Virtue or Vice?
Yet another headline on “Why we beat the Neanderthals!” It reflexively followed the common assumption behind most people’s view of evolution, especially human evolution – even from those who claim to fully “buy-in” to Darwin’s implications. – They all still seem to see evolutionary success as a way for good to be rewarded. They may couch, “good” as crafty, or violent, as easily as others may use terms that describe more conventional virtues; but in the end, evolutionary success is still seen as a reward.
You know? It’s not. The variables involved in any extinction, including ours when it comes, are so many and varied, so intertwined, and so heavily influenced by chance and sheer luck, that no such judgments can be supported. Over wide time-frames and across disparate families of life, we may be able to say that some narrowly chosen parameters were best met – in the abstract – by a more “advanced” species rather than by a more “primitive” one; but then again, only by selecting which factors to measure and which to ignore so as to make the resulting judgments meaningless.
Any life-form is tied to the fabric of its ecosystem. If it continues for a time then it has met its conditions. If it dies off, it no longer meets the prevailing conditions it would have had to face if it had continued to exist. There is no virtue or vice involved in either case.
The boy who survived the Titanic to become Nova Scotia’s first automotive traffic fatality.
My cousin recently mentioned this story. It goes against all our notions of fairness, but it rings true, evolutionarily true. A similar headline/obituary could be written for every twist and turn of evolutionary history. Tremendous effort and unique good fortune combine for a while to allow success, even triumph; then a turn of events meets up with internal resources that for whatever reason are not at that moment capable of meeting the challenge ahead, and…
Is this reason to despair? Reason to fall back on toxic denial and fantasy? Those were the responses of the twentieth century. Those were the two major drifts that underlay the dramas of that time, growing out of the implications that came to light upon the end of the nineteenth century. Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg’s discoveries countervailed by those of Maxim and Nobel and Lucian B. Smith, who first twisted barbs onto a wire. Those implications were fully visible no farther into the twentieth century than we are today into the 21st, don’t let anyone kid you. The sensitive and intelligent of that time, not merely clever and ambitious, saw what was there and what was coming, just as some of us might see ahead today.
The tragedy of the twentieth century was that everyone gave up. Granted the implications of what had come to light, what continued to unfold and grind through the decades that followed, were immense. This was an Enormity of the highest order. Also, the shock of this awareness was devastating, in different ways to different people; but it devastated everyone in the way they were most susceptible. Authoritarians entrenched themselves in visions of fear and control. Emotives were paralyzed, turning to escape and fantasy. Both of these branches of humanity ended up living out their preferred form of denial with a nihilistic abandon of our fundamental human responsibilities.
Short-circuit: When a potential, a force, jumps from the desired, useful path and discharges noisily, and possibly dangerously, to the most convenient opposite pole. Human striving has suffered much from the short-circuit, especially if not uniquely in this past century. As understanding has spread beyond its earlier bounds, it has brought an awareness of difficulties beyond what earlier systems of belief had allowed to intrude. At the same time, the erosion of naiveté at some levels removed the virtuous palliatives of those earlier beliefs and left a brooding, petulant cynicism in their place. A short-circuit.
A short-circuit that fed a cascade of short-circuits. The kind of thing that brings down a grid. A vicious cycle compounded of vicious cycles, that perversely broadened and deepened our potential understanding; while they gave us the necessary experience we needed to grow and mature; they simultaneously stripped us of our earlier coping mechanisms, and left us with habits of thought and reaction that have made us increasingly less-able to cope, increasingly stunted and immature.
This dynamic has surrounded us with sparks and flashes. We are blinded by furies that in themselves are meaningless except for their power to blind us further, to deflect us from what matters, to obscure the few quiet surges of conductivity around us that might lead us to a better place.
Navigating this world today is like walking through some manic version of a fevered Tesla laboratory. Sparks flying and electrocution only a tiny miss-step away. We remove the numbing gauze of insulation we wear, at our great peril. It’s easier, almost a necessity, to avoid the most viable currents since they tend to induce the strongest short-circuits. This may be a unique identifier of our time, or it may have always underlain the situation of anyone pushing against the barriers of their time’s common view.
