I’ve been reading that some people never grow up. I guess many of us live life one distraction after another, placating ourselves with momentary satisfactions while never achieving a meaningful grasp of what it means to be part of a whole pluralistic social structure. But then, coming to grips with existence is an ongoing dilemma for most of us I guess., egged on as we are into confronting the play-ground bully that is reality.
I’m thinking one explanation for our arrested development, at least in part, is a coddled existence: we take for granted not only basic needs but creature comforts that give us a sense of affluence and well-being to the extent that we question how it can be people are homeless and food insecure even though we are informed on a daily basis of human suffering throughout the world.
Well, it’s something to think about for those of us who have tended toward a little Peter Panishness on occasion. Reflection is never a bad thing.
While on a bike ride the other day, I got to thinking about an unpleasant event that occurred a couple of years ago while riding the same circuit I was currently on. The past event involved hitting a dog that bounded out of a ditch, crashing, getting back on my bike and proceeding along. The bump on my helmeted head was disorienting enough for me to forget where exactly I was going.
As I continued along what I then perceived to be my current ride I got to wondering whether, in fact, I didn’t make it home at all after the crash years ago: that everything I have supposedly experienced since the dire event is imagined, the product of my active brain within my comatose body. Suppose I then thought, that, in fact, I’m lying in a hospital bed intubated, attached to a feeding tube, my loved ones by my side debating when to pull the plug.
After I supposedly got home and supposedly took a shower, wondering how I could know for certain the nature of my existence, truth revealed itself. My imagination, I realized, is insufficient to conjure the occurrences reported in the nightly news.
It’s hard not to be a bit anxious these days, I guess: the dread disease the realities of pervasive systemic racism, political ineptitude, failing social structures have me despairing as I follow the daily news. I find myself positioned above an abyss within which lies a state of serious anxiety. (Well, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but it is dark in there.)
Anyway, I’ve been reading this new biography about the life of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard that seems pretty relevant to current dilemmas. Kierkegaard, it so happened, was deeply troubled. His personal insecurities had him thinking and writing a lot about anxiety, not the kind of anxiousness one has awaiting a dental appointment but a deep existential angst unbounded by time or place or context. He came to the realization that to survive one must proceed alone without expectation of support and embrace despair to fully grasp the gravity of life. Such a perspective, he thought, would relieve him of the illusions of unearned well-being and bring about deep inner understanding and peace.
This existential view acquired a lot of followers for a while, early to mid-20th century. The trying times of the Great Depression and two world wars, I suspect, made such a philosophy pretty palatable. K’s salvation though, the focus upon which he centered his being was Christianity. Embrace the absurd, he wrote, and take the leap into faith.
I guess what it all comes down to is finding that personal center of being.
I’ve been thinking lately that language is a limiting and essentially inadequate means of describing experience. (As I think about this it occurs to me I’ve probably thought this very thing before; in fact, I doubt I’ve had a truly original thought anytime recently).
Anyway, language may be the only way of describing experience, but the descriptions rendered no matter the mastery one may have of the written word will fall well short of sufficiently describing the color and complexities of sensual experience.
Roland Barthes, The late French literary theorist said that man does not exist prior to language. If I might be so bold as to contradict such a noted scholar, my experience suggests to me such an idea is nonsense. Such a statement would have to mean my colorful and complex sensual experiences can only occur to my conscious self in the form of language; that until language supervenes upon my colorful and complex sensual experiences that my most wonderful remembrances don’t exist.
But, then, maybe my memory is going, I am aging after all; brain cells are being lost. Still, the visual imagery is there and doesn’t seem to require captions. I’m thinking language is over-rated. It simply is unable to account for the ineffable.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination these days (for scifi buffs especially) to envision the collapse of civilization, an ensuing dark age in the not so distant future. For those suffering the hardships of living paycheck to paycheck when there isn’t one, a harsh reality has set in and shouldn’t be made light of. But for fans of apocalyptic literature a certain symmetry is to be found and acknowledged, if not enjoyed, as the various narratives and behaviors brought on by fear of the dreaded disease plays out.
The ever-present media coverage reveals incidents of hoarding of basic needs, stand-offs with armed militias, the spreading of deep-state conspiracies, but also compassion and self-sacrifice of many not the least of which are health-care workers. All these scenarios can be found in the best doomsday fiction. The zombie invasions of ‘World War Z’ come to mind as does the devastating epidemic in ‘The Stand’ and the cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. And then, after civilization’s total collapse, centuries pass and the remnants of the 21st century are discovered, archaeological artifacts, as in ‘A Canticle for Liebowitz’.
