Thursday, March 1, 2012

So long, and thanks for all the fish...

"This is the end, beautiful friend...the end." Jim Morrison

"And then we came to the end." Joshua Ferris

"Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs." Philip Larkin

Attachments, we have come to believe, are the ultimate curse. As Tyler Durden so eloquently put it, "The things you own...end up owning you." And to what are we more attached than identity? Indeed, our very existence is a never-ending slog to preserve this fantasy, that our thoughts and actions "matter" in some external sense, and thus our life is not some flyspeck of nothingness in an uncaring infinite void, but rather a purposeful, meaningful exercise that makes some contribution, however small, to the betterment of...something.

What a load of crap.

The funny thing is, no matter how much we (or others) rail against this insanity, the very act of living by definition counteracts our words. For the actions we take to survive are simply not compatible with the belief that nothing matters. Eating, drinking, seeking shelter (to say nothing of procreating) - all presuppose the world is better off with us in it than not. Why choose to eat over not eating? Well, we would die. And?

We have enjoyed our time, nevertheless, and would like to say thanks to the members of this blog for helping us explore these thoughts. (Well, most members...) While Bomstein and Montoya will be no more, we will leave the blog - our own little slice of immortality!

To quote Patrick Swayze--we'll see you in the next life!

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Trouble With "I"

"Of things some are in our power, and others are not."--Epictetus

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the absurd is its capacity to grant one absolute power over one's emotions.

Think about that for a minute. Absolute power. Sounds fantastic. And indeed, we used to laugh off even the prospect of such a thing. For example, many years ago we read of a study that asked people to rate how satisfied they were with their life on a scale of 1 to 10, and were amazed that some people...answered "10"! What, we wondered, was their secret? Were they all married to supermodels? Lottery winners? Preternaturally-gifted athletes?

We were literally flummoxed as to how anyone could be completely satisfied with his life. Was there nothing these people regretted? No path they wished they had (or hadn't) taken? No loves that got away? How could everything have turned out exactly as they wanted?

The answer, of course, is to focus on what is. This was the genius of the Stoics, who made the critical distinction between things in one's control (a remarkably short list, mainly having to do with one's mental state), and everything else, including our bodies, possessions, and "success." Unfortunately, the vast majority of people worry far more about the latter group.

It sounds trite, but the truth is that anyone can be satisfied with his current lot in life. Anyone. (Yes, Occupiers, even you!) The great lie of humanity is that things (possessions, experiences, relationships) make one happy; in fact, it is quite the opposite. For once one cedes contentment to external forces, the game is lost.

By contrast, he who accepts his current condition...has already won.

The paradox of the I is that this illusion, which drives people to "great" things (Steve Jobs may have fashioned himself a Buddhist, but he was awfully concerned with his legacy), is also responsible for the unhappiness and emptiness felt by so many. It is the I that wants, that desires, that is never satisfied for more than a moment, no matter what the circumstance. By contrast, for one who can view himself objectively, as not only one human among seven billion, but one temporary arrangement of atoms among an infinite number...well, let's just say life's struggles are a bit easier to bear.

On a side note, we have been alternately amused and saddened by those who sling invective at us for our presumed "success," and how it, and it alone, must explain our relaxed view on the world. Our favorite was the recent commenter who exhorted us to "pass the caviar!"

To borrow a phrase...let us be perfectly clear. The true irony of the Occupy movement is that by demanding a more equal distribution of wealth, Occupiers tacitly accept the premise that more "stuff" is the key to happiness. Said a different way, those who presume to throw off the shackles of giant corporations and the culture of consumption...have unwittingly locked the chains!

Regardless of your current status in life, we guarantee you there are many miserable people with "more" (possessions, friends, or lovers), and fully contented people with less.

Until next time...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

To be...or not to be?

