Showing posts with label meaning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label meaning. Show all posts

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Sermon Under the Mount

 [I have been asked to deliver a sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Church my family attends at some point in the near future. I think this message--or some variation of it--is what I'm going to use].

I still don't know what to make of mankind, or 'manunkind' as e.e. cummings called us. George Carlin correctly identified the twin poles in our nature when he called his second book 'Napalm and Silly Putty'. On the one hand, we are capable of great levity, leisure, and gentle innocence. On the other, we have made chemicals that can burn the skin off of young children, and sear the lungs of anyone who breathes it.

Let's dispense with gods right from the start: we are alone here. Thankfully. We are condemned to freedom, as Sartre proclaimed, and there could be no fairer business. So this world is really what we make it, and oh, what we have made it.

We have in the U.S. a social system that turns human beings into appendages of the means of production, strips from them their ability to see in themselves and their fellow mean that we are all 'ends unto ourself', and prevents us from self actualizing. Capitalism is a great and vicious machine that must always be moving, and it is fueled by the churning out of alienated human bodies.

On the other hand, look at the human response to this calamitous system: we have social workers, faith groups, and individuals compelled by pity to treat their fellow man--their fellow sufferers as Schopenhauer would put it--with great kindness.  It is moving to see the activity of human hands motivated by human hearts that have managed to pry themselves from the sheer requirements of surviving in this law of the jungle society we inhabit.  I am constantly touched by a decency that seems to reside somewhere beneath the loads of paperwork, dirty laundry, and self flagellation that piles itself up on top of the typical American spirit. I see it daily in the work I do at the shelter I work at. The little old lady who makes sure our tables always have fresh flowers on them. The volunteers who come into our shelter during the winter to take care of the feet of our residents and give them new shoes. The children who come in to help their parents serve meals, who put smiles on many life-hardened faces. I am an unwavering atheist, but I have been touched by the various faith groups who have come into our shelter in various capacities to lift the spirits and the standard of living for our residents.

Let me go back to Schopenhauer for a minute. I feel like I'm in danger of over-quoting this excerpt, but it really has moved me and stayed with me. It has moved me so much in fact, that I named my Chihuahua after the great pessimistic philosopher, which--if you know what Schopenhauer's relationship with dogs was--is not the backhanded compliment it may seem to be.
He said,
"The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misereres. However strange this may sound, it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forebearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes."
Amen and amen. We are all born into this world screaming and frightened, naked and dependant. We die as alone as we do together, and as Hamlet observes in the graveyard, the worms feed upon the corpses of kings and popes as easily as they do those of peasants. In between, we make choices, choices which have been limited for us by our genetics, or circumstances, and the degree to which we accept and internalize our social conventions and taboos. We are a superstitious species, and we cling to certainty and treat inquiry as something of an extreme sport.

We kill one another. We leave 'the least among us' to die, to remain unsupported, to roll the stone of their lives forever up and down the mountainside. We leave our potential untapped, we fail to truly see each other, to love each other, to embrace each other. We take our angers and frustration out on the people we love the most.

But we also make love. We dance, we help, we create art. We listen. We share. We do things 'for the hell of it', which is the best reason of all to do anything.  We are patient. We are kind. We practice "tolerance, forebearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes".

We're not far out of the trees, and death is an inconvenient book end. If anything, that obelisk that stands at the end of each of our individual book shelves (I like to imagine that some of our shelves are composed of cook books, some photography, some literature, some pulp, some technical and instructional manuals, and some vast collections of pornography), should spur us on to do something, even if that something is only to read faster.

I don't know what to do with these different manifestations of the animal called man. I can see both seeds--the napalm and the silly putty--in my own character. I can feel them both very fully at different times, and at different times can take solace in both.

I wish I could end this piece on a more declarative note, but above all in my writing, I aim for honesty. So let's stop here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Art Stretches the Middle

On the one hand, I have this constant performance anxiety. I want to avoid committing atrocities, and—if possible—I’d like to perform little acts of goodness here and there. ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity’*.

