H. L. Mencken once said
that the liberation of the human mind has best been furthered
by those who "heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then
went roistering down the highways of the world, proving . . .
that doubt, after all, was safe -- that the god in the sanctuary
was a fraud."
Mencken made it sound easier
than it is. It is a lifetime's work to clear away enough debris
of fraudulent divinities, false premises, and fatuous fantasies
to experience a glasnost of the soul, to strip away enough lies
that have been painted on our minds, layer after layer, year
after year, until we come to the bare walls of our being. Still,
it is this exercose, however Sisyphian, that helps mightily to
keep us human.
Inevitably such an effort
initially produces not beauty or satisfaction, but merely a surface
upon which we can work our will should we so choose, a barren
facade empty of meaning, devoid of purpose, without rules or
even clues to lead us forward. We stand before the wall as empty
as it is.
It is at this moment that
the deconstruction of mendacity and myth so often fail the social
critic, cynic, and ironist -- the street person overdosed on
experience, the college graduate overdosed on explanations, the
journalist overdosed on revelation. This is the point at which
it is too easy to wash one's hands and consider the job done.
Hasta la vista, baby, see you around the vortex of nothingness
. . .
The problem, of course,
is that void. How people handle it can be drastically different.
One may leave us with seven books, the other with seven dead
bodies. In either case, we can not stare life straight in the
eye without pain and without some longing for certainties that
once spared us that pain. If we had been born in a time in which
the therapy for doubt was punishment, even death, we would not
be in such a fix. We would thank or fear whatever gods may be
and go about our business if not happily at least with certitude.
But the gift of decriminalized doubt changed all that. We are
now free to be wrong by our own hand, to not know -- worse, to
have nothing and no one to blame.
That's why there are so
many attempts to put the question marks safely back into the
box, to recapture the illusion of security found in circumscribed
knowledge, to shut down that fleeting moment of human existence
in which at least some thought they could do the work of kings
and gods, that glimpse of possibility we thought would be an
It is seductively attractive
to return to certainty at whatever cost, to a time when one's
every act carried its own explanation in the rules of the universe
or of the system or of the village. From the Old Testament to
neo-Nazism, humans have repeatedly found shelter in absolutes
and there is nothing in our evolution to suggest we have lost
the inclination, save during those extraordinary moments when
a wanderer, a stranger, a rebel picks up some flotsam and says,
"Hey, something's wrong here. . ." And those of us
just standing around say, "You know, you've got something
there." And we become truly human once more as we figure
out for ourselves, and among ourselves, what to do about it.
No one seeks doubt, yet
without it we become just one more coded creature moving through
nature under perpetual instruction. Doubt is the price we pay
for being able to think, play, pray and feel the way we wish,
if, of course, we can decide what that is. Which is why freedom
always has so many more questions than slavery. Which is why
democracy is so noisy and messy and why love so often confounds
If we are not willing to
surrender our freedom, then we must accept the hard work that
holding on to it entails including the nagging sense that we
may not be doing it right after all; that we may not be rewarded
even if we do it right; and that we will never know whether we
have or not.
Further, the universe is
indeed indifferent to our troubles. If God or nature refuse to
cheer or punish us for our mercies or misdemeanors, the job is
left up to us. We thus find ourselves with the awesome problem
of being responsible for our own existence.
To make matters worse,
we were set upon this task early in life with little hint that
it even existed. The certainties of family, schools and religion
typically protect us from the mystery while we are very young;
we tend to learn about the loneliness of human existence about
the same time we discover one of its few known remedies, someone
else's body and love.
There is no discipline
for doubt; no academy that addresses angst. We pretend it doesn't
exist and then find ourselves seeking retroactive immunization
from some guru of tranquility or therapy.
Given that we're talking
about one of the central features of the human story, it seems
a bit sloppy and strange to omit uncertainty from the curriculum,
to not speak of how choice, informed by conscience and community,
can give wisdom and direction to doubt. Or why it need not be
the inevitable enemy of that triptych of human survival, the
hat trick of integrity, rebellion and passion.
The subject matter is there;
we just run from it. The cynic runs from the responsibility of
replacing what has been destroyed and the convinced avoids the
questions from the audience. Many of the rest are just afraid.
There are exceptions, of
course, among them those who view life in the manner of the existentialists.
The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those
lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics.
But for the purposes of getting a life rather than tenure, Jean
Paul Sartre's definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that
existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse
of predestination and original sin with their presumption of
an innate essence. Said Sartre, "Values rise from our actions
as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet."
In fact, some existentialists
argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that
moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that
define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a
choice of how to approach the gallows.
Wrote Sartre: "Man
is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the
first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be
free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is
responsible for everything he does."
Sartre, while the father
of modern existentialism, was not the first existentialist. For
example, there was the theologian Kierkegaard, as conscious of
God as Sartre was of Marx. According to Kierkegaard, writes Donald
We can never be certain
that we have chosen "the right values." This means,
among other things, that there is no such thing as existence
without risk, and that existence at its very core must be experienced
as anguish and dread by every sensitive soul.
