Thursday, November 14, 2013

800 Words: Living in the Past - Part IV (Conclusion)

“Optimism is the opium of the masses. A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long Live Trotsky!”

- Milan Kundera

I often think to myself that I’m an advance scout for my own generation. I show them what it’s like to get old quicker and experience disappointment earlier. Growing up as I did in a background that was entirely too privileged to feel the way I do, I feel like I’ve shown many all too blessed people of my age-group what it’s like to fall out of love with the world at an early age, and then to indiscriminately lash out as so many older people do at this world which has proven so disappointing so often, and so prematurely.

For somebody whose life has been extremely easy, I’ve had it pretty tough over the years. I’ve prattled on in these posts in a spiral of seemingly endless self-abasement about precisely why that is, and I wish that there was some means other than writing to turn it all into something productive. But it would be all too easy to pretend to an optimism which neither I nor most people earn. An optimistic attitude may get you something, but it won’t get you much. Regardless of our attitude towards life, we’re born when we are born, and our life unfolds as it does, followed by a death which seldom announces its precise time of arrival. We are neither the captains of our souls nor masters of our destiny; we are along for the ride, and only get a tiny sliver of input in our lives’ direction. Biochemistry determines virtually all of our life for us, right down to our temperamental capacity to change our life circumstances, and those of us who fight against our fates usually end up living out the same pathologies we were trying so desperately to avoid, only more fanatically. However unlikely, it's possible that extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no vice, but there is definitely not a single virtue in the pursuit of extremism - be it the extremity of politics or extremity of character correction or extremity of obsession. If a person wants to correct, truly correct, the circumstances of his life, he well may be able to. But there is an ironclad guarantee that the spiritual and emotional losses incurred along that path will be incalculable to someone - you or someone you love, someone you love or someone you hate, deservedly or not.  As my father recently said so memorably: “There are no solutions, only problems.”   

Unfortunately, the past is all we have, and while the future is not yet written, there is little which history proves except that future will mercilessly repeat the past. The idea that we can aspire to be better people than we are is as dangerous and laughable as it is laudable and inevitable. The world is a treadmill that never stops, and we run on it not to move forward, but merely to stay in the same place. Hopefully, we'll sometimes be in good enough shape that the treadmill won't feel as burdensome, but eventually, we all step off, and sometimes we fall off quite painfully. 

Life doesn’t exist to be triumphed over, it exists to be lived. Whenever I hear people say that they triumphed over life’s vicissitudes like so many battles with proud scars to show, my bullshit detector flies through the roof. Physical wounds heal into scars because they are merely openings to be filled, but spiritual wounds are like the sepsis which fills them when the opening is not properly treated. The infection can spread through you or to others at the slightest opportunity, and it always seems to make itself visible at the least opportune moment. And when that puss is popped like a bad or fatalistic attitude which suddenly reveals itself, the wound is either felt as intensely as when it was first made, or it is passed on like an infection to be someone else’s burden. The soul is a very fragile thing, and perhaps it would be best were we never to be conceived. Otherwise, we subject a soul to the sickness which the world inevitably provides. And when our souls get sick, the pathologies of our sicknesses are passed on, and there is nothing we can do about that. It isn’t just the sins of the father which are passed on, it’s the sins of the friend, of the teacher, of the collaborator.

To a certain extent, I live morbidly in the past. I write about it endlessly - world history, personal life history, history being made, history not yet made. The world is a museum whose collection is still growing, but since most people don’t realize that, most people go crazy chasing certainties in places where nothing is certain. The past and its memories are the only thing in this world of which we can be reasonably sure. The past is fact, the future is opinion.

The fact remains, I wish my life was better than it is. Everybody does - most people have much better claims on that wish than I, though some have worse. But if there is any hope for the future to stop (or at least delay) the repetitions of the past, then the exacting study of the past is the only way which it will happen. There is no guarantee that learning the truth of it will set us free, and plenty of reason to believe it will make us miserable.

Perhaps I fudged that earlier statement a bit: without a doubt, the past is the best certainty we have, but even the past is not exact data. It is a hall of mirrors in which we can all only see what we’re permitted to see (a less charitable person would say ‘what we choose to see’). Perhaps I should amend the previous statement to say this: the future is opinion, but the past is perception. The objective truth is not for any of us to pronounce, but if we perceive a truth, then it is either objectively true, or it is untrue, and we have no way of knowing which. Most people can’t deal with that level of moral uncertainty, and they will do everything within their power to avoid its presence. The rest of us have to deal with burdens of potential truth which are far too heavy when there are far too few of us to carry them - if only more people could occasionally help us, or didn't pretend to help when they only meant hinderance… But we all exist within our own echo-chambers of self-validation, and some people are far more blessed than others to live within that chamber’s cocoon. We’re all a little self-deluded. But no matter what we perceive, there is a true version of what happens, and it may one day reveal itself. And if it did, then like today’s elderly Germans, some of us would have to spend an entire lifetime atoning for what we did and what was done in our name.

There is a moment in Milan Kundera’s most famous book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Tomas, the main character, talks about how the current Czech government - a relatively liberal authoritarian regime - pleaded ignorance to the Stalinist crimes of the past. He argued that like Oedipus, even if this government never saw what was being done in its name (itself an incredibly dubious claim), the new, more tolerant government was morally culpable for what was done because it reaps the privileges of those crimes. Whether or not intentional, the truth of what happened was so horrible that its members must put out their own eyes. For this comment, and a dissident’s exploitation of it, Tomas was disbarred from medicine and never again worked as a doctor. Perhaps the old government would have shot him, but the new government's reaction didn't speak very well of it, and in any event, the newer more liberal dictator - Alexander Dubceck - was soon replaced by a still more authoritarian government for the crime of trying to make dictatorship palatable.

We have no moral obligation to discover such truth or learn it if we’re reluctant to do so; but if we’re not prepared, the truth will confront us at moments too inopportune to ever know how to justify ourselves - because there is no justification. If we truly believe in conscience, then we must admit to our crimes, and never stop atoning for them. We will try our best to explain why we did what we did as best we can, but there is no justification that grants absolution. There is only the nagging hope that one day, maybe, we can do enough good in our lives to eventually counterbalance the evil.

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