The surprise of the inevitable

How can it be that I am surprised by the banality of our species when I was expecting it for all my adult life? Is the culprit Hope? Did her claws dig into my back, in her ecstasy or reverie I cannot be certain, sufficient to snatch my attention from what was my birthright? Can the boy who imagined a world of disappointment grow into a man who is disappointed in the world he finds himself within? One would think that I would have seen it coming, and yet somehow I’m surprised.

This is a story of sapience obstructed by sentience. It is of the mundane acting as a filter, a lens, or even Maya itself acting as a defense mechanism against the awful reality that stands at the core of whatever heavenly truths lay at our feet. God is dead, for sure, but so is Brahma. We have killed all the deities. And perhaps Nietzsche also saw that in doing so, we have killed our own imagination and creativity. For in being the creators of gods, who so graciously gave us our intellect, creativity, and our very souls, we have given dominion to the rules which we created to preserve the temples to our dead gods.

Has it ever occurred to you that we created laws? Rules too. In fact, all the various guiding stars of our world we put there, ostensibly, to make things better for us all. And, I suppose, there is some truth to this trope of culture. And yet, how often do the majority of us find ourselves bristling against such gilded ceilings. We gaze up at them, marveling at their complexity and staticity (oh but patience! We can change them if we work together! Vote!) and we are distracted by the fact that they hide the sky. I’m sorry; I am instructed to correct myself and say that they protect us from the elements, from nature red in tooth and claw.

This is precisely how I came to be caught pants-less with Hope, in delicto flagrante, hiding from my very own self. I found myself mesmerized by the this thin skin covering reality. The economic necessity of it makes this…error?–That is an open question—it makes this set of circumstances understandable.

But, if I haven’t made this completely clear, I was thinking about all of this. Decades of reading philosophy, talking people’s ears off about Nietzsche, spending a summer reading Foucault, writing long screeds that almost nobody reads….

All so that I find myself at middle age, surprised in an unexpected way. And my regurgitated thought keeps circling back to the obvious trope; this is what the crisis is. This psychological trauma is not just mine, even insofar as it is all mine at the very same time. This is the human condition. A condition that while universal, isn’t ubiquitous nor always perceivable.

The catalyst?

A couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine from school, Frankie Trataglia, died suddenly. As a person who was pretty well known around town, his memorial was well-attended, and the shock of it was obvious. This led to two separate, but related, things happening to me in particular. The first is the obvious reminder of mortality and its unpredictable timing for all of us. But the second was more impactful to me. You see, I’ve had social anxiety for as long as I can remember. And this led to some rather awkward relationships with the other kids in school. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I was spacey, shy, and distant from most people, and insofar as the “cool kids” went, I seemed to be able to slide into their lives for brief intervals, and was never sure if the jokes were good-natured or not. My wager is a bit of both.

And seeing these kids, grown into adults with kids of their own, showed me that not much has changed. I still am not sure whether I’m in on the joke or I’m the joke. I was surprised to see that whatever confidence and certainty I can muster in my adult stage of life, I’m instantly thrown into my teenager’s self and soul as soon as I’m back in that world. And I can’t tell if it’s in my head or real. What’s the difference, right? I create the world, don’t I? You’re all just NPCs in my simulation. But what I didn’t and still don’t know is which type of NPC I am in their simulations. I only knew that the world was ugly and we are all stuck in our own simulations. And I also knew that a pretty unique and interesting simulation was gone, and that one day mine will be gone too.

And I knew this when I was 16.

And yet I am surprised.

The Reaction

I resigned from my job. I told my former supervisor, as I walked out of the office, that he’s an idiot. And in a set of (important?) ways, he is an idiot. My friend assures me it’s bad management. I might have been able to save my place there, albeit with some awkwardness, but I knew that it was time to go. So, not knowing what was next, without a plan, and during a time when I was already beleaguered by seasonal depression, I peaced out. It was simultaneously a decision which was absolutely necessary for my mental health and which may have terrifying consequences for the rest of my life. There is no regret, but there is a fair amount of uncertainty and fear, associated with this necessary decision.

When I did the necessary deed, the news of Frankie’s death had already reached me. It hadn’t yet cut into me, but it had a grip on me. It would be some days after leaving the office, the word ‘idiot’ ringing in my head, before the reunion of high school people (wordplay intended) wherein I would revisit old traumas, but the chemical reaction was already initiated. There was no way that I was going to make it out of this intact. Something had to change.

I can’t go back to working for some other corporation, can I? The dehumanization of it, the sterile, static, covering of it. Another Sistine chapel disguising the sky. It’s rules, policies, and culture stifling to creativity or nuance. It’s pay sufficient but uninspiring. It’s HR department never your friend.

And if corporations are people, they make a twisted and grimy culture of individuals, If I were to borrow from certain religious images (as I am apparently wont to do), I would say that Babylon is building its tower even yet, as the Lord descends his hand to destroy it. We have created a world of laws, rules, and institutions which were meant to protect and to guide us. And while ‘failure’ might be too strong a word, I think it’s appropriate to point out the displeasure that so many people have concerning the nature of this human project. The Structures aren’t going to hold as is. And yet we find ourselves mesmerized by the thin skin of this illusion—this Maya—of the protection we are supposedly under.

