On Being Slayed by Music

•November 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Lately I’ve been intrigued by the phenomenon of feeling slayed or demolished by a musical performance.   Last week I attended a performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter and her chamber group.  The pieces were realized with such inspiration, overwhelming energy, and beauty and variety of tone that I felt like my philosophical work was paltry in comparison.  “What have I been going on about?” I wondered.  Not everyone can create art, that is to say, over and above consideration of individual ability, because of the many tasks which need to be accomplished for society to continue to operate most people must devote most of their time to things other than creating art.  Few people will attain a level of artistic excellence so as to carve out a career of solely art-making.  And yet music can make me feel worthless.  Other jobs look meaningless and mundane in comparison, at least in the moment of rapture.  What conflict must be inside me that I still consider this destructive force one of the most positive, uplifting, and life-giving aspects of my life!  Why am I so drawn to beauty so powerful it has the capacity to plunge me into despair?

I think this can be an especially common response to works which are a complete system.  Not two weeks ago I heard Pierre-Laurant Aimard perform the entire first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  The expressive power of this concert was similar to the aforementioned.  After the last chord – the final resolution – of the last fugue, the audience and performer sat in silence for what must have been 15 or 20 long seconds, relishing perhaps, but more than that, astonished perhaps that anything should exist after.  Surely that was the whole world wrapped up into two and a half hours.  How can there exist anything outside a world, an art-world, which is complete and entire in itself.  Mahler was perhaps right that a symphony should contain the whole world, but I will go farther to say that a work of supreme excellence gives the illusion that it is the whole world, which creates in turn a complete annihilation of everything outside it.  Subsequent composers certainly seem to have felt paralyzed by the enormity and systematic perfection of the preludes and fugues.  Some composers escaped the paralysis to composed complete world of their own for piano: one has only to bring to mind the prelude sets of Chopin and Debussy or the prelude-fugue books of Shostakovich and others.  Still, Bach remains the looming giant on the shoulders of any prospective creator of piano music, just as the monolithic symphonies of Beethoven kept Brahms in humility bordering on despair.

For a parallel in philosophical works, one needn’t look farther than the systematic, microcosmic works of Hegel.  There are others for sure, but there is no more perfect example of a philosopher who attempted to think the whole world than Hegel.  And with him, I hope I’m justified to say, died the optimism surrounding such a project.  Once a work is considered to have been “everything,” one can choose to deny the legitimacy of such a project and heroically fragment into specialization or feel completely impotent.  Our loftiest intellectual aspirations prove to be the deadliest.

I don’t pretend to understand why sublime works which attempt to envelope totality are at once alluring and life-affirming but also anesthetic.  I think the reasons are more than just that they implant permanent earworms in our minds that make it so difficult to be original, yet with a grounding in the past, yet again without simply copying what has already be done.  It’s more than the fact that Debussy found himself again and again rewriting “Parsifal” when attempting his “Pelleas et Melisande.”  I think it is dangerous for the same reason that much of Western philosophy has been dangerous: to unify is to exclude.  To generalize is to discredit.  Whatever does not fit the universal theory is made to simply not be.  Drawing a circle around some prized web of patterns turns whatever lies outside it into a void.

The grandest attempts at art and intellectualism have displayed characteristics which we might attribute, were it not for the trappings of beauty and the efficacious wizardry of craft, to an insecure person.  They build their spires from the delegitimization of whatever lies outside their sphere.  “This is the world, and there is nothing else besides.”

I would wish none of the works I’ve mentioned into non-being.  I love them all dearly.  But I only hope that both in art and philosophy that we can turn towards methodologies that promote human flourishing.  Surely we can at once create works of brilliance that praise themselves and the mundane, works that heroize both the fictional genius and the social whole.  Surely greatness can be greatness while admitting value outside itself.

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Coming Out to My Sister

•February 16, 2014 • 1 Comment

I finally did it.  I finally did something I felt was long overdue.  I came out to my younger sister.

Until this week, I was thinking that perhaps I had waited too long, that maybe I’d missed a golden window of opportunity when a child’s mind is freer of prejudices and more receptive to new moral ideas.  I thought that surely by now my sister had been inundated with the homophobia so rampant in East Tennessee and that I was responsible for not planting seeds of tolerance in her mind early on.  I’d had many chances before now, since I’m 10 years older than her (she’s 14): I’ve known about my orientation her whole life.  But I was always afraid that she would not understand, or that she would ask mom about it, or that she wouldn’t like me anymore.

