Life As It Is

I’m not going to pretend this post is something it is not, it is not going to be something deep, moving or thought provoking. It is a post written by me, for me, an exercise in catharsis.

I am currently going through my last semester as an undergrad and will have my degree sometime this spring. I never planned on this, that is when I was younger I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up and in many ways I still do not know. My degree is in political science, a somewhat vague degree to most. Most people when they talk to me think I can predict who is going to win an election, either that or they ask me who they should vote for. Honestly I am not qualified to do either, even my professors have admitted that they aren’t qualified themselves as well.
So what will I be doing with my education one may ask? For me it was never about what I was going to do, I was already doing it. To be clear I was pursuing what I was simply because I enjoyed it, I was doing it for the instrinsic worth it held for me, not some hypothetical potential employer. The idea of “selling myself” to another was an idea I have never felt comfortable with.
Where I end up will probably be something I could never have predicted, but if I do have to give a narrative about where I am headed I tell people I will be shuffling papers in a cubicle in the field of civil service.In other words I will be a beauracrat, probably the last thing I would have said when I was younger and more naive. I need to wake up and do what I must however, it’s not about what I want, but what fits.
I am not one of those people who desire to pursue a difficult path, I don’t have some ideal dream job or line of work I am aiming for and I know a so-called dream job is probably not what it’s cracked to be either way; work is work. Social justice issues are what interest me, but I don’t see a lucrative pay off if I pursued such a thing. I think I want what most people want, which is an easy life; maximum pay-off for minimal effort. Perhaps a job with the government is just such a thing… as most people would joke, I am sure however it is anything but easy.
I used to want to distinguish myself, to matter and to do work that mattered. However as I age all I seem to want is security, in every sense of the word. I don’t want to stand out, be different or perhaps even make a difference. I want predictability, I want stability and not have to worry about my future, at least financially. I may have it easier than most in this regard, I don’t have a vehicle, I live rent free and I don’t plan on having children. Those are the three biggest expenses in ones life, and I decided long ago I would skirt around those expenses.
I want to live simply, so I can simply live.

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The Ivory Tower

There was an attempt on my soul. An attempt to squash all that drives me and makes me who I am. I felt his oppressive tone press down on my heart, and it sank. When you are in a position of power you should be mindful of where you step for you may step on dreams. There is no reason to give in, to admit defeat, to allow yourself to conform to their will. Why should I? I am here because of my past experiences, forever colored and stained. Those stains seep in, control, and guide, I accept them into my core. I use them to draw strength, to keep my resolve, and there is no justification for hiding it, no reason to bury it. I display my spirit proudly. 

A person as relationship

There is a world of difference between what we see, and what we don’t see. We like to pretend we know and perceive reality. We like to categorize things and put them into neat places in our mental schemas, but those maps only delineate they do not describe. What are we really? A human body is several things depending on the “layer” you wish to define it, if we consider that atoms are composed of 90% space, we are more energy than we are material for atoms are held together by nuclear-force not chemistry. In another view we can say we are mostly bacteria, the human body is made up of a ratio where bacteria outnumber ‘human’ cells by about 10 to 1. A third way to look at it is that we are whirlpools of energy, matter and energy come in, and exit all the time and consequently we are never static. Cells are dividing and multiplying that in effect you are entirely a different being every few years once all those old cells have been replaced. We like to think our thoughts are perhaps what define us, but what is a thought? We like to think we are situated in space, but astrophysicists tell us that space itself is shaped like a bubble, and we are like bugs stuck on that bubble…

I think in reality every categorization is so limiting that it in effect becomes a sort of lie. A simple demonstration is color, a color only exists in relation to a spectrum yet we slice off a part of that spectrum and give it a name. It’s as if we think we can separate and categorize without the full context and yet contain it’s full meaning. In short I guess you can sum up my thinking as a pantheist train of thought. We are relation, we are embedded in layers upon layers of ‘reality.’ We are grains of sand on a beach spinning around at thousands of miles per hour around a sun within a galaxy that itself is ‘moving’ in relation to the other galaxies. It all depends on how micro or macro you want to go, but I don’t think you can ever really nail down exactly who we are and where we are unless you cut out all the inconvenient truths and just say “it’s relative.” I think that simple explanation is a cop out, it’s a coping mechanism to protect perhaps the ego because the individual likes to think of themselves as separate and unique.

