Monday, January 31, 2011

The Importance of Not Caring

One of the more consistent objections we hear to the absurd is that it is simply an easy way to shield oneself from the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"--a "get out of jail free" card, if you will, utilized to avoid dealing with the uncertainties and disappointments of life. We have some sympathy for this view inasmuch as there are, without question, people who use the concept of the absurd to justify whatever actions they so choose. (Indeed, one of the more interesting questions with regard to the absurd has always been its seemingly contradictory stance on murder--if nothing matters, it seems odd to say murder is "wrong," and yet Camus famously rejected this interpretation. We'll come back to this later.) However, to use such an argument against the absurd itself is akin to those who object to libertarianism because "it's just a way to justify doing whatever you want." As with the absurd, the fact that some may misinterpret/misuse something is unrelated to whether the underlying theory is, in fact, sound.

What is perhaps most interesting about these discussions is that our interlocutors almost invariably feel themselves on the moral high ground; we, they feel, are attempting to shirk some kind of moral duty (to family, society, country, etc.) through a shady shortcut, whereas they are standing up for things that are good and "right" (ie, things that "matter"). If, for example, we shrug off a disappointment for a child, we are sure to be accused of "not caring," being "insensitive," or, our personal favorite, "not getting it," with "it" being anything from an understanding of the current difficulty, to how this ailment will surely impact the child's happiness not only today, but tomorrow, next week, and some 30 years hence.

So...let's drill down on this a bit. The objection to our lack of "caring" in these circumstances is...what? Why, exactly, should our lack of concern be upsetting to others? Well, you say, because it indicates a lack of empathy, a certain coarseness--a detachment, perhaps, from the world around us and others in it. Hmm...detachment...

We do not, we should say, have an answer for why such actions bother others as they do. Perhaps it is offputting because it upsets their established worldview (namely, that people should, and generally do, care about such things), or perhaps it creates anxiety in them since they realize, at some level, that their own "caring" is simply a biologically-driven ruse. There was an outstanding exchange in an episode of the television show House where the patient (an environmental activist) was arguing with his wife about why he should care more about the welfare of his son than that of other people. In essence, he was arguing that neglecting his son was justified because he would do more good for a greater number of people through his activism. "Why should I care more about him just because he's biologically related to me?" he asked, to which his wife replied: "Because he's your son!"

We would bet 90-some percent of the viewing audience sided with the wife, even though there is, of course, no legitimate basis for this stance. (When we mentioned to our wife that he had a point, she looked at us crosswise and said nothing.) In fact, it is just this kind of irrational behavior that causes untold misery and suffering in the world--the mistaken belief that we should care more about certain things than others. To preempt the obvious rejoinder, we are not saying you should not care, but that you should not discriminate in your caring, a far different thing.

Indeed, this brings us back to the issue of murder mentioned earlier. As noted, we are often accused of using the absurd to justify violent behavior--after all, if nothing matters, then why shouldn't I go on a shooting rampage? Isn't that just as meaningless as anything else? But this is to misdiagnose the issue. Instead, the question is why you would murder in the first place. If nothing matters, then why go to the effort of taking another's life? In fact, the only "justification" would be that to kill another is somehow good for you (or someone you "care" about). Once the caring--or, said a different way, the stratification of persons based on biology and proximity--is removed from the equation, so is any basis for violence. Think about it...

Everything we think "exists" is nothing more than an abstraction--our own personal interpretation of a temporary arrangement of atoms. Nothing is any more or less consequential than anything else--all is mere physical matter, pausing in its infinite whirling dance to give the illusion of stars, planets...and "intelligent life." The concept of "caring," meanwhile, has been hard-wired into us both biologically and culturally to such an extraordinary degree that we rarely, if ever, even countenance a challenge to its legitimacy. And yet, far from being the life-affirming, soul-nurturing activity most believe it to be, the selective caring practiced by the vast majority of humans is not only a mere biological instinct evolved to further the propagation of our genes, but is responsible for the vast majority of human suffering--past, present, and future.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Living in the present

We’ve often wondered whether we could be absurd if we were in more – let us say – uncomfortable circumstances.

In other words, is the absurd a luxury? And could we be absurd if we lived more closely to a kind of subsistence living?

