Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A New(er) Poem: Testify


On haunting, starry nights in Bethlehem,

Plucking out an eye, rather than an ear--

Prophets, priests, and poets attest their craft.

But some, ensnared by patterns and pictures

Of airy canvass, instead seek palettes

Divinely gripped with pastel-plastered hands.

In vistas beneath the Arc de Triomphe

Of the mind, there a forgotten mystic

Applies a glimpse of passion by his brush:

Some speck of love and trauma depicts the

Highest joy in this transitory world--

That change is the one medium of love.

The brush flickers, embers burning boldly.

Their glow reveals an ever hidden spark

Which burns in those whose darkness lights the sky.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Surrender, Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away)

"Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away". - "Surrender", by Cheap Trick, © 1978

I have already affirmed the contest between change and stability as the greatest conflict in human life. Many other essential conflicts of human existence spring from this: the contest between the individual and society, between individuals and a relationship, between individuals and their religion, between individuals and morality, between individuals and ideology.

What does it mean to exist in such confusion? What does it mean to be an individual when one's very existence can only be defined in terms of its attachment to other, larger groups? What does it mean to live as one person in a world dominated by forces greater and more complex than any single human being?

It's fun to pretend that individuals can live only for themselves. We're all rational human beings, with perfect information at our disposal, considering all our options carefully, and then making the best decision for us. Our thoughts, our beliefs, our actions, our language, and the very words we use to express our innermost sensations, belong primarily to us first and foremost: they're not products of our environment, the groups to which we belong, or any long and tedious processes over which we have little to no control. We individuals like to imagine that we are more powerful than we are, but we are wrong.

What is the price of this knowledge? Have we sold our uniqueness and worth as individuals? Have we given away the sanctity of a precious human life?

No. We surrender, and surrender, but we do not give ourselves away.

I surrender to those groups in which I belong, to all those groups which make my life possible and meaningful. My parents, my family, my peers, everyone I've ever met: you gave me norms, values, ideas, words, and symbols -- you equipped me and gave me my power, gave me my ability to interpret this world and to shape it in my own image. And yet, this image toward which I shape the world is not just my own, but it also belongs to all of you, because you have given me the image of the world which I hold now.

I surrender some of my desires and goals, my resources, my aims and ends, because I have agreed to participate in a project which is greater than myself. When it is late at night and there are no cars in the streets, I stop at traffic lights until I receive the proper signal. I register for the Selective Service, which means I am eligible to be drafted into the military should my country ever decide again to mandate citizens to fight its wars. This summer, I worked a minimum wage job in the fast food industry to help pay for college, and some of my earnings went to pay taxes which support an entire system of government.

But I do not give myself away. Because who am I anyway? After all, I am society; I am a relationship; I am a religion; I am a morality; and I am an ideology. I express my individuality through the collective character I share with others. I accomplish my individual goals and ambitions because I am motivated by values which are instilled in me by other people, that I share with other people, and which serve common ends and common interests. A true individual must always, when acting in his or her own interest, strive to remember how this interest is inseparably and inextricably linked with the interests of others.

Yes, I am in one sense a self-made man. But I'm not the only self that's made it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Wish to Live

What are the highest values in life? What ideas provide guidance for the best possible living? What is the inspiration which accords the best template for living, for fully realizing our potential as human beings?

Friedrich Nietzsche mentions the "will to power" as a force which has "succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life". Is this "will to power", though, merely a description of how the world works, of how life exists, or is it also a normative statement (an outline of how life should be lived)? Should we live only according to our instincts? Does living against the pattern of our instincts hopelessly obscure and defeat life itself? Or, rather, does life only begin to soar once it transcends our basic instincts for higher goals?

Which parts of the "will to power" should be embraced by society? Nietzsche repeatedly asserts that those conditions which enable life to flourish should be promoted. But what does it mean for life to flourish? Does life flourish when it is restrained, or when it is constricted; does life flourish only when it is maintained and managed, or only when it is free and independent? What does it mean to preserve and enhance life? And what kinds of life does Nietzsche value?

Nietzsche objects to those who place more emphasis on suffering in this life, in exchange for a better future life, than on experiencing life in the present world. But for many people, the experience of life essentially contains suffering - and suffering really can be described as the origin of life. Perhaps suffering is the main mode of life, after all: not the "will to power", but the "will to suffer" predominates, or perhaps the "will to power" is also a "will to suffer". Lastly, perhaps Nietzsche is not really against an acknowledgment of suffering, but merely disagrees as to what manner people should direct their suffering.

