I’m sitting here and surveying what I think I have learned over the past twelve months. Some of these lessons are “old,” but it is not uncommon that we re-learn what we know. Consider this an early start on my end-of-the-year reflections.
What does it mean if the universe is an intelligent affair? Some people say that the essential sound of the universe is a monotone in the key of A. I think that the universe is more like a fugue. I believe the universe is a complex interweaving of multiple voices in counterpoint. It is the ongoing unraveling of a complex of multiple manifolds. It is a constant anti-entropic process of becoming. It is a personality with intention. Like all personalities, it is complex.
Hear me out; I know it's easy to get lost in that opening paragraph.
If the universe really is complex, if ideas (consciousness) are part of its composition, if it really does have intentionality, then what is this distinctive property of the human species that we call “consciousness”? There would seem to be, in the realm of ideas, a sense of time that defies a purely physical notion of time. There would seem to be simultaneity of eternity.
This simultaneity occurs when we encounter personalities from the past, or communicate to personalities in the future, in the realm of ideas. As I listen to a composition by Bach or read the Socratic dialogues by Plato, I am encountering the minds of the creators of these texts. I am encountering those who have long since physically departed from the scene. They endure as thoughts, whether musical thoughts, artistic thoughts, literary thoughts, scientific discovery or otherwise.
Some ideas are constructive and creative, other ideas are bestial and divisive. Some people love to play to the bloodthristy crowd. Nothing succeeds in politics like playing on the fears of the population. While FDR reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; today's leadership believes that preying on fear is the best ticket to ongoing power. And popular opinion falls for it, because popular opinion wants to be led -- even if the journey ends at the bottom of a cliff.
Our inclination in politics and religion is to join up sides. We are never as happy as we are when we have an enemy we can hate and fear. So Christianity has needed Islam and Capitalism has needed Communism. Little boys struggle hard to distinguish themselves from little girls. So heterosexuals have needed homosexuals and Europe has needed Africa and the Far East.
When the Cold War ended, we seemed to be drifting at sea until we could construct a new source of terror and fear in the form of radical Islam, which we ironically funded and trained, ostensibly to fight the Russians. For the unsophisticated, it is a conflict with the entire Islamic world – and by our clumsy intervention in Central and South Western Asia, this is what it may yet become.
Fundamentalists never become as animated as when they are talking about the evils of secularism, paganism, and sins of the flesh. Liberals and Conservatives need each other, as do Republicans and Democrats. The entire universe is a dual relationship between the converse and the obverse, between the inside and the outside. Light and shadow seem to go together.
Can individuals, or societies, separate their light and their darkness? Ancient societies relied on slavery in order to free up classes of people to become artists and scholars. Can we affirm the products of those scholars, yet ignore the socio-economic system that produced them? Are we really black and white squares on a chessboard, only fooling ourselves that we can be one and not the other -- that the opposing sides are not inseperable?
Our deepest, most intimate and contradictory curiosities and desires always lie just below the surface. There are some ideas that we only express indirectly, because it is not socially acceptable to speak boldly about such things. We toy with forbidden ideas by way of indirection. It may be a sign of good taste that a part of us remains concealed. But is it a path to growth to ignore or supress that which makes us uncomfortable? Do not be fooled by outward appearances; what they conceal about a person is always much rawer and more interesting.
We are always amazed when we see different sides of people we thought we knew, when they are around a new set of people. The people we "know" are seldom what they seem to us to be. We are social beings. We are very much products of our social environment, far more than we like to admit. But when popular opinion imposes "rules-of-the-game" that we are expected to have the "good sense" to decipher and follow, beware. Such "rules-of-the-game" are the stuff of which tragedies are made of.
The economy of behavior in the contemporary world insists that we choose sides of opposition. It insists that we play according to a set of pre-determined “rules-of-the-game,” than confine us to a logical set of actions and reactions not unlike a train moving down the track – unable to go anywhere that the track does not go. We become committed to a form of inevitability. Our behavior and responses are pre-scripted. We may have a little more lee-way than the train because we can move around in a box that frames our options. The difference between a train and a box is that the box creates the illusion of freedom; but there is still a narrow sense of what is “practical.” You dare not think outside of the parameters of the box.
Thus the invasion of Iraq became inevitable because once the neo-conservatives had set their sights on dismantling Iraq as a sovereign state, back in the mid-1980s, when they goaded Iraq to invade Iran in hopes of destroying both nations it only became a matter of finding or manufacturing an excuse for executing plans for invasion. Mass media has so well conditioned the thinking of the U.S. population that we tend not to question the legitimacy of occupation (as in the Palestinian territories or Iraq) but we don’t think twice about condemning and de-legitimizing resistance to occupation. We condemn the effect without questioning the cause. Then we sit back in comfort thinking that our actions will not come back to haunt us here at home.
We keep thinking that we must continue as we have been doing, never questioning the logic that seems to lead to an accumulation of tragedies. We say, “I have arrived at my conclusion logically; my actions follow logically from my premises." But the paradigms that we have accepted, both in terms of the assumptions behind our premises and in our preconditioned responses, may yet destroy us. It’s like a person who re-traces his motions along a previously established track until he runs out of options.
I sometimes wonder whether or not we are capable of having original thoughts anymore. Is what we call the “self” really just an assembly of odd bits and ends that we have picked up here and there along the way? Are we now reducible to the stereotypes that are constantly being fed to us by popular culture? Are we capable of understanding ourselves, and each other, outside of those stereotypes? Can you have a conversation with anyone about current events without feeling as though you are listening to a re-broadcast of Fox News or CNN?
We communicate ideas by telling stories. Most people do not have the time or patience to wade through dry presentations of facts or theories, especially if they are unfamiliar with the details of the subject matter. Narrative endures as one of the most effective means of human communication. Mastery of narrative is a key element in being effective at persuasion. We must collect, recall, and re-interpret stories.
Stories help us to pay attention. Stories make details more significant. Stories teach us how to “see.” We look at our world with new eyes, new interpretations, new understanding. We re-structure the sequences or scenes in our lives, so that experiences that may otherwise seem random and chaotic begin to make sense. Stories help us to become aware of our surroundings and to care about our world, rather than simply to go through life on auto-pilot as if there were nothing in the ordinary and the everyday experiences that is worthy of our attention, and as if we are really living when all of our responses are mental and physical reflexes.
But what kind of stories do people want? All kinds, really – so long as those stories uplift and inspire them. Life is difficult and frightening enough as it is; one does not need narrative of confirm one’s insecurity in the world. Every day one is confronted with examples of people being mercilessly crushed by deliberate or random action. People turn to story, to narrative, to make sense of their world. They want examples of how individuals confronted the harshness, the cruelty and the indifference in the world and overcame it. They want to know how one survives. They want to know how one thrives.
Can individual behavior break out of the paradigm? As individuals we seem not to question the assumptions of our society, that “success” means popularity and material wealth; that “happiness” means self-indulgence and narcissism; and that “freedom” means arbitrary action, apart from consideration of ethics or morality. We are so committed to these paradigms that if anyone questions us on this we get angry; “everybody does that or thinks this way – you are just lying if you say that you do not do this.” We want to drag everyone down to our impulsive and self-absorbed level. We deny that there is any choice to be had in the matter. We say that it is only “human nature.”
In a world where everything seems to be breaking down, even as we try to hold it together; in a world of ongoing unraveling and decay, in a world where we begin to realize, as the decades pass, that we will never be so healthy or full of energy as we are right now – in such a world where we are constantly trying to hold everything together, we require stories about the triumph of the spirit. We need stories where, despite all odds, the embattled win. We need stories that give us hope.