I’m not very courageous.  I’m not very optimistic.  I’ve been given too many reasons not to be.

But recently she’s been dropping little hints to me that she wants to be told, that she is ready to hear it, that she “knows” but wants to know.  Just this week, she out-of-the-blue informed me that there are four gay boys in her school and more lesbians than that.  (Why did she tell me that?)  Then she asked me, “If you could marry anyone you want, who would it be?  It can be a friend, if you want…”  This was different from the usual Do you have a girlfriend yet?  And then just last night she mentioned that one of her best friends at school is gay.  “Do you know any gay people?”

Despite all this prodding and begging and sincere curiosity, I still kept my mouth shut.  Is this fair to her?  Why am I refusing to open up and share with her?  She’s already intimated that she doesn’t discriminate against gay people….but I’m still so afraid.

In the course of last night, in the waking hours of tossing and turning, the troubled twilight watches, I became angry.  No, furious.  What the hell is this culture that makes me so terrified to tell my flesh and blood relative something so fundamental about myself??  And furthermore, why am I, who will preach so vehemently to the choir, mousy in the moments that really matter?!  Here, on the boundary of what is acceptable, is where change can happen.

So I resolved that today would be the day, come hell or high water.  Off like a bandaid.  One rip; pick up the pieces afterward.  Let the chips fall where they will … or something.

The circumstances of today played out perfectly.  I was supposed to drive my sister to our grandparents’ house.  30 beautiful, sacred minutes in which to tell her and deal with the aftershock.  If we needed more time, I could take a detour.  Just me and her.  Uninterrupted.

It took me half the drive to work up the courage.  Is it right for me to trap her in this car and make her listen?  Do I have to talk to my sister about my sexuality? Off like a bandaid.  So I talked quickly.

“So, remember last night when you asked me if I know any gay people?  Well, I do.  Because I am.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

“For how long?”

“Forever.  All my life.  As long as I can remember.”

“Huh.”

Silence.  I held my breath.

“Some of my friends are gay, too.”

“Yup.”

Am I the adult in this situation?  How is she braver than I am?  Why can’t I formulate words?

“Does Mom know?”

“Yes.  But you can’t tell your dad.”

“I know.”

And that was it.  Off like a bandaid.  I had told her what she probably already knew.  Like paying a debt.  I owed her this affirmation.  I owed her the truth.  Just, “huh.”  No condemnation.  No barrage of questions.  She started singing Do You Wanna Build a Snowman.  Nothing had changed.  We were singing and laughing and talking like always.  Maybe I wasn’t too late.  Maybe it was the perfect moment after all.

Frozen Hearts: The Importance of Breaking the Ice about LGBT Life

•January 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“Frozen is Disney’s most progressive movie yet!”

When I read this status on one of my FaceBook friend’s wall, I knew I had to see this movie!  I was so intrigued by the rumors floating around the internet about Frozen being Disney’s first ostensibly feminist film.  So over Christmas break, I was thrilled when my mom and aunt suggested we take my siblings and cousins to see it in the theater.  Although I was truly interested, part of me was still skeptical whether a ‘children’s’ animated feature would be substantive enough to really withstand my critical disposition.  Boy, was I ever bowled over!  I laughed.  I cried…really cried.  And I thought deeply.

Face-value, this film is quite masterfully done.  The animation is beautiful and fresh.  The music is immediately memorable, a match for all those great, classic Disney tunes.  And even without keeping an eye (and heart) out for metaphor and deeper meanings, the story arc is touching, relevant, and convincing.  Perhaps the story is so persuasive because the characters are realistic and the dialogues are relatable.

What really caught me about the movie, though, was my shock that I recognized the story in my own life!  “Frozen” seemed to be about my own life as a gay person!  My interpretation seemed to fit the movie so well that I was convinced that I had understood the meaning of the movie.  I was shocked and almost angry to find out that my family ‘missed the message.’  How could we have watched the same movie, and yet they totally don’t get what it’s all about! I thought to myself.  I stewed and steamed over it, trying to convince everyone that my interpretation was correct.  Eventually, of course, I realized I was being silly.  One of the real strengths of “Frozen” is that it is relatable to almost everyone, even across a wide variety of personal experiences.  I had, of course, fit it to my experiences, but that didn’t mean that I had a monopoly on meaning.

