Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Me is My God

“It takes a great man not to allow any of his time to be frittered away,” Seneca says. The stoics are great to read, you have a sense that they are in touch with themselves if anyone is, that all of life has been figured out and that rationality and virtue will lead us to the Promised Land. But what is it to fritter away one’s time? Watching television and playing video games, that surely counts. Reading the newspaper, chatting with friends on the cell phone, going to parties, doing drugs, dancing the night away only to collapse onto your bed in a stupor and wake up the next evening, that probably counts too. Contemplating the meaning of life, working on a poem that likely no one will ever either read or understand, going for a run so you can remain healthy and achieve peace of mind, that supposedly does not count. But it does seem that at the end of the day you collapse on the same bed. Unless you believe that our actions have consequences after we die, we shall all end up in the same place: a blink of an eye in the vast infinity of the machinery of the cosmos and it will be over, as quickly as it began. A work of art redeems time. Can this be true for other experiences as well? A truly intense moment which attains an eternality not upset by the passage of time, which we know to be either relative or unreal altogether?

The unexamined life is not worth living, every philosopher must preach that or there would be no basis for one’s profession. But against that stands the formidable where ignorance is bliss ’tis folly to be wise. Perhaps we simply inflict unnecessary pain upon ourselves when we demand the love of wisdom, and we would be happier just accepting on faith what our elders, church or government has taught us. Tolstoy clearly believed that: the religion of the common man was the truth, not the intellectualism of the educated elite. The problem is that once you begin to consider which of these two alternatives is the better you are already lost to the life of the mind. Kind of like the declaration that there is no truth: the very activity of thinking betrays itself.

Betraying oneself: this reminds me of how untrue we are, both to ourselves and to others. As the story goes Confucius searched the world over for an honest man and found only himself, and Socrates was wise only because he admitted he knew nothing. One of my most profound epiphanies occurred when I was falsely accused of a crime I did not commit—of all things, eating someone else’s banana from the communal pantry. I blamed this false accuser, I denounced him from atop the outdoor track’s rickety grandstand that lonely starry night many moons ago. But then the truth descended upon me: that I was no better than him, that I too have often lied out of fear or petty resentment. Then the world caved in on itself, my soul expanded and I became the universe and I saw God in every little thing. Realizing that I was nothing I became everything, and becoming everything I saw that God and I were one. My me is my God and I can know no other, St. Catherine says. She too realized this mystical insight, no doubt as a result of a likewise persecution. It is a sad truth that we learn only when we suffer. Perhaps that is the raison d’etre of suffering.

If one could judge the quality of one’s life by the quantity of one’s epiphanies, I would be living an excellent life and there would be no cause for questioning anything. But alas, the insights I have are fleeting moments and then I am thrust back into frustration, desire, and regret. I have realized that there is no such thing as a final enlightenment, for when I think I have a grasp of the whole, I later realize it was merely another rung on the ladder. Even when I feel closest to someone a moment later I can feel a mile away. In the end one realizes that a deep all-abiding loneliness lies at the heart of each one of us. It is everywhere around us and within us, and we spend our entire lives running away from it. We desire wholeness but our very desire to become something more than we are creates an alienation between that which we are and that which we ought to be. Freud wrote a lot about this situation; he called art, religion, and philosophy “palliative measures” we take in order to bridge this insufferable gap. But ultimately he concluded on a pessimistic note: there is no way out, no exit as Sartre would say. We are condemned to our hell as a result of our psychologies which are in turn dependent on our biologies. And we know that biology is ultimately derived from physics. But what is physics derived from? If from nothing, our life is “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And if from God we can then ask why such a heavenly being would want to create such a hell for us.

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