We apologize profusely for our two-month post drought. No--the world has not become less absurd...but perhaps we have become even lazier (who would have thought it possible!). With that in mind--and because we so often find that things we discover and find revolutionary...have generally been said better by others before us--this post has been shamelessly lifted from the inestimable Walker Percy, whose novel The Moviegoer we just finished (and highly recommend).

Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression.
By Walker Percy

The only cure for depression is suicide.
This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it.

The treatment of depression requires a reversal of the usual therapeutic rationale. The therapeutic rationale, which has never been questioned, is that depression is a symptom. A symptom implies an illness; there is something wrong with you. An illness should be treated.

Suppose you are depressed. You may be mildly or seriously depressed, clinically depressed, or suicidal. What do you usually do? Or what does one do with you? Do nothing or something. If something, what is done is always based on the premise that something is wrong with you and therefore it should be remedied. You are treated. You apply to friend, counselor, physician, minister, group. You take a trip, take anti-depressant drugs, change jobs, change wife or husband or "sexual partner."

Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption.

Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth--and who are luckily exempt from depression--would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age--more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you'd be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?

Now consider, not the usual therapeutic approach, but a more ancient and honorable alternative, the Roman option. I do not care for life in this deranged world, it is not an honorable way to live; therefore, like Cato, I take my leave. Or, as Ivan said to God in The Brothers Karamazov: if you exist, I respectfully return my ticket.

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be less painfully, either by counseling, narcotizing, boozing, groupizing, womanizing, man-hopping, or changing your sexual preference.

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable, after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you go on the green tapes and that's the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can't believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders who, it turns out, are themselves worried sick--over what? Over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.

And you, an ex-suicide, lying on the beach? In what way have you been freed by the serious entertainment of your hypothetical suicide? Are you not free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the cosmic mystery of your own existence? And even to consider which is the more absurd state of affairs, the manifest absurdity of your predicament:lost in the Cosmos and no news of how you got into such a fix or how to get out--or the even more preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o'clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn't have to.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Trouble With Prosperity

Unlike birds, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds."--W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

As our day job is in the financial markets, we have spent the past several months watching the slow-motion train wreck in Europe with a mix of fascination and bemusement. (If you are wondering how we can possibly find such a difficult situation "bemusing," well...welcome to our blog!) Indeed, it is not just the Europe debacle we find interesting, but also the "Occupy" camps that have sprung up around the world.

We find ourselves can so many current human beings, the majority of whom (particularly in the developed world) have luxuries unimaginable to the richest kings of a few centuries ago, be so unhappy? How do we square the unprecedented abundance of "stuff" with increased angst...and even anger? We read a story this morning of a well-paid US financial advisor who got so far in over his head (even as he advised others on what to do with their money) that he couldn't figure out how to get "connected to the simple ordinary stuff of my family’s life." Meanwhile, one of the more surreal quotes we have seen from the Occupy protests featured a protester angry about her $5500 laptop being stolen. (We were not even aware such an expensive machine existed...)

Again, the question is it that the most privileged group of creatures in the history of this so freaking unhappy?!? Consider that up until about 100 years ago, humans did without electricity, medical care, mechanized transportation, and any sort of safe food delivery system. Human life was indeed "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Forgot about iPhones--for the vast majority of humans, life was, as it remains for other animals, a constant struggle for survival, preoccupied exclusively with acquiring food and protecting oneself from predators.

Had you queried such people about the prospect of a world where food is not only readily available, but so plentiful that one of the biggest problems is overeating; where transportation from city to city can be accomplished within hours, if not less, and travel halfway around the world takes about half a day; where one can communicate instantly with people worldwide on a device that fits in one's pocket, and is affordable to large swaths of humanity; well, we dare say they would have predicted a virtual utopia, with people not only spending much of their time relaxing and enjoying a life of leisure, but free of the tensions and anxieties that consume one when there is not enough to eat.

And yet.