If anything we are super-organisms, or made up of relations, we are more than the sum of our parts so it is futile to try to define, to define is to rob it of its significance.

Hegemony and Discourse

Most of what we call society is a social artifice which rationalizes or legitimizes the mode, or the regime of our day. This is important to consider because this taken for granted way of doing things becomes ‘invisible’ in a sense because of its normality. Consequently this becomes internalized within us, the dominant ideas or “hegemony” colonizes our very minds and it becomes viewed as a fatalistic “that’s just the way it is” kind of thought. However this isn’t actually the case, I believe our thoughts are dominated by these sets of ideas or ‘discourses’ that we eventually see as our own, rather than as ideas that were planted there. 

It might help to visualize how this all works, the panoptican of Jeremy Bentham is the perfect illustration of this. It is a tower set in the middle of a prison where the prison guard can see all jail cells, but none of the inmates can see inside the guard tower. In a lot of ways this is how social norms flow through societies and cause a sort of social cohesion, we end up controlling ourselves and behaving in certain ways because we believe in a sense that we are always being watched. The tower guard might be God for some, the expectations from friends and family for others, or ideas such as to be of worth and value in our society you must make money and it is this (volume of) money that determines your worth. 

Once this ‘policing’ has taken hold we will defend and uphold this self imposed cage on ourselves because it gives us a role, or it provides meaning and order in our lives. The problem here are the things that are left out of the discussion, the resulting consequences of which make us complicit in injustices. These injustices range widely from the degradation of our commons (the environment) to the lack of care for those who fall between the cracks (systemic injustice). There is a strong belief that individuals are all autonomous and self sufficient enough that they can stand on their own two feet and take full responsibility for their lives. This lends to dismissing the homeless and those on welfare while in reality some (if not most) of these individuals were effectively failed by the systems we have in place. There is a cognitive dissonance here, we dismiss because it uproots us from our comfort zones.

We are not entitled to believe in a just world or to think only of ourselves, for that is a privilege that we are lucky to bear only because we were born in a time and place which allows for it; most of us did not earn our set of privileges. The sad reality of the matter is that if one is willing enough, they can basically avert their eyes from truths and only look at what is pleasant to them their whole lives. I can see, in fact I know many people in my own life who do just this. Sure it is partially the personal choice to live in your own bubble, and education plays a role too but I think the Hegemony (dominant set of ideas) plays the biggest role.

This is why I think we should pay attention to ‘subversive discourses’ which are alternatives to the way we do things. These are usually ideas that may be ridiculed, marginalized or seen as radical in an attempt to dismiss them so as not to be threatening to the Hegemony. This is why for example the Occupy Movement in mainstream media was cast in such a dismissive or limited scope, it was a way to marginalize or categorize the whole thing as a fad or something with little substantive value. This applies to many other things: co-ops or companies/services that are less hierarchical and have no manager at the top is a good one, intentional communities, transition towns, local alternative currencies, local food production (backyard chickens anyone?), “maximum wages” for CEOs, progressive taxes, even a basic living wage (or allowance). 

Beyond the social reproduction of ideas we should question those very ideas when we can, we should be open minded about it. This is especially needed in our times of crisis of environmental degradation, economic recession and social failings. Otherwise we will be tacitly agreeing to more of the same.

Identity capital

We live in a rushed society, where life is a game and if you play by the rules (more importantly bend) then you will be rewarded with freedom and satisfaction, either now or in the far future once you become successful. We all want freedom, and most believe if they just work hard and keep your nose to the grindstone that you can accomplish anything. More specifically I think this sort of mentality is driven by our psychological needs to feel valued and loved, and since we have had the breakdown of community everywhere, we convey this through “self expression.” Usually this expression means buying things that supposedly reflect your values, beliefs and basically your identity; “look at this private jet”, or “check out my designer jeans” as we try to convey we are people of distinction and therefore worth.

