The more certainly we define ourselves, the more we fear an unraveling of that knowledge in the face of change and death.
As I watched television today, I was struck by how constantly two themes are reiterated: doom and escape. We flirt with our fears, and then dream of keeping them away through money, distance and association. There are programs describing how wars might destroy us, or our failing energy reserves, or the climate, or nature – or the slow decline of creativity as we submit to technology. And all of these are accompanied by heart-pounding music of the sort you might find in a horror movie.
The underlying theme is quite obvious: existence is coming to get you. You’ve struck a claim of self-independence against the vast improbability of time and space, and now your debt is being called. Can you run fast enough to escape it?
Those who can run fastest and furthest – who gain popularity through outstanding achievement, or who imprint their memory on the minds of many – have seemed to cheat for a moment the gaping maw of oblivion. But what’s really been achieved that time will not ultimately scorn? What sort of numbers game can mankind hope to play against Eternity?
I’ve watched films like Dead Poet’s Society, that make philosophies like carpe deum seem worth following. (That is, those who make today their own are able to defy the anonymity of their passing days). But even this film was not truly about the present. It seemed to imply that the present could be used to make a claim on the future: that what we do today can have a significance beyond the moment.
If so, it is just another idea of escape. Time cannot be distracted, or bought, or logically disproved. Can anyone reading this even recall what their infancy was like? Or truly what their childhood was? Time has swallowed parts of each of us already. Even if a thread of continuity really remains, what we were does not. There is no self that can know itself through every stage. The self who engages in reflection is no longer the self of non-reflection.
Then if everything we write is erased, why write at all? I think understanding this is everything. Otherwise, if there is too much investment placed on the background and future of what we do, we will end up spending most of our energy protecting what we believe can be possessed. In fact, the belief of possession is best evidenced through a need to protect, and thus our fears themselves are of the essence of establishing a sense of permanency in time. If we were never afraid, it might mean there was nothing substantive enough to fear losing.
The more we are sure of who we are, the more daily life turns into a battle against entropy: a war with the very days of our lives, each day spent arduously defining something less durable than a mayfly. Yet it is the beauty of our nature that we flit among the mystical planes, changing in definition as rapidly as our thoughts. Like the quantum physics we develop, to reflect upon our being is to change the nature of its subject. A watch is named because it marks time, not because of particular times it has or will show.
I think an answer to the rabid fear I see on television and in society must begin by letting go. To acknowledge that physics has not described our universe; that psychology has not explained the mind; that history has not ever told us what really happened; that sociology cannot define cultures. Whatever role these ideas play in our development, the actual reality of the present moment is forever beyond classification. It flirts with death. It is unstable, unsure, and largely ignorant. We do not know what happiness is, or how to find it. We are never sure of the meaning of life, or of our role in it. The more certainly we attempt to describe these things to ourselves, the more tightly we create our bonds of fear. And thus conversely: the more powerless we know ourselves to be at describing and knowing reality, the more we are ready to experience and accept whatever it actually is.
Yet even at the heart of such impenetrable mysteries: this breeze is indescribably fine; these words please me to write them; and a fine bed is waiting for me.