Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Tragedy of Hope

We're all so desperate for meaning.  But what is it?  What is meaning?

It is something beyond ourselves, outside our individuality, other than our personhood.  It is what Ernest Becker calls our immortality project.  We have a sense that, if we can find some "meaning" for our lives, that "meaning" will continue on after our bodies cease.  The "soul" is that meaning.  So is religion, culture, science, economics, all the projects we contribute to, by "advancing" them, or preserving them, or practicing them, reviving them, spreading them, improving them, revering them, honoring them.

That is why many people cannot contemplate the reality of climate change.  Climate change stands a good chance of killing off all the humans on the planet.  There is good evidence to suggest that a climate where the global average temperature is 4 degrees centigrade above the current will be inimical to human life.  What is a person to think if all the effort they have put in to their immortality project will be for nothing?  What is a person to hope for if they admit that there will be no humans around to appreciate the religion, culture, science, family...whatever...they spent all their life's energy on?

Even most of the scientists that study climate change cannot contemplate the possibility.  They hope that, somehow, their efforts - their studies, projections, statistical analyses, models - will make enough of a difference that it won't get to that point, or that the point will be somewhere further off, or that everyone will get together and do what is necessary to make it not so.

But "everyone" is so afraid to contemplate the future suggested by all those studies, projections, et cetera, that they will not ever be able to "get together" and do anything about it.

The tragedy of hope:  "The scientists say that if you step out in front of a speeding train you will be killed.  I hope they're wrong."

Thursday, July 7, 2016


What does it all mean?  Why are you so mean?  Do you mean it?

"Man's search for meaning."  As if "meaning" is out there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.

Can you identify...that is, can you put me into actual, physical touch with...any thing, being, system that creates meaning other than a human being.  Computers organize data, humans extract the meaning from that organized data.  Animals act, based on instinct and to some degree on learning, but it is humans who identify the meaning of the acts.  When you drop something it falls, which we understand to mean that gravity is acting on that thing, but the thing merely falls, and it is the human that knows what this means.

Humans are the only identifiable source of meaning.  If you say that the existence of the universe means that God must have created it, it is you to whom it means this.  And while others may agree with you (and still others disagree), they are simply agreeing that this is what it means to them.  It can not be shown that this meaning exists outside the minds of those to whom it has this meaning.

And, along with meaning, there is beauty, nobility, compassion, love.  Yes, I know, these things seem to exist outside of ourselves...we observe, we feel, we are impacted by so much that exists outside of us, but it is inside of us that meaning, beauty, nobility, compassion, and love exist...it is inside of us that these meanings exist.

Since the advent of self-consciousness, can you possibly understand the vastness of meaning that has been created within the minds of human beings.  And in such a small space.  If you were to take the volume of the brains of all the human beings that have existed and will exist, it will be such a microscopic volume in comparison to the volume of the universe, and yet it has filled that universe with meaning...at least, that is how we feel.

What will it mean when human beings no longer exist?  And to whom will it mean that?

There is plenty of evidence (and thinking, modeling, experimenting) to suggest that the meanings that human beings have created (progress, value, worth) are in the process of creating a world in which human beings cannot exist.  A world that is, on average, four degrees hotter than the one in which human beings developed, cannot support the continued existence of human beings.  Not because we won't have enough air conditioners, but because the weather that will result from that hotter world will prevent us from growing the food that we need to sustain our bodies.

And, when our bodies are gone, what will become of our meanings?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Life in the Littoral Zone

I guess most, if not all, travelers find themselves here, from time to time - that space, zone, phase, moment during which one is neither here nor there...staring out through the window into scenery of which one will never have anything but a fleeting memory...the insides of airports and train stations which, more and more, resemble each other, to the point where one may be unable, at some given moment, to say exactly which one is in...motel rooms...freeways passing through wall enclosed housing developments, whose numbered off ramps are clotted with a limited set of chain restaurants, and gas-station-mini-markets.

Literally, the littoral zone is that space, at the edge of an ocean, which is sometimes under water, sometimes not. Lots of stuff happens here, especially where there are rocks. Stuff likes to grow here, where there is lots of available water and also lots of sunlight. It is a very active place, a place of great variety, a place of change, a place of the moment. It is where you find the best flotsam and jetsam...messages in bottles, broken bits of ships, and the detritus of our plastic culture, mixed with the bones of birds, the shells of sea creatures, and the partially devoured carcasses of beasts...bits that are here today, and may be gone tomorrow. It is a place of wealth and confusion.

It is neither the ocean nor the hills, neither here nor there, although it is most certainly its own place.

You can't live there, though...at least, not if you are a person. It takes a special kind of creature to live in this place, clinging to rocks or buried in sand, waiting for the water to return, before opening the mouth into the great current of sustenance that flows around our world.

