A hundred paths to freedom?

Imagine two scenarios.

In the first scenario Jack stands upon a plain, which reaches off into the far horizon. Leading out beneath his feet are a hundred paths. He can see nothing but the plains and the thin little roads leading off to nowhere.

In the second scenario Jack stands at the top of a commanding hill. He is at a crossroads: the path to the north leads into the forest. The path to the west leads to the mountains. The path to the east leads to the coast. The path to the south leads back to where he came upon the plains.

Who is more free?

In the first scenario Jack has a hundred potential pathways. He has a dizzying array of choice. But he knows nothing of where they lead. The paths simply lead off across the empty plains. There are no point of reference or landmarks, making his return to the crossroads all but impossible.

In the second scenario Jack has only four directions he can go. But he is stood upon a hill and can see where the paths lead. This gives him some idea of what lies ahead. He may not be a woodsman, but he knows what to expect from the forest. Trees, streams, birds, folks living in cabins, maybe a bear or two!

Despite the seeming lack of choices in the second scenario, the freedom Jack has is greater. His choices have more context and have more meaning. He can make an informed decision. And if the forest does not work out he can always back track to the hill and try a different direction.

The first scenario is more like a nightmare. It is flat and featureless. With no context to those hundred choices, Jack will have to choose one at random. This might be exciting and ‘adventurous’ at first, but it will quickly grow tiresome and anxiety-inducing.  As the paths lead nowhere, what is the difference between them? They might as well all be the same.

These are idealized scenarios, thought-experiments to get our minds thinking. But they are not merely abstract mind-games. The society of individualistic values and consumer nihilism is more like the first scenario. For instance there are hundreds of TV channels, but they are mostly awful. The promise of quality is false – advertising cuts programmes into three and wastes hours of your life each week; producers have to constantly churn out shows to meet voracious demand, so the quality is low. A hundred paths, but they all lead nowhere.

It is possible to have genuinely meaningful choices in life, but these require context and purpose. This should be our criteria of liberty – ‘meaningful liberty’. We should do away with any notion of ‘maximizing liberty’ as some indicator of moral good. It is hardly better than tyranny to live in a meaningless society.

So where do we find meaning?

Many of the things that are part of our ‘destiny’, things we do not choose, give us a massive sense of meaning. They are a context around which to build our lives. I think of my old friend, a philosopher of great ability, who sticks by Spurs FC through thick and thin.  As goes the tradition, you find the nearest football club to where you were born and then you support them. You do not ‘choose’ a team, it is given to you. Meaning and belonging is found within that context.

Likewise with your family. Your first relationships are with them. This has a massive shaping effect on your later relationships, even if you do not consciously realize how. It is a lifelong journey of discovery to work through these depths and there are no easy answers. But we do not choose our blood-family. Would we be better off if we did? Would the term family be able to maintain its meaning if we did?

And we can pull back further. The society we are born into and dependent upon, the culture that has been created for us, the first languages that we speak; these are part of our ‘destiny’, not of our choice. Yet without them we are nothing. Meaning comes when we realize that our choices effect not only ourselves, but also other people. To find meaning in society we must realize how our choices and desires are patterned by society – our dreams and aspirations do not emerge out of thin air. Knowing the sources of ideas, we can understand the forces that shaped who we are. Knowing humility, we can then create things for others as much as for ourselves; to live for others as much as we live for ourselves. Someone isolated from society, in an individualist bubble, can find no meaning. They are at the hundred empty pathways, every single one leading nowhere. Every adventurer they meet on those paths is going nowhere.

And then we can pull back even further, for society is dependent on Nature for its survival. Without the living world, we could not exist. The ultimate challenge of meaning goes beyond our lives, beyond our civilizations. It is to discover our place in nature, how our culture interacts with it, how we live sustainably within it to ensure a living world for future generations. This is our ‘destiny’.

Our deepest connection to nature is coded into us, evolving with every generation, yet continuous, leading back to some impossibly distant history which should lead us to nothing less than awe. The seasons and cycles of nature, the creatures which populate the environment around us, the plants and trees; all in incredible variety and multitude. We could not, given all the faculties of our minds, create a more enthralling landscape which can satisfy that natural urge to belong to something real and greater than us.

This is what is meant by the four paths upon the hill. The scope of choice is not so large, yet this is why those choices are comprehensible and have meaning. Where they lead is more clear, what they are is visible. Embracing our finitude and the parts of us that are determined is the key to meaningful liberty. And let us also give liberty its due, for what freedom we can have, we ought to have.

