The Meme

An essay that profoundly affected my insight into the nature of present day society, written as quickly as my hand could move on the page, over a dinner of sepia al la plancha and pescaditos fritos:

Last night represented the joy of having a mind to think with. The threads of many lines of thought suddenly snapped taut, revealing a pattern in combination that I had not guessed. This is different from an isolated realization, or the culmination of a single idea. With an effect like resonance vibrating through the intricate webs of understanding, the entire structure was changed. It occurred shortly after midnight, and I was kept awake until past dawn simply in excited wonder at the consequences of the change. This is one of those moments when all the contents of the world will be seen differently from that point forward. Whereas before I had been living in a cardboard hovel, contenting myself with the life that fell into my lap, now I feel the labor of waking muscles stretching in the new light, and a hunger for fuel to be burned in using them.

Now all the words and ideas that describe life have turned upside down. I see the atheism of some as the profoundest religion, and the faith of others as an enemy of the human spirit. Life may be described by names, but is best known by its actions. It is the simplest thing that a mind that can think should think – only the best thoughts, the highest thoughts – never resting until its own plenitude drowns the possibility of further movement. It is simply that this partnership with life in which our choices – our will – is the midwife that brings Quality into the world. A Quality that is the only justification for ability, for resources, for action. All else be damned. By that `else’ I mean every thought, system, belief, and definition, which implies that Quality is an affront, or must wait, or is too great a responsibility, or is too harsh to bear; that the danger is not worth the risk, or that someone may be hurt who has striven to avoid pain all his life.

In society there is a meme against which every great figure has done battle. If anything could be called “original sin”, it would be this, since it seems always to have accompanied humanity. of the great question, “To be or not to be?”, it answer in the negative. This is the meme of “don’t rock the boat”, of wanting to evade the fundamental responsibility implicit in one’s right to choose. These are people who grow to hate Quality, because like an ineluctable force it requires men to acknowledge that they resent their own creation.

In response, the bearers of the meme strive to put out the fire that makes genuine life possible. And not directly, not by a sound proclamation of their right to choose “not to be”, but by smothering those who choose otherwise, in order to run from the reality of the question, and that no one and nothing can be blamed for their choice but themselves.

And so they put down whomever’s word might simply, concisely, directly reveal the vacuity of their reams of casuistic discourse. Should a single action disprove their complaints that action is impossible, their response is to eliminate all further possibility to act. Always in the most subtle, hidden way, as though the glorious reality of direct action were too certain a reminder.

Thus society, through its various bromides and “wisdoms” has always supported the meme, since it serves those powerful elements who would rather not be disturbed. One example is the commonly held idea of humility, which suggests that a person with superlative talent should not display it until beseeched by those around him once they’ve found a use for it. If such a person display their talent for the sheer joy of it, casting into shadow the efforts of others, nothing direct is said – but the praise is given to those who demure themselves in amongst the shadows, afraid to shine lest they be whispered about as arrogant, or unhumble: in essence, thought of as unspiritual, for unabashedly revealing the capacity for greatness in the human spirit.

Against this meme, which all youth naturally abhor, but which wins out often through dumb persistence and the accumulation of tiny defeats aimed at sapping the will to resist – against this historical force figure sometimes arise, radiating glory not by their palaces or appointments, but by the simple fact that they act with such purity, so well, so plainly, obviously right, that the society around them becomes too worried to rejoice, and too anxious to immediately resist. Each time the tactics of compromise, or redefinition, or postponement, are attempted, these great men and women offend by their refusal to accept it, and continue on their way. Until at last the slumbering giants that survive by that meme are awakened to the threat, and the individual – though not his spirit – is put to death or imprisoned or exiled.

If it seems a historical affair, it is not. All of us felt the lines of battle being drawn in our younger days, as we were faced with the question of worshiping Quality or composure. The meme is all around us at the present moment. In the words we use, the structure of our institutions, even the architecture and design of our tools and buildings. If you listen for its insistent, anxious voice, you will hear it on the television, in people’s excuses, their complaints, their reasons for not deign what you know they want to do.

From all this, it makes abundant sense to me now why Bahá’u’lláh says that in order to understand the purpose of true religion, you must understand the reason for people’s constant rejection of it – even by the clergy who actively awaited it in each age; and also why religion tends toward corruption over time and must be renewed; and why religious institutions perpetuate the most extensive programs of evil, when the writings they use in justification claim no other purpose than that man should fulfill the potential of his creation. It is almost as if religion is not here to teach, but to offer such a living example of Quality that no generation can ever claim it had no idea of what was possible for them to achieve. Their role is that of standing before humanity unashamed and unafraid, and to let the walls of glass shatter around them as they stride into the future. Let men follow their example if they will, and for those who don’t, “God is sufficient above any need of His creatures.” The impulse to turn away from the example, and dwell instead on the words and institutions – by means of ever-more complicated definitions and explanations and theologies – is the very meme whose necessity They demonstrated to be null, and whose reality They revealed to be not even an argument against greatness, but simply a limp evasion of the question, of no more substance than the words of the meme itself.

