The hat trick of survival

An excerpt from “Why Bother?”

by Sam Smith

H. L. Mencken once said that the liberation of the human mind has best been furthered by those who “heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving . . . that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud.”

Mencken made it sound easier than it is. It is a lifetime’s work to clear away enough debris of fraudulent divinities, false premises, and fatuous fantasies to experience a glasnost of the soul, to strip away enough lies that have been painted on our minds, layer after layer, year after year, until we come to the bare walls of our being. Still, it is this exercose, however Sisyphian, that helps mightily to keep us human.

Inevitably such an effort initially produces not beauty or satisfaction, but merely a surface upon which we can work our will should we so choose, a barren facade empty of meaning, devoid of purpose, without rules or even clues to lead us forward. We stand before the wall as empty as it is.

It is at this moment that the deconstruction of mendacity and myth so often fail the social critic, cynic, and ironist — the street person overdosed on experience, the college graduate overdosed on explanations, the journalist overdosed on revelation. This is the point at which it is too easy to wash one’s hands and consider the job done. Hasta la vista, baby, see you around the vortex of nothingness . . .

The problem, of course, is that void. How people handle it can be drastically different. One may leave us with seven books, the other with seven dead bodies. In either case, we can not stare life straight in the eye without pain and without some longing for certainties that once spared us that pain. If we had been born in a time in which the therapy for doubt was punishment, even death, we would not be in such a fix. We would thank or fear whatever gods may be and go about our business if not happily at least with certitude. But the gift of decriminalized doubt changed all that. We are now free to be wrong by our own hand, to not know — worse, to have nothing and no one to blame.

That’s why there are so many attempts to put the question marks safely back into the box, to recapture the illusion of security found in circumscribed knowledge, to shut down that fleeting moment of human existence in which at least some thought they could do the work of kings and gods, that glimpse of possibility we thought would be an endless future.

It is seductively attractive to return to certainty at whatever cost, to a time when one’s every act carried its own explanation in the rules of the universe or of the system or of the village. From the Old Testament to neo-Nazism, humans have repeatedly found shelter in absolutes and there is nothing in our evolution to suggest we have lost the inclination, save during those extraordinary moments when a wanderer, a stranger, a rebel picks up some flotsam and says, “Hey, something’s wrong here. . .” And those of us just standing around say, “You know, you’ve got something there.” And we become truly human once more as we figure out for ourselves, and among ourselves, what to do about it.

No one seeks doubt, yet without it we become just one more coded creature moving through nature under perpetual instruction. Doubt is the price we pay for being able to think, play, pray and feel the way we wish, if, of course, we can decide what that is. Which is why freedom always has so many more questions than slavery. Which is why democracy is so noisy and messy and why love so often confounds us.

If we are not willing to surrender our freedom, then we must accept the hard work that holding on to it entails including the nagging sense that we may not be doing it right after all; that we may not be rewarded even if we do it right; and that we will never know whether we have or not.

Further, the universe is indeed indifferent to our troubles. If God or nature refuse to cheer or punish us for our mercies or misdemeanors, the job is left up to us. We thus find ourselves with the awesome problem of being responsible for our own existence.

To make matters worse, we were set upon this task early in life with little hint that it even existed. The certainties of family, schools and religion typically protect us from the mystery while we are very young; we tend to learn about the loneliness of human existence about the same time we discover one of its few known remedies, someone else’s body and love.

There is no discipline for doubt; no academy that addresses angst. We pretend it doesn’t exist and then find ourselves seeking retroactive immunization from some guru of tranquility or therapy.

Given that we’re talking about one of the central features of the human story, it seems a bit sloppy and strange to omit uncertainty from the curriculum, to not speak of how choice, informed by conscience and community, can give wisdom and direction to doubt. Or why it need not be the inevitable enemy of that triptych of human survival, the hat trick of integrity, rebellion and passion.

The subject matter is there; we just run from it. The cynic runs from the responsibility of replacing what has been destroyed and the convinced avoids the questions from the audience. Many of the rest are just afraid.

o

There are exceptions, of course, among them those who view life in the manner of the existentialists. The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics. But for the purposes of getting a life rather than tenure, Jean Paul Sartre’s definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. Said Sartre, “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.”