Still though, I thought that I was on to something, that the material lent itself towards gay experience. I convinced a couple of my best friends, both of whom are also gay and in their mid-20’s, to go see it in the theater.  (Thankfully I have awesome friends who are not above going to see a Disney movie!)

One of my friends immediately saw exactly what I saw: He also thought that “Frozen” applied very well to the struggles that many gay people find in their relationships both with family members and society broadly.  It’s not just me, I thought. Whew!

So I want to share here a few of my observations about the movie.

Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?

After an opening sequence that shows off Disney’s technical mastery, both visually and aurally, the narrative opens with two sisters, Elsa and her younger sister Anna, Scandinavian princesses.  Anna can’t sleep and wants to play, so she entices Elsa out of bed with the question, “Do you wanna build a snowman?” The sisters sneak into the grand ballroom, which Elsa transforms into an icy wonderland with her magical powers.  The fun stops abruptly when, after Elsa’s powers got out of control, she accidentally strikes her sister in the head.  The king and queen take Anna to a magical troll who heals her but also takes away all of her memories of Elsa’s powers.  The troll remarks that a frozen head can be persuaded, but a frozen heart is much more difficult to fix.  Elsa and her family return to the castle, and the king and queen shut the doors and keep Elsa in a room alone, not even allowing her to play with her sister.  Anna doesn’t understand why she can’t play with Elsa or why they have to be kept separate, so they live out their childhoods lonely and confused.

Admittedly, the analogy isn’t perfect here, but what I took away from the opening is that there is something about Elsa that makes her special.  Depending on your perspective, it is either wonderful and beautiful (Anna) or dangerous and shameful (the parents).  It’s a power that isn’t hereditary; only one member of the family has it.  However, when the troll asked Elsa’s parents whether she was born with it or cursed with it, they told him she had been born with this special trait.  Her “power” began to get stronger and more difficult to control in adolescence.  Her parents were not only worried that Elsa might harm her sister, but they were also careful to make sure that no one in the community found out.  So they kept her separated from the world.

The first time that I came home from college after coming out to my mom, I found plenty of anti-gay literature laying around the house.  There were a few books about how to raise straight children.  It broke my heart.  First of all, it seemed like mom blamed herself for my being “defective” or “wrong” in some way.  In fact, I wasn’t defective.  Mom had been a great parent!  She had always supported me and loved me.  And furthermore, there is no parenting technique in the books that could have turned me straight!  I knew I was different very early on.  I had crushes on boys as early as other boys were worried about catching cooties from girls.

Why was mom so worried about her other children turning out gay?  Was she worried that her parenting would yield similar results in my younger siblings (I was the oldest)?  Worse, was she concerned that I would influence them to become gay?  This is such a popular and disgusting myth that pervades most bigoted circles, from Vladimir Putin to the Bible Belt, that gay individuals are interested in recruiting children to be gay.  Here’s the truth: We couldn’t care less!  We aren’t pedophiles.  We fall in love with other adults.  We don’t want straight children to become something they aren’t any more than we want gay kids to be pressured to be straight.  I do however want anyone who is gay to feel comfortable with their own feelings and their own selves.

Parents, listen and listen closely, one of the worst things you could do is to sever your gay child from the rest of your family.  Your gay child so badly needs acceptance, or…you know….they’ll freeze all of Arendelle…. (spoilers).  But in all seriousness, gay children are not dangerous.  They have a lot to contribute to a family (as much as anyone else).  The love and acceptance is needed on all sides of the equation.  Don’t ‘other’ them.  Love them.

Elsa’s parent’s also sheltered her from the rest of her community.  When parents of gay children shelter them from the outside world, they are communicating to their child that they are shameful and something to be embarrassed of.  They are missing a beautiful opportunity to demonstrate love before a watching world.  They are not giving society a chance to accept their child and benefit from his or her wonderful abilities and talents.  They are teaching their children to “conceal. don’t feel.”  Children who are made to feel repressed, fearful, and lonely are not being giving a foothold for adult life.

