Friday, November 2, 2012

Reconstructed and delusional thought histories

I don’t know why I assume that everyone has had an experience of marveling at the peculiarly of where they are, who they are, and what they perceive their lives to be. I have had dozens of them. A sense of surprise and wonder around a momentary awareness of my world – a world built, decision by decision, by me but still almost foreign and strange. “How did I get to be here, doing this?” I assume everyone has had a similar experience entirely without any good justification for that assumption.

“I’m a nice guy, a good guy.”
“I’m a flawed but moral person, a disciple of Christ.”
“I want to be ethical.”
“I want to be an ethical advocate for informed compassion.”

I have thought of it in different ways over the years. I don’t know where this need comes from. If I am honest, it’s as much about being able to feel good about me as it is about empathy and compassion for others but, just as honestly, I feel that is shifting more and more to the space of real altruism.

This need has pushed and pulled me through different worlds and spheres in my life. Pushed and pulled against other urges and desires. The tempest of life – influences, desires, ideas spinning around us clutching at our ‘hearts’, minds, hungers. We are tossed and drawn, gently and violently, imperceptibly, joyfully, painfully from one understanding to another. We learn and we unlearn. We grow and we regress. Through it all, if we are thoughtful, we hope that we are making some sort of progress – whatever that can possibly mean.

As a boy I wanted to be nice and gentle and caring to the only people in this world that mattered to me, women, and I was. I was gentle and caring but insincere and inauthentic. I wanted their attraction and affection and eventually I learned how to get it. I sincerely wanted to be good to them, but I didn’t learn how to be sincere with them and so I hurt people and I hated myself and fled from myself and my world to the Navy.

I fled myself and went spiritually adrift. It wasn’t long before I found a fix for myself, in the form of a good woman and a world of simple moral absolutes. I took refuge on that island for a long, long time. Taking the calmness of the lagoon as all I needed. I wasn’t living; I was protected from living, from navigating the tempest that is life furiously churning just beyond the breakwaters made of religious dogma. Once I realized that, and I realized there was deep suffering that I was ignoring and contributing to by being on that island, I had to leave, and I had to leave alone.

I built a raft with sticks of my own budding ideas and twigs from Hitchens and Harris and I bound it all together with intellectual curiosity. My tiny sail was fashioned from offended sensibilities. Then I headed out, back into the storm, and waves. I think that I will make similar mistakes as those that sent me into the arms of the Navy and of religion but I am self aware in a way I never have been. I am world-aware in a way that I never have been. I have maps. I am adding to my vessel, slowly, and I hope that I will eventually find a good rudder, maybe even an anchor but for now I am content to know that I am sailing.


  1. This is so beautifully written and moving. I love your analogy. I read a quote somewhere at some point in my life that said something about not carrying your mistakes on your head as the weight may crush you. Instead put them under your feet, and use them as a platform to better see your horizons.

  2. Beautifully written! I shouldn't worry too much about feeling selfish for not formerly having had "true altruism." I think it's questionable whether there is such a thing.

    It depends on the perspective from which you make the judgment (I think it's a level of description problem, much like free will, which clearly can't exist at one level of description but makes perfect sense at another). It seems almost impossible to act purely altruistically. Even dying for your country involves some personal motive or another - a desire to be good; retain your integrity; protect people or things that YOU care about. If you gave away everything you own and became totally destitute so that someone else could be raised out of the morass of poverty, you'd still be forced to go away with the smug satisfaction of a job well done... Asceticism isn't all it's cracked up to be!

    I know I tend to help people because I can't bear them being in pain, so in a way that makes me very selfish. But there doesn't seem to be any way out of this paradox, and nor need there be. It's just the way human biology works - we see people in pain and we feel pain ourselves. It's not like it's somehow "wrong" to gain from being nice! It just doubles the upside.

    And that makes it easier, somehow, to understand how we're all a part of a great dance; that it is the DANCE that benefits and we all benefit in return from being able to dance in it. The selfless sacrifice that thousands of my neurons make every minute (and indeed the selfishness of other neurons) only really makes sense from the level of description of my mind, and similarly altruism makes more sense from the perspective of the group (as biologists are discovering with group and kin selection).

    Anyway, I'm just rambling. Nice post!