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!

Monday, June 6, 2011

More on murder, etc.

A commenter named Garak raised an interesting objection to our recent post on the issue of murder. In sum, he argued that societies need laws because without them, "'negative' behavior would become more common and extreme." Well, this may very well be so - after all, we must assume that at least part of people's reluctance to commit crimes is their desire not to go to jail. Indeed, our entire justice system is based on this principle (well, that and the also-human nature urge to punish people for bad behavior, which explains why so many are eager to send the current version of Roman Polanski to prison for actions of the 1977 version).

But back to Garak's point--this is certainly a consensus view, but does it hold water? In fact, we are not so sure... Indeed, one of the oft-discussed areas of philosophy over the years has been the issue of altruism - why does it exist, and does it confer any evolutionary benefits? There are several views and we will not get into them here, but we can surely say that not only do humans have a capacity for empathy, but they also seem to genuinely care about the well being of other people. So we do not view it as a fait accompli that fewer (or no) laws would lead to an outbreak of "bad behavior"; indeed, one could argue just the opposite - that without specific laws to guide them, people might think more carefully about their actions. (This is very similar to the unfounded arguments many make against libertarianism - that without laws society would devolve into some twisted version of Mad Max. It is based on the same flawed premise - that people are inherently evil, and only restrained by threat of punishment. In our opinion this is a sad and pathetic view of humanity.) Said a different way--one who worries purely about getting caught is surely more likely to commit a crime than one who views it as "wrong."

Further, consider other animals, which do not have "laws" as such, and yet somehow manage not to kill themselves off in a frenzy of orgiastic murder. How can this be? Think about it...

Finally, getting back to the original point of the matter how "wrong" certain behavior seems to us, the absurd view (that all is physical, and thus nothing "matters") is simply not consistent with the concept of morality. Consider an individual who captured other people and animals, bound them thoroughly, and spent days or weeks feasting on their still-alive remains. Horrible, no? And yet, our children have been watching a spider do this outside one of our windows for the last few weeks. Is the spider evil? Mentally unbalanced? Should we incarcerate it and try to "re-educate" it? If it escapes, should we pursue it and seek to jail it whenever we happen to catch it?

We are no different from spiders (or eels, or cow dung, or even a slab of granite), despite the fact that our self-reflective brains make us view such a statement as beyond ridiculous. We may, as humans, seek to live in ways that make us feel better, and more comfortable, and that (crucially!) maximize our chance for genetic reproduction. But we should not fall into the all-too-easy trap of believing our actions, emotions, and "beliefs" are in any way different from other physical processes--one might as well ascribe meaning to sea tides or cloud formations.

But while the absurd man recognizes this fact, it is inaccurate (and misguided) to assume he will simply act with impunity. In fact, the opposite is far more likely. As the philosopher Derek Parfit once said about his recognition of the absurd:

"My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness...When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others."

For those interested, Parfit's new book On What Matters publishes tomorrow - we are eagerly awaiting our copy...