I was very strange as a kid, growing up in a small rural town where almost all the other kids lived on surrounding farms, I spent a lot of time alone entertaining myself or making crafts with my mom. As a consequence I not only wasn’t socialized as much as a kid from an urban area, I also never bought into pressure from any ‘peers.’ I dressed how I wanted to dress, and I acted how I wanted to act, at least for the most part. I also spent a considerable amount of time reading and contemplating, just thinking about the world or enjoying it through play. I reckon I was somewhat of a cosmopolitan even as a child, I remember sometimes feeling immense emotion towards the “world,” I think I was just really grateful and (being naive) thinking the world out there was a vast, magical and wonderful place.

After moving away from there, and after twenty-some odd years those sort of sentiments seemed to have had completely faded away. I went through some dark periods, but in retrospect it is probably safe to say it was all in my head, the dark thoughts; I was emotionally immature and I thought I had it so bad when in reality I didn’t. It has been a long journey out of that space I was in, but I’m grateful. I have taken longer than most to get to the same places in life, but I don’t feel like it is a race. The benefit of taking my time, of having time to reflect and time alone to be independent and to make my own decisions, has been to be truly free to make my own decisions. In essence I was never sucked into the social pressures to go through all the milestones by certain ages to be considered “successful.” 

I use to subscribe to some expectations of course, I would look to norms and other avenues of morality to guide me. However I think after all this time I have finally come into my own, I make my own decisions and I own up to them proudly. I feel no need to get on the hamster wheel of a 9 to 5 job, or to even settle down and have a family, I look down on convention because it is just not for me and that is my choice.I may not have a lot of belongings to show off, but I don’t feel the need to convey what or who I am. I don’t feel the need to compare myself to others, to evaluate or judge others either. I judge myself by my own standards, not the ones given by society at large, I believe I have the courage and conviction to follow my own path and not to have any regrets.

I guess I am an idealist rather than a materialist if I had to absolutely categorize myself, I take pleasure in simple things but also of intangible things like the abstract (or “big ideas” if you will) and I feel no shame in this. I feel rich rather than being monetarily so, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. If the latter ever did change, I would hope the former would never fade.

To know thyself

I don’t post much and I think that has to do with an idea that gnaws at me, the idea being that there is no such thing as an original thought. I think that maybe the only real originality or creativity is in the realm of art, but in those cases it more often than not borders on the meaningless, at least in my experience. 

Everyone believes they think for themselves, whatever that means. I would counter that you are far more influenced by external factors; things like peer pressure, advertisements, your culture, social & news media, your upbringing or some poem or story you read somewhere that you can’t even place, all these things affect us and push us in one way or another. I think in essence creation emerges out of context, a confluence of factors that we are unaware of.

This is why I think the aphorism of “know thyself” is more than a little naive, as if someone saying it believes they are saying something profound when it is anything but. To know thyself would entail being able to fully account for who you are, why you do the things you do, why you think, feel, and believe the things you hold dear. I think there is a trap here, where the collective “we” confabulates a story to account for ourselves.

If I had to guess confabulation makes sense, we make up narratives in our head because we all like to think linearly and we believe in simple causation as it makes for a nice tiny bow. I think a part of it as well, is how we like to believe we are in control of our lives and the sense of who we are. However the reality of it, of you, and the society you live in is so much richer and more vast that I have a hard time believing anyone can come up with some grand story or explanation that satisfies completely. 

So to sum up I would say that philosophy or logic fails if we are to know ourselves, and by implication to be “masters of our own domain.” I would even go so far as to even question the validity of freewill, however I am not versed well enough in that topic to really delve into such a thing, but I have doubts.

The only things we can know, are the things that move us, the things that inspire. Perhaps we can never know ourselves all the way down to the core, but maybe we don’t have to, maybe conviction and following your own path based on that conviction is enough. Rather than knowledge what is needed is a “correct” opinion to guide us, some rules, even if they aren’t universally true. 

