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No Instruction Manual -- Writer's Poke #382

At the end of Chapter 2 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes, “We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.” Now, assume for a moment that “motorcycle maintenance” is a metaphor for life. How do people live? By a instruction manual? Can an instruction manual teach caring?

Granted, some people may claim that an “instruction manual” for living exists, but does any written document really explain how to live a purposeful life? And, how do people use the written documents they claim as “life’s instruction manual”?

Pirsig’s friend John is dependent on his instruction manual. He doesn’t know his motorcycle, and therefore, he falls back on what the manual tells him to do. He doesn’t have the ability to deviate from the manual. He assumes the manual is 100% accurate, and if Robert offers advice, John refuses to take it. Moreover, he refuses to learn. In essence, the manual stunts his growth and understanding about motorcycles. Again, think about if the discussion is about really about life and not motorcycles.

Have we lost the ability to examine our own lives? I had a conversation with a friend recently, and she said she has been exposed to an instruction manual her entire life. Not surprisingly, she strongly believes that her children should be exposed to the same instruction manual. Why? I asked. Can your children really understand the instructions? Is providing them the manual too early crushing their ability to develop their skills divergent thinkers? Can early exposure to a manual kill free will? I don’t believe that she understood my concern, and I don’t think she valued the concept of divergent thinking. For her, it was all there in the manual, and thus, she didn’t need to worry about alternatives or asking questions or even thinking for herself, or allowing her children the privilege. In my view, however, she is little different from John, who doesn’t know his own motorcycle.

Is life the journey or the destination? Often times, people will admit that it is the journey that counts, and this is the philosophy that Pirsig subscribes to as well. Are people that rely on a manual of instructions too preoccupied with the “destination”? Not necessarily, but based on my own personal experience, it does seem to be more likely.

What are your thoughts on instruction manuals for living? Do you agree or disagree with Pirsig on their possible limitations?

“I hate having to read the manual.” – Trevor Horn


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