Jack shrugged his shoulders, hoisted on his pack and headed for the coast. He always wanted to try going on a fishing ship and with Spring a few weeks away, this was his chance.

Regeneration

Time heals nothing. Regeneration is what heals.

There is a common cliche in our culture. That time heals all. I do not believe this is true. In fact I think that this could be a destructive belief.

Processing and regeneration is what heals. These things take time, but they are not time itself.

Someone may suffer a traumatic incident. They could spend the next ten years moving from one distraction to another. In those ten years they might do no purposeful processing whatsoever.

We need to let our healing functions regenerate us. But to do nothing is frowned upon in productivity-obsessed society. You always have to be active, out-there, doing-something, between-jobs, saving-a-species, on-the-hunt, success-seeking. This busy-ness is not always out of choice – in capitalist society these things are done out of necessity as the anxieties of destitution hang above us. Hours spent lying asleep are viewed as excess, days spent idle are seen as wasted , the content of dreams discarded as trivia. Stillness is seen as wastefulness.

But this means we are denying our fundamental regeneration systems the opportunity they need to heal. The long periods spent doing nothing are essential to the somethings. This is especially true when you have to live with disability.

Of course, it is good to be active and to strive for things. I would not give up my life’s work for anything of this world. To do literally nothing would be the end of me. But the something should be done with the wisdom of the body in mind. The prudence of the body gives us our boundaries. We human beings are unique in that the capacity of our bodies can be overruled by the dreams of our minds. When we overstep our capacities too far, we deny regeneration a chance to recover us, and this is when we fall the hardest.

In the background of our lives, beneath the awareness of consciousness there are regenerative processes functioning. Psychic wounds are being healed, knitted back together by slow and purposeful creatures of the psyche; the healing forces of nature, insectoid and fungal, breaking down, recycling, processing. In stillness, they thrive. They must be given the time and space to do their work.

There is no all-heal. Life leaves its scars upon us. If we could erase our traumas or histories we would be destroying part of ourselves, not healing.

And of course, life ends with death – something we have no cure for. So to say anything can completely ‘cure us’ would be naive – old wounds leave scars, new wounds are always a possibility. But as much as we can heal, grow and understand ourselves, we should. Just because suffering is inevitable, it does not mean that it cannot be minimized or dealt with in a mature way.

I am glad I have been indulgent and given myself as many ‘years off’ as I have. I will  take as many more years off as I need to, working on my own projects in my own time, with prudence and patience.

And certainly without guilt.

You can run a thousand miles and end up going nowhere. Or, you can take one step in the right direction and make more progress in that one moment than some people will make in a lifetime.

Wounds never heal, but…

The body is wounded. It remembers the source of the pain, the severity of the pain, how to deal with the pain.

The knowledge is stored deep inside the very cells of the body. When next a threat erupts, the body is wiser in its defence. The wounds have taught the body how to react.

The memory of pain is essential to our being. It helps us survive, it helps us evaluate risks and to know whether we are strong enough to deal with them.

To forget pain and suffering, would be to suffer it again, and again, and again. In a sense, memory of pain the wounds they leave are less frightening then having to live them anew every time.

Not that we have a choice. There is no forgetting. Not until death.

The natural world we manifest within is harsh, it allows helpless children to be harmed and innocents to suffer. Some sufferings are so great that we cannot withstand them. We must repress them. Suffering is a constant, it is inevitable. Sometimes it is extremely powerful. In infancy and times of vulnerability, suffering can multiply to levels many times worse.

However repression does not solve anything – at best it can delay the inevitable. A person who completely represses their suffering is not free from it, despite their illusion of control. The body will cry out for the suffering to be seen and acknowledged eventually. As we touched upon, this has an essential purpose.

The repressor will maladjust their body to itself, live in a warped and truncated way. But one who feels suffering and truly knows it, is not necessarily any more free. They are at least more honest.

I believe that wounds never heal. Therapy could not heal me. Leaving therapy, I became a touch more nihilistic, because I knew I was stuck with these ‘conditions’ til the grave. But even though wounds never heal, we can learn to endure, learn to counter their destructive effects and learn to live around them. In this regard, therapy was massively useful.