In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”

Sartre, while the father of modern existentialism, was not the first existentialist. For example, there was the theologian Kierkegaard, as conscious of God as Sartre was of Marx. According to Kierkegaard, writes Donald Palmer,

We can never be certain that we have chosen “the right values.” This means, among other things, that there is no such thing as existence without risk, and that existence at its very core must be experienced as anguish and dread by every sensitive soul.

To show just how murky existentialism can be, one of the most famous existentialist writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one, telling one interviewer:

No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. . . .

Perhaps this antipathy stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” said Camus. “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

These are not the precise and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions. Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there ain’t no answer. There never was an answer, there ain’t going to be an answer. That’s the answer.

In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon “a sensibility …. an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.”

And it’s not just a heady matter of philosophy or religion. It spills over into business, personal relations and even politics. Mississippi writer Tom Lowe, for example, argues that, “The greatest evils in the world arise from two illusions:

The illusion that “We have no choice.” This belief manifests itself in various forms, the most prominent ones being the belief in the immutability (and often the depravity) of human nature and the almost religious belief in the justice and rightness of laissez faire economic systems. This is ordinarily the illusion of the right. It is a flight from responsibility.

The illusion that we can perfect ourselves and our society. This is a corollary of the belief that people and their behavior are solely the product of their environment. This is ordinarily the illusion of the left. It is a flight from responsibility . . .

The truth lies neither in the left or the right or in some middle-of-the-road position that borrows from both sides. The truth is that we are responsible for everything we do and for everyone and everything our behavior affects, and that responsibility extends to our collective, as well as our individual, behavior. Responsibility is like a seamless web — we are all connected with each other and ultimately with the entire world. It encompasses the choices we make in our capacity as spouses, as parents, as voters, as stockholders, as corporate officers, as employers, as public officials, and as purchasers of goods, but it extends to the entire planet.

This sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?” And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke of moderation:

There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history . . . Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. … The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.

Camus thus avoids the pedagogue’s death by definition, preferring attitude and values rather than direction. He would never have been caught, like that pet of corporatist post-liberalism, Francis Fukuyama, writing a book called The End of History and the Last Man nor claiming that history “appears to be progressive and directional.” While to the post-liberal globalist, history always proves the victor right; Camus preferred to serve history’s subject rather than seek its spoils.

.o

Hectored, treated, advised, instructed, and compelled at every turn, history’s subjects may falter, lose heart, courage, or sense of direction. The larger society is then quick to blame, to translate survival systems of the weak into pathologies, and to indict as neurotic clear recognition of the human condition.

The safest defense against this is apathy, ignorance, or surrender. Adopt any of these strategies — don’t care, don’t know or don’t do — and you will, in all likelihood, be considered normal. The only problem is that you will miss out on much of your life.

Another approach is to be lucky enough to live in a time of heroism. As anthropologist Ernest Becker writes

Men are naturally neurotic and always have been, but at some times they have it easier than at others to mask their true condition. Men avoid clinical neurosis when they can trustingly live their heroism in some kind of self-transcending dramas. Modern man lives his contradictions for the worse, because the modern condition is one in which convincing drama of heroic apotheosis, of creative play, or of cultural illusion are in eclipse.

But even if we are not lucky enough to fly to the moon or land on the beaches of Normandy, there are still some who write heroic scripts for their ordinary lives, replacing the myths that society has smashed in the name of reality. Says Becker:

The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more ‘knowing,’ but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.

It is from this well that is drawn the strength of good firefighters and good teachers and good grandmothers of children whose parents are no longer parents. Their lives are works of fiction written in order to survive the real, a reconstruction of the mythical support a society educated beyond its wisdom thinks it no longer needs. And so this greater society goes to therapy while the writers of their own stories go about their business, preserving human lives as well as the human spirit.

The problem lies near our demand for rationality. As Becker points out, “What typifies the neurotic is that he ‘knows’ his situation vis-à-vis reality. He has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give hope or trust.” And he cites G. K. Chesterton as having pointed out that the characteristics the modern mind prides itself on are precisely those of madness:

Madmen are the greatest reasoners we know …. All their vital processes are shrunken into the mind. What is the one thing they lack that sane men possess? The ability to be careless, to disregard appearances, to relax and laugh at the world …. They can’t do what religion has always asked: to believe in a justification of their lives that seems absurd.

o

The existential spirit, its willingness to struggle in the dark to serve truth rather than power, to seek the hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion, is peculiarly suited to our times. We need no more town meetings, no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads. Instead we need an uprising of the soul, that spirit which Aldous Huxley described as “irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before . . . Man’s greatest strength is his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thought of a free man.”

