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!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Wisdom of the Heart

It was late at night and all was quiet and we were in our home office just thinking and looking through our bookshelves randomly. We pulled down a copy of Wisdom of the Heart by Henry Miller and opened it up to the title essay. And we came across the following passage:

“In his present fearsome state man seems to have but one attitude, escape, wherein he is fixed as in a nightmare. Not only does he refuse to accept his fears, but he fears his fears. Everything seems infinitely worse than it is, says Howe, ‘just because we are trying to escape.’”

That last phrase stuck with us – ‘just because we are trying to escape’ – and we thought about it for quite a while afterwards. We think it is profoundly true and speaks directly to the fears and anxieties people have.

We thought of some of them. Fear of death. Fear of failure. Fear of poverty. Fear of loneliness. Fear of imprisonment. Fear of boredom.

Some of these we’ve written about before on the blog, particularly fear of death.

Miller’s essay, which is mainly a review of the ideas of E. Graham Howe, is brilliant in many respects and we lingered over choice passages. But this idea of things being worse because we fear them brought to mind a key part of the absurd – which is acceptance. Utter acceptance of everything. That means you accept life and death. You accept successes and defeats. You accept what comes, whatever comes.

This is extremely difficult, but it seems the pinnacle of wisdom. It is, as Miller writes, recognition that “life’s problems are fundamentally insoluble and accepts the fact graciously.” It is a lenient view of life… forgiving, open, calm.

You cannot be afraid of death if you accept it as part of life, part of the process. You cannot fear failure if you look at it as just another experience, with as much indifference as success. You cannot fear poverty if you accept it as a natural outcome, no different than riches, as natural as the sun and the sky. It is something that happens and it is neither good nor bad.

You can apply this idea to small things in life, too. Life is lived in the details, after all. You get stuck in traffic. So you are stuck in traffic! Accept it. So you stained a favorite shirt! So it rained on a day you wanted to go to the pool!

You make them worse by trying to escape. You make traffic worse by stewing and getting angry and trying to get around your fellow drivers. You make the stain worse by pouting over it and rubbing it and cursing. You make it worse by moaning about the weather and shaking your head and feeling sorry for your bad luck and thinking dark thoughts.

Instead, accept it all. Try to think of these things as no more important or meaningful than any other outcome. They are all equally unimportant and equally meaningless. Relax in traffic. Wear the stained shirt (or not). Enjoy the rain.

For whatever other benefits such a worldview confers, we can attest that the absurd has helped our golf game, which we started playing again after a year hiatus. What does it matter if I make this par putt on 18 or not? And so we relax more deeply than we ever have on a golf course. We enjoyed the warm sunshine and soft breeze, the weight of the club in our hands and the curve of the green. And oddly, or perhaps not, the putt went in.

But even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered. Life is absurd. Rather than run from that idea, or try to fight it with mental contortions of meaning and purpose, we accept it as it is and whatever life may bring, in things big and small!