Mystifying as this seems, we have a theory. Indeed, it is a remarkably simple one--freed of the daily struggle for survival, humans find themselves at a loss for how to do something "meaningful," due mainly, if not exclusively, to the nagging suspicion it is all futile anyway. Other animals--which do not, so far as we know, imagine their own deaths--do not suffer such existential angst, which explains why it is far more common to see a content lion than a content human.

Interestingly, it seems the wealthier people become, the more problematic this is, as they spin ever more elaborate wheels designed to distract from the one thing that "matters"--i.e., that none of it does. Thus, we have friends who speak fondly of their younger years, when they had far lower incomes and much less stuff, even as they spend and spend and spend, and work and work and work...all in pursuit of some mythical brass ring. As Chuck Palahniuk put it so eloquently in Fight Club: "you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you."

This, we would argue, is the fundamental paradox of human nature--our sentience frees us from the worries of daily survival, only to supplant them with fears of our eventual demise. A cruel joke, indeed...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Path to the River

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) wrote a beautiful essay titled “The Path to the River.” Written when he was 63 years old, the great author, thinker and social critic reflects on growing old. “My most astonishing realization is that I have lost a great deal of luggage,” he writes.

Not physical luggage, but metaphorically speaking. Nock finds that much of the cares and worries he carried as a younger man no longer interest him. Here is a great passage:

“I discover that my interest in many matters which I thought were important, and that I would still say, offhand, were important, no longer exists; interest in many occupations, theories, opinions; relationships, public and private; desires, habits, pleasures, even pastimes. I can still play good billiards for instance, and if anyone asked me, I should reply unthinkingly that I enjoy the game; and then it would occur to me that I have not played for months running into years, and that I no longer care – not really – if I never play again. As an item of luggage, billiards has gone by the boards, though I do not know when or how; and many matters of apparently great importance have gone likewise.”

Ah, this is very interesting! We have had such conversations with Bomstein before, lingering over beers at our favorite alehouse, which we’ve dubbed Absurd HQ. We, too, have noticed a more disinterested view of things that before concerned us greatly – and we have also, almost reflexively chalked it up to age. (We are nearing our 40th birthday and we can’t help but notice certain changes taking place). We have recognized for instance our gradual disinterest in sports, both in watching and playing. Like Nock, if asked, we would answer without hesitation that we play golf and enjoy the game. And then on reflection, it would occur to us that we haven’t played for months. And yet… we don’t miss it. Not really. Likewise, we enjoy watching sports, so we think. But then we haven’t been to a game of any kind in years. We watch games on TV. Sometimes. And when we don’t, we don’t really miss it. Not like we would have years ago. It’s a strange thing.

This may seem a trivial matter. But we find the same phenomenon with other interests and topics as well, things you might think more important – such as politics, work, whatever. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that the concern has reached a level of disinterest. We still enjoy certain things very much. But our relationship to these things is more detached than before. It is hard to explain. Let us turn to Nock again:

“Awareness that this process of unconscious sifting and selection has been going on is presumably final evidence that one is off the main road and well on the path to the river. It is called, rather patronizingly, ‘the acquiescence of age’: but may not that mean no more than an acquiescence in matters which has in the long run proven themselves hardly worth troubling one’s head about? ‘The fashion of this world passeth away,’ said Goethe, ‘and I would fain occupy myself with the things that are abiding.’ If that be the acquiescence of age, make the most of it.”

Indeed. That is it. And, instead of ‘acquiesce of age’ might this not be ‘acquiescence of absurdity’? The path to the river is a path to the absurd. And yes, we agree with Nock: Make the most of it! There is much in the world that societal pressures tell us are important things. But they are not. They are all equally unimportant.