And in the littoral zone of the mind? You can't live here either. People need more sustenance than that, a more constant immersion, and at the same time, a more solid footing. In the littoral zone of the mind, one can too often feel bereft, alone, unattached, disconnected, despite the plethora of cyber cafes dotting the land.

I've been traveling, occupying the littoral zone, washing up for a moment...a week, a month, a season...onto various shores, peopled with various wonderful folks. But always, at the back of my mind, I've got one foot still in the water, feeling the tides, awaiting the moment when I'll be drawn back into the surge and motion of the littoral zone.

Our world, too, is in a littoral zone. We've been enjoying a rare moment, a geological shore, on which we have built massive cities, huge cultures, monstrous industries and endless populations. But the tide is coming in. Already it is eating away at the bluffs on which we've staked our lives...warming, drying, shifting...and what we have always known to be solid ground may soon be a quicksand into which all of our greatness may sink.

And where will our world wash up? What will characterize the new shore? Chances are it will be a less happy place for us, whatever it is, because the old shore, the Pleistocene, was where we grew up, became us, became human. We took the Pleistocene world and made it our own, our home, our Holocene, the 10,000 years in which we have slowly, then more rapidly, then more rapidly still, worked our will on this earth. In less than 1000 generations we have remade the surface of the world, industrious creatures that we are, thinking all along that this was going to be the way it always was...after all, didn't God make it for us?

In our making we have made our unmaking...the Holocene is ebbing, as the tidal drift of our climate turns once again to some new epoch, the nature of which will only be known once we have passed through the littoral zone.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

In Security

Security or insecurity, that is the question. Whether it is nobler, or more functional, in the long run, to secure oneself against the many dangers we face in this world, or to face our essential, our existential insecurity, to face it head on, and arm ourselves instead with a knowledge that we CAN face it, and survive, even if we die.

I've been reading The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. Becker is a great fan of Kierkegaard, an unhappy soul if ever there was one. And he had a great deal of rational support for his unhappiness, reasons that Becker also embraces. The greatest of these is an assessment of our external reality, most importantly the inevitability of death.

Oooo, why would anyone want to spend a lot of time thinking about THAT! I mean, it's so MORBID!

Well, sure, but it is also inevitable, right?

Well, if it is so damn inevitable, there's no point in thinking about it. Is there!

The problem, as Becker sees it, is that we actually spend a lot of our time and energy AVOIDING thinking about it, that, in fact, almost the whole of our character, all the "I'm the kind of person who..." ideas we have about ourselves, is designed to deny, to ourselves, the inevitably of death.

Well, isn't that better than moping around going "Woe is me, woe is me, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die..."?

And Becker argues that even this, even depression, neurosis, psychosis are defenses against fully accepting the inevitability of our deaths, the understanding that when our bodies cease to function, our selves, our "immortal souls," will simply cease, the way a light bulb ceases to glow when you shut off the electricity.

It really is a terrible fate, and one that humanity has spent countless hours working to deny. Immortal souls, reincarnation, higher powers...any means by which some part or essence of ourselves will pass beyond the cessation of our bodily functioning into some PERMANENT, if vastly different state of existence. It is a great comfort, I'm sure.

At least it is a comfort to ourselves. Of course, when another person challenges our chosen system of belief, or worse, tells us we are WRONG, we are likely to get a bit upset. And not surprisingly. After all, if I am WRONG, then maybe I don't actually HAVE an immortal soul, and I'm going to have to face the reality of my death. Well fuck you, bub, how do you like looking down the barrel of my gun? At least I know that when YOU die, your immortal soul is going straight to hell. And everyone knows that even an eternity in hell is better than simply ceasing to exist.

But how can you really do it? How could you ever let go of all your stuff, all the material goods that secure you, all the things that you do to secure the stuff that secures you, all the ideas about who you are and what you are like, to stand naked in the face of death? It is, as Kierkegaard and Becker agree, our greatest anxiety, the one that can't be alleviated by any amount of money, or stuff, or therapy. You would simply have to live with it, know it, be it, all the time. Even Jesus didn't ask that much when he said "give up all your worldly goods and follow me."

I wish I had some answers.

I do know that no one ever learned to face fear by denying it. I have let go of a lot of my stuff, let go of "home," of a regular job and income. I do get scared sometimes, get anxious about whether I'll have a place to go next, whether I'll have something to do with my time. Small fears, to be sure, and easily resolved if I would only "get a job!"

 But I have a job: I'm learning to live with anxiety. I still can't do it for very long. I still need rest periods, weeks and months at some organic farm where I've never been before.

And is it going to work? Will I ever learn enough to be able to face death without denial? Damned if I know. Probably better if I just settle down, get a job, a nice income, some consumer goods, do my part to expliot the third world and contribute to global warming...yeah, that would be better.