Back to the movie:  Elsa and Anna’s parents have died at sea.  Fast-forward in time – it is now coronation day.  Elsa has come of age and is to be crowned the next queen of Arendelle.  She is apprehensive of opening up the palace and having to be on display in front of the public.  Anna’s feelings are quite the opposite.  She can’t wait to be social!  She is hoping that perhaps today will be the day she meets the man of her dreams.  …and she finds what she is looking for…..kind of.  She happens upon a dashing prince, Hans, and they seem to fall in love immediately.  Elsa made it through the coronation ceremony without any problems, but when she hears that her sister intends to marry someone she has only just met, she loses her cool as ice shoots from her hands.  The coronation party is aghast at this accidental outing of her powers.  They draw back from her and call her a monster, and she runs from the scene up into the mountain, leaving a winter storm in her path.  Anna, feeling partially responsible for what has just happened, proclaims that her sister is not dangerous and runs off after her.

I can certainly relate to Elsa’s fear of being outed.  Before I came out, I was careful to police every aspect of my body.  I kept a tight reign on the way I talked, the way I walked, the things I talked about.  I did everything I could to not let on that I was gay.  This usually meant that I wasn’t expressing myself, I wasn’t allowing myself to appear happy or comfortable in my own skin, I wasn’t speaking what was on my mind, etc.  I became a crouching, frowning, tense ball of introspection.  Looking back, I don’t think I fooled anyone.

And like Elsa, I think most gay people, especially here in the South, have experienced being accidentally outed – if not in full, in part.  Some secret is bound to get out some time or other.  Even seemingly innocuous secrets that we might see as tangentially linked to our sexuality.  My mom still seems sort of uncomfortable telling others that she and I watch Project Runway together.  It’s a secret she keeps because she is afraid it would be a “dead giveaway.”  (She is my only parent.  Hence the reason she is so prevalent in my real-world examples.)

It’s also remarkable that love between siblings is often strong enough to immediately love and accept, even in the midst of an accidental outing.  Anna knew that Elsa was just her sister, the same as she had always been.

When Elsa escapes up the mountain, she decides to stay away.  She builds an ice castle and let’s her hair down, both literally and figuratively.  The song she sings during this sequence is worth quoting here, in part:

THE SNOW GLOWS WHITE
ON THE MOUNTAIN TONIGHT,
NOT A FOOTPRINT TO BE SEEN.
A KINGDOM OF ISOLATION
AND IT LOOKS LIKE I’M THE QUEEN.
THE WIND IS HOWLING
LIKE THIS SWIRLING STORM INSIDE.
COULDN’T KEEP IT IN,
HEAVEN KNOWS I TRIED. . .
DON’T LET THEM IN,
DON’T LET THEM SEE,
BE THE GOOD GIRL YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE.
CONCEAL,
DON’T FEEL,
DON’T LET THEM KNOW.
WELL, NOW THEY KNOW.

LET IT GO. LET IT GO.
CAN’T HOLD IT BACK ANYMORE.

LET IT GO. LET IT GO.
TURN AWAY AND SLAM THE DOOR.
I DON’T CARE WHAT THEY’RE GOING TO SAY.
LET THE STORM RAGE ON.
THE COLD NEVER BOTHERED ME ANYWAY.

Need I add anything to that?  Case closed?

This is how I felt when I came to terms with my sexual orientation: Who cares what others think!  I can’t control the situation anymore!  Let them think what they will, but I have to be me!  I’m not going to control myself and keep my feelings inside anymore.  The cold (i.e. being gay) never bothered me anyway – I was only looking at myself through other people’s eyes.  For me, college was my ice castle.

On Anna’s way to find her sister, she comes across Kristoff, who sells ice, and his reindeer Sven at a shop/sauna run by Oaken.  Oaken points out his family in the sauna – four kids and (get this) a GUY!  Yes, Disney casually included a gay family and presented it as normal.  It’s not the focus.  It’s not element of the plot.  It’s just a family.  Thank goodness!