We were thinking of these ideas on our walk recently. It was a bright fall morning. The sun still low and rising in the east, the grasses shimmering with dew and the air crisp with the woody smell of damp earth and rotting leaves. We walked amid towering oak, maple and pear trees alight in autumnal colors – fiery red, blazing orange and gold. A breeze rustled the trees and sent a gentle shower of leaves down around us. It was quiet, save for the rustling trees, the twitter of birdsong in the distance and the crunch of dead leaves beneath our feet. It was an enchanting scene. It was magical and wonderful. And we thought, reflecting afterwards, how nothing mattered in that instant. We were in the moment as much as we could ever be. We cared for as little then as at any time ever. And we thought about Nock and his words about aging. Might the acquiescence of age also stem from a growing awareness of the absurd? Unconsciously, over time, we arrive at this stage by degrees, as concerns fall from us as a snake sheds its skin.

Or, to use Nock’s analogy, we are like travelers who go through life picking up all kinds of luggage… and then, we find, somewhere and somehow along the way, we have lost a great deal of it. And yet, we are not concerned. In fact, we don’t miss it at all. Then we realize we are well off the main road… and on the path to the river, or absurdity.

P.S. You can find Nock’s essay in the book The State of the Union. It is a worthy introduction to the work of Albert Jay Nock and his silky smooth prose.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Paradox of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and the creator of numerous innovative technology devices, died yesterday. Within minutes of his death, we hear, the Internet filled up with tributes to him and the legacy he apparently left behind. (Twitter reportedly almost crashed due to the overwhelming number of messages.) Bill Gates, for example, said "The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come."

This is quite a statement. And indeed, on first blush who can argue? Jobs certainly changed the way people live and work, and for millions of people life would be well-nigh unthinkable without his products, none of which they realized their "needed" until he invented them.

Hmm. In fact, this plays into something we have been thinking about lately, which is essentially the problems created, paradoxically, by our current excess of abundance. As we see it, there are two related issues. First, the world has never seen the sheer number of "comfortable" people who exist today. In the US, for example, the vast majority of "poor" people have such extravagant luxuries as air conditioning, cell phones, and cars; in fact, there is little question the average welfare recipient in the US enjoys a far superior quality of life--measured in terms of access to food, possessions, etc.--to the richest medieval king.

Second, the instant availability of "stuff" has led to a virtual absence of delayed gratification, and consequent annoyance when such delays are imposed. We find ourselves wondering why the book we ordered from Amazon has not arrived--after all, we ordered it last week! Not that we were planning to read it right away, but what kind of operation are they running, anyway?!?

In short, as we have collectively moved up the "quality of life" ladder, not only has happiness not shown much particular progress (countless studies show happiness more or less levels off after basic needs such as food and shelter are met), but in adjusting to this new, more prosperous way of life, we have exposed ourselves to huge risk of disappointment when things do not go as expected.

What does this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, consider how much easier his products make certain tasks. When we were a teenager, we had a mishmash of records, cassette tapes, and eventually some CDs, as well as a Walkman that played cassettes and the radio. In other words, it was not at all simple to make sure we had exactly the song we wanted, when we wanted it. Sometimes, we had to make do (gasp!) with whatever we had.

Similarly, we had an extremely simple computer that was basically a word processor. There was no Internet, no Facebook, and no Google. No Twitter, either--it's hard to remember how we expressed condolences back then...

Tangentially, we have always found one of the early scenes of Scarface instructive--the scene where Tony Montana runs into his best friend Manny Ribera in the Miami slums. It is interesting because the two friends are surprised to have found each other; 30 years ago (only 30 years!), if you lost touch with someone it was conceivable you might never see them again. Again, there was no Internet, no smartphones--if someone disappeared, they might well be gone for good. Now, by contrast, we are constantly being told by friends about the 4th-grade classmates they have "reconnected with" on Facebook.

So, if we are no happier, but have become increasingly reliant on an ever-complex societal and technological system just to maintain that happiness (what do you mean you don't have environmentally-friendly Salmon?!? This is an outrage!!!), it seems we have, in financial parlance, more downside risk than upside reward. In other words, while ever more efficient and technologically-advanced stuff seem unlikely to make us much happier, as we will quickly adjust to our new reality, the loss of even a fraction of our current "status quo" could be devastating.

