"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,
which distract our attention from serious things."
-Henry David Thoreau
At every turn in life we desire not to see. We turn our heads to look, not away, but towards, something which might cause us not to see. The thing we do not want is to observe the emptiness which resides behind and before and between and within it all. We do not wish to sense the negative silence of the universe’s apparent vacuum purpose. We do not want to know that death is forever beyond a nighttime soon to come which we can neither know or avoid. And so, we busy ourselves with school and work and family and friends and hobbies and interest and gossip and joy and sorrow and peace and gratitude and anxiety and angst and ecstasy and the very fact of the observance that we are alive. Anything…anything at all will do… Anything to avoid the awful aspect and great indifference of a soulless universe without god.
I might go out Into life,
To see what is there,
And then return in peace.
Or, I might stay,
What there is.
There's always that question of what might be found if we go out into the world, if we quit what we know and take on what we do not. But then, what would we miss of what we have when we seek for something else?
I imagine there is goodness in staying put. There is comfort in remaining where we are familiar, and in the place where we are known, and where we seem to know. That is the rub right there... The thinking that we know. That is why I choose to go - not for adventure, nor for change, or for fortune, fame or even the sweet savor of what is new; but to avoid the dangerous distraction of believing that I know. I do not know. And I want to remember always that I do not know. So, I'll go out...and I'll see what is–or isn't–there; and I will return in either peace, or confusion, or stark terror–or maybe I won't return at all–and I'll do so for the sake of the mission of not knowing; for the blessed knowledge and remembrance of just how ignorant, frail and weak I really am.
That's a good way to live. A Stoic going out. A Stoic returning home.
Seeking to forget
Yesterday was Saturday. And the pool where I live–a very nice pool, more like a resort, really–was lively with people enjoying the end of summer. There were three groups of people who caught my eye as they enjoyed their day around our lovely community pool. And as I observed these groups, enjoying their various stages of life, I was reminded of the thing we all seemingly strive to forget.
The first were a group of children playing in the pool's shallow end. These kids were laughing and amusing themselves with toys and games like challenging one another to perform underwater somersaults or see who could hold their breath the longest. The kids were happily distracting themselves with play–attending to activities appropriate to their age, and interest, and keeping back something they could barely remember as a thing they've feared from their earliest years of existence–the something which made them wail with terror if they ever perceived they were alone. They did a good job too. As that thing they did not want was nowhere in sight. Their memories even of this day would always be full of life. Nothing would be absent.
The second group I noticed was a collection of twenty-somethings sitting together at a corner of the deep end of the pool. These young adults dangled their legs into the five-foot depths while chatting with one another about the interesting things which always distract people their age: work and cars and talk of good restaurants and gossip about friends. None of these newly minted adults had children yet. They all still just had themselves; and they distracted themselves with talk of themselves. Keeping back the something–really a nothing–which they might otherwise identify with labels like anxiety, or depression, or loneliness and the need of some sense of life meaning or purpose which children and family might later fill. Their society, and talk, and their health, and their lives...so full of budding potential, keep back the deeper depths at that deep end of the pool. They had convinced themselves they could truly see the bottom just below their feet. Nothing is then barely apparent.
The third group were families. Moms and dads in their mid-thirties, along with their kids–all clustered together around tables near the gas barbecues just beyond the perimeter of the pool. These families were amusing themselves with the fullness of their family lives, and celebrating the richness of simply being alive, with chatter about their kid's schools, and their friends and activities like sports such as soccer and baseball. They also discussed seemingly more serious talk of work, and home improvement, and politics and plans for their own future and the future of their kids. This generation also–like the youth and the children at the pool–was then successfully distracting themselves with a sort of living which is appropriate to their age and circumstance–distracting themselves as well from the dim, growing awareness that the thing they've tried to forget since childhood is still there, always present, never more than a failed breath from discovery–that the depth they had convinced themselves as youth wasn't real, does, in fact, swirl in darkness; not just below their feet, but everywhere around them always. Not death, but that other thing that does not linger beyond death. It is a nothing really. And that fact of nothing is what they always seek to forget–every generation in their time and in their way. They always seek to forget. The nothing that is everywhere evident.
More to life than living
There is so much to occupy the time of life. So much to do. So many people to know, and love, and pass the time together with. One thing after another, from the age of understanding on, we pass our days one thing after another, and then dream ourselves busy when asleep - no rest then even from the incessant work of living. In fact, we would not live if not for this busyness, our kind would surely die and fall away. So, it is important, this work of making life productive in some way; important to us all, and part of what we are, and why we live, and thrive even. So many of us, so busy being - and remaining - alive. But is there more to life than living?