Anna convinces (well, tells) Kristoff to help her up the mountain to find Elsa.  In my eyes, Kristoff is pretty close to the ideal of what a feminist man should be.  He doesn’t make passes at Anna, he doesn’t show off his masculinity, and he doesn’t try to impress her.  He simply treats her like a human being with aspirations, thoughts, and goals of her own.  He is a friend to her.  All the while, it is obvious that he is fond of her.

When they reach the ice castle, Elsa is not in a mood to welcome visitors.  She is still sore from being outcast.  She is still freshly wounded from the rejection of society.  She accidentally freezes Anna’s heart: the very thing the troll had warned of earlier.  Speaking of those good ole trolls, it just so happens that Kristoff was raised by them. Kristoff takes Anna to his troll family to see if they can heal her frozen heart.

A few of my favorite lines come from the song the trolls sing:

PEOPLE DON’T REALLY CHANGE.
WE’RE ONLY SAYING THAT LOVE’S A FORCE
THAT’S POWERFUL AND STRANGE.
PEOPLE MAKE BAD CHOICES
IF THEY’RE MAD OR SCARED OR STRESSED.

BUT THROW A LITTLE LOVE THEIR WAY
AND YOU’LL BRING OUT THEIR BEST!
TRUE LOVE BRINGS OUT THE BEST!

Classic liberalism!  (Not to mention liberalism at its best.)  The message here is that people are who they are.  You can’t change the core of a person, but if you give them a positive, nurturing environment, they will thrive.  I’ve heard people say that the evidence of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is) being negative, is that lgbt people are so often depressed and suicidal.  But isn’t this to blame on an environment of intolerance and fear?

The trolls tell them that the cure for a frozen heart is an act of true love, which Anna interprets as a kiss from Hans and I assumed would be a kiss from Kristoff.

Wow, I’ve been pretty long-winded, so I’ll try to wrap up soon.  (I’ll skip a lot of plot details.  There are plenty of summaries on the web.  Plus, I’m kind of late to the party for writing about this.  Also, just watch the movie!)

Hans ends up being a traitor who was just trying to sabotage the kingdom.  Kristoff realizes that he loves Anna and goes back to help her.  The act of true love turns out to be Anna throwing herself in front of Elsa to save her, basically sacrificing herself for her sister.  I wanted to cheer at this point in the movie!  Sisterly love saved the day!  No men needed!  None of that chivalrous crap we are so used to.  Women can save the day and each other all by themselves.  Anna is unfrozen along with all of Arondelle.  Kristoff starts to go slug Hans, but Anna stops him and says, “Let me.”  SHE lands the punch!  Way to go!  Women don’t need men to protect them.  (Kristoff doesn’t mind.  His personhood isn’t threatened by a strong woman.  No, it’s not because he’s a “real man,” it’s because he seems to be a decent human.)  Kristoff eventually does kiss Anna, but only after getting permission.  The kiss is from their mutual agency.

Elsa remains without a love interest, furthering my inkling that she is a queer character.

Love between family members is what we need to unfreeze our cultural winter on LGBT issues.  I know for many parts of the U.S., this is beating a dead horse.  Being gay is culturally acceptable in many parts of the Northeast and West.  But here in the Bible Belt, we are still in the dead of winter.  There are so many gay sons and daughters who still have frozen relationships with their families.  Sure, we press on.  We do well for ourselves.  It’s not as if we can’t be successful and happy people until our families finally give a seal of approval.  But it would make life a lot sunnier for many LGBT people if silences within their families were broken and they could be who they are without fear or shame.  Love, true love, familial love, will melt our frozen hearts.

Doctor Who and the Existential Tragedy of an Ethical Life

•January 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I recently came across a thought-provoking article by Andrew Blair about the morality in Doctor Who which has got me thinking about ethics, non-violence in particular.

A few months ago, I would have glanced at the article and passed on by.  For better and worse, I’m the type of person that ferociously avoids anything that looks like a fad. Seeing Doctor Who merchandise everywhere made me wary.  I’m not intentionally acerbic; I just operate on the heuristic that popular material is less likely to have real substance than more obscure stuff.  But this time I was wrong.