Peter Whybrow, a neuroscientist and the author of American Mania, argues that the instant gratification culture in our society, most prevalent in the US, is something for which our reptilian brains are particularly ill-suited. In short, Whybrow's argument is that putting a piece of chocolate cake in front of someone on a diet is asking for disaster--while we may intuitively understand the tradeoffs involved, we are almost always going to choose to eat the cake rather than exercise self-control. Quoted in a recent article, Whybrow says "We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

So what to think of Steve Jobs? Well, of course it goes without saying that Jobs didn't "exist" any more or less than anyone else--that is to say, he was an illusion as we all are. But ignoring that, we are honestly not sure what to think of his impact. We use an iPod when we walk our dog, but we don't find ourselves feeling a whole lot different about the walks than we did before. We do not have an iPad, but our wife often spends long hours on the computer at night--is this preferable to when we lacked this option?

This is not some Luddite argument that technology is bad and we should all go back to living in caves. But we cannot ignore the paradox that despite all the wealth humans have created in the past couple of centuries--the lives of unimaginable luxury so many lead, even compared with a few decades ago--the levels of human happiness have barely budged. And now that happiness rests, or so it would seem, on ever-thinner reeds of more and more stuff.

A paradox indeed...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Everything is Meaningless

We were at a funeral last weekend. Funerals bring out lots of absurd thoughts. There we all were, looking at a dead man in a coffin. And we knew for sure that one day we will meet the same fate. One day, blood will no longer run through our veins and our touch will grow cold.

People have different reactions to this line of thinking. They worry about dying or fear death. But for us, it reminded us of the absurdity of life, the futility of it, and the thought always makes us feel light and airy and humbled and carefree.

We wonder, if that man in the coffin could stand here with us for a few moments, what would he think and say? What advice might he offer? Would he see with some special clarity the absurdity of it all?

Most appropriately, given our thoughts, the minister read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we reproduce below. We think it is a poetic statement of the absurd and so we share it here. Enjoy and reflect on the meaninglessness of it all!

Ecclesiastes 1

1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

On the Arbitrariness of Identity

We yelled at our son this morning. According to our wife, we were standing over him, pointing, and yelling for him to "KNOCK IT OFF!" In other words, the very antithesis of the absurd man we ramble on about in these pages. Yet now, a few short hours later, we sit in mystified contemplation of the morning's events, nonplussed and a bit embarrassed at the way we acted. Indeed, we felt similarly a mere 20 or 30 minutes after the incident. Which raises an interesting question.

Which individual--the ranting, unhinged father, or the calm, contemplative thinker--better represents our true identity? Were we acting out of character then...or are we now? Or are both versions somehow pieces of the same whole? But before we get to that, let us pose another question.

Consider a man about to have sex. (We speak of men because we have no knowledge of whether the same is true for women. As an aside, we recently heard that one of Goethe's primary goals was to understand how it felt to be a woman. This has seemed more and more interesting the more we have thought about it...) For a man in the throes of passion, having sex is the most important thing in the world. Bombs going off, floodwaters rising, bottom of the ninth...nothing else matters. And yet, after sex, the exact opposite is true. Sex now holds zero interest for him - suddenly, the top of the fifth seems a lot more enticing.

So...which is the "real" man? Said a different way, how can an individual's value system shift so completely (taking sex from the top to the bottom) a fraction of a second?!?

Our answer, as you may have guessed, is that this is an empty question, akin to asking what rocks think about. The reason we can seemingly be "different" people not just over the years, but from day to day and moment to moment, is that we are different, as physical changes occur and alter who "we" are. However, while sometimes these changes are radical (eg someone who has a stroke), most of the time they are minor enough to fit into our established personal narrative. Thus, while we are clearly a "different person" from 20 or 30 years ago, this is far less obvious, at least most of the time, over very short periods.