 On the other hand, I don’t want to be bored, and I don’t know what to do with myself. There really aren’t any instructions for life—I mean, there are, but they’re radically inconsistent and varied—so it’s really anyone’s guess. It’s like when you go to the doctor’s office and have to read the magazines in the waiting area to pass the time. They’re never magazines you’re terribly interested in, but you read them. You learn a little something about the Kardashians, and maybe read an article on managerial empowerment. The doctor’s appointment is the big deal, but it’s not like he’s going to just come out and meet with you in the waiting area. There are protocols. “Everyone, deep in their heart, is waiting for the end of the world to come”^. That’s me.

One good way to pass the time is to engage in art.

According to Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, neanderthals didn't do cave paintings. Homo sapiens did, and the movie is about a particularly wonderful and historic set of them in Chauvet cave in southern France. The paintings are beautiful, and Herzog--reliably--transfers a sense of awe to the audience.

It seems that humans have always used the arts as a tool for making sense of the world around them. That's part of the reason they're my favorite animals. It's probably part of the reason we do terrible things too: our ability to think abstractly enables us to build and to destroy in equally creative ways. It's easy to get caught up in this aspect of our nature. How terrible we can be. But if we weren't us, we wouldn't be making such assessments. We would be moving along as all of our fellow-animals do; drinking, fucking, eating, shitting, sleeping. Not that this is blameworthy. It's not. We're just gifted with the ability to take a meta-view of things when we are so inclined.

And we also get bored.  I wonder if the reason we get bored is because we know we’re going to die. I don’t know if pigs get bored. I think I remember hearing that they do. Whatever the case, they definitely don’t make art while they’re bored. Pigs on Bob Evans factory farms never leave behind bleak existential memoirs the way some survivors of Stalin’s gulags did. Or at least I’ve never heard about that happening.

From the very beginning humans have found activities that fill the time between now and the big appointment with color, as well as lending it a deeper meaning. Art is a tool for escape; we can't escape out the beginning or the end, but we seem to be able to expand the space in the middle. At least conceptually. That's cool.

*Horace Mann
^ Haruki Murakami

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Drinking the Mortal Brew: Come Join Our Hopeless Cause

"Some men spend their whole life furnishing for themselves the things proper to life without realizing that at our birth each of us was poured a mortal brew to drink" ~ Epicurus, 30th Vatican Saying.
"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." ~ Samuel Johnson

I have a disease that is eating away my intestines. It has spread to my stomach, created great ulcers, and has the potential to eventually form a cancer that will kill me. I'm sorry to bring it up, but it's a fact. There's often a mild pain in my gut that reminds me that I'm not immortal. I'm thankful for it. I may not die from this specific condition, but I will die somehow; this is a fact that can be forgotten as we carry on with our day-to-day business.

In my best moments, I am always trying to affirm life--always reminding myself to appreciate clouds and bright Autumn leaves and the sight of children playing; but it's impossible to affirm life without factoring in decay. After all, clouds dissipate. Leaves fall, children grow into adults, and adults grow old and die.

It's good to remember death. We are all dying. We are all transitioning. We are short, strange bursts of energy, and we are as alone as we are together. It's humbling to realize that one day all memory of us will be erased. These words, and the handful of people who read them, will be gone. There will be a world that doesn't know Shakespeare. One day, there will be no world at all. While we're alive, we're those brightly burning Autumn leaves.

So, if all of our work amounts to stitches in a great fabric that will one day be unwoven, why work? And if our lights will one day go out, what difference does it make when they go out?

Of all the advice I've received on this issue, I think Albert Camus puts it in the best (and possibly least comforting) way:

"The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions ... and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man"

I guess the reason we keep going on is because we can, as an act of sheer will in a mechanical and impersonal universe. We provide the universe with the personal. Our lights will go out, and we will accept the extinguishing when it comes, but until then we will persist, because we can. And we will do good work because there is nothing else worth doing. If we're all residents of the Titanic, what's the point in pillaging the rooms of rich evacuees and transporting the goods they left behind to our own rooms, which are rapidly filling with icy water? The only thing worth doing is good. We will play our instruments as the ship goes down. We will help others to higher ground while there is higher ground to go to. We will value each other as intensely as we can in this moment, because our last moment is rapidly approaching.

for more posts in this series, click here.