I recently graduated from college and needed some down-time and entertainment.  Knowing that my best friend, whose judgment I trust,  l.o.v.e.s Doctor Who, I decided to give it a whirl, starting at episode one of the 2005 revival of the show.  I was hooked.  A few short weeks later I am almost caught up and ready to plunge into classic Doctor Who.  Sure, there were some superficial reasons that kept me glued, like my obsession with Catherine Tate, David Tennant, and British taste in general.  And while it’s true that it has some aesthetic ‘tricks’ to keep a general audience interested (It is a tv show after all), the story lines have real importance and go beyond mere entertainment.  The Doctor and the creatures he encounters face serious metaphysical, existential, and ethical puzzles.

Which brings me back to Blair’s article.  Blair addresses Terrance Dicks’ claim that the Doctor is ‘never cruel or cowardly.’  He points out that the Doctor does sometimes kill creatures or let them die, and his treatment of the Daleks in particular is …less than non-violent.  He seems to be saying that though the Doctor’s aim is non-violence, he often contradicts himself or is inconsistent.  I’d like to contend, though, that the Doctor acts fairly consistently with his principles throughout the show and that it is his contexts which make him seem to abandon his primary principle.

Of course, it is just a show written by various people, so we can’t expect air-tight consistency or pure philosophy.  But I still think we can abstract some important points about what it is to live an ethical life.

Ethics boils down to values.  We act according to what we value.  We abstract general principles for action based on what we think will help us achieve our values.  We choose that which we think is most valuable.  In existentialist terms, when we make choices or when we act, we are affirming what we think humanity ought to be.  We are choosing for all humankind what kind of a thing (essentially) we should be.  According to Sartre, the one thing we are not free to choose is to not choose.  Even our inaction is a choice.

“I am my choices. I cannot not choose. If I do not choose, that is still a choice. If faced with inevitable circumstances, we still choose how we are in those circumstances.”

So when the Doctor finds himself in various circumstances, he HAS to make a choice (actually, a plethora of choices).  Non-violence is not about doing nothing.  Non-violence is about being active towards the goal of being non-violent.  The values that inform the principles of non-violence are life and freedom.  The Doctor deeply cherishes the nearly infinite variety of species and wants them to flourish.

So he has very definite principles and values.  But then the world enters in….

Martha Nussbaum has pointed out that when one tries to live an ethical life, the world enters in and creates tragedy.  If we are attempting to uphold multiple values in life, since the world is neither simplistic nor rational, we will find ourselves in situations in which it is impossible to honor each value.  We will have to choose between two (or more) unethical choices.  This is precisely what creates tragedy.  An immoral person will not experience tragedy in the same way. She will simply throw out one of her values without a second thought.

Nussbaum uses Agamemnon as a case in point.  At war with Troy, Agamemnon faced an excruciating moral choice.  He could either sacrifice his daughter to save the State, or he could save his daughter and let the State fall.  He is caught between two responsibilities, as a father and a citizen.  The purely logical choice is to kill the one for the sake of the many.  If Agamemnon were only interested in rationality without a sense of values or human compassion, this choice would be accompanied with minimal pain, but since he is trying to live an ethical life, his choice to kill his daughter is an absolute tragedy.  There was no good choice.  The world created a disaster for him.

Now, most of us are not faced with such decisions.  Our tragedies will be on much smaller scales.  The fate of nations are not in my hands.

But not so for the Doctor…..

The Doctor has the fate of WORLDS in his hands.  The choices he has to make are even more tricky than those of Agamemnon.  It would be dishonest if he never killed anyone and assuaged his conscience by saying that he was honoring his principle of non-violence.  His inaction WOULD be action, and he would be ignoring his basic values of the promotion of life.  When he is violent, he is not, as Blair suggests,  choosing “end justifies means” over “adherence to principles.”  Rather, he is painfully adhering to principles in a world where no completely right choice exists.

So, I think this amazing show has a lot to say about real-world ethics.  I am a staunchly non-violent person, but I can’t say that I would never-ever use violence to protect the lives of many.  After all, in the face injustice, it would be wrong to do nothing.  We don’t live in a clear-cut world, so our decisions will always be followed by some degree of regret or sorrow.

Happy thoughts….