What we call identity, then, is simply a convenient fiction we establish to try to make sense of our life, with no more meaning than the arrangement of fallen leaves under a tree.

The odd thing is, even as we sit here writing about how foolishly we acted this morning, we have no doubt such experiences will occur again. (Although we should note they seem to occur with far less frequency the more we have embraced the absurd; further, our "recovery time" from such events is significantly shorter. Not that it matters, of course...;-)

And this brings us to another Goethe quote we find remarkably insightful:

"Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Absurd flotsam & jetsam

Sherman's Lagoon is one of our favorite strips. It tickles our absurd sensibilities every now and then, as the one above does today.

Here, it gently pokes fun at the common and widely accepted notion that we are all special, unique individuals - a notion that one can believe only by ignoring a lot of evidence to the contrary. But the absurd man doesn't shy away or sulk at the counterclaim of insignificance. Instead, he finds the idea freeing and embraces it! He is a man without chains.

Another bit of absurdity floated in from the week just past...

Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple. The news reminded us of Jobs commencement speech in 2005, which had many absurdist overtones. We particularly like this part:

"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Wonderful words of wisdom and very germane, too, given our recent posts on the idea of a deadline. Life gets easier when you embrace the idea of that looming deadline.

We might have more to say on all of this, but as we are fundamentally lazy and disinclined more than usual to do much of anything on this Sunday morning, we'll stop here and let this assorted flotsam and jetsam of ideas float around in our brains awhile.

Stay absurd.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Desire of Oblivion

We ran across the following poem by Philip Larkin the other day, titled "Wants":

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone
However the sky grows dark with invitation cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites
The costly aversion of the eyes from death---
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

There is also a terrific reading of it here.

And so we wonder...what keeps people from choosing oblivion? Is it simply the biological programming that wires us to fear and abhor death? Given what we we explored in our previous post--namely, that imminent death is often comforting--and the fact that so many live in a state of perpetual unhappiness...why not simply end it?

To be honest, we don't have a great answer. The evolutionary/Dawkins answer would surely be that individuals who chose to die would not leave offspring, QED. But this is unsatisfying. Perhaps we should phrase the question differently.

Why, after years spent suffering through the torturous cycle of fulfilled desires that leave us wanting ever more, after climbing a ladder that, we now see, stretches on to the sky, after climbing the mountain only to discover its utter barrenness, why do we continue to put ourselves through this?

It is more than passing strange that for all we can know what ails us, discuss and write about it endlessly, joke about its absurd consequences (e.g., Arthur Dent's discovery that Earth will be destroyed tomorrow for an intergalactic highway), we nevertheless continue to play the game. We often discuss with Inigo the paradoxical nature of our relationship with the absurd--for all that we understand, believe, and appreciate it, we still like to get together for beers at our favorite watering hole. But why? Surely, as we have banged on endlessly in this blog, such a meeting is no more meaningful than any other state of existence. And yet.

So is Larkin right? We have a sneaking suspicion that he is. For despite our exhortations that absurdity makes the world a fascinating and curious place, and that we have no desire to leave, we cannot deny our current comfortable circumstances may well play a role in this feeling. If so, then the apparent comfort provided by the absurd is itself an illusion.

The counter to this, of course, would be the well-documented cases of content people who have very little. And perhaps we are selling short our (and others') adaptive capacities. But the issue is really a broader one--if there is some state of life which we feel is absolutely worse than death (and how many can honestly deny this?), the rest is just rearranging deck chairs.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

That deadline again

Edmund James Banfield (born in 1852) was a newspaper editor and had a part interest in the business. In 1897, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was on the verge of a nervous collapse. His doctors gave him one year to live, at most.

So, he resigned from the paper, sold his interest and sold many of possessions. He and his wife then moved to Dunk Island, off the northeast coast of Australia. There he expected to live out what was left of his days in relative peace and tranquility.