Has anyone noticed that the gold rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” allows for a very great latitude of action? Whereas its commonly understanding meaning, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them,” does not. The Gold Rule supporst the idea of shocking others, offending them, upsetting their ordered life if such order is based on falsehood – because that is exactly what I would most wish people to do to me. A scientist strives to undo what is wrong, that he might discover a higher right; but when we do this in society we are sometimes told, “being unified is better than being right,” as if making a home and a bed for falsehood to come in and take a load off. The scientist, the mechanic, the philosopher, the artist: all want to put aside the lesser, the base, the defective. If they act this way toward others, rejecting falsehood, calling out error when they see it, are they not simply fulfilling the Golden Rule?

The meme tauts this rule as though it implies a fat, happy society in which no one is too much bothered or upset. But growth is pain, the muscles suffer as we exrt them to reach for new heights, the body is exhausted and spent by the labors of mind and body; every action we take disrupts the tranquillity and equilibrium of our bodies; simply moving through this material plane leaves a wake of dead cells, refuse, spent and worn ideas. To live is to destroy the present as we build it, sacrificing the past for the future. To the meme, however, such violence is inherently too alive, too active; it does not understand the concept of joy, and so praises the “virtues” of pentinent suffering; it is confounded by ecstasy, death, anger, and the rawness of passion. “How inappropriate, how vulgar for proper boys and girls”, it would say if given voice. Love and real beauty, and worship of the greatness of one’s own being, fashioned by a perfect Hand for perfect ends – these are reconfigured into pale echoes inoffensive to be permitted to remain against polite company. Nor does it have an answer for sex, only sweeping it behind the marriage curtain, keeping all but its physical aspects out of the discussion.

If a man suggest a transcendence of the banality of life, a myriad excuses rain down around him. If he does a great thing and says, “What I have done is great, and if you are fair in your judgment, you will acknowledge its greatness – although I have no need for you to do so. The best respect you could pay to my achievement would be to outdo it” – if our honest doer claims any such thing, the great shadow of the meme will tower over him, and in tones of indirect threat state, “We do not approve of your attitude.” Only when time has separated the person from his act, and he has gone past the chance of repeating it or arising to meet any challenger, then society will praise him and recognize him and absorb his deeds – if not the spirit which fashioned those deeds, from a basic necessity to do something Good and to present it before the world. If this sounds preposterous, read the histories.

The destiny of a human being is to do great things, of which he should never be ashamed nor try to hide. Greatness lies in the quality of the act, and in taking full responsibility for it and for its consequences. Where there is darkness, he brings light; when he discovers a falsehood, he rights it. There can be no complaint, which is expecting others to act, nor excuses to claim a reason for not acting. It is a simple choice, to do or not to do. There is no must, or should, or have to. When an action has no motive force but the will of the one who accomplishes it, it is his success or failure alone. It is a strange perversion of spirituality that asks us to disassociate ourselves from our choices, when these in fact are what define us; it is a strange humility that divorces us from the consequences of our actions, or that refrains from acting lest others be challenged in their inaction; and it is a strange concept of unity which claims that actions should not originate with the individual, lest the equilibrium of the whole be upset.

In the darkness of night the role of a bright lamp is to upset the dark; it shines fiercely, brilliantly, never apologizing for its imposition on the tranquillity of night. It dares others to shine even more brightly, and takes full credit for having chosen to do so, and for its effect. The lamp shines by consuming its own substance; it does not ask anyone else to bear the flame of endeavor; it is fully responsible for what it is, and does, and causes in result. And in the end it says not a word, but lets its own luminosity speak in eloquent praise of its potential, which is equally a praise of all other sources of light, should they choose to kindle themselves. And to what extent should the lamp accomodate the dimness of its surroundings? From its perspective they cannot be seen, and it would be forced to dim itself to make them out.

This is also the story of the sun, whic greater than anything else has mastered the space around it. We must circle in admiration at a great distance, to avoid destruction. Our state of weakness cannot fully embrace a glory of that measure.

Does the sun ever darken itself for the earth to approach? It feeds us by its strength, by the same ferocity that denies us any chance to draw near. If it did not blaze so intensely, oblivious of the fragile creatures around it, what would we ever know of glory?

Is the sun, then, not humble? It makes no proclamations. Its workings are simple, obedient to the physical laws. It does what it does, but does it to a degree of manifest perfection, of uncompromising quality. Should we abjure it for being so bright, for standing out unavoidably in space, for not permitting anyone’s needs to change one wit its desire to shine out to the fullest? Is it an arrogant sun, claiming any right to greatness other than the plain fact of its own magnificence? It even shares the title equally with its brother suns, acknowledging that many are even brighter than he.