Yet is an awareness and acceptance of our tragic condition such a horrible proposition that it is better to march off into the abyss maintaining our denial? Is this really a better alternative? I don’t see how that can be true. Every example of development from simple to complex, from potential to actual leads us to the opposite conclusion. It is only by facing our realities that we can grow, mature, develop, find traction in our circumstances, and achieve some expression of the meaning we hold within us. Like-wise every excuse given for the opposing views smack of rationalization, the whimper of the defeated caught up in the dramas of their addictions, surrendering to their immaturity.
What this does not imply is an acceptance of any form of short-circuit. As much as our hair may tend to rise, our vision shimmering in fields of potential energy, ozone sharp in our nostrils. There are dangers at every step along this way. Hubris and judgments of self-superiority among the most obvious. We have the urge to see ourselves as anointed, to have answers to be sold wholesale or retail.
That we need to guard against the precariousness of judgment, of ourselves or others; does not imply that there are no judgments to be made, or conversely that all choices are equal, or that in reverse again, that only certain judgments are valid. This shimmering complexity seems dizzying, but dangerous mostly for the potential short-circuits this moment exposes us to, not for any underlying falsehood of this insight. That it puts us in the difficult position of having to navigate between self-delusions either of grandeur or of nihilistic abandon, only clarifies our actual position, removing the insulation we normally wear to cover our potentiality, as if hiding from this constant of our reality somehow gains us some benefit.
We are always on the edge between self-serving platitudes and anxious, soul-sapping doubt. There is no shelf on which to rest, at least not in this life.
I chose to limit my concerns to this life.
I’ve called this forum, soapbox mostly so far, Horizons of Significance. This term captures for me the scene of action I find to be where the struggle for our future plays out. This term covers a habit and practice of searching, seeing, doubting and analyzing whatever appears over myriad horizons, so as to come to grips with them. Not pronouncing, not solving, not despairing, or ignoring, simply coming to grips with them. A perpetual and necessarily contingent set of operations going on into the future until I lose the power to continue. A metabolism as essential to living as breathing or eating, no more right or wrong, no more virtuous or vicious, it simply is.
It’s interesting, or can be, as are all of life’s necessities. Engagement combined with awareness, carried out in a spirit of respect for what it makes possible. This process helps us maintain our continued existence on this stage where we can act and carve out meaning for ourselves. Our second imperative after mere survival has been met.
To me, the worse tragedy comes from abdicating possibility, not from realizing life’s tragic condition. Hiding in fantasies, whether passive denial or actively chasing after chimeras; from the wish for immortality, “do-overs,” either here or on some other plane, or finding refuge in burning anger, resentment and fear. These I find to be worse than tragedy, although the existence and persistence of these attitudes is firmly part of our human condition and cannot be wished away.
At best we can carve out a shifting, imperfect and often occluded awareness of our conditions. No-one is immune to falling for these traps. Any claim, can so quickly transform itself into its opposite, a claim of humility has its own special dangers, along with any striving after “perfectibility.” For myself, one major implication of these reflections has been my need to abandon any pretense of codifying and popularizing any strain of human “improvement.”
The lure of this hope has been strong for me. It has led me along a way I now find untenable. I can’t be party to any system that claims to lead others to a better place. The task is beyond me. It is sufficient, and at the limits of my capacities to simply follow the craft of writing and attempt to do what I can; to think and write and communicate wisps of what might be true. I do not see how I can do anything more, or different from that without doing violence to myself and to anyone I come into contact with.
I have made changes. I want to focus on what I choose to affirm. I claim no rights beyond the right to be my own agent and maintain as much autonomy as I can manage in this world. For me, claiming any ability to do more than that has been a mistake. Not something I regret, but something that once recognized I am compelled to change.