They built a temporary abode and raised a small garden. They enjoyed the leisure of the simple island life. In particular they enjoyed the natural wonders around them, the abundant and diverse plant and animal life.

Time was running out, though, like sand in an hour glass. Banfield knew his last day would arrive soon. But he was living the life he wanted to live and was happy, at peace with the world.

Then, of course, something unexpected happened. He got better. He winded up living 23 years on Dunk Island.

When death finally came in 1923, his wife commented, “I had no idea death could come so peacefully.”

We are fascinated by this idea of how a “deadline” affects people. As Bomstein wrote in his post about another man given a deadline on his life: “The certainty of death has granted him the luxury of living without worry, secure in the knowledge he will die soon and thus doesn't need to concern himself with long-term issues.”

And so we see it here again with Banfield. He was living a certain life, in which he was a frazzled newspaperman. But when told he had only a year left, he changed it completely. The certainty of death made him free in a way he wasn’t before – or rather, it made him free in a way he did not perceive was possible before.

Of course, we all have these same deadlines. We just don’t know what they are yet. And so why can’t we live just as free of worry and care as these men who know their deadlines?

Banfield was obviously a happy and contented man on Dunk Island. We have only read snippets of his stuff. Banfield is most famous for a book titled Confessions of a Beachcomber. We have not read this book, but we’ve ordered it. And we’ll report back should we find the absurd thoughts we suspect might lie in Banfield’s memoir.

But the point is, the absurd man ought to be able live with the same equanimity even though his deadline is a mystery (assuming he chooses not to set one himself). And this doesn’t mean he has to jump off to an island (though that option always tempts us). He can, in effect, create that island wherever he is by adhering to his easy-going “nothing matters” worldview and in his secure knowledge that his deadline will come soon enough.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Setting a Deadline

To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence--Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea

Dying is easy. It's living that's hard.--Gregory House, MD

We posed a question to a non-absurd acquaintance the other day. What is, we asked, you were given the option of living a short but prosperous life, and a longer but destitute one. Which would you choose?

He chose the short life, and we suspect this is not unusual, which raises an interesting question--if people do assign subjective qualities of life based on material well-being (and most do), then why not set a deadline for one's own life and live large until then? (Or at least "larger" than one could live without retirement savings, etc.) In fact, we suggested this to our friend, and he was flummoxed as to why it would not be preferable to do so.

As absurdists, of course, we do not believe any states of existence to be preferable to others (although we admit it doesn't always feel this way), but this exercise is useful in pointing out one of the main flaws in "normal" (i.e. non-absurdist) thinking--namely, that it not only matters how (and how long) we live, but how we die. Consider--if you do not believe in an afterlife, then why not simply set a deadline and live life to the fullest? Think of the problems you could solve in one fell swoop! No more retirement planning! No worries about chronic illness! Who cares what the world will look like in 50 years! Indeed, with this one simple step you could banish most of your anxiety-inducing uncertainty...for good.

The House quote above comes from an episode where Wilson (an oncologist) has mistakenly given a fatal diagnosis to a patient. However, when given the "good news," the patient reacts with dismay--he has already sold his house, said goodbye to loved ones, and made final arrangements. In short, the certainty of death has granted him the luxury of living without worry, secure in the knowledge he will die soon and thus doesn't need to concern himself with long-term issues.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Constructing a Narrative

We recently read a fascinating book titled Incognito, written by neuroscientist David Eagleman (who also wrote the terrific little book Sum). In short, the book is about consciousness, and the remarkably minor a role it plays in our brain's activities. Incognito refers to all the action that goes on underneath, of which we are neither aware nor able to consciously influence. The whole book is well worth a read, but there was one part in particular that resonated with us--the concept that what we see as "reality" is nothing more than a carefully constructed narrative presented to our conscious mind by the inaccessible parts of the brain.