I don’t advocate relativism, I still believe that we should be able to account (or defend) our beliefs and convictions to others if we have to. I used to believe in Platonic truths, that there were objective facts out there, but I have come around and now it seems meaning has become more important to me. Perhaps we find meaning in carving out a path for ourselves, while others carve out a path based on traditional expectations; get an education, have a career, get married and have a family. I suppose for some that is enough meaning to satisify, however for people like myself I want more than that. I want to self transcend and contribute something to society, not just focus on my own needs…

Path dependence

I used to believe in the rational nature of human beings. That is, I believed that if they put their mind and will towards it, they could (and would) make the best decisions in all circumstances. That belief has been consequently broken from recent readings on cognitive bias and evolutionary psychology. The long and short of it; we are slaves to our emotions.

I imagine most people, if they are like me (and I assume that is the case), make snap decisions and are not likely to think through most everyday thoughts slowly and methodically. We just ‘know,’ without knowing how we arrived at the decision, or in other words we act on intuition or gut feelings. There are a few relevant problems that arise because of this in our day and age.

The first problem is that we segregate our society into hierarchies and systems, where the people on top are assumed to be the brightest and best and therefore making all the best decisions that benefit the rest of us. However one only has to take a cursory inventory of not just fallacies, but cognitive biases or ‘heuristics’ if you will, to see that when it comes to cognition we are systemically at fault and we lean in that direction most of the time. We are largely terrible at calculating risk and probability as well on every level, from the microcosm (the individual) to the macrocosm (our institutions), this doesn’t bode well for decision making for the individual or for the executive decision makers in our institutions.

Even the most potent solution out of all this (which is science, and careful analysis) was used, the truths arrived at would not likely be some “Platonic” everlasting truth. How are we to know that hundreds of years from now people will not be laughing at our current beliefs, so called truths, and ways of thought? You only need to look at the history of science to see this may be the case. I don’t think most people will accept this notion, we like to think we live in the best of times; we like to believe that we cannot be at fault and that we can solve any problem.

I used to believe that perhaps we live in the best of all possible worlds, that we are lucky to be alive in this era, this time. I suspect that this is the case for most people, and not just the everyday man and woman but the intellectual as well. We can see this with Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” This belief that we are progressing towards some sort of end seems to permeate into (or from?) other fields (like religion) and extend into the past. It would be only conjecture at this point, but the roots of this belief of linear progress may lay in the thoughts of St. Augustine. His ideas can be paraphrases as follows: that our times on Earth and all the suffering people endure is meant to purify us towards an “end” where we are perfect and we then live in the City of God rather than the City of Man.

I think we are seeing in postmodernity that these “Grand Narratives,” or that Millenialialism or end time prophecy is all nonsense. We are seeing that as a collective and as individuals, we are responsible for where we end up. Of course the full implications of this is too “scary” for most people to rationally or emotionally deal with.

If I had to summarize in general an easy way to understand and tie all this together is inertia, social and historical inertia. We tend to stick with what has worked in the past, and what has pushed us forward, to what has given us hope and meaning. This holds true even if our beliefs and institutions are in fact outmoded and irrelevant.

Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but from what I have read, such as the lifetime of myth’s in our collective conscience (it can be decades) I have little hope that we will achieve any sort of utopia based on objective truths such as our fallibility any time soon. I believe however that  the wool over our eyes is starting to fall, and the theatre is failing to amuse, and the man behind the curtain is failing to impress.

I guess this is why there seems to be a crisis in meaning. We used to find it in authority figures, specifically our parents, our grandparents and our ancestors; we used to look to our heritage. Some people look for it in their work, some try to find it in sex, some try to find it in books or in magazines or television or even food. I believe mostly we now look for it through our peers and media, we can see this pretty easily when we look towards our youth.

Ultimately, none of this is necessarily a bad thing. It shows us that the way things could and can be is malleable. We have the power to shape and reshape ourselves, our lives, and our societies. We can already see this through social movements across the globe. What prevents the reshaping is mostly fear mixed with a corrupt sense of self-interest. For example there are those who believe that life is a zero-sum game, that for some to win, others must lose. I would like to believe that cooperative action, solidarity and the synergy of groups is and always will be more effective and powerful than any one individual or privileged group! Time will tell I guess.