Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Living without fear

There are many facets to living the absurd life. Indeed, we are often struck by how broad and deep the concept of meaningless turns out to be--just when we think we have it figured out, along comes another fascinating application. How can something so simple, we sometimes wonder, also be so complex?

For example, one of the most liberating parts of the absurd is that once you realize nothing matters, there is no need to be afraid. Think about this for a minute. Consider the source of your fears--not just of physical harm, but that you will lose your job, or not have enough money to retire, or be abandoned by your friends, or that something horrible will happen to a loved one--and examine why you fear such things. Where does this fear come from? What purpose does it serve? In short, are there valid reasons for fear, and (most importantly) would you be better off without it?

This concept plays into a theme we have previously explored, which is the large number of people who are sympathetic to the absurd, but only to a point. After all, they argue, what about loved ones? What if something really bad happens? What if, what if, what if...

We sense this is a fairly common viewpoint, the idea that certain things "matter," such as family, or friends, or health. Of course, if the world is meaningless there is no reason to view anything as more (or less) meaningful than anything else, even such culturally sacrosanct ideals as these, but nevertheless a great many people reject this simple (to us, anyway) explanation.

This is certainly understandable, particularly given enormous and persistent societal pressure to do so. However, in our opinion this is a tragic error. In short, by accepting that certain things matter more than others, such individuals unwittingly create the source of their own fears. This is ironic, since they no doubt believe they are doing the opposite (i.e., increasing their happiness) by caring about such things.

Consider: If you have no fear of death, why be afraid of pain? If you know your children will die someday, then why fret about their education, their marriage prospects, their "place in the world"? If you live moment to moment, for experience rather than meaning, what does it even mean to "retire"?

The bottom line is that fear is divisive, destructive...and entirely self-created. We all have the ability to live without fear if we choose to do so. But we cannot live this way so long as we cling to our hope--the hope that things matter, that our life has purpose and meaning, that we are something more than random collections of atoms thrown together in a fantastic cosmic accident.

The wonderful thing about embracing the absurd is not only that it frees one to live as one chooses, but also that it strips away these self-created impediments to loving freely, unconditionally, and without reservation. When the fear is gone you find that all that remains is peace and harmony with the world as a whole, which is simply not possible when one "wants," and "prefers," and "chooses" one thing over another.

As with many issues, we have found Krishnamurti enormously helpful in this area, and we close with what we consider to be one of his most thought-provoking passages--on how to live peacefully (i.e., free of fear) in a violent world.

"If you are free of violence in yourself the question is, 'How am I to live in a world full of violence, acquisitiveness, greed, envy, brutality? Will I not be destroyed?' That is the inevitable question which is invariably asked. When you ask such a question it seems to me you are not actually living peacefully. If you live peacefully you will have no problem at all. You may be imprisoned because you refuse to join the army or shot because you refuse to fight, but that is not a problem; you will be shot. It is extraordinarily important to understand this."


  1. The bottom line is that fear is divisive, destructive...and entirely self-created. We all have the ability to live without fear if we choose to do so.

    True as far as it goes. But fear and pain are also signals, meant to elicit a corrective, preventative, or contemplative response.

    This is why Jack makes a clear distinction between constructive fear and destructive fear. Constructive fear has usefulness and a purpose. Destructive fear does not.

    The same is true of pain... not all pain is bad. Jack would argue there is "good" pain and "bad" pain.

    Examples of "good" pain: The "burn" associated with strenuous exercise (and which often precedes an endorphin high). The bittersweet mix of longing and sorrow when temporarily parting with a lover. The intense pain of losing, of making a mistake, when said pain leads not to frustration or despair but to increased determination and new knowledge / insight in one's chosen area of competitive endeavor.

    Some mammals (like African mole rats) do not feel pain. But would man be better off with no fear or pain receptors? Doubtful... pain and fear are too useful. They have strong pragmatic application.

    Pain and fear are also critical, in Jack's view, to the long-term growth process in areas of competitive endeavor. Neuroscientific studies have shown that we use emotional markers to bookmark important bits of information in our brains. In layman's terms, to really and truly learn a lesson, it often has to hurt. The pain is what tells your brain to place extra emphasis on experience XYZ, thus drawing it out from myriad other less informative experiences.

    This, too, goes back to Jack's essential beef with zen and the whole "let it all go" mindset. Zen (or the absurd, or whatever one chooses to call it) is absolutely valuable, essential even.

    But it is also incomplete, insofar as a life philosophy goes, for anyone who seeks to strive and accomplish anything.

    Think what it takes to become a champion... a champion at anything. Or, more simply, what it takes simply to achieve a level of notable excellence (even if only noted by one's self). Doing this takes a full embrace. It takes emotional commitment. It takes a willingness and an ability to not to shed fear and pain entirely, but to utilize them in pursuit of a personal quest.

    Not flat-out disagreeing with the observations here so much as pointing out nuance as usual.

    Jack would argue the idea of a pain-free life, a fear-free life, is overly idealistic, not exactly practical, and not wholly desirable. The ultimate result of zero cares, zero fear, zero pain is full-stop inertia... the permanent meditation state.

    But to fully develop one's sense of self control... to cultivate the ability to "altitude adjust"... to CHOOSE the emotions one feels, and use wisdom in accepting or discarding fear and pain signals, based on discretionary judgment as to whether they be accretive or dilutive in terms of best life balance... THAT strikes Jack as a most worthy (and Neo-like) goal.