I don’t believe it. And I knew this when I was 16.

So, why am I so surprised? And, perhaps more importantly, by what specifically am I surprised?

I’m still working it all out, but I think I’m mostly surprised that I wasn’t able to dodge it. It’s not that I thought myself in some way superhuman (was I to expect I was one of the ubermenschen?), but that I thought that being aware of the problem might be enough to avoid at least some significant portion of it. But there is no avoiding it. You see, what I knew at 16 was that the world was awful and that too many awful people were in control. What I don’t think I was willing to admit, until fairly recently, is I don’t think there’s a fix.

There’s no fix because people aren’t evil. There’s no such thing as bad people or good people (although, perhaps there are important gradients), there is just the fact that we are all mesmerized by the skin of the cultures in which our minds were programmed. To solve the problem, we would have to be able to transcend that (I’m reading Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which introduced the idea of the “veil of ignorance”—a theoretical fantasy), and I don’t think anyone can. Not even me.

There is no Justice. Perhaps there can be justices, but there’s no fix. We’re all going to die, we’re going to disagree, condemn, and feel self-righteous at times, but all the tribes are run by people mesmerized by the thin skin of our cultural programmings, and we might as well burn it all down as enjoy our pretty ceilings.

Perhaps this is the depression talking, but I do remember some study demonstrating how depressed people have a more objective perspective. Doesn’t bode well.

I hope everyone is enjoying their gilded ceilings.

Accommodating to Connotation

Since the discussion about the word “shallow” and such with my last post, I have had a couple of discussions with people about the pragmatism of bowing to popular connotations of words.  Essentially, I’m being too literal and not understanding that some words simply have connotations that color them, I’m being told.  Therefore, if I choose to ignore those popular connotations I will invite mis-communication.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

While I can point back to what a word really means, according to a dictionary or a philosophical tradition (for example), having a reasonable explanation for ignoring commonly used connotations of a word is not going to help when I inadvertently offend or confuse someone such that they ignore any more that I have to say out of annoyance.  After all, as Wittgenstein said, it is the use of a term that really provides the context for meaning.

This problem of  word connotation, use, and definition is actually a problem that atheists have in general, as the term “atheist” is (mis)understood by many to mean something other than how I and the vast majority of the atheist community uses it.

And because of the misunderstanding of this term in our culture (and the world), atheists have had to re-educate people to a different usage.  That is, the common usage by many people was simply wrong.  It didn’t matter that it came to mean Satan-worshiper, immoral heathen, or person who says there absolutely is no god.  What mattered was that when actual atheists came out of the closet, they didn’t fit into these definitions.  When the term is analyzed in context to the relevant philosophical questions, the use that makes sense is “lacks belief in any gods.”  Connotations be damned!

Shaming and depth-evaluation

So, when Greta Christina started defending fashion (I know, I’m writing about it again!) as not being shallow (also not vain or trivial), she was defending it against the negative connotations of the word.  She was shallow-shaming.  She was not only saying that fashion is not shallow, but if it were, then it would probably be a bad thing.  So when someone called her out on this, saying that fashion does seem to fit the criteria as being shallow, she reacted as if they had claimed that a thing she cared about was stupid, not deserving of attention, etc.  But what was really happening was a re-evaluation of the term shallow, and our orientation towards how we think about having shallow interests.

Much of our culture and the daily lives we live are shallow.  Further, much of it is primarily and overwhelmingly shallow.  Many of us like our home sports team to win, the physical appearance of our lovers, and that our political candidates appear to be saying something important.  The surface-level part of the majority of our existence is, well, superficial and quite distracting from what lies (clever pun intended) underneath .

But there is depth under those things, and many people appreciate that too.  The relative level of how much we care about one or the other is the criteria, I believe, by which we should judge a person, and not whether they actually like anything that does not dig very deep at any point.  Like fashion.  I will not hold anyone to the standard of never being irrational, never liking anything primarily shallow, or generally not living up to whatever standards we impose upon them.  So, appreciate fashion and baseball if you like, but stop pretending that these things are not shallow and trivial.

Standing up to Connotations

Connotations certainly shift word-usage over time.  The question is to what extent it is legitimate to stop, once in a while, and say “wait, I think that the connotation which has built up around this word is philosophically problematic and has implications which you may not be aware of.”  Or you might say something less complicated, if you are not me.

But at bottom it is sometimes useful to recognize that we may be demonizing a term (like “shallow” or “slut”), artificially heightening it (like “faith”), or even unnecessarily moderating it (like “accommodationist”).  Sometimes the connotations of words are not valid, if considered carefully.  Sometimes we need to step up and declare that the way our culture, or a segment of it, uses a word is simply problematic or wrong.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking shallow pursuits, being a slut, or being an atheist.  There is nothing inherently good about having faith, and we should not give that term the free pass it usually gets in our culture.  And we should not consider accommodationists (those nice atheists who defend religion and apologize for us mean atheists) as being the wise, moderate, and fair critics they think of themselves as; sometimes a thing is just wrong, and there is nothing wrong with pointing that out.

So, yes, fashion is shallow and I’m pointing that out.  Like fashion, do you? I don’t care, nor will I judge you as a bad person based solely on that fact.  Only like things like fashion, weight lifting, pop music, sports, and interior design?  Well….