To show just how murky
existentialism can be, one of the most famous existentialist
writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one, telling one interviewer:
No, I am not an existentialist.
Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We
have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the
undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each
other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might
respectively incur. . . .
Perhaps this antipathy
stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather
than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed
on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken
as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. "There
is no love of life without despair of life," said Camus.
"Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one
step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end.
It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful."
These are not the precise
and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art
and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage
to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions.
Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could
have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis
Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you
have to ask, you'll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there
ain't no answer. There never was an answer, there ain't going
to be an answer. That's the answer.
In a world dominated by
dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism
suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach,
not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon
"a sensibility .... an attitude towards oneself, an attitude
towards one's world, an attitude towards one's behavior."
And it's not just a heady
matter of philosophy or religion. It spills over into business,
personal relations and even politics. Mississippi writer Tom
Lowe, for example, argues that, "The greatest evils in the
world arise from two illusions:
The illusion that "We
have no choice." This belief manifests itself in various
forms, the most prominent ones being the belief in the immutability
(and often the depravity) of human nature and the almost religious
belief in the justice and rightness of laissez faire economic
systems. This is ordinarily the illusion of the right. It is
a flight from responsibility.
The illusion that we can
perfect ourselves and our society. This is a corollary of the
belief that people and their behavior are solely the product
of their environment. This is ordinarily the illusion of the
left. It is a flight from responsibility . . .
The truth lies neither
in the left or the right or in some middle-of-the-road position
that borrows from both sides. The truth is that we are responsible
for everything we do and for everyone and everything our behavior
affects, and that responsibility extends to our collective, as
well as our individual, behavior. Responsibility is like a seamless
web -- we are all connected with each other and ultimately with
the entire world. It encompasses the choices we make in our capacity
as spouses, as parents, as voters, as stockholders, as corporate
officers, as employers, as public officials, and as purchasers
of goods, but it extends to the entire planet.
This sense of being individually
responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither
certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without
the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would
be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. "What
if I'm wrong?" And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke
There does exist for man,
therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on
the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that
is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute
is not attained nor, above all, created through history . . .
Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate
moment, against history who really advance its interests.
The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long
adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which
we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness,
but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of
the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.
Camus thus avoids the pedagogue's
death by definition, preferring attitude and values rather than
direction. He would never have been caught, like that pet of
corporatist post-liberalism, Francis Fukuyama, writing a book
called The End of History and the Last Man nor claiming that
history "appears to be progressive and directional."
While to the post-liberal globalist, history always proves the
victor right; Camus preferred to serve history's subject rather
than seek its spoils.
Hectored, treated, advised,
instructed, and compelled at every turn, history's subjects may
falter, lose heart, courage, or sense of direction. The larger
society is then quick to blame, to translate survival systems
of the weak into pathologies, and to indict as neurotic clear
recognition of the human condition.
The safest defense against
this is apathy, ignorance, or surrender. Adopt any of these strategies
-- don't care, don't know or don't do -- and you will, in all
likelihood, be considered normal. The only problem is that you
will miss out on much of your life.
Another approach is to
be lucky enough to live in a time of heroism. As anthropologist
Ernest Becker writes
Men are naturally neurotic
and always have been, but at some times they have it easier than
at others to mask their true condition. Men avoid clinical neurosis
when they can trustingly live their heroism in some kind of self-transcending
dramas. Modern man lives his contradictions for the worse, because
the modern condition is one in which convincing drama of heroic
apotheosis, of creative play, or of cultural illusion are in
But even if we are not
lucky enough to fly to the moon or land on the beaches of Normandy,
there are still some who write heroic scripts for their ordinary
lives, replacing the myths that society has smashed in the name
of reality. Says Becker:
The defeat of despair is
not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but
a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point
man is not helped by more 'knowing,' but only by living and doing
in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge
into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection
and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection,
and we are brutes.
It is from this well that
is drawn the strength of good firefighters and good teachers
and good grandmothers of children whose parents are no longer
parents. Their lives are works of fiction written in order to
survive the real, a reconstruction of the mythical support a
society educated beyond its wisdom thinks it no longer needs.
And so this greater society goes to therapy while the writers
of their own stories go about their business, preserving human
lives as well as the human spirit.
The problem lies near our
demand for rationality. As Becker points out, "What typifies
the neurotic is that he 'knows' his situation vis-à-vis
reality. He has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway
him, to give hope or trust." And he cites G. K. Chesterton
as having pointed out that the characteristics the modern mind
prides itself on are precisely those of madness:
Madmen are the greatest
reasoners we know .... All their vital processes are shrunken
into the mind. What is the one thing they lack that sane men
possess? The ability to be careless, to disregard appearances,
to relax and laugh at the world .... They can't do what religion
has always asked: to believe in a justification of their lives
that seems absurd.
The existential spirit,
its willingness to struggle in the dark to serve truth rather
than power, to seek the hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion,
is peculiarly suited to our times. We need no more town meetings,
no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing
technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes
in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads.
