I believe that these things can be relevant for other people who also want to answer the question of what it means to them to exist.
The book deals with the following scenario: After graduating from high school a man went to university where he earned a degree in the so-called social sciences. In addition to knowledge and insight gained – which would prove to come in handy later on – he also managed to accumulate thousands of rands in student debt. He always knew he would have to take responsibility for this debt – his parents have been engaged in their own struggle for financial survival for years.
After graduating from university he did not try very hard to look for a job of any kind in his own country, for reasons he could only briefly formulate at the time. Eighteen months after he had attained his final tertiary qualification, he went to South Korea to earn money as an English teacher. After two years he returned to South Africa, and made a heroic but totally unsuccessful attempt to join a more conventional flow of existence. Eight months later he returned to Northeast Asia. For the past five years he has been living on the island of Taiwan.
The main protagonist of this story is now in his early thirties. He owns no property. He does not own a car. He is not married, and he has no children. He is not currently involved in an intimate relationship. He is thousands of kilometres away from his closest relatives – whom he misses very much, and from the land of his birth. He has not saved a significant amount of money, and he continues to pay his student debt – albeit rather slowly.
Yet this man is relatively pleased with himself. Why? “The Personal Agenda of Brand Smit” attempts to lay out the reasons.
A young man is walking through the Gallery of Adult Lives. He is looking with a degree of bemusement at the exhibit that shows how many adults spend their time on earth. He sees the work that people do, the houses, the children, the annual vacations, family gatherings and so on.
Through all the rooms and hallways full of portraits he gets what he believes is a balanced view of the good times and some challenging times that probably await him too.
However, it is the work that adults do that really gets his attention. A few so-called careers seem to him somewhat impressive, but his predominant impression is, “Jeepers, don’t these people die of boredom?!” So he continues to the next exhibit of professions. “Wow,” he’ll think to himself, “I cannot imagine that people do these things every day of their lives until they’re old!” Then he will go through a few more rooms. “Good heavens!” he would say out loud. “How can anyone expect people to do such tedious work?”
Eventually the curator of the gallery gets tired of these rude outbursts. “Young man,” he scolds him, “people do most of these jobs not because they enjoy doing them. They do it for the money. Didn’t your parents tell you that you will also one day have to earn an income?”
Slowly but surely it dawns on him that people earn money to afford homes, cars, clothes, food, holidays at the sea, toys for children, and things like magazines and daily newspapers. He also realises that some people get really old, and if they cannot earn an income any longer, they have to live on money they had saved during the years they did work.
Nevertheless, he could still not escape the thought that he can think of many better ways to spend his time. He does not have a problem with the idea of working; it is just that he can think of many other examples of work that will be much more exciting, work that will give him a sense that how he spends eight-plus hours a day is worth more than monetary compensation. He also believes that he can devote himself much more easily to this other work on which he can spend forty hours or more per week.
The young man then expresses these thoughts to the curator. The curator again rises from his chair and with a finger wagging furiously in the air shouts at the man. “That work does not give you enough money for a house and a car and food and clothing and holidays and toys and medicine and weekly magazines! Do you not understand? From what planet are you …”
By the time the man exchanges the musty, cold rooms for fresh air and sunshine, he feels a little panicky. He understands the whole story of making money and getting older and so on, but why does he not see his future in images similar to those in the exhibits? And how on earth could he be in opposition if it is such a great gallery, with so many portraits, and so many people who live their lives according to these customs?
Who is he to think that he can try something else?
It is like a bicycle lock, or a safe. You turn the lock to a number, and something clicks in place. Then you turn it to another number, and again something clicks. Again you turn the little wheel, and again something falls into place. After all the teeth have moved into the right grooves, the lock or the safe door opens and you can continue with your life.
I am just an ordinary person. I have the same basic structure as everyone else, and just like everyone has slightly different “codes” so mine is also relatively unique. But the result is usually the same: Everything falls into place, the door opens, and you step inside.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that my vault door has not opened yet. It may rather be a case that the door has in fact swung open but I have chosen until now to remain outside, to examine the door, to study the lock mechanism, and to observe other people who go through the same process of “insight” into the life of an adult person, and “now I know what I must do”.
It may also turn out at the end that my tendency to question everything is my unique “code”. What should have fallen into place have already occurred. I may already have entered – or climbed on the proverbial bicycle, and I may in fact be doing the exact job I was always supposed to do.