I speak so much,
So I mustn't hear
The deep silence
But there isn't more to life. At least there doesn't seem to be more. And this too is a good reason to work so hard...so that we mustn't find this fact out. But the seeming fact that we are alone and without absolute direction is a false problem–in fact, it is an opportunity. For, instead of the universe being constrained by imposed absolutes of life, and justice, and purpose, and meaning, and even some sense of immortality; we instead occupy–briefly–a wilderness of boundless frontier on every side; a place without footprints of any sort; where no others have found or roamed or discovered or loved; a universe for us to make and call home–though we must be up to the task of making it such; and not just through our industry and invention–which blinds us to ourselves–but also through our willingness to cease our distractions for a time, to turn our heads towards the night, to stare out into the darkness, or close our eyes to invite the dark inside, and hear the deep silence.
This is the calling of the poet, and the artist, and the sage. A listening where there is no muse to hear speak. A watching where only physics puts on a show. A speaking where our words explore less than distract. Action to the same end. A good life of purposeful moments of finding, and sharing, and reflection, together with one another, of where we are and what we have found. A purposeful life of sincerely contrived meaning forged from a universe which does not care. A life of individuals come together to form friendship, and family, and community and kind.
A good life. An honest life.
Undistracted days from now until now is nevermore.
Seeing between the distraction
“The whole of life is but keeping
away the thought of death”
Just every once in a while...every so often...I'll spot the Indifference between the moments of my daily life. For, while the Nothing looms from sand to the sky and the stars out there when I am alone in the deep desert, this same great expanse of empty is hard to perceive from my life at home, and at work, and while busy keeping myself distracted from what else may be truly real. But, the Nothing is there—so cleverly masked as our purposeful life—the seeing, less a perception of something beyond, as much the recognition of what there really isn't within what is.
There are empty spaces
Between the Distraction
Where we can see through
To what we do not wish to see
I never say a word when I see it though. As I am sure nobody mostly cares. The Distraction being enough for this life. The lovely life we know being itself quite surely enough: the education, and finding of a mate, and the getting of a home, and the filling our home together with family; and the attention of time consuming entertainment, and the strange pleasure of gossip, and having fun, and seeking love, and finding God, and of living our days gone by and by and past through months and years of the simple striving which seems so necessary and real. Just once in a while I see through all that. And I remember then, if just for a moment, what isn't truly real—
Some ways in which we are alive
The price of admittance into the venue and arena of life is the effort and labor of our parents in conceiving, bearing, and bringing us into the world, as well as their work then to successfully raise us into functioning citizens of whatever society claims us its own. Our days may then be passed like a templated script: getting educated, finding friends and work, and making a home and a way and children of our own. And by such means, every day of our life may be passed, experienced, and sometimes enjoyed even, in relative peace, gaining the glossy outward fulfillment of doing it right—of living life well, and in accord with how others and we ourselves even believe life should be done. And then we die, possibly well satisfied in our striving of a sort, in our consumption, and in the collection of these things we call our own—these objects into which our identity has been projected like the nonsense soul we claim is projected into us. And then we die, surrounded by our loved ones, who are real, as well as the phantom things of the dream which was our life, which are hardly real, despite the careful arrangement of tchotchke upon shelves, and among furniture, and the thoughtful, forward thinking packing of mementos within boxes stored in the attic above our head, saved for a tomorrow which will never come, to be sold upon the lawn next month for a dollar, or picked up by surly men at the side of the road to fill the land somewhere along with the other waste and excess of such senseless passage of time.
We are citizens to live
We are philosophers to be alive
But for some moments along the way we perhaps forgot about our things, and our home, and our job, and the people who populate our little world; and we looked out then across the far horizon of sea, maybe while our little ones played in the sand making castles of their own—and we wondered thoughtless-thoughts of whatever is beyond and past the limits of sight and current understanding—but just for a moment, just 'till little Johnny steps too close to the water's edge and we rush forward to snatch him safe from the waves. Or later, as our pastor tells us comforting stories of forever while we sit in straight lines on hard seats wearing our Sunday best, and we ask ourselves why every man of Amalek did need to die, every grown man, woman, and every child, and the beasts even—why they did all must need to die? And we wonder whence our virtue does truly arise? Upon words chiseled into stone? Or perhaps from the elsewhere and elsewhen from which our species did come: from the misty past of brutal survival, cooperation, social necessity and past success? And still later in life, as we attend our elder mother's passing, sitting at her side while holding her chill hand, bony and weak, covered with a thin veil of loose, and translucent skin revealing too much of the machinery going on below, causing us to wonder at our own machinery within, and how this mechanism does seem always to stop, and we ask ourselves how far down does the stoppage really go? And these moments of philosophy are held like curious seashells found while strolling a long walk along the beach, picked up for a moment and examined for some seconds while the world around us falls away, before being placed gently back upon the sand as we move on, our thoughts carried on away from nowhere, away from the mist, to dinner...and what show might tonight be on TV.
Such are some ways in which we live.
Such are some ways in which we are alive.