We like to think so. And we’ve found evidence of people who become absurd only after some trying experience, as we’ve written about before on this blog. We have yet another shred to add to our anecdotal pile.

Recently, we were reading Travel & Leisure magazine and came across a story of a woman who went hunting with the Hadzi, a tribe of hunter-gatherers on the shores of Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.

These hunters depended on what they caught that day. If they don’t have a successful hunt, they don’t eat as well as they might.

Ironically, given those apparently high stakes, the Hadzi are remarkably calm and cheerful even when they have an unsuccessful hunt. They seem to be having a good time, enjoying each other’s company and the process of the hunt, even though they catch nothing on this particular day.

Here our intrepid author speculates as to why the hunters have this calm and seemingly care-free demeanor, and hits on an absurd observation:

“I chalked it up to an enviable acceptance of their limits of control – something many of us spend years with therapists and yogis trying to develop. Even more than the natural history, anthropology, and zoology we were studying, this example of living in the present – and not getting hung up on outcomes – seemed to be the most important lesson we could take from Africa.”

We pass this along as a little reminder, if nothing else, of the benefit of living in the present. It allows one to remain cheerful – and view life with a kind of ironic detachment – even in the face of seemingly large setbacks. In the case of the Hadzi, it means not eating dinner.

Makes you put your own concerns in a new light, doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Living the Episodic Life

We recently came across a terrific piece by Galen Strawson (whom we previously discussed here on the matter of free will) titled Against Narrativity. In it, he argues against the prevailing human tendency to view our lives as a narrative, rather than as a series of episodes. We strongly recommend reading the whole piece--block out some time and really digest it, as it is not exactly light reading.

In a nutshell, Strawson says we have, as a species, essentially come round to the belief that each of our lives is an unbroken story, with the "self" we are today directly linked to the self from yesterday, last week, or 20 years ago. (While we are of the opinion that the self is an illusion, and Strawson appears to share this belief, this is immaterial to the argument.) In a sense, most people approach their lives as a sort of perpetual building exercise, carefully constructing layer upon layer of personal and career "successes" they fervently hope will be large (read: important) enough to stand for some time, thus granting them extended "life" in books, people's memories, maybe even a song ("Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?")

As Henry Potter might ask: "Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?"

The problem with this approach is that it brings with it an ever-increasing load of baggage, as we constantly seek to conform to this self we have spent so long crafting. Thus, when faced with decisions, most people unconsciously strive to satisfy this self, rather than weighing pros and cons of the current situation. Or, worse, many find it more convenient to outsource such decisions--for example, many people in the US strongly identify with one of the two main political parties, and filter their beliefs accordingly. Thus the ridiculous recent specter of Democrats supporting invasive searches at airports and Republicans decrying them, in flat contradiction of long-standing stances on matters of civil liberties and defense. What accounted for the flip-flop? Well, the measures were implemented by a Democratic administration...

But we are talking more of the issue of, as Krishnamurti put it, "dying" each day (or even each minute). In short, we weigh ourselves down with all the detritus we accumulate day after day, in pursuit of this fiction that we can, if we work really hard and don't make too many mistakes, actually construct something that will stand for all time. Because if not, then what does it matter?

Ah, you say, it matters because these things make me happy. My life as I live it provides me with comfort, and friends, and good food and drink, and maybe even a fast car I enjoy driving on the weekends. These are good things...why should I renounce them in pursuit of this inner contentment you preach? Who are you to say what makes me happy?

We, of course, are no one. But we can say without fear of contradiction that a happiness based on things, be they physical or mental (eg, relationships) is ultimately doomed to failure. Things crumble, people get old and die, relationships fracture...all of which causes grief, and stress, and unhappiness. An inner contentment, on the other hand, requires nothing other than peace of mind, a "quietness," as Krishnamurti put it. And yet it is this seemingly simplest of pleasures that often seems most difficult to attain.

Living the episodic life, therefore, is yet another attempt to skirt the obstacles we put in our own path to such a state--a way of living that recognizes the past has indeed shaped us (both physically and mentally), but need not confine us.

In the words of the once and always Dude, "You don't have to be who you think you are."