Saturday, February 11, 2012

Foghorns & Lighthouses

I awoke to the sound of foghorns on the Bay.  I love waking up in a place where you can know the weather just by listening.

In heaven, there will be foghorns.  Not right next to me, obviously, but in the distance.

If you're at all interested in the history of Rhode Island lighthouses--and really, you should be--there are a few good links out there, in particular, at Lighthouses of the U.S. and the U.S. Coast Guard's website.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the metaphoric sense of foghorns and lighthouses, I've been reading Arthur Kleinman's book, What Really Matters: Living A Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger (New York: Oxford UP, 2006, Kindle Edition).

Kleinman argues that we typically overlook or deny the extent to which "ordinary experience" involves "troubling circumstances and confounding conditions that threaten to undo our thin mastery over those deeper things that matter most" (3).

In particular, he suggests that a "classic American cultural coping response" involves assuming a "[m]agical belief in technological supremacy over life itself" and "facing only problems that reach the crisis level one at a time" (6).

In essence, we assume that when it all hits the fan, it will do so in small, measurable increments.  And only come from a single direction.

As anyone who has been alive for more than five minutes knows, however, it just ain't so.

Kleinman notes that "financial advisors, insurance salespeople, surgeons, psychological counselors, security experts and many other professionals have a vested interest in selling the comforting but fundamentally misleading notion of certainty about control over human affairs" (6).  This is the "society-wide myth" of "risk management" (6).

At the same time, however, as I suggested in a previous post (Being Patient), there is a parallel trend of "selling" dangers that don't actually exist in order to convince consumers that they can buy certainty, somehow.

As Kleinman suggests, "Our pervasive consumer culture is founded on another myth of control--the belief that we can solve our problems through the products that we purchase" (7).

It would be nice, obviously, but again, it just ain't so.

So what's an existentialist to do?  Obviously, if we all thought about the radical danger and instability in our lives--the fact that I could reach for my cup of coffee right now, fall over, bang my head on the corner of the desk and never blog again, for instance--we wouldn't get out of bed.

It isn't possible to face that kind of radical uncertainty at every moment of every day, I don't think, without going nuts.  At the same time, however, we do ourselves a disservice if we count on a predictability that simply isn't there.

Life really isn't fair sometimes.  Stupid things happen, and sometimes they're followed by approximately 512 more stupid things, none of which you actually "deserved" in any sense of the word.

As Kleinman points out, in the Bible, Job refers to his state of mind in the wake of his troubles as "vexed" (in Hebrew, "ka'as").

Satan stole all of his property (500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels), killed his children (7 sons, 3 daughters) and, when that wasn't enough, afflicted him with boils.

As he sits among the ashes, scraping his ulcerous skin with bits of broken pottery,  Job acknowledges he feels "vexed."  His wife tells him he should just "curse God and die."  (Hey, thanks, honey.) 

Admitting he's seen better days, Job nevertheless reproaches her for her lack of faith.

The story of Job possess such resonance because we all know of people who have been wronged who have  in fact done nothing wrong.  Their stories frighten us, because they could so easily be ours.

We prefer, however, to pretend that they couldn't be.  As Kleinman suggests, "The fear seems to be pervasive that if we admit what our condition is really like, we will fall apart, both as individuals and as a society" (10).

The alternatives however, are not necessarily an either-or of despair or denial.  Kleinman argues that "seeing the world as dangerous and uncertain may lead to a kind of quiet liberation, preparing us for new ways of being ourselves, living in the world, and making a difference in the lives of others" (10).

I've seen this development in my own life over the past several years.  It is extremely difficult to frighten or intimidate me at this point, simply because I've been through a lot and I realize that there's no guarantee that more might not happen any minute now.

Anger and bitterness have always been options; so too has panic.  I think you have to experience all of these moments as well: you have to be royally pissed at everything and everyone, you have to acknowledge that you didn't frickin' deserve this, and neither did the people you care about.

And you have to have a major freak-out or two, if the situation warrants it.

But then, yes, you slowly gain a new sense of perspective: some days, a sense of the senseless of it all can be overwhelming.  But for me, the result of those moments is realizing that, if meaning isn't inherent, it can always be made.

We can construct lives of quiet significance, by refusing to allow the anger and chaos and bitterness of other events and people determine who we are and how we will be.

Even if we heed the foghorns and lighthouses of life, we'll still find ourselves totally wrecked from time to time.  But then, we navigate differently and find ourselves wiser for our experiences.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."