To illustrate, Eagleman recounts the story of an illuminating experiment. To give you context, one area that has interested brain researchers for some time has been the fact that while our brain processes things as different speeds (sound faster than vision, for example), we are not consciously aware of this. Thus, when we see a batter hit the ball (assuming we are at close enough range), while we perceive the sight and sound simultaneously, the sound is actually available several milliseconds ahead of the visual. In essence, our brain "holds" the sound so it can present the two events together, thus constructing what it views as the most consistent narrative of reality.

So far, so good. Well, what Eagleman did was to set up an ingenious experiment to trick the brain, and in so doing expose this little ruse for what it is--simply another illusion presented as "reality." In the experiment, when subjects pressed a button a flash of light immediately appeared. At some point, the experimenters introduced a small lag effect, so the dot appeared a tenth of a second after pushing the button. However, after a few times the brain "learned" the delay, and the events once again appeared simultaneous. Then, the experimenters once again made them simultaneous, which caused the subjects to perceive the flash of light before pressing the button.

At first, this may seem a small issue--after all, who cares if our brains delay things by a tenth of a second here or there to make things more comprehensible? But this is only the tip of the iceberg (again, read the book...). Eagleman also talks of people who go blind but still fervently insist they can see, those who have mixed up senses (eg, they "experience" colors as tastes ), and an individual who developed a sudden and inexplicable interest in child porn that turned out to be due to a brain tumor (when they removed the tumor his interest went away; when he became interested again a couple of years later, it turned out they had missed some of the tumor).

The bottom line is that, for as solid as the "I" feels, and as much as we want to believe we are experiencing what is "truly" out there, such beliefs are nothing more than convenient fictions; lies, in fact, made vastly more believable since we tell them to ourselves.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Life is a gamble

We have been trying to learn Spanish and to this end our profesora sometimes has us read bits of Spanish poetry or pithy sayings to keep things interesting. We’ve warmed up to the Spanish philosophers of the anti-scholastic tradition, who seem to have some absurd elements in their worldview.

They resisted the urge of their northern neighbors to rationalize and explain everything. They tended to view the world as chaotic, unpredictable and unreliable. As author Deborah Bennett put it:

“Their position runs roughly as follows: Nature and we humans conspired in creating a difficult and largely intractable environment. Spanish philosophy has tended to keep reason in its place. It inclines to see reality, or at any rate that part of it that constitute the setting for human life, as chaotic, incoherent, pervaded by disorder. Life is precarious…. In all our doings and undertakings, we humans give hostages to fortune.”

They advised that people be flexible and prepared to play many roles. In fact, Spanish literature offers up the model of el picaro, a sort of chameleon, “a person who manages to attune himself to the requirements of moment.”

Versatility, adaptability and an inclination to eschew grand plans…. These were parcels of the Spanish anti-scholastics. And we find they ring true with the absurd man and inspire absurd thoughts.

Of course, these Spaniards weren’t really absurd, because they had all kinds of maxims about what’s important and what isn’t and essentially were moralists of a certain stripe. (See Balthazar Gracian, for instance). But they had a good premise.

This desire to check reason and keep it in its place is particularly practical. Often we find people (including ourselves) trying to rationalize different actions and things. Why do I like this and not that? Why did I do that and not this?

We’ve found it helpful to check such thinking. This compulsion to constantly explain oneself is something that we find anti-absurd. First, it reinforces the ideas that you are important, which you are not. (Nor is anybody else!) Second, it reinforces the illusion of a unique self that is seemingly in control of what’s going on, which it isn’t. And third, who cares! Really, life is absurd, to be lived in the moment, with no regrets, accepting what card comes from the deck with equanimity.

In fact, Gracian favored comparing life to card games, where chance played a big role. He said, “In this life, fate mixes the cards as she likes, without consulting our wishes in the matter. And we have no choice but to play the hand she deals to us.”

True. But we can choose to play the hand in an absurd manner – with adaptability, flexibility and indifference as to the outcome of the bets!