How to Read a Book While Running and other thoughts on the changing seasons

•September 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I had intended to revive this blog at the end of the summer, but the end of the summer was filled with moving to a new apartment, beginning my last semester as an undergrad, and getting my graduate school applications in order.  I just never got around to writing about my summer experience, even though it was a pivotal summer.  It isn’t that a lot happened externally; it was a very empty summer, honestly.  But so much happened internally that I don’t always even feel like I am the same person anymore.  The biggest difference is that I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone anymore.  I used to hate being alone for extended periods of time, but now I relish it.  I can’t know all the reasons for this change, but I do think one activity in particular changed me for good.

Last spring, around final exam time, I got very bogged down and stressed with all the reading I had to do.  I also had started to rediscover how much I loved being outside in ‘nature.’   I was beginning to spend more and more of my time at parks.  So, naturally, put 2 and 2 together, and I started doing most of my reading and studying outdoors.  I would take my backpack down to a river bank, for instance, and sit on a tree branch overhanging the river and read.  When I was walking to and from, I would be listening to podcasts or classical music on my iPhone.  Gradually, these listening times got longer and longer, and I started exploring longer trails before I would settle down to read.  I discovered some free audiobooks from Librivox and listened to those as well.

One day, I decided to abandon reading altogether and just take a long walk while listening to The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf.  One downhill stretch was so steep that it was more comfortable to jog down than walk, so I let myself go.  When I reached the bottom, I found that I wanted to just keep jogging.  This turned into an almost daily routine: I’d get up early, drive to a trail, pretend to not intend to jog, and then start jogging spontaneously at points.  One day I decided to drop the charade and just ‘go running,’ still with a book on tape, of course.  I consciously worked on extending my running times and shortening the walk breaks.  Near the end of the summer, I was jogging 8 mile stretches, which was miraculous for someone who had been as sedentary as I.

I never dreamed I would be having such a wonderful time exercising!  This was the highlight of my days, and I sorely missed it when I wasn’t able to.  The combination of being active and thinking deeply at the same time acted like a drug for me, a very healthy, positive drug.  My mind went to beautiful, playful, deep places of imagination while I was still very much a part of the physical world, pushing my body to its limits.  The totality of my being was unified; I didn’t feel tension between the mental and the physical.  I started to view my physical self, the thing here with skin and such, as the very being who is thinking.  It’s me, the body, that thinks.  Why do we see them as so separate, the mind and body?

Another positive thing that came out of this activity was that I started to become a friend to myself.  I remember when discussing Plato’s ethics a few years back coming across the concept of being a friend to oneself.  The idea is that a person’s primary relation is to him or herself.  This relationship must be healthy in order for relationships with other people to be healthy.  That’s what makes things like lying wrong even if no one else ever knows.  YOU will know, and you’re relation to yourself will be harmed.  You won’t be able to like yourself, and that will spoil your ethical relationships to others.

Running and listening to intellectually stimulating material were helping me time with myself in a self-conscious way.  Sure, when you are watching tv you are spending time by yourself, but you aren’t so aware of yourself being there.  Your mind is placed outside of yourself as you are engaged with the hyper-real world of the screen.  But when you are outside by yourself for long periods of time, you encounter yourself.  I was starting to enjoy my own company.  I liked the reflection and the dialectical thoughts I was able to have, spurred on by audio material.  I treasure my ‘dates.’  For once I felt comfortable in my skin and comfortable in my mind.  Since I was paying attention to myself, I had less inner turmoil.  I felt in control of myself and aware of what I was doing.

Being comfortable with myself has made me SO much more comfortable around others.  Because I have a more stable relation to myself, I can approach others with confidence and the ability to not let things affect me.  I’m not hanging on someone else’s opinion of me, and I’m not searching for validation.

Life has changed once again now that fall is setting in.  I’m fully invested in my classes and career goals.  I’m spending more time inside.  It’s getting colder and darker.  I’m running only twice a week for about an hour.  But the transformation seems to be more long lasting.  Being content alone has opened up a lot of creative opportunities for me.  I spend more time writing creatively and theorizing about art.

Hopefully I can use these new qualities to help me get through this winter.  I usually begin to feel depressed as winter sets in, and this year is no different.  I’ve already begin to feel a twinge of short-day blues.  But I’m hoping that I can carry over the lessons I’ve learned from running while listening to books on tape to help this winter be a little more emotionally neutral.

