"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.