I think there are two ways of approaching life. One is to make a connection with the world by becoming interested in some aspect of it. If you are like David Attenborough you will develop a life-long interest in nature. To do this your thoughts need to face outward towards the world.
The other way involves facing inwards towards yourself. For example, you might want to see yourself, and be seen by others, as the kind of person who is interested in nature. Here your mind is mainly on yourself, not on nature. You have one eye on nature, another in the mirror and a third on the cheering or jeering crowd. Three eyes!
It is hard to tell just from a person’s actions whether his general orientation is outward. Someone who works with the mentally handicapped may do so because he loves the work or because he thinks it reflects well upon him. One is kind, the other is vain but their actions are the same.
The same is true of all spheres of life. A miner working to get coal out of the ground develops strong muscles. These muscles come as a by-product of his work. Another person goes to the gym every day so as to build up his muscles. These muscles are not a by-product. They are the product. While the miner works on the world, the body-builder works on himself. The first is polished in use, the second polishes himself.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm – but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
I wouldn’t say that people who feign an interest in the outside world do harm. However, I would say that their ultimate project is to think well of themselves and to base your life around this goal strikes me as a bit pathetic. Thinking well of yourself, like happiness, should come as the result of living a good life, not as something to be aimed at directly. Trying to think well of yourself is like expecting a cart to pull a horse, or smoke to make fire. It’s all arse about face.
And it is not only the wrong way round but solipsistic. It’s like the potter also being the pot, the painter also being the painting. It is like a snake swallowing its own tail or disappearing up your own backside.
Bertrand Russell once remarked how the philosophical idea that everything happens, not out there in the world but in your own head, made him feel claustrophobic. When he finally became convinced that things really do happen out there in the world rather than just in the confines of his head, he felt like he had emerged from a cramped cell onto breezy, invigorating open headland. And although people who take themselves as the object of all their thoughts might not believe in Subjective Idealism, their mental universe does share something of the closed-in nature of that philosophical doctrine. It is only through our interests that we overcome our isolation and we finally breathe fresh air.
Of course, most interests are one-way affairs. For example, David Attenborough is fascinated by nature but nature is not at all interested in David Attenborough – unless it is trying to eat him. Though an interest in nature, stamps, astronomy, movies or anything else is a great thing, even better are interests of the two-way kind: you are interested in something and that something is interested in you. Usually this is a partner but it can also be a good friend – or your dog! It can be anything that is capable of reciprocating your interest. You are each helping the other escape his isolation.
To be ‘interested in someone’ in old-fashioned parlance means being a little in love with them and I like this idea. It is not romantically soppy but captures the essence of what love really is, namely a deep interest in someone (or something). Conversely, falling out of love with someone is losing interest in them.
People whose thoughts are pointed too often and too intensely inwards are stuck in a prison of their own making. Finding an engrossing interest would enable them to escape from the gravitational pull of their egos. Hence, only connect.