Tag Archives: purpose

In Defense of a Quaint Habit

IMG_1346

This Summer, climbing ended.

A journey which began in exploration of the heights by a few weirdos equipped with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats, concluded when Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in Yosemite Valley equipped only with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats.

IMG_1088

El Cap. was where the closure had to happen. It was where climbers rounded the bend to see the sport’s conclusion, because El Cap. was where the use of climbing implements – pitons, ropes, chocks, etc. –  peaked and then slowly started to tilt toward freedom. Now, parties still engineer their way up the face of Yosemite’s premier monolith, but their methods have been exposed as second-best. They have been rendered the sport’s Civil War reenactors by the nuclear blast of Honnold’s solo.

Yet there may be hope for roped climbing. It may still be more than shooting blanks at a campout.

All history looks circular from a certain perspective, but that view misses the metamorphoses within lifecycles. And, that miss is a big one. The transformations carry all the themes, while the repetitions merely demonstrate mechanisms.

Yes, the butterfly will lay eggs, but its wings are beautiful.

Ropes and pitons opened the way up previously forbidden ice and stone. But the equipment also bound us to each other and the mountains. The rope gave us things like Pete Schoening’s famous catch on K2 in 1953. Actually, it gave us the 1953 K2 expedition. It gave us Peter Terbush.

We shouldn’t forget that the rope also gave us Alex Honnold. Without a safety system which allows for failure, and for pushing past the point of failure, soloing is just a stunt, like going over Niagra Falls in a barrel. The rope allows soloing as perfection of an art. A soloist climbs alone, but not apart from other climbers.

Still, climbers are a breed apart, and not because we are capable of feats which are beyond the average citizen. The rope sets us apart. It lets us see that soloing El Cap. is not a stunt. Climbing accomplishments of all sorts, which the average citizen, mired as he is in the institutionalized narcissism of our civilization, can only see as ego gratification, we see as steps on a path to a broader vista.

 

IMG_0991

Ahhh, what else is there? I mean that rhetorically.

 

Use of a rope gives access to that view: of the self as part of a team, the ego as malleable, and a person as part of the fauna on the vertical face of the crag. Some people will always yearn for that perspective, despite societal admonitions to keep looking down and stay in line. And so, roped climbing will persist as more than a quaint habit.

IMG_1335

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , ,

Cutting Up an Ox

IMG_1312

Ben Sasse fears for our youth.

He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.

His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.

I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.

I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.

On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.

“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”

Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.

But I hear differently all the time.

“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”

This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any  particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.

The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.

As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.

Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.

For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.

But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.

Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?

In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.

He explains the strategy in a vignette:

Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.

Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?

“I’m  cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.

“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”

In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.

But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.

We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.

In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.

A different vignette illustrates my point:

     Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)

I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.

A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.

They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.

In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.

We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here,  maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.

IMG_3666

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Buddy the Blastocyst’s Ensoulment Adventure

It’s the wildest yarn of them all. Be warned: you may not like the ending, but the thrill is worth it.

Let’s set the scene.

In the lead role, we have Buddy. He consists of a few hundred cells arranged in a hollow sphere. There is nothing too special about Buddy. He is not that far removed from the fused gametes which preceded him in that he is full of promise, yet without much substance or even a distinguishing feature. To be honest, he is a pretty passive character in his own tale.

As such, he is a perfect foil for the soul. The soul is no simpleton, and unlike Buddy, the soul is very difficult  to describe. Here we can turn to words from the wise philosophers and theologians who have previously contemplated the mystery of the soul. The wise have described the soul as the “I”-ness of experience or the proper subject of mental properties. The key point to take from such descriptions is: Don’t ask the wise for directions to the nearest coffee shop. Those directions are likely to lack substance.

Substance is exactly what we need in the case of the soul, to characterize it. Lucky for us, we need no more than substance, or at least the agreement that the soul is a substance distinct from the sphere of cells which is Buddy. Not everybody will agree. Some may contend that Buddy is simply the dawning realization of something which has always been, kind of like a Chrysler LeBaron. Let me try to clarify.

In a certain sense, one could contend that the specific turbulence pattern in the early universe, doomed us to the Chrysler LeBaron, because one could ostensibly track a chain of distinct events back from the structure of the LeBaron to the details of the turbulence pattern of the early universe. And by the same token, one could track the turbulence pattern back to a purported state of affairs before the early universe started doing anything. A claim of pre-existing potential opens up, of which the early turbulence pattern and the Lebaron are mere manifestations.

There are loads of problems with this account of history, but only a couple concern Buddy and his soul. First, we cannot do anything with this account. An auto designer in 1896 could not foresee the Lebaron in all it’s hideous detail. We can see the inevitable  manifestation of LeBaron essence in retrospect only. Think vitalism (and its discontents).

Second, the pre-existing potentials do not do anything for themselves. They are manifested, without occupying space or expending energy or participating in the manifestation process, other than as an additional explanation. Like solipsism, the tale of essences suffers from terminal irrelevance.

