Archive for Idealism

Test for Echo

Posted in Asides with tags , , , , , , , on 2010/02/06 by mattermind

Today’s letter of the day is “D” for disillusionment — for at the heart of the matter, I believe Timon from Athens to be a battered and heartbroken soul.

In asking myself about what I think is the story center, I keep returning to misanthropy and its principle causes. Do we just get jaded at some point and never recover our innocence? What is the nature of humankind? Do we presume Original Sin? Or subscribe to Rousseau’s noble savage? Is man born good and corrupted by society — or does society redeem man from his evolutionary heritage red in tooth and claw?

My base setting happens to be spiritual, hopeful and idealistic to a fault. Despite what I read and hear and see and experience about the world and its limitations, inequalities, sorrows and injustices, I have a fundamental, underlying sense that there is an order pervading it all, a purpose transcending reason and bridging the gap between our literal existence and a meaning we can’t quite put our finger on. I’m a believer.

But at the same time, I recognize agnosticism and atheism as all-too-viable options, especially in response to the daily input we receive from our surrounding environment: the earthquake in Haiti, children dying of malnutrition and AIDS. Perpetual vice, corruption, ignorance, poverty. The cycles of death, disease and decadence that led Buddha to his epiphany about desire at the root of human unhappiness. (It’s not for no reason that D champions the day.) Time passes, yet nothing changes.

What could God be waiting for before pulling the plug on this sea-monkey experiment? Have we improved by one jot?

I feel for Timon and the error in his base assumption: if I do good out of kindness, then life will provide for me. I needn’t concern myself with self-protection and the niggling financial details. Beneficence leads to bounty. Even if I’m not Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. The internal mechanism is just. I have been given much so that I, in turn, may give it all away.

It’s hard not to read the opening act of Timon and think, what a dupe. He’s either guileless or boneheaded or a fraud himself — doesn’t he see that these people are users? Can’t he distinguish between the good and the preening posers pretending to be so? (So, okay, and the letter “P.”)

Neither interpretation skirts the hard truth that the people surrounding Timon are vultures. Shakespeare makes this abundantly clear, both in the before and after images of the Poet and Painter and the Senators who say what they need to in order to get what they want. They are all whores in one way or another.

Timon’s gripe, however, extends outward to all of us. The nature of experience itself is nasty, brutish and short, to borrow words from Hobbes. The moon uses the sun. Eat or be eaten. You can’t escape the primitive war for survival; you can only be ignorant of it or try and close your eyes to it. But all our institutions are illusions, adult games of make believe to convince us we’re something we’re not.

I’m currently reading Ghost Rider by Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for Rush (among his many notable accomplishments). I was particularly drawn to it because of the context in which he wrote it: having lost his daughter Selena to a car accident and his wife Jackie from the devastating heartbreak of the loss — and all within a year’s time — he set off on a journey by motorcycle with no stated direction or purpose other than to keep his “baby soul” alive.

He’s been one of my heroes since high school, the older brother I never had. Though our principle orientations toward the world differ radically, his rational-scientific-skepticism has served as thorny counterpoint (occasionally in 6/8 time) to my tiggerish optimism and belief. No matter how much I might oppose his conclusions, I never fail to gain lots from the Hegelian dialectic, wrestling out on the lawn in the metaphorical backyard. At the end of the day, he is living a life I deeply admire: one of awareness and accountability, of adventure and constant appreciation for the briefness of our flourishing in this time and space (as the As drop by for their say).

The travelogue by motorcycle has been a nice bonus. But the core question at the heart of the heart of the matter has been nagging me, the one that caused me to start reading in the first place: would he find Spirit at some point in the journey? Would the Sophoclean blow delivered like a Greek tragedy finally bring hm to his knees? Would he, like Aquinas, experience a profound religious epiphany in the cathedral that caused him to disavow his previous writings “as straw?”

Reading along, I was struck by this quote:

Everything I ever believed has been blown out of the water, even my simple karmic morality of “you do good and you get good.” Sadly (very sadly) ‘taint so.

But I was equally struck by another, prior quote:

You know, I used to think that, “Life is great but people suck,” but now I’ve had to learn the opposite, “Life sucks, but people are great.”

How to process this in terms of Timon?

One of the major lessons in cognitive therapy is that the map is not the territory. What we think we know about life does not necessarily correspond with how life actually is.  Parents imbue us with a sense of the accepted boundaries, the geography, topography and horizons of our youth that they envision will stead us for the course.  But e’re long on our outward journeys, we discover we’re not in Kansas anymore.

It normally entails neither a radical course correction nor a complete makeover; we’re driving a car and  counter steering as we go along, constantly fine-tuning our belief systems to stay medium on the road, updating and integrating our lived experience into our philosophical works-in-progress (plus or minus the mediated events that wreak havoc on our outlooks.  God forbid we should have to live through the devastation of a Haiti or a New Orleans or a 9/11. But people do. And without necessarily abandoning their faith in an order and meaning to the universe.)

Maybe the take-home from Timon is that he could not ultimately distinguish between the map and the territory. When he lost one, he lost both. Unable to refashion the old pattern from the shards of shattered meaning, he failed as well to create a new, functional worldview. For him, it was either all or nothing at all.

I admire Neil Peart greatly for not compromising his values, for absorbing and integrating the bodyblows of lived experienced and travelin’ on. Not only surviving, but thriving, rising like the Phoenix to bring a new dream into existence.

Life goes on, and we all do the best we can. Hopefully, in the midst of it, we continue to gather in warm, well-lighted places to share and reflect from our individual experiences, to collectively gain from our localized views as dots on a spherical map.

Perhaps, one day, Google Earth will become our GPS of choice, a technological interface for digital men and women, yet one step closer to the heart.

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