If doing well is in any way unhumble, if the shining of one should be accused owing to the darkness of others, if the purpose of humility is to prevent a blinding glare from wounding unprotected eyes, then we must deny the sun its greatness, impugn its egotism, demand that it cease offending our spiritual sensibilities by being so flagrantly, outrageously, unremittingly good. Otherwise, humility must refer to the lamp’s right to shine, and its acknowledging this equal right and potential in every other. Humility must imply that the unlighted lamp, however finely made, has no reason to be admired if its brothers scatter the night while it remains in obscurity. Humility must mean that whatever is great deserves worship, and nothing else, while those who do not act deserve no mention.

For humans are each a sun, kindled by his own will to shine. And however much our motive force, our intellect, our muscles and resources, may have been given to us unasked and remain a mystery, it is entirely our own choice that puts them to use, and it is only the well-made choice which desrves respect and is a befitting tribute to the One Who set the stage.

The meme, however, will try to use even these words against the principle of shining. It tries everything, and words are its proper domain. How it uses them is almost too artful to describe; perhaps it is like an inocculation against the idea itself by becoming aware of it and then thinking one cannot be at its mercy who recognizes its existence. That “someday soon” we will put the idea to proof and make our break. There is only one way to defeat the mee, and that is to answer “yes” to the question of being and then proceed to act, which is the form of such an answer. And even “act” has a purer meaning that cannot be distinguished in words. I think that once lif earound us begins to fight back, to oppose the intrusion, that this is the proper proof of action.

Words to a friend

Your experience of appreciating the body that God gave you relates very directly with what I’ve been thinking and reading lately. God gave us powers and the free-will to use them. It has been making me think of many aspects of religion lately, such as the idea that being humble means almost hiding who you are from others; that it is wrong to take pride in one’s capacity, and develop it to its utmost limit. Any Rand said most beautifully:

… the sight of an achievement is the greatest gift a human being can offer to others.

When we excel, perfect ourselves, revel in the approach to greatness which God has been possible through our creation, we do it in the name of what it means to be human: which is to reflect all the qualities (Quality!) of the divine.

So, I think that joy you felt in exercise may be related to this, the joy of seeing who we are, without shame or excuse for having been well-created. It may sound like egotism, but in fact ego is seeing one’s self as somehow intrinsically better to those around you; whereas this joy relates to being human, and all can discover it if they choose to do so.

The marginalization of youth

Lately there have been a few thought storms that might yield ideas about the marginalization of youth.1 I have written quite a bit about it, but it is too strong.2 Perhaps even you and I cannot share it. I think I have found the soul-destroyer, my friend. He is not a person, but the essence of being human: something that youth instinctively understand, but that “society” (through the half-conscious participation of its members) works against.

To give you a teaser: Have you noticed that there are no descriptions of `Abdu’l-Bahá by the people who did not like Him at all? Picture how He would have seemed, if His very being represented a threat to everything you hold dear in life. This tall, upright man in startlingly clean clothes, walking proudly as if He were born to inherit the earth; His eyes and brow a testament to His meeting life head-on, without evasion; meeting with princes and dignitaries; writing letters to direct the course of the world from His cell.

If I were a fellow prisoner, I think I would very much be bothered by Him. Who does He think He is? Acting like He is better than us, wearing such clothes while I choose to wear rags, dispensing alms as though we depended on His mercy, carrying Himself as if anything more than the prisoner He is, addressing famous rulers like He had any reason to be speaking to them at all. As I sit upon my stoop, holding out my hand for charity, He offends me by making me see myself as I am: A human being who has chosen to neglect his potential.

There is much more on this theme, but I am starting to see that true spirit is like a light which scatters the darkness, and the dark will be offended by that. What concept of humility could possibly suggest I hide my capacity to shine, as though by common agreement we must maintain a level darkness lest people be unduly challenged?

I think youth know this, they understand it without being able to identify it. In their vitality and exuberance they recognize the potential for greatness with which God has endowed them, and that each person must take responsibility for exercising it. In a society where such boldness of purpose is an affront – of course the youth are marginalized. Their very being is an accusation to the idea that “not rocking the boat” is somehow noble; for to act is to make waves, and every Prophet has done exactly that. The youth mirror this behavior of the Prophets and the heroes: this lack of respect for a social order that does not want to be disturbed.

Anyway, I have written more than I intended to, but the idea longs to escape my mind and communicate itself. My future life must reflect it, or the words are just an insult to my true self. You can see it’s a bit rich.

  1. This is from a letter written to a friend, who asked about why youth are constantly put down in various communities.

  2. This refers to the essay in the previous chapter.