Therefore, Buddy shall receive soul-stuff rather than a post-hoc rationalization.

Now, what is the nature of Buddy’s relationship to his soul, and how does the soul adhere to that little, hollow sphere of cells? Maybe the second question is too ambitious. Yet at least there has to be a singular moment in which some sort of threshold for ensoulment is surpassed and the membranes which a moment ago contained only chemical elements now serve as vesicles for spirit.

Some spirit-permeable membrane channel opens or an angel-beacon gene gets transcribed, and the soul binds to Buddy irrevocably. This must be the case. We want an active soul for Buddy, so he cannot merely slip into it. In that case – where Buddy is the realization of some soul formula written into the cosmos – we are right back to the maximally inefficient essences.

Once he has his soul, Buddy begins to exist in two worlds at once. He takes in nutrients, builds membranes, and generally engages with events in the world. At the same time, he is moved by the spirit to do Good or Evil, and his soul bears the weight of his activities in the world.

At the end of it all for Buddy, he can stand in the court of the Lord and the Lord can say to his angel, “Bring me Buddy and I shall judge him, for he lusted after a Unicorn Frappe and was moved by the wickedness in his soul to purchase a Unicorn Frappe, and his soul was soiled by the act. ”

“Wait, who is this you bring before me? No, no, that’s Benny, who turned aside from his evil impulses and purchased a tall coffee. Now let Benny go and bring me Buddy, who smells of shame and sugar, not wholesome ground roast.”

How else does the Lord know who is Benny and who is Buddy?

And so we have arrived at the shocking dénouement: the story of Buddy’s spiritual existence and his physical existence are one and the same. His soul, however convoluted the mechanism, moves electrons, as much as a magnet moves electrons. His soul, as much as any magnet, is moved by electrons. In being so engaged, Buddy’s soul becomes part of the reductive explanations which constitute physicality.

Is this the end for Buddy’s soul?

For his soul as a supernatural substance, maybe it is. But the point of the story is: those supernatural substances can’t get going in the first place.

They just don’t hold together at all.

For Buddy’s soul as a strange appendage, who knows?

The world is a weird place.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Looking Down on Elitism

“Look at those assholes. Ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.”

– Bud, Repo Man

 

img_1201I dodge between the two ant-lines of hikers, one ascending and one descending the gravel path. About one in five says hello. I don’t respond. I am not here to socialize. I am not part of their program. There are few solo travelers, like me. Most hikers walk in groups of two or three, chatting about their jobs or mortgages. The majority of the loners are not really alone, either. They are on their Bluetooth devices, conversing with insubstantial partners on the trail.

The only socially isolated walkers come by it naturally. They are the elderly. Bent over their trekking poles with grim determination, getting their exercise as prescribed.

I pass them all and turn off on a steep trail to the peak. Without breaking stride, I scramble up a little chimney and across an exposed traverse to a ledge. There, I set up the rope for my training climb.

Crouched like a gargoyle, I take a moment to glower upon the crawling lines of walkers, now far below. The feeling of the moment is familiar. I had it just a week before in Ouray.

img_1306

There were no walkers in the ice park, with one exception: an elderly lady walking her Papillion. The lady smiled and waved to my son and myself as we trudged up the snow packed road. She was wearing shearling slippers and mismatched halves of a pair of tracksuits. She did not look out of place.

The narrow gorge teemed with climbers on top rope.  Belayers chatted amongst themselves about technique and equipment. Downstream, a group waiting in line to climb, fired up a hibachi. Charbroil smoke wafted up the streambed.

img_1309

I really don’t begrudge the outdoor recreationalist his or her fun. He or she belongs to other things: careers, classes, religions, cultures. I understand. Belonging puts climbing and everything associated with climbing in perspective. It justifies the ice park atmosphere and bidirectional queues in the desert.

I understand because, as I crouch on the little ledge, a strong sense of belonging comes over me. I look down over the ant lines, the obscene Scottsdale compounds, and the roads leading off toward the ice park. I lean back on the rough desert granite, one hand on the rope, and it all comes into perspective.

img_1310

Tagged , , , , , ,

Poorly Shod

My twin and I share two pair of identical running shoes. One pair is green, the other, gray. The shoes are otherwise indistinguishable. I wear the green shoes exclusively. I have won many races with them, and I consider them lucky.

My twin wears either pair. He cannot tell the difference between the two sets because he is color blind. He runs just as well while wearing the green shoes as he does while wearing the gray shoes.

I flounder in the gray shoes. He can beat me every time if we trade colors, because the duller pair does not recall soaring victories. The gray shoes mean nothing to me.

Though the difference between the shoes is entirely subjective, it is nonetheless real and it is true that the greenness of the shoes means something, even if no one knows it but me.