All Our Devices

•April 12, 2013 • Leave a Comment

We are never going to become human again unless we put down our technology.  I know this will never happen.  We are too far along.  We are too engrossed in it.  After all, it was probably inevitable that at this point in history we should be so steeped in technological advancement.  And, sure, there is much that is good about it.  We have infinite information at our fingertips.   We are able to immediately contact one another.  These devices occupy us and make us seem a little less worthless and a little less alone.

However, I can’t help but noticing that our little handheld devices separate us from people who are right before our faces.  Our interactions with people are constantly diminished, divided, and interrupted.  We can’t simply have a cup of coffee without simultaneously planning our next move with some other friend group.  We nervously keep our virtual world affairs in order.  This person said that to this other person who is now doing what and am I still connected enough?   Am I visible?  Am I noticed?  Will I be asked to a party?

Strip us of our iPhone for a month, I dare you.  We will all be Existentialists in two days.  I’m afraid that very few of us know how to enjoy the world as the world.  How will we function left to our own devices?  I want to know how to love the world.  I want to focus fully on the friend-at-hand.  I want to get rid of illusions. 

If we will not be human again, what will we be?  Cyborgs.  We already are cyborgs, and this is not entirely negative.  Glasses, pacemakers, bicycles, paper, etc. are all technologies which enhance our natural abilities.  We incorporate them into and around our bodies as part of ourselves.  We are able to accomplish so much more with this.  My concern is not so much the technologies themselves but rather the neglect of our emotional and social needs along the way.  Manufacturers are clearly not interested in our long-term well being.  They will produce whatever we can become addicted to while throwing our money at them.  How shall we solve this problem?  Certainly there is more to say.  I just want to submit this idea to consideration for now.

8689

•December 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Day 8689 of my journey here. I haven’t used my days very well so far. I could be forgiven, perhaps, because I did not realize initially that these days were consumable. It’s not even that: they are consumed and consuming. There is no choice. These days are not a feast laid before me that I may eat or not eat. Time passes. [Wait a moment.] I knew first that I existed. I would wake up, enjoy the goods presented to me. Live a little. Cry a lot, I’m sure. What was here today will be here tomorrow. Eternality was the mode of this existence. Then suddenly there was something gone, something indefinable gone. This was the fault of memory. I remembered what once was. It was no longer that way. Eventually I realized that time gone is time gone forever. A twinge of guilt. I adopted a notion of responsibility, as if it is my fault that days slip by, as if I’m responsible for time. I thought that I must be constantly working so as not to disappoint time by not using it. The enjoyment of it could wait till it’s gone, I assumed. That’s what I was told, at least.
On day 8688 I loved. I beheld in others the universe. I saw in one smile all time laid out before me. Those faces are a little different today, probably. I haven’t seen them. They have grown a day older like me. Probably the skin glows just as brightly. Probably they would bring the same joy. They are dying, though, as am I. The universe is dying. In that one tiny point, everything is dying. Perhaps this is what the teachers of Zen mean. The most important thing in Zen is life. The most important thing in Zen is death.
I hope to see them again soon. Life doesn’t mean anything inside my head. I don’t really care what happens to me. I’m as good as dead anyway. I’m as good as alive anyway. But they are the universe, and that matters. The universe matters, I think. Hope, joy, love, math, and all other abstractions are seen in a face. Sadness, too. The universe constructs itself around a story. A story is communicative. Communication requires two subjects. There are no stories in my solitary consciousness. The universe does not construct itself when I think alone. It just is. It doesn’t mean anything. We involve ourselves in projects and the world obliges with a stage play: chaos cooperated to form a phantom discourse.
Day 8690 threatens. It threatens to undo me. It holds the universe captive. I hope I shall see it. I hope I shall see the phantom actors and be swept away into the lies. I’m not unhappy. I’m not unhappy. I’m not unhappy. I’m just writing here, stranded. I’m a pilgrim perhaps, from a land of muses, a land of contemplators, where time doesn’t slide through our fingers. My homeland is stagnant. Contemplation. Contemplation. Contemplation. We don’t do anything there. We can’t do anything there because there is no time to thrust us into action. I’m a castaway here, on an island of time. Counting. Isn’t this periodicity strange? Isn’t it strange to ask a question of the abyss? What time is it? It’s only day 8689.