We need to think the unthinkable even when the possible is undoable, the ideal is unimaginable, when power overwhelms truth, when compulsion replaces choice. We need to lift our eyes from the bottom line unto the hills, from the screen to the sky, from the adjacent to the hazy horizon.

And nobody can do this but us. Hermann Hesse wrote, “Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key.” Emerson agreed, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

o

There is so much to be done and so much fog around it. It is not surprising that many in America have badly misread what has been happening. They continue to confront ideologies that no longer exit. They fail to see that those leading both major parties march only under flags of convenience. They want to discuss principles with those whose only principle is the pursuit of raw power. They wish to discuss beliefs with those whose only belief is the defeat, submission and ridicule of those who oppose them.

We are thus constantly being given false choices. The real choice is whether we can achieve a future which, singly and together, we can experience as something other than an apocalyptic, angry, authoritarian era of violence, greed, cruelty and planetary endangerment.

Once you reject such a future, the remaining choice is a commitment to people, their places and the planet. It is the almost inevitable quality of this decision — which each of us are already making either by intent or accident — that suggests the particular power, hope and terrible danger of our times.

It is the choice of rejecting the internal logic of a technocratic system in favor of judging things by their effects on justice, democracy, community and our ecology. It is a matter of asking the right questions — seeking the right balance rather than the best bottom line, determining human needs rather than institutional requirements, and finding the kindest and most sensible solution rather than the quickest or most efficient. These are not just society’s choices, they are ours.

But here is the dilemma. It often appears, as Matthew Arnold put it, that we are condemned to wander between two worlds — “one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

How can one maintain hope, faith and energy in such an instance?

If we accept the apparently inevitable – that is, the future as marketed to us by the media and our leaders — than we become merely the audience for our own demise. Our society today teaches us in so many ways that matters are preordained: you can’t have a pay raise because it will cause inflation, you are entitled to run the country because you went to Yale, you are shiftless because you are poor; there is nothing you can do to change what you see on TV. Campaign finance reform is hopeless. You may not act in a moral fashion because you will look foolish; you may not take action because you might offend someone; and you may not govern — you may only balance the budget.

And what if we follow this advice and these messages? If you and I do nothing, say nothing, risk nothing, then current trends will probably continue in which case we can expect over the next decade or so:

More corruption, a wealthier and more isolated upper class, more homelessness, increased militarization, a growth in censorship, less privacy, further loss of constitutional protections, a decline in the standard of living, fewer corporations owning more media, greatly increased traffic jams, more waits for services and entertainment, more illness from toxic chemicals, more influence by drug lords, more climatic instability, fewer beaches, more violence, more segregation, more propaganda, less responsive government, less power for legislatures, more for bureaucrats, less truth, less space, less democracy, less happiness. . . .

But what if, on the other hand, we recognize that the future of our society and our planet will in large part simply represent the aggregate of human choices made between now and then? Then we can stop being passive spectators and become actors — even more, we start to rewrite the play. We can become the hope we are looking for.

But we are not strong enough to be our own hope, you say. Then tell me how often has positive social or political change ever come about thanks to the beneficence, wisdom and imagination of those in power. Now tell me when it has come about thanks to the persistence of small, committed, weak groups of people willing to fail over long periods of time until that rare, wonderful moment when the dam of oppression, obstinacy and obtuseness finally cracks and those in power finally accept what the people have been saying all along.

John Adams described well the real nature of change. He wrote that the American Revolution “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery. The green glasses rather than our own unimpeded vision. Oz rather than Kansas.

Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the archaic behavior of the weak and naive.

There is far more to this than personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others — in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love — that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation. Here then is the real possibility: that we are building something important even if it remains invisible to us. And here then is the real story: that even without the hope that such a thing is really happening there is nothing better for us to do than to act as if it is — or could be.

Here is an approach of no excuses, no spectators, with plenty of doubt, plenty of questions, plenty of dissatisfaction. But ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we will have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth doing it.

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