The Writers…

Hemingway said that writing was as simple as sitting down at a typewriter and proceeding to bleed. Consequently, he was known to be surrounded by stacks of prosed papers. Jane Austen may have agreed with that sentiment, except for the fact that she wrote her manuscripts by hand, and as such was most likely to be found surrounded by a debris field of scribbled papers. Then you have Jack Kerouac, who like Hemingway used a typewriter, but who wrote On the Road on paper taped together to form one large, unbroken scroll. One can only imagine what his workspace looked like. And then you have guys like Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Alighieri who no doubt penned their famous medieval works to the dim and dancing flames of candlelight, painstakingly scrawling onto vellum parchments with scratchy quills. And if you go back far enough, you’ve got the unidentified writer or writers who employed the strange technique called Cuneiform to compose the Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets.

The point is this: wherever you go in history, you’ll find eccentric, slightly misanthropic people sequestered away somewhere, using the technology of the time to record their thoughts. These are the writers. The scribes. Those who capture for posterity the collective consciousness of any given period. They usually toil in anonymity, experiencing little or no reward for their efforts during their lifetime, and are sometimes even persecuted for daring to express what everyone else thinks but is otherwise too cowardly to say. Sometimes their words are weapons or instruments of change. A writer can, simply by transforming thoughts onto paper (or parchments, or tablets), ignite a fire within the minds of a people, ushering revolution. Or perhaps they just use their talent for smithing sentences to create timeless stories that resonate in the hearts and minds of everyone who comes after them.

Whatever the case may be, it is the writers who are perpetuating the human story (and perhaps the human condition, too) down through the ages. The writers are the vehicle by which the history of this species is told. Whatever we humans are, or were, or will be, there have always been scribes in the shadows, recording the experience and, in so doing, capturing a bit of time’s infinite nature in a finite form for everyone else.

I flatter myself to be counted among these.

The Stupidest Thing Jesus Ever Said…

Jesus is a character known just as much for what he said as what he did. And he said some interesting things. Some of it, I must admit, is pretty good, though none of it was original to him (indeed, the Buddha said nearly all of the same things in a different way 500 years before Jesus was even a thought). Some of it, however, is patently ridiculous. That children, for instance, needed to leave parents and husbands needed to leave wives in order to live the kind of life God wants for them. Or that no one should work to obtain food and provisions. But for me, there is one thing he said that resonates as possibly the stupidest, most absurd utterance of all.

It is found in Matthew, chapter 18, verse 3: “And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

The Christians will argue that this is among the sagest wisdom in the New Testament. “The faith of a child,” they will say, “is a precious thing and we should all endeavor to be like that.”

Uh huh. Except for the fact that, well, children, even the brightest of them, are pretty much clueless. I mean, even if a kid is a born genius he still needs to be taught how to use that ability, how to live and move and operate in society, how to solve problems, how to do simple tasks like tie a shoe or bait a hook. After all, no one comes out of the womb ready to teach college. A child, no matter how smart or capable, does not—cannot—grasp the difficult implications of reality without first having lived in the world and among its people for a sufficient amount of time, thus gaining not only knowledge but experience as well. In other words, even the smartest toddler is still significantly more ignorant than the most doltish adult.

And yet Jesus tells his followers that if they want to have any kind of access to God and his “kingdom,” they need to become like children. Children—who think there are monsters under their beds regardless of how irrational such a belief is. Children—who will believe implicitly in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy—entities which are not real in spite of how fervently children may believe in them. A child knows only what the adults around him teach him, and as we have seen in history, you can implant any kind of erroneous or wicked belief into a small child’s impressionable mind and it will pepper the way he lives his life as an adult. Children will believe anything, no matter how utterly ridiculous it might be. But according to Jesus, this is exactly how God prefers his grown-ups to be.

Think of it this way. Suppose we pull a young boy out of the crowd. 7 years old, say. We run some tests on him and determine that his mental capacities are astronomical, that this boy is in fact one of the smartest humans ever to have lived. Suppose also that he is an incredibly kind, well-behaved, generous, and thoughtful young boy. So, we take this 7-year-old boy and bring him into a room, sit him a chair, and proceed to lay all the problems of the world on him. “Here are the statistics on hunger,” we say. “And look here, this is the number of homeless people in the world.” We show him some footage of what war looks like in Afghanistan, and what the radioactive landscape looks like in post-tsunami Japan. “We are waiting for your answers,” we tell the little boy. And, having said all that, we sit silently, looking at him with expectation.

What exactly is he supposed to do?

Suppose we take this little boy to a hospital room where a woman is about to have a delicate operation to remove a cancerous brain tumor. And we stop the doctor, move him aside, and bring forth the little boy. “This boy,” we tell the woman, “is better equipped to do this surgery because he is much smarter at 7 than this doctor will ever be his whole life.”

