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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
Take Twoby Tim Farrington
If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.
The only real philosophical question, Camus said, is that of suicide: whether life's play is worth the production. This is not something you can argue with. You either get it or you don't, like a disease.
It is one of life's fundamental sortings: the sheep and the goats, the beautiful and the damned, the haves and the have-nots. Siddhartha Gautama lived luxuriously in a palace until his late 20s, a prince, a husband, and a father, and meaning was not the issue. But he stepped outside one day and met a sick man on the road, and met an aging man, and a dying man, and he met a scrawny guy in orange rags trying to figure out what it all meant. And the question came upon him like the need for his next breath. He wandered the world for the next nine years trying to get to the bottom of it. Eventually, having exhausted all the state-of-the-art tricks and techniques there were to be found in the spiritual marketplace of his time, he sat down in his orange rags beneath the Bodhi tree, resolved to either solve the miserable riddle of existence then and there, without tricks or bullshit, or die.
The healthy-minded and the morbid-minded, William James called them on his first sorting in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, one of the sanest books ever written about these matters. The once-born and the twice-born: the congenitally or resolutely upbeat ones, the naturally or willfully sanguine, for whom the human fundamentals of happiness and meaning are not a problem "There are men," James notes wryly, "who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit" and those for whom the dilemmas of human suffering, sickness, evil, and mortality are an inescapable burden to consciousness, and a matter of life and death. The dark roads through the snowy night woods part here. It's not even really a choice. We'd all prefer the champagne. No one chooses suicidal desperation.
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Or do we? The knowledge of good and evil presents itself initially as a lush piece of fruit, with a whisper of promise; the loss of Eden begins with a hunger for the forbidden. The striking thing is not that the morbid-minded eat the apple of inordinate cosmic ambition and are cast out in sorrow and labor to seek their second birth east of Eden, knowing now that it is their lot to return to the dust from which they came; the really amazing thing is that the once-born manage to hold off and continue to insist on Paradise. That most of the ways in which the once-born maintain that insistence seem like fairy tales, fantasies, and outright lies, is a great part, indeed, of the torment of the twice-born.
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The failure of our first birth often dawns by small degrees. The song we believed ourselves born to sing rings just the slightest bit hollow, in a note or two, here and there, and the subtle accumulation of dissonances can take a long time to register on our ears. The natural first inclination when we fail to hit the notes is to try harder to sing right; the first terrors of the need for a second birth begin when we realize that we're not sure anymore that we even like that damn music; and the turning point comes when we start to suspect that we need to be singing a different song entirely.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer," Thoreau said. "Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away." That sounds noble, lovely, and straightforward, but in fact we often lose the rhythm that lets us keep pace with our companions long before we can discern the beat of our different drummer; we falter and even fall long before we begin to learn the new dance, and it's seldom pretty or edifying when the music stops.
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I was 16 the first time I consciously and quite literally stumbled in the course of my first song. It was the summer before my junior year. I was a relatively effortless high-achiever academically at that point, apparently well-adjusted to my initial birth and on track to go to West Point. Every evening that summer, my high school cross-country team would go on long training runs, relatively relaxed jaunts full of camaraderie, and one night as we were finishing a six-mile run, I saw a curb coming, thought, "My God, I'm so tired of this," and with just enough intention to understand that I was doing it on purpose, I stepped on the curb awkwardly and collapsed.
The rest of my high school running career was dogged by that Achilles tendon injury, and by guilt, shame, and ambivalence: I had, literally, wrenched myself off track. What eventually emerged from the vacuum left by my half-willed failures, through the gaps of my intermittent and half-embraced debilitations, was a limping meander on a ragged path toward the necessary new births. But it was ugly, as the failures of first births often are. "God enters through the wound," Jung said; and he knew as well as anyone how often the wound is self-inflicted.
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"Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like," declared Emerson, a once-born soul if ever there was one. "These never presented a practical difficulty to any man never darkened across any man's road, who did not go out of his way to seek them. These are the soul's mumps, and measles, and whooping coughs."
This is true, but useless, once you've actually contracted the soul's mumps, measles, or whooping cough. "The growing consciousness is a danger and a disease," said Nietzsche, agreeing with Emerson from the morbid-minded side. To find that your first birth into meaning has miscarried, to have the measure of healthy mindedness that was yours by birth and nurture fail in practice, is to open Pandora's box. All the evils of the human condition fly out into your face. It will do no good at that point to try to slam the lid back down with disdain for the morbid view. "Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting," James says. "Still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin at the banquet." There is no closing that box once you've opened it. You've got the sickness and you are compelled to seek the cure. You are going to have to make your peace with the troubled world anew. And that renewal will always be a dangerous journey.
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"What doesn't destroy me makes me stronger," Nietzsche said. It is his signature quotable quote, the line known by people who know nothing else of his work. One sees it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and gym walls; it is grist for Nike commercials and part of the carbo-load diet of all manner of spiritual weightlifters, chest-thumpers, and macho souls. And it is also, I think, why we would do well to keep the book of Job, another exemplary sufferer wrestling with the fundamental ground of existence, close at hand on the road to our next birth, and to recall both the voice that spoke from the whirlwind and the insanity that eventually did destroy Nietzsche. If we learn nothing else on the journey through the dangers, terrors, and ordeals of failed meanings, it should be that what doesn't destroy us actually makes us humbler, if we have seen it truly.
Because if we have seen it truly, we know: it could have destroyed us. We might have come out of it stronger, but we didn't come out of it because we were strong. We could never have been strong enough, in any given birth; the death of our received meanings is as sure as the rest of our mortality. Our next birth, our existence itself, remains what it always was, a grace blossoming from the wreckage of our previous births on the journey to the births ahead of us.
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Tim Farrington is the author of A Hell Of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul, published by HarperOne in February 2009.