    You may not be overly familiar with the word, or you may simply be more comfortable with Camus than Buddha... but all this stuff is zen through and through. Zen is half the puzzle... Jack submits Arete is the other half. Again, just food for thought...

  2. To be me it boils down to the perception of control. This wonderful mechanism of life sustenance we call logic spirals out of control the older we get and deduces everything to a causal correlation(as well as its evil twin sister superstition). We think we can become the masters of our universe simply because we can, walk, talk and hold down a job. Even our minds- the logic taskmasters can loose control. The only trump card we hold over our minds is our self-reflection, that allows us to observe the pangs of fear, hate, pain what have you and understand them as fleeting phenomena giving them the space to exist (since they are already there we might as well acknowledge them) but without falling prey. I have found what wors for me is not to try to stop the "bad" thoughts from appearing, but give them ample space to be deconstructed later on.

  3. > Consider the source of your fears, ... that you will lose your job, or not have enough money to retire, or be abandoned by your friends, or that something horrible will happen to a loved one, and examine why you fear such things.

    You speak like a man who lives in a comfortable manhattan apartment and drinks a coffee in the same cafe each morning. Let me tell you that there's a darn good reason people fear those things. They stink. They're no fun. They're very unpleasant. These things do happen. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes your wife runs off with your best friend, and then alleges you beat the kids, and you really DO lose it all. It's no fun to be alone and broke and estranged from love ones. People are afraid because they are witnesses - they have seen it, or they know someone who has suffered personal tragedies, and they don't want that for themselves, but they know lightning can strike.

  4. Anonymous,
    In that vein of thinking, being poor, divorced and your children dead automatically makes you an existentialist? Not likely. Absurdity is not based on exclusion, I think. I do have a comfortable life in Brooklyn (close) with a job and friends, but I still find everything (including life) unnecessary per se.

  5. There is a pervasive linguistic barrier to a different view of death in western culture. When it happens it is "devastating, tragic, sad, unfair" as if it is not supposed to happen. A fluke rather than a rule. The only rule with 100% compliance.

  6. Does it make you an existentialist? ?? I don't know what you're talking about. I only know
    that the people who write here, speak of misfortune academically, without knowledge of the thing.

    It is only the person who has meaning in his or her life that can keep up the charade of "nothing matters". Such a person is at odds with himself. He has a child and a wife and says "it doesn't matter if my child disappears tomorrow. Or if I do." uh-huh.

    If it doesn't matter, then why is he still with his son, 1800+ consecutive days after they first met? Is it by pure chance that he remains close to his family? Did he forget to leave? It is preposterous.

    It is only the blind person who can say "it doesn't matter if my wife leaves me and runs off with my best friend, and takes my kids."

    It is only a person in denial about what happens in the aftermath of affairs, who can say "people have bad feelings about affairs because of their own egos."

    It is only a person with a comfortable house or apartment, a good neighborhood, a place to call their own, who can say "it doesn't matter if a person is poor."

    Having a comfortable place is not enough to be able to dismiss the importance of physical comfort. One must also be blind.

    In responding to my point, you diverge into discussion of Western attitudes toward death. "The only rule with 100% compliance." Why did you change the subject?

    My point is simple, though I have had trouble getting it across:

    The author of this piece, Bomstein, doesn't know human misfortune.

    OR...something different. He knows misfortune, he recognizes it. But he refuses to acknowledge its reality, its validity as a human experience. He thinks by not uttering its name, by denying it exists, he can ward it off. It is just too terrible for him to comprehend, so he must say "nothing matters".

    Really he means "There are important things in life, and I can and will make a good faith effort, but at some point, I am still subject to the sometimes cruel, sometimes beneficent whims of fate. Because fate may be unkind, I will keep the pretense of not caring, only as a matter of self-preservation, because I can cope in no other way."

    But more. He continues: "Not only must I keep this transparent pretense! But also, I must promote it to others, to protect them also."

    Elena you are similar. You write:

    When it [death] happens it is "devastating, tragic, sad, unfair" as if it is not supposed to happen.

    Have you never been touched by the loss of a personl close to you? a pet even? Have you not been sad? Yes, death is certain. But when you realize you will never see your best friend again... it's sad. And if you cannot acknowledge that, you are a textbook, just like Bomstein.

  7. Perhaps we should be wary of a false dichotomy developing here.

    Both sides are presented as caricatures, comic book characters of a sort... on the one side, a man who achieves a sort of idealistic superhuman detachment, and on the other, an individual who is utterly fake in his claim of transcendence.

    Perhaps the reality (or an observation closer to reality) is that there are wheels within wheels. It is possible to feel real love, real pain, and yet also to cultivate detachment. It is possible to feel real and genuine pain -- over, say, the loss of a loved one -- and yet to mitigate that pain through deliberate and willful detachment from the contextual pain one experiences.

    That is to say, if an individual can learn, through contemplation and practice, to detach from self, then said individual can effectively detach from all pain that the self experiences (to varying degrees of effectiveness).

    This makes it possible to truly love, and truly grieve a loved one lost, while still possessing the capability to detach from everything at will by way of the cultivated, practiced process of stepping away from one's self.

    The individual who cultivates this detachment practice (through, say, regular meditation) can at least theoretically develop the ability to detach from anything as needed, because all emotional experiences, good and bad, are experienced through the vehicle of self.

    This possibility is a sort of threading the needle between the two presented extremes -- artificially pure (potentially impossible) detachment on the one hand versus accusations of rank hypocrisy on the other...