Now, you can say that I am silly for evaluating the shoes by color. You can say that I’m doing it wrong (if you have a solid alternative to present). But you can’t say that a subjective evaluation, with attendant meaning and minimal truth (and really, what else is there?) inherently fails and is not real necessarily.

Well, I guess you can persist in insisting that subjective evaluations are not real, if you want to branch off into a dispute about what makes something real…

Tagged , , , , ,

Being and Waspishness

In the Fall, our crags are swarming with wasps. Their source is a mystery. It is rare to see wasp nests in the cracks and pockets in the limestone, and when found, the nests are no bigger than a newborn’s clenched fist. The volume of the Fall swarms doesn’t comport with the numbers seen over the Summer. The wasps in Fall also differ in quality from the busy, irritable creatures encountered in Summer. The Autumn wasps are less likely to sting, but they are also harder to shoo away. When threatened, they flare their wings and wave their antennae.
A bunker mentality seems to have taken hold of them, perhaps as a consequence of excessive introspection, depression even. In flight, they behave with no less aimlessness than when clinging to the stone. They waft from perch to perch in short hops, always staying within a few feet of the crag, extending the arc of their flight only if they encounter another intransigent insect where they would land. They are not hunting, and do not appear to engage in courtship or any other purposeful behavior in the course of their days.
To the climbers who persist at the crags through the cooling season, the wasps look a feckless lot. Some observers go so far as to advocate swatting the insects on principle, as the wasps have lost their purpose and are simply waiting to die. Why let them suffer?

The Grand Auger, who sacrificed the swine and read omens in the sacrifice, came dressed in his long dark robes to the pig pen and spoke to the pigs as follows: “Here is my counsel to you. Do not complain about having to die. Set your objections aside, please. Realize that I shall now feed you on choice grain for three months. I myself will have to observe strict discipline for ten days and fast for three. Then I will lay out grass mats and offer your hams and shoulders upon delicately carved platters with great ceremony. What more do you want?”
Then, reflecting, he considered the question from the pigs’ point of view: “Of course, I suppose you would prefer to be fed with ordinary coarse feed and be left alone in your pen.”
But again, seeing it once more from his own viewpoint, he replied: “No, definitely there is a nobler kind of existence! To live in honors, to receive the best treatment, to ride in a carriage with fine clothes, even though at any moment one may be disgraced and executed, that is the noble, though uncertain destiny that I have chosen for myself.”
So he decided against the pigs’ point of view and adopted his own point of view, both for himself and for the pigs also.
How fortunate, those swine, whose existence was thus ennobled by one who was at once an officer of the state and a minister of religion.
– Zhuang Zi as translated by Thomas Merton

The same sentiment applies to the wasps. Trivially, some of the wasps which a climber sees in Fall are foundresses of next Spring’s colonies. No one would question their having a meaningful existence, in wasp terms. They represent the sisters passed, of the colony that bore them and back down the line. When we say ‘meaning’ in regard to a creature’s existence, we imply just such a representation on the creature’s part. After all, meanings don’t have meanings, symbols do. When we speak of purpose in the same context, we refer to the relationship between the representation and the meaning behind it, with the purpose of the representation being to signify the meaning.
Next Spring’s founding females have a purpose: to represent their colonies of origin and so on, in the genes they express, the ova they carry, and the smells they remember. The colony is gone but the intention of the colony remains, represented by the heiress.
People are no different. We represent our backgrounds and their intentions. We try to live up to our potential, what we are born with and what we acquire by learning. For us, as for the wasps, this representation is always in the present, pulling at the intention groping behind it. The colony’s heiress begins her own take on her mother’s colony. Her ownership changes the intention a bit. Her smell is a little bit different. Depending on what confronts her in the Spring, she may recruit the help of her fellow survivors to start her nest or usurp another’s. No matter, the next generation will recall a different ideal in its turn. We too, will try to live up to the tales of the deeds of our ancestors (by blood or tradition), rather than the deeds themselves, and the tales of the tales and so on.
But where does all this leave the true left-overs, the workers who will soon die in the cold? For them, the colony is lost forever. They represent the end. No one could blame the human observer for imagining these insects as little Macbeths, with their petulant defense of limestone cubby-holes and their swarming a soliloquy pleading for release from the futile farce which their lives have become, maybe which their lives have been from the start.
Still, they fly. They utilize the behaviors passed to them as social insects in their new context. They sting if pressed. They taste the air for familiar scents. They seek the light and shade with the progression of heat through the day. For their part, they signify the heritage of social insects as much as the females who will survive the Winter. If they have lost anything by losing the meaning and purpose of their role in the nest, it wasn’t much.
All representations work this way and the losses associated with any loss of significance are no more than the losses a cipher suffers in moving from one equation to another. When we pose the question, “Why should we let them suffer?”, the wasps might answer us like little Mallorys rather than little Macbeths: “Because I’m here.” That is exactly what they are saying when they wave their antennae at an approaching hand.

Tagged , , , , , ,