Instead we need an uprising of the soul, that spirit which Aldous
Huxley described as "irrelevant, irreverent, out of key
with all that has gone before . . . Man's greatest strength is
his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars
and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think
the irrelevant and unsuitable thought of a free man."
We need to think the unthinkable
even when the possible is undoable, the ideal is unimaginable,
when power overwhelms truth, when compulsion replaces choice.
We need to lift our eyes from the bottom line unto the hills,
from the screen to the sky, from the adjacent to the hazy horizon.
And nobody can do this
but us. Hermann Hesse wrote, "Only within yourself exists
that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing
that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open
to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you
is the opportunity, the impulse, the key." Emerson agreed,
"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own
mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage
of the world."
There is so much to be
done and so much fog around it. It is not surprising that many
in America have badly misread what has been happening. They continue
to confront ideologies that no longer exit. They fail to see
that those leading both major parties march only under flags
of convenience. They want to discuss principles with those whose
only principle is the pursuit of raw power. They wish to discuss
beliefs with those whose only belief is the defeat, submission
and ridicule of those who oppose them.
We are thus constantly
being given false choices. The real choice is whether we can
achieve a future which, singly and together, we can experience
as something other than an apocalyptic, angry, authoritarian
era of violence, greed, cruelty and planetary endangerment.
Once you reject such a
future, the remaining choice is a commitment to people, their
places and the planet. It is the almost inevitable quality of
this decision -- which each of us are already making either by
intent or accident -- that suggests the particular power, hope
and terrible danger of our times.
It is the choice of rejecting
the internal logic of a technocratic system in favor of judging
things by their effects on justice, democracy, community and
our ecology. It is a matter of asking the right questions --
seeking the right balance rather than the best bottom line, determining
human needs rather than institutional requirements, and finding
the kindest and most sensible solution rather than the quickest
or most efficient. These are not just society's choices, they
But here is the dilemma.
It often appears, as Matthew Arnold put it, that we are condemned
to wander between two worlds -- "one dead, the other powerless
to be born."
How can one maintain hope,
faith and energy in such an instance?
If we accept the apparently
inevitable - that is, the future as marketed to us by the media
and our leaders -- than we become merely the audience for our
own demise. Our society today teaches us in so many ways that
matters are preordained: you can't have a pay raise because it
will cause inflation, you are entitled to run the country because
you went to Yale, you are shiftless because you are poor; there
is nothing you can do to change what you see on TV. Campaign
finance reform is hopeless. You may not act in a moral fashion
because you will look foolish; you may not take action because
you might offend someone; and you may not govern -- you may only
balance the budget.
And what if we follow this
advice and these messages? If you and I do nothing, say nothing,
risk nothing, then current trends will probably continue in which
case we can expect over the next decade or so:
More corruption, a wealthier
and more isolated upper class, more homelessness, increased militarization,
a growth in censorship, less privacy, further loss of constitutional
protections, a decline in the standard of living, fewer corporations
owning more media, greatly increased traffic jams, more waits
for services and entertainment, more illness from toxic chemicals,
more influence by drug lords, more climatic instability, fewer
beaches, more violence, more segregation, more propaganda, less
responsive government, less power for legislatures, more for
bureaucrats, less truth, less space, less democracy, less happiness.
. . .
But what if, on the other
hand, we recognize that the future of our society and our planet
will in large part simply represent the aggregate of human choices
made between now and then? Then we can stop being passive spectators
and become actors -- even more, we start to rewrite the play.
We can become the hope we are looking for.
But we are not strong enough
to be our own hope, you say. Then tell me how often has positive
social or political change ever come about thanks to the beneficence,
wisdom and imagination of those in power. Now tell me when it
has come about thanks to the persistence of small, committed,
weak groups of people willing to fail over long periods of time
until that rare, wonderful moment when the dam of oppression,
obstinacy and obtuseness finally cracks and those in power finally
accept what the people have been saying all along.
John Adams described well
the real nature of change. He wrote that the American Revolution
"was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was
in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change
in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the
people was the real American Revolution."
The key to both a better
future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious
exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty
and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered
away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather
than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition
rather than the discovery. The green glasses rather than our
own unimpeded vision. Oz rather than Kansas.
Any effort on behalf of
human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather
than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter
madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even
in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the archaic
behavior of the weak and naive.
There is far more to this
than personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share
our witness with others -- in politics, in music, in rebellion,
in conversation, in love -- that what starts as singular testimony
can end in mass transformation. Here then is the real possibility:
that we are building something important even if it remains invisible
to us. And here then is the real story: that even without the
hope that such a thing is really happening there is nothing better
for us to do than to act as if it is -- or could be.
Here is an approach of
no excuses, no spectators, with plenty of doubt, plenty of questions,
plenty of dissatisfaction. But ultimately a philosophy of peace
and even joy because we will have thrown every inch and ounce
of our being into what we are meant to be doing which is to decide
what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully over
the face of the earth doing it.
WRITE THE AUTHOR
TO ORDER 'WHY BOTHER?'