Eternal Optimism

I’ve been reading, lately, about the primary concepts of Stoicism. Among them is premeditatio malorum, which means, I guess, to ponder potential ills in order to keep in mind that bad things may occur at any time to prepare one for the eventual worst-case scenarios that life may impose. The idea seems to be that by living under a slightly dark cloud, one isn’t surprised and overwhelmed when bad things occur.

The concept seems counter-intuitive to the naïve paean to eternal optimism: “things could always be worse” which most of us intone pretty much all the time, even through the pain of the oppressive pandemic. The notion reminds me of Voltaire’s satirical ‘Candide’ where the eternal optimist Pangloss maintains we live in the “best of all possible worlds” even as one terrible event after another fall upon our hero.

But, there are other important Stoic concepts to keep in mind like starting each day with a morning meditation, ending each day in reflection, practicing moderation in all things, speaking less and thinking more among them. All of which suggests Stoic practice has many benefits even if eternal optimism isn’t among them.

A Richer Existence

I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.

As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.

But, says the professor, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.

I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded spirituality.

A Richer Existence

I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.

As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.

But, he says, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.

I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded spirituality.

Leaps into Freedom

I’ve been reading about some of the deep thinkers of the early 20th century, how they struggled to come to grips with the tumultuous uncertainty of the time. Clearly, the 1920’s must have been difficult: the western world had just endured a devastating world war that put question to the very value of human life. The dissolution of long held beliefs brought about by Darwin’s theories of evolution 20 years earlier had serious religious implications for many and Einstein’s relativity theory upset the belief that time and space were fixed entities.

So, the philosophical search was on to find a grounded reality. Questions abounded: What lies within the bounds of knowable truth? How does language determine what can be thought? How do social norms repress spirit? In various ways a common thought occurred to these brilliant thinkers: In order for man to rise above the moral and spiritual ennui of the times he must muster the courage to intellectually move beyond, to take the leap into the freedom of personal choice without any assumption of reward, earthly or heavenly, expecting nothing and assuming total responsibility for one’s existence. Setting aside the false assumptions brought about by the mythical thinking embedded in language will lead one to realize a truly authentic life: to being one’s true self.

How exciting it must have been for those who dared take the leap beyond conventional foundations, accepting one’s existence fully in place and time, realizing the freedom of personal responsibility. The headiness of absolute personal freedom, I suspect, was eventually tempered by the need for close relationships and the giving they require.

Beauty in Death

I’m finding the transformation of nature this time of year breathtaking. The vibrancy and variety of colors transforms the environment so dramatically my visual surroundings become something totally other, so changed, that, on a walk in the woods, I find myself someplace unrecognizable as if it were another world.

Nature though is dying, she is in the throes of death, breathing a last gasp as she fades into dormancy. In another month these woods will appear dead, reduced to subdued browns and grays. They will have been abandoned by songbirds and hibernating animals. There will be little to suggest there is any life existing here at all. The death of nature will, of course, eventually transition into a sort of rebirth or at least a regeneration of life as the seasons advance.

What makes nature’s metaphorical death so unique is the flair, the exuberant celebration of finality she displays. Such an enthusiastic embrace of physical demise doesn’t seem to follow for the animal world except, perhaps, for certain humans convinced they too will be reborn in the spring.

Either/Or

In his masterpiece Either/Or Soren Kierkegaard contrasts the moral relativity of the aesthete ‘A’ with the clearly defined moral values of the ethicist Judge Wilhelm. ‘A’ revels in seduction, he pursues women, is attracted to the young, innocent and beautiful girl, whose total commitment he gains through devious manipulation. Then, though, once the quarry is won, interest is lost. The ethicist judge castigates ‘A’ for so shallow a behavior informing him he doesn’t understand the significance of a deep personal relationship, that love and duty to a first love produces a deep bond and a constantly renewing true aesthetic relationship.

It seems pretty clear that K. sees himself in both characters: the break-up with his once betrothed Regine on the one hand and his obsession with the moral rigidity of the pietist religion he was brought up to revere. There’s little doubt he experienced serious psychological conflict that eventually resulted in a ‘leap into the absurd’, a total embrace of Christianity.

I must admit I can’t relate to K’s situation but he does do a really good job of getting me to focus attention on my own personal existential self.

