On October 1, 2017, a gunman killed 58 and injured 851 people at a concert in Las Vegas.
On October 1, 2017, a gunman killed 58 and injured 851 people at a concert in Las Vegas.
Not long ago I was asked in therapy to consider my purpose. I thought for a moment, careful to select my words.
My purpose, simply put, is threefold:
I realize after years in therapy that I can’t discuss my recovery without touching on spiritual matters. Even without uttering “God” or “faith,” I’m restless for meaning in a mechanically operated, perpetually instant world.
Perhaps I’m a secret believer. A reformed cynic. Maybe identifying as agnostic spoke to my struggle with indecision and self-ambivalence. Maybe this mask no longer fits.
Has my writing taken a religious turn? A desert wanderer, am I longing to be nourished by the thirst for life itself?
I took away three main ideas from Alina N. Feld’s brilliant analysis of depression in Melancholy and the Otherness of God.
First, philosophers from Ancient Greece to modern times have seen the Melancholic as a visionary soul vital to humanity’s recognition of its own simultaneous vulnerability and power. The Melancholic thinks and feels at a higher frequency than “normal” people. This leads to greater distress and untold suffering for the afflicted, but this pain is survivable. Those who attend to the vibrations of what today we call depression become wiser human beings.
Second, living with depression requires courage. The Depressed must feel the fear and proceed anyway. At the heart of Being lies the specter of Nothingness; the Depressed encounters Nothingness but doesn’t back away from it. There is value in appreciating the vertigo of contemplation before the abyss.
Third, in order to reach heaven one must go through hell. Depression feels like hell on earth, but its torment is far from eternal. The life of the Depressed is a spiritual journey, a path to freedom in the face of terror. There is no Resurrection without Crucifixion.
From Richard Howard’s 1976 translation of E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born:
Tsimtsum. This silly-sounding word designates a major concept of the Cabbala. For the world to exist, God, who was everything and everywhere, consented to shrink, to leave a vacant space not inhabited by Himself: it is in this “hole” that the world occurred.
Thus we occupy the wasteland He conceded to us out of pity or whim. For us to exist, He contracted, He limited His sovereignty. We are the product of His voluntary reduction, of His effacement, of His partial absence. In His madness He has actually amputated Himself for us. If only He had had the good sense and the good taste to remain whole! (119)
My life is the embodiment of man’s estrangement from God. Sin is not merely an act, but a state of being in the world. My worldly possession—the world as my possessor—creates a spiritual wound. My being-in-the-world longs to reunite with God in the neither-here-nor-there, but as long as I am, I will never reach Him. This doesn’t preclude me from trying, hence my obsession with madness.
Religion and science have at least one thing in common: people from both fields theorize (hope for?) the end of the world.
Many Christians believe in the Rapture. The world as we know it, full of misery and sin, will one day be transformed. Believers will be raised in the clouds “to meet the Lord in the air.” Non-believers will remain on earth and suffer, falling for the Devil’s tricks. Sounds pretty harsh, but that’s God for you.
Scientists take a more practical approach to the apocalypse. Man-made climate change will eventually wipe out humanity if we don’t get our shit together. Everyone knows this. Except conservative politicians who’d rather save your soul than the planet.
In both cases humans are responsible for the end of humanity. In the first case, the Left Behind have only themselves to blame. In the second, no one’s left to verify the prophecy.
Maybe we’re beyond speculation and dire forecasts. What if the world has already ended? The earth suspended in a blinding flash, humanity a tragic afterimage in the mind of God?
Or perhaps we’ve yet to begin. The world is in beta mode and we’re the flaw(ed) testers. God still weighing the costs and benefits of moving forward with his program.
Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated. There’s so much suffering left—obscene amounts of pleasure too. Sometimes infinity takes a long time getting started.
I’ve written many times about our inability to know the world, to understand and tame its restless energies. Often in this thought I’ve assumed a pessimistic tone, arguing that trying to know anything is futile. But that’s the coward’s way out. There are truths we can grasp; that most of the world remains unknowable does not mean nothing matters in the end.
This week I’ve been reading The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, published in 1988 by Donald A. Crosby. Among the many facets of nihilism that Crosby examines, is the nihilist’s contention that nothing is certain and thus life is absurd and meaningless. Crosby concludes much of what I mentioned above, and he finds the nihilist’s perspective regarding the impossibility of knowing anything as shortsighted and dangerous.
Crosby discusses God a lot. He writes that, at least in the Christian tradition, people assign limitless knowledge to God. Humans are destined to search and search for answers, but we’re fundamentally incapable of finding everlasting truths. To illustrate why this realization need not lead us to despair, Crosby includes an insightful passage attributed to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing:
If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left the persistent striving for the truth, and while warning me against eternal error, should say, Choose! I should humbly bow before his left hand, and say, “Father, give thy gift; the pure truth is for thee alone.”
Say we suddenly knew everything. The Quest would end. There’d be nothing left to ponder. No mysteries to uncover.
The Truth is clever, elusive. Although silence is often the answer to my calling out, in my persistent striving I’ll keep listening for the Secret time won’t tell.
I lack the strength to fully accept or reject the existence of God.
I can’t identify with hardline atheists who know beyond a doubt there is no God. Duped by the almighty power of reason, non-believers turn to a religion with its own zealots: science. The laboratory serves as the site of the uber-rationalist’s Divine Liturgy. He chides the theologian for naming that which he cannot see and proceeds to diagram particles invisible to the naked eye.
But let’s be honest: I’m not fond of Sunday services and I’m uncomfortable with the doctrine of original sin. I loath the hypocrisy of pious folks who skim the Bible for commandments that apply to everyone but themselves.
I find God in the chorus of a Nirvana song. Long legs and high heels. The vibrant rhythms of a Ginsberg poem. The rush that chocolate provides. I yearn for meaning, to go beyond belief. To recognize my being completely.
God or not, I live for the possibility of joy. And the strength to know I deserve it.
We’re not as free as we imagine. We’re at the mercy of hidden structures that both grant us movement and limit us from moving on our own. We are puppets blind to our strings. It has been the task of philosophy to study the strings, to measure their strength over us, and find a comfortable way to position ourselves among them. Following are three areas of philosophical inquiry, two of which are today reduced to nonsense by the third.
Metaphysics: Look to the stars
Philosophers have spent centuries debating metaphysics. They’ve been interested in the genetic code of the cosmos—and beyond. In this approach some strings are attributed to the framework of the world. Is there a Master who ties the knots? Metaphysicians ponder cause and effect, the nature of Being, the dimensions of time and space, and whether humans are free, determined or a little of both.
Metanarratives: Look to your eyes
This is cultural code. Economics, law, medicine, language, family, religion, politics, history: these are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. There are as many versions of the Human Experience as there are people in the world today. What about the strings restricts us? What about them makes us special? How do we structure our lives within the cultural framework we’ve built around us?
Metadata: Look to the Cloud
This is the reign of binary code. The story of your life becomes the storage of your digitized life. You’re a victim of statistics, surveys, demographics. A line on a chart, a bullet point, the focus of a policy memo. You are your credit scores, tax returns, medical records, unpaid parking tickets. When a thief hacks into your files, he’s violating you. Your info is analyzed, in real time, for terrorist ties. Thought stalls; the Internet hums. Tired philosophical debates corrupt the data and slow the servers. The multibyte strings slip, looping around your neck. You do the math: there is no going further.