If you are as wounded as I am, it does not mean your life is over. It may become harder, but life is seldom impossible. Ways exist to compensate. Consider the plethora of genii who had less than ideal circumstances to see evidence of this (Friedrich Nietzsche being my favourite).

At best, we can have stages in our cycles when we do not feel expectional levels of hurt. We also move in seasons and cycles. It makes sense that nature would not generate beings which are always one thing, fixed and unchanging. But we always cycle back to old sufferings, because this is how we are.

Finally, I wish to speak to those who harp on about forgiveness and moving on.

People who speak of forgiveness in healing wounds strike me as most bizarre. If a riotous vandal puts a brick through a magical sentient greenhouse, the greenhouse ‘forgiving’ the vandal isn’t going to repair itself. It will still have broken glass. How will it ever ‘move on’ if the broken glass isn’t fixed and the vandal held to account?

But this is what it is, and this is what we are. Or at least, so I believe.

Consolations of death

I have known from the age of four or so that eventually, we will all someday die. I used to fear the coming of my fifth birthday, as it brought me one step closer to that dark unknown.

There was no hiding the truth from me! But despite this precocious understanding of dying, the true fear of death did not manifest til around twenty four or so.

Now I have the ability to really feel the truth that one day I will be no more. Death is an occasion that happens to all of us and regardless of who is around us, it is the individual’s body that will let go of life.

The impact of death cannot be taken lightly. I believe that we live in a sort of necessary ignorance, that we will live forever. But sometimes it really strikes me that we won’t.

Perhaps death has the boon of encouraging better choices. If we can afford to live in its shadow.

In the dark moments where I fear and feel what it might be to die, my finite mind races to consolations, clutching in the dark for hope.

i) We do not know what happens: No matter how far scientific knowledge advances, no one can empirically die and tell us what it is like or what follows. As the bastion of science is chipped away and revealed to me to be one discipline of knowledge, rather than the discipline, I fear its conclusions much, much less. Anyone who says they know for certain what happens after you die is over-zealous.

ii) The return to the cosmos: Before coming into the world we were not as we are. After we die, we will cease to be what we are. Therefore death is a return to a previous state of ‘non-existence’. But if we could manifest from that ‘nothing’ into ‘something’ once, is it not possible that something of ‘us’ could manifest again in a different form? Or perhaps the pre-human us, if there was one, had some form of being of itself? We do not know.

iii) The cycle of life: Without something else dying it is immensely unlikely that you would have been born. What would you eat? What would the thing that you  ate have eaten? Even if we only eat plants, we are still part of a cycle of life and death, growth and decay. If my living forever prevented someone else from being brought into the world, imagine how terrible that would be. Death is part of our evolution, it allows creatures to emerge into the world and adapt anew. It is also part of our cultural evolution. Nothing is as vigourous or powerful as youth – imagine a civilization made up entirely of the elderly. Immortals would not change or adapt as well as mortals.

iv) It happens to all of us: This is a bit of a negative egalitarianism and not really much of a consolation. But everyone will have to die someday. All of the people in history, many of whom we know and love through their works, had to die. Everyone in the 18th century, for instance, is now long, long gone. Nothing can preserve itself forever in one form. Everything will go.

v) You will become a butterfly or a tree: But first you will be eaten up and shat out by a worm, vulture, fox or some such creature. Not to mention zillions of tinies. Lets not be sentimental or try to give this a happy, psychologically comfortable ending. The prospect is neither good nor bad, it just is. The knowledge of the seasons changing and things continuing on does provide some consolation. But now even this is threatened by human civilization. We can’t become ‘butterflies or trees’ if there are no butterflies or trees left.

vi) It can end suffering: For most in the world, life involves a lot of suffering. All of us will grow old and most of us infirm. Any number of unfortunate things could happen to us, no matter how well we look after ourselves. Life is so vigorous it strives to survive and we have great capacity to endure. But I would not want to age and age and age in a body that was falling apart. Death, though it is always sad, seems the lesser of two evils. I also often think of dystopias, where totalitarian governments have the potential power to torture people for an eternity, and I am grateful for the reaper.

The way the death of a loved one effects us is hard to describe. But it is powerful, so very powerful, and you never know what it is like until it happens. When it happens you may look upon that person in a different light. Even if you fought with them everyday, you might miss them, or realize how important they were to your life.

Death is so powerful. Don’t just read about it and think that will suffice. It is something you must explore yourself, think about yourself and feel for yourself. Anything less is to insult this most powerful, universal force.