A preacher here on campus has suggested that God created the world in an act of love as suffering. I have heard it said, "to love someone truly, you must allow them to have the chance to make you suffer".

Did God create the world in an act of love as suffering? Even if there is no God, is this the essential state of our world as it exists now? Does all the world in the world owe its existence to some form of suffering?

And who would punish a lover for one's own love, if there is a God who has created such a world? Jesus in the Gospels tells the parable of the prodigal son. The father allows the son to experience life on his own terms, and allows the son to suffer the consequences of his actions. Would a loving God allow us to suffer merely as a consequence of Its actions, merely because a world was created wherein we humans were given this life which has built itself upon our suffering?

To love is in part to suffer. And suffer I do, as we all do...adrenaline, oxytocin, estrogen...coursing through the channels of my soul, of every "soul". Chemicals corrode my soul, yet they restore my body. My body atones for my soul. These hapless emotions, what poor excuse of a being am I? Too far gone in this world. Too near-sighted for the things to come. Not spiritual enough. Too human.

That lustful glance is the adultery of my spirit. But not to glance is the adultery of my body. To glance, to live: to commit adultery of the mind, or the heart? I have been ripped to shreds and torn apart, glued together again, haphazardly...this is the way life has developed over billions of years, ripping and tearing itself apart, to time and time again, build things that are newer and stranger, odd and more odd are these evolved creatures, these "thinking things" that are called human beings. This is the worst and the best that I am. I give my love, I give my pain, and I give my innocence...all in the name of life.

This is what God gave me, if it was indeed a divine gift...my own freedom, my own shame; my own love, my own suffering. All that and less: some of the things He gave me I'm apparently supposed to disown. In the name of a Higher Life. In the name of a Higher Love, and a Higher Truth.

Pilot washed his hands before he condemned Jesus. Did God wash His mind in the hormones of our psyches before condemning us?

If God exists, then God should commend evil instead of condemning it, for this evil has propelled us to life. We love ourselves. We love our family. We love our tribe, our sect, our friends. This is evil, since we love them for their suffering, because only that has brought us into this world and continually sustains us. Perhaps someday, when we remember the suffering that endures and surrounds us, the suffering that has created life in all its stark beauty and terror, then we will love our neighbor as ourselves, most of all because they suffer as we suffer.

Friday, February 11, 2011

February Evening

I tread lightly, as I am underneath a luscious purple sky on a vivid, frigid evening.

I do not belong here. I am a vagrant: I am the monk wondering aimlessly through the desert. This hermit does not belong there. He has taken a vow of silence. His words do not belong there.

A few of the street lights are broken, extinguished. They do not belong here. The night has returned to its splendor; it is uninterrupted, free, and hidden once again.

The trees are illuminated, their branches all too barren and exposed. The leaves do not belong here. They have had their splendor; for now they have vanished, though more will take their place.

And so it is with me. The streets are empty and devoid of life, but in just a few hours, they'll be thronging with cars and buses and people, haphazardly making their way. And the streets will not belong to me.

I tread lightly, for underneath me is the residue of abandoned civilizations and demolished ecosystems.

I do not belong here. I am a wonderer: as I glance toward the ever distant stars, I remember that I have traveled a path I cannot reverse. I am star stuff, glimpsing at my past, in swirling points of light. But I do not belong there.

For a countless time I walk alone, unnoticed. I do not belong here. The sun rises and the day reigns, the spring arrives and the leaves regenerate, and I am not required.

The past is illuminated, its branches barren and exposed. Its accounts do not belong here. They who walked and wondered and spoke have had their splendor; for now they have vanished, though more will take their place.

And so it is with me. My tongue is still and devoid of speech, but for just a few moments, my words will be thronging in ears and minds and memories, haphazardly making their way. And my words will not belong to me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What I'd Say If I Used Twitter: Part One

I have a Twitter account. I don't use it. If I used it, then I would say things...

...like this:

I have failed the Turing test.


I got 99 problems. / Pointless math homework.


I have a dream / sicle.


Forgive them their syntax. / They do not know what they.


Yes we can / tuna


All your base / belong to Richard Pryor


We're all going to die / eventually


Caught in a bad romance. / Get a lawyer.


You bet your life / sentence


Necessity is the mother / word to Edison

Monday, February 7, 2011

Living and Knowing Anxiety

Anxiety does not know itself and cannot know itself. Anxiety often barely knows what it fears: it knows the object of its fear well enough, but it does not fully know why it fears. Sometimes, it doesn't even fear that which it claims to fear, but something else entirely.