A Story of a Boy

In the summer of his 12th year this boy and his friends were introduced to musical instruments. They were being groomed for eventual inclusion into the high school band. In his small-town competition wasn’t an issue. Bodies were needed, so by the time these kids reached 7th grade or so it was assumed most of them, if they stayed with it, would take their places beside the high schoolers in the concert band.

That same summer this boy’s best friend’s brother, on the very day he got his driver’s license was given the keys to the family ’52 Chevrolet and he (the boy) and his friend were invited to ride along, to share in the experience of new found freedom. The country roads near their hometown were wash board, loose gravel and narrow, under constant grading that pushed up gravel ridges that made the roads even narrower. Five miles or so into their ride the car began to swerve having edged into the gravel windrow on the side of the road, overcorrected, swerved again, jumped the gravel ridge, down into the ditch and struck a driveway abutment. For some reason beyond memory the boy was given the honor of riding ‘shotgun’ next to the driver while his friend sat in the back seat. The immediate interruption of forward momentum was unfortunately restricted only to the car. The boy, having struck the dashboard with his face was suddenly aware of no longer having any front teeth.

Anyway, the big deal that summer for the boy and his friends was getting a band instrument. Everyone wanted trumpets. The consensus was this was clearly a masculine choice, the girls opting for clarinets or flutes for reasons similarly relating to gender orientation. It soon became obvious that the lip strength it took to produce sound through a brass mouthpiece without supporting front teeth was a non-starter, as far as becoming a member of the brass section was concerned. After the months of anticipation, the letdown was significant. The boy envied his friends for awhile until he was introduced to an Instrument that didn’t require a strong embouchure. He became the proud possessor of an alto saxophone that he soon came to realize was, strictly from a physical standpoint an instrument quite superior, aesthetically speaking, to the trumpet.

Unfamiliar Territory

The unsettling events of recent months that have brought us to what we are led to believe is a ‘new normal’ have provided me glimpses into unfamiliar territory. It’s not, of course, that the basic lay of the land or its population of warm-blooded inhabitants are any different than they were last year, but I find myself drifting into uncharted psychological waters.

The restrictions that we have necessarily imposed upon ourselves, cautions about travel and social gatherings, seem to have spawned new realizations, subtle perspectives: not exactly epiphanies, I suppose, but unfamiliar mental states I find to be quite interesting and pleasant. These brief insights have led me to the thought that I have lived most of my life in a limited world, a fairly tightly bounded universe.

Well, while I find it unlikely I will have any great experiential happenings in my foreseeable future I do find these occasional brief glimpses into the unknown refreshing.

Dark Times

So, here I am, driving down the road, seeking respite from oppressive reality. I headed off because I find I’m losing focus. The demons are arising, assuming identities of normally empathetic or at least innocuous friends and acquaintances. I’m traveling to a remote location without phone towers let alone wifi; no news for a few days can only be a good thing in my state of mind.

As I pass through unknown small towns and pastoral farmlands, I fantasize carefree and peaceful existences. Such distraction, I know, will only be momentary. What I need to do is reestablish my center of being, the stable base I know is there somewhere. I must find focus to embrace the eternal ‘Now’.

And now, here I sit before gently lapping waters. My surroundings are incredibly peaceful. The quiet is exhilarating. I find it amazing how a simple short getaway can be so immediately rejuvenating. I will try, in the future, to remember to seek out the healing powers of nature.

The Walking Dead

Heading to Arizona as I am, masked, buying gas at the pump, maintaining a safe distance from others, in constant use of antibacterial wipes, eating in my car I feel pretty safe although people in the streets stare, seem suspicious and I speed by them. The recent health scare, the pandemic, has me thinking of ‘The Walking Dead’, you know, the TV series in which a few stalwart survivors find themselves in constant danger, being pursued by the ravenous infected hoards. Civilization has collapsed and our heroes are on constant lookout for temporary safe havens and stores of canned goods on which to survive.

I really don’t think civilization is in danger of imminent collapse, but my journey has taken on an air of excitement (trepidation?) and as someone of advanced age I’m led to believe my very mortality may be at risk. If you don’t hear from me next week you might possibly suspect the worst: I may be quarantined in a senior retirement community.