Such fictional story lines remain entertaining because, of course, no one really believes things will become all that dire. Maybe there’s a bit of cathartic relief, after all, in imagining how much worse things could be.
I’ve been finding myself, lately, in these days of social isolation, playing a lot of chess against a computer. As we become increasingly intimate, I find that I tend to assign a gender to him/her, usually him (am I sexist by nature?) as I attempt to counter his increasingly sophisticated attacks. I say increasingly because the program I’m using allows me to choose the level of expertise suited to my skill level and then, if I get competent enough, move up, allow him to use the abilities, and insights he holds back at the lower levels so as not to discourage me.
Well, it’s really algorithms isn’t it? For each of my moves the computer races through possible countermoves at blinding speed settling on the one that will be optimally successful, never getting tired or bored or losing focus. When I occasionally happen on a favorable advantage, he patiently plays it out rather than resign allowing me to realize a rare win. It makes him seem almost likeable.
I’m finding playing the game an intriguing way to pass the time these days but as I think about it it’s also kind of sad that a program on my laptop can almost replace social contact.
I’ve been reading, lately, about the extreme self-denial, masochistic behaviors really, some of the early Christians imposed upon themselves believing they could atone for their inherent sinfulness and bring them closer to God. In the third century the apparent suffering of choice was to walk off into the desert without food or water in the hopes that denial of basic human needs would gain them a foot up toward heavenly rewards, which, I suspect, they were looking forward to sooner rather than later. There were other ascetics, the Stylites, who tied themselves atop pillars where some of them would stand for years (really!) while their muscles atrophied, hoping to be swept upward when the rapture happened.
Well, such extremes didn’t work for everyone. There were many men and women who wished to gain spiritual acceptance by denying the needs of the flesh but only up to a point. Monasticism provided opportunity to practice a humble, ascetic life of obedience, gain mutual support from their fellow monks or nuns and engage in service to community as they knew God would want them to do.
Such an organization required a rigid structure, though, rules to help everyone maintain the necessary austerity such a life demanded. There was little room for self-expression or individuality; thinking for oneself was pretty much out of the question. Even those faithful individuals not inclined toward the monastic life understood the sacred duties of denial and following the dictates of the church.
Such behavior, it’s been credibly suggested, can account, at least in part for the Dark Ages lasting for 1000 years.
I’ve been reading that one’s social affiliation is the primary determiner of the position one assumes regarding the hot-button issues of the day. Well, maybe not everyone’s, but the suggestion is that a political stance is determined to a great extent by social relations, how one identifies with those around her: a kind of in-group, tribal association that leads to consumption and regurgitation of the appropriate sound-bites consistent with the ‘correct’ political view.
To support such a perspective my very credible source suggests that, when questioned, most on the political fringes (which now make up around 40% of the electorate) have little knowledge of the nuances of the issues: global warming, health-care for all, world trading agreements, capitalistic regulation, the social safety-net, the plight of immigrants are all seen through the lens of political bias; which accounts, pretty much, for the divisiveness in the contemporary social dialogue: each side demonizing the other aided and abetted by profit-seeking punditry.
So, I guess the question is, how to discourage unreasoned dogmatic belief and encourage critical thinking: thinking carefully about both sides of issues and side-stepping political flashpoints. It may fall to the younger generations to re-find enlightened thinking. Their power is growing after all, funeral by funeral.
I’ve been wondering, lately, about the public discourse with its multiple narratives, each of which attempting to rationalize and validate perspectives of what was, is and eventually will be.
These conflicting views that are clearly apparent in the political and religious realms are adhered to sometimes vehemently and with little room for compromise, the facts offered in support varying according to the narrative embraced. Support for the facts appears pretty flexible, based on political expediency or scriptural sources that have evolved over the centuries to accommodate changing world views.
So, without any sort of absolute truth I guess one’s preferred philosophical beliefs must derive from some sort of intuition: an intuitive sense of the social milieu and one’s personal stake in it all. In the interests of a sustainable future I can only hope that more than a few of us choose a humanistic perspective in support of our fellow man.
I was just wondering the other day about the idea of cryogenic freezing, what it’d be like to be thawed in a hundred years or so, whether I’d have any sense at all of the nature of things, how to function in that future time (if indeed mankind survives that long). Given the effort required to keep up with information technologies from year to year, here and now, I’ve a feeling that future century would be pretty mind-blowing.
Our, well, your descendants might even have devised a way to interrupt physical degeneration; immortality might be on the table. An intriguing thought, that, even though the reality of ever-lasting life would take a lot of the excitement away from our current tenuous daily existence, be boring even. I wonder if all those of religious faith out there realize what they’re hoping for.