- December 5th, 2009
For some time now and completely unbeknowst to myself, I have been considering the terms of my surrender. I have been attempting to put a pleasant face upon it, couching my decisions in existentialist trappings and framing my escape from the world's assault upon my aspirations as another movement in the process of self-becoming. Today, as I openly wept at the marvelous sensitivity displayed in Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I came to recognize the uncomfortable fact that for all my self awareness I am still, in fact, only attempting to deny that somewhere in the past several years I had, through myriad choices and hesitations too miniscule to be noted, lost my direction. Like most everyone else, I am being swept along.
This realization is difficult for someone who had, and still does, pride himself on the defiance he shows toward those forces that seek to shape our fates unseeingly and without sympathy or remorse. Some background: I was born into the underclasses to a family not destitute enough to warrant attention and sympathy, but not affluent enough to expect that any of us children would have any social opportunities beyond those of a basic high school education. My sisters, especially the middle child Allison, are both exceptional individuals, but only I have succeeded in overcoming the obstacles of our upbringing (most likely because I am the eldest and a male, both of which provide advantages in our misogynistic world). My father, determined that I not live amongst the alcohol wreaked devastation that is his life, sacrificed much to provide me with a decent education and continually encouraged both me and Allison to better ourselves, take care of ourselves, and be something more than our humble beginnings seemed to allow. I have, for my entire life, taken his charge to heart, and, having discovered philosophy, have had a world opened to me I had not previously known existed. Thus armed, I have striven, to the best of my ability, to open this broader world of meaning to others, expose them to the dangers of learning and the precariousness and fragility of our lives with the hope that they too will strive to want more from life than is usually offered them. I have not always succeeded, either with myself or others, but my intent has been to live up to the responsibilities incumbent upon those who have earned freedom. After all, much is expected from those to whom much has been given. The irony, of course, is that not much has been given to me at all, in a certain sense, but I still recall with deepest gratitude the many people who have freely given of themselves to allow me to be who I am today.
All the while, I have been sinking lower and lower into my cynicism concerning what is and is not possible to achieve given one's social starting point. I do not have a fancy degree as I could not afford one, nevertheless I humbly assert that I have received an amazing education thanks to the generosity and concern of my teachers. Yet in a world that makes no attempt to see you as anything more than the sum of your exterior manifestations, your contribution to some statistic or social algorithm, one begins to doubt the viability and propriety of one's quest to exceed expectations. Confronting the difficulties of attempting to make something of my life that appeared incongruous with my background and education has increasingly led me to limit my expectations for myself. At the same time I stand before a classroom and encourage my students not to allow social norms and expectations to determine either their self-conception or their choice of projects, I have submitted to the same pressures. I only realized my capitulation, however, by reading Barbery's sublime work of beauty in which the two main characters, each in their own distinct way, are living under the same crushing pressure we all face to be a social position, to live their role in bad faith. The interesting element in both of these characters is that they embrace their bad faith, consciously cultivating it and withdrawing into themselves so as to shield themselves from the horror vacui that is daily life. I, like those characters, wrapped myself in books in order to hide from the world of pain that surrounds us. I speak not of our personal situations, but of the world in general in which so much suffering, anguish, and callousness confront us on a daily basis to the extent that it is a marvel that we are all not paralyzed by grief and despair. The wonder of the book, the ending of which I will not spoil, is its manner of grappling with the need to live and find meaning in the world despite that world's complete disinterest in one's presence. In short, it is a novel about the Absurd.
What Barbery recalled in me by revealing the way in which I was authoring my own concession was the fact that this fate is precisely the outcome the external forces of the world are attempting to bring about. By leaving the academy that does not seem to want me, I give to it precisely what the system of accreditation wants and affirm all of the prejudices those professors with fancy degrees and high self-opinions think of people like myself. Not that their disdain elicits my defiance; such would indicate that I allow them to dictate the course of my life as a reaction to them and their own petty prejudices and insecurities. Rather, I must not allow their dismissals to determine my acts and, since I find value in my course, I must reaffirm it and continue, like Sisyphus, to lift the stone against the pull of gravity. After all, we must imagine Sisyphus as happy.
For a long time, my favorite quote was one by e.e. cummings, which, though I may be misremembering at the moment, ran "to be yourself in a world that is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle that any human being can ever fight and never stop fighting." Each moment of our lives is so transient, so tenuous, and yet is capable of containing so much ephemeral beauty, grace, and magnificence if only we choose to recognize it and maintain a place for it in our daily acts. To avoid the fight is to stop fighting and, by consequence, to sink back into one's place in the social order. I only remembered this quote in the writing of the above missive addressed, I suppose, mostly to myself. If you do read this, however, I hope that you too will see that there is just as much beauty and wonder in this world as there is pain, that nobility and meaning are found not in victory but in the campaign, and that failure and being vulnerable to possibilities can be even more glorious and rewarding than being given everything one desires, but have not earned.
Be well, I know I will be.