I am aware of what I am aware of, mostly because I’ve had a life of dealing with my own fallibility. My propensity to short-circuit is no less than anyone else’s. If I am to feel as if I am proceeding towards greater self-awareness and potential synchrony with my surroundings, then I must follow and trust my own counsel when I’ve engaged it, and have found a foothold from which to move forward. A foothold, not a shelf, not some lasting verity that withstands the ages, a foothold that might not have been there yesterday, or if it was, that remained hidden, and that might crumble away and be gone again tomorrow. I’m not here to pave a highway, simply to pick my way through what amounts to a life and leave whatever record I’m capable of in case anyone might be interested in one who passed this way.
This represents a loss for me, there is comfort in numbers. It will require strengths I’ve not been able to master before to proceed. I’ll need to rely on myself more, and in a way, open myself more fully to the consequences of engagement with others. I won’t be embracing solitude, the opposite. I’ll be pursuing more connections than ever. But whatever connections I make beyond those already the accumulation of family and long history, will be made in the light of my conditions. I will strive to maintain an honesty growing from a realization that I can’t help anyone unless I can first help myself. Beyond that, I can only help others by hewing to my tasks and providing a record of my passing steps, as much a cautionary tale as a source of direct enlightenment. I can’t expect any better outcome.
To attempt to be clear, – A great ambition of mine, even as I seem to continually obfuscate. – I will be focusing my efforts on my own work; reading, writing, talking and listening, learning and teaching, looking for outlets, and looking to find a living at what I do. I just won’t be trying to complicate this difficult task by trying to do anything more. I’m aware this means I will need to rely on others even more than I had thought. As I do this, I will also strive to be more clear for myself and those I interact with; on what that reliance implies, what the give-and-take amounts to, and what its ground-rules are.
I’m not here to tell anyone what to do or think, just to wrinkle out whatever finds its way into my thoughts and metabolize it into my writing. For now, I don’t limit myself to fiction, although I am tempted to think that essay-writing smacks of pontification by comparison. At least for now, I find it useful. Perhaps the same fault could be found in limiting oneself to fiction and abandoning direct address. I don’t know. I’ll continue to grope about.
For the foreseeable future, a time-frame that gets shorter and shorter in duration as change accelerates, anyone interested in my efforts should look here. These “pages’ are my primary outlet, and on these pages I will announce any future turns-of-events. I hope to, in a phrase I heard a few days ago spoken by a musician opposed to the miss-use of her songs by those who would coerce and torture,
“I hope to inspire, at least to entertain.”
I can see no higher or more deserving ambition than to follow this dictum.
I hope you will join me. Participation is quite easy, join as a reader, subscribe, post a comment, or make a rating. If you find anything of value or interest, take a moment to pass it along to someone you know. I ask that you do these not out of any obligation, the obligations are on my side and self-imposed at that! Just don’t leave it to some unknown others to spread the word if you do find anything here you care about. The dual responsibility of finding meaning and passing it along belongs to each of us and can have no proxies.
At this point of reassessment and renewal of my commitment, I’d like to say,
I’m compelled to a post-script,
This moment of heightened awareness of the precariousness of my conditions, of ours, seems special. It isn’t, other than in the realization. We are all like the boy who survived the Titanic, at least for now, so long as we are still here, the finality of our tragedies not yet having overtaken us. There is nothing special in this. There is no virtue in such an awareness, no vice either, its just the way it is. It's what we do with the time we have that matters. Why? Because we chose it to matter, no more, no less. We have a choice. We live when we exercise that choice positively, affirming something true about ourselves. In so doing we affirm all of life and counter – for a time – the inevitability of decay and entropy.
Meaning, satisfaction, they are ours to forge from the scraps we find within us and around us. There is no reward for good behavior imposed from outside. It’s hard enough to achieve what matters to us, even to recognize what may be possible. Distractions and mis-directions only compound those difficulties, raising the chimeras of validation and paradise imposed.
These only keep us from holding onto the only validation possible, the only paradise we can know; that of our own striving and making, held within a conception of security that is certain there is an end. This isn’t reason to despair. Along with an awareness of our stage, we are nothing without an awareness that we are on it only for a limited time, a time not to be wasted on repenting, or waiting for rewards; but a time to act and think and live, for ourselves and whatever and whomever we find of value around us.