Oh, many times before I have canvassed a room with fear, tangoed with tension, waltzed with it across corners and over the ceiling tiles, my eyes averting faces, my mind averting anything but the beckoning of fear itself...

I have several friends who can be quite insecure, bemoaning their loneliness and lack of friends. Yet, through their defensiveness, they push people away because of that very insecurity. Sometimes I wonder how often I have done something similar.

How sad and disappointing it is that we so often reach out for a human connection, any kind of connection, and find ourselves grasping empty space.

What's in that space? What lurks between human beings who float indifferently, through the routine, glued to iPods and iPads and cell phones? What exists beneath us, underneath that unheralded territory? Perhaps you will forgive me for navigating to the edge of the map, toward those places long populated but rarely mentioned.

I have this desire to share my most embarrassing foibles and my most dispiriting tales of mishap and woe, to more fully share my overdramatizations and misunderstandings. I don't indulge myself, yet those are the stories of my life - those are the stories of the times that I've most often grown, and triumphed, and overcome.

As human beings, we all have a certain amount of fear, anxiety, and tension which we try to handle on our own. We all have a certain number of stories and secrets we may wish to share, but do not know how to reveal. We all have our hidden histories, our inner torments, our daily distortions.

What would happen if we brought this abyss into the daylight? What would happen if we stretched our shadows into shade? Our shared temptations and struggles could be the refuge for our continued living. I, however, must retreat from this talk of darkness and dimness, at least for a moment.

For all that I have said, anxiety still does not know itself. Sometimes I feel that if other people knew what I had been through, no matter how trivial or mundane, that it would be easier to feel strong and authentic. But I also tell myself again and again that I can't depend on an unknowable sense of how other people may view me for my feeling of well-being.

I know we're all trying to get by. I know I'm not the only one.

I'm not perfect. I'm a human being. And I wish I could allow myself the liberty of being one more often.

Friday, February 4, 2011

My Doubt, My Threat, My Appetite

The band Jimmy Eat World wrote a song that I'm in love with: "My Best Theory", from their album "Invented". A brief snippet of the song goes:

"My doubt seems fine/
My true desire/
My threat/
My appetite"

Outstanding lyrics.

Doubt is many things. It is my annihilation. It is my preservation.

Doubt erodes, a steady stream of questioning which removes the face of well-worn notions, and it sculpts a new impression in old surfaces.

Doubt in its own nature embodies the biggest and most substantial conflict we know of: the chasm between permanence and stability, and change and chaos.

Every human being is a product of change. We originate as embryos, progressing through many stages, until a fully-grown adult form is realized. Each facet of our physical body is in flux: a multitude of cells appear and die each day within our body. Each facet of our consciousness and personality changes, too: throughout our interactions with other humans, we are molded and crafted in accordance with our fellow human beings. Their being is ours.

We depend on change to sustain us. If the seeds for our crops remain seeds, then we die. If the water which feeds many of our reservoirs remains snow or ice, then we die. If the rain which waters the crops remains water vapor in the sky, then we die.

Is it really true that we look for things to stay the same? We are surely blind to the immense changes which surround us in their exquisite insignificance.

We owe everything we have to change, but we seek to ground our lives in eternal truths. To doubt these truths, to chip away at them, is a betrayal of the truths towards which we aim. Our lives are bigger than this trivial nonsense. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter", such great religious authorities as Yoda from Star Wars inform us.

Yet what exactly are we considering when we ponder these eternal truths? Our messages and teachings come to us from specific historical eras, and specific cultural contexts. Is it really appropriate to allow the message of Jesus, for example, to remain stale for two thousand years, when he castigated the religious leaders of his day for allowing the laws to become stale within their own hearts?

We humans express our knowledge and our truth through what we actively partake. We partake the body and the blood of truth, when we speak its voice for our times, when we allow our own doubts to refine and distill our beliefs and our values.

Doubt threatens to undo everything, but doubt also allows us to remember everything. Doubt allows us to exercise our faith, to propel ourselves upward, to participate again in the sacred enterprise - we are captivated by it and refreshed by it. We remember. We remember both why we believe now, and why we believed in the first place.

Certainty cannot exist without doubt, nor without change: for if we do not doubt, if we do not risk the possibility of change, then we forget why we are certain in the first place. When we forget to doubt, then we lose ourselves entirely. Our own desire for certainty enables change to erase ourselves: we become clean on the outside, but rotten within. Oh, you hypocrites, you brood of vipers...