What should the tumorous lady do? Should she say, “Yeah, okay. Doctor, give the scalpel to the kid?”

Obviously, the point here is that the separation between what makes an adult and what makes a child is one of extreme importance. But this distinction, no matter how it might have served to help a woman beat a tumor, no matter how it might have determined how to combat hunger in the world, apparently matters little to he who is known as the Savior. Unless we can be like children, we have no hope of getting into heaven.

Again, Christians will say that I’m missing the underlying wisdom here. They’ll no doubt contend that Jesus is referring to faith here, that “child-like faith” is characterized by a simple willingness to openly believe anything, no matter how crazy or odd or even dangerous it might be. And so, when I present my intellectual and rational reasons for choosing atheism rather than belief, Christians will often shake their heads and tut and say something like, “What you don’t understand is that you can only find God by looking past all that intelligent nonsense and finding child-like faith.” That’s interesting, because I can remember being a young boy and convincing my even younger nephew that a witch lived in my basement. He believed this implicitly, with absolutely no data, without a single shred of evidence to suggest that not only were witches real but that I, his uncle, was above pulling a prank on him. His child-like faith might seem commendable to some Christians, but you know what? There was no witch living in my basement. His faith, no matter how commendable, was leading him astray. And that’s just a small, insignificant example. Put this on a larger scale and you can see how multitudes of adults might believe anything—that there is a spaceship flying behind a comet, for instance; or that by drinking the “special punch” you can escape to another dimension of peace and everlasting tranquility. And let us not forget this salient fact: we cannot even know how many instances of “child-like faith” led some young boy or girl straight into the backseat of a killer’s car. I guess it doesn’t matter how many lambs are led to the slaughter, as long as they are dumb enough to never figure out their fate beforehand. And I’m sure there have been many kids killed by pedophiles who were at the top of their class.

But be like a child, please. So says Jesus. Because that’s how God prefers you. Indeed, it would seem that regardless of how stunning this God made the human mind, he would ask you not to use it, for if you do, you have no hope of ever being saved by him.

No. This, for me, is the stupidest thing Jesus ever said.

Some Honest Thoughts on Racism

When I was in sixth grade I was the target of a bully. To my young mind, this kid felt to me as though he was pure malice. Looking back, I’m sure there was some sort of situation at his home, but none of that mattered to me in sixth grade. This kid was mean, and for whatever reason, he selected me as his ongoing victim. The fact that this kid was black is only relevant inasmuch as it relates to something that happened one day. I was standing at my locker, minding my own business, when he came down the hall and punched me in the gut and then smashed the back of my head against the locker. It hurt, yeah, but worse was the humiliation and indignation I felt. And so, for reasons I still ponder, I called after him, “You stupid nigger!” He stopped and turned to face me, and I knew instantly that what I’d said was wrong. I felt even worse now, but I didn’t have time to think about it because he came toward me and proceeded to beat the living hell of me—a beating I took willingly.

I’m now 40 years old and I still think about that incident. And I still feel bad about it. I’ve asked myself time and time again why I used a word I hated even at that young age. The best reason I can come up with is that I wanted to hurt him as much as he had hurt me. I wanted to make him the victim for once. To that end, I used the most hateful word I could think of (because, as a someone who has been writing since the womb, words have always been my weapon of choice). But even as I used it, I despised myself for it.

The strange thing was that he never bullied me again after that day. Instead, he’d just say things like “Racist asshole” whenever I’d walk down the hall.

But was I a racist? I never thought of myself as such. And I certainly don’t recall ever thinking anything blatantly racist in those days. I had black friends, and I never saw them as different than me. To me, we were all just kids.

The fact is that most people are racist without ever even knowing it. Worse, there are even those who go through life believing they’re these progressive thinkers and beacons of equality when in fact they’re way more racist than they would ever believe. I was saying as much to a friend recently, and he vehemently disagreed. Then he said something that stuck with me for days: “I don’t think you really know what racism is.”

I thought about that statement obsessively over the next few days and eventually came to the conclusion that my friend is wrong. I know what racism is. In fact, I flatter myself that perhaps I understand it better than others do.

Allow me to demonstrate. Not too long ago some friends and I were sitting around a bonfire and the conversation shifted toward race in the city of St. Louis. A comment was made by someone who had accidentally driven through “the bad part” of town—referring, of course, to a ghetto inhabited predominately by African-Americans. I chimed in and said there was an unfortunate historical reason those neighborhoods are what they are today. I then went on to cite things like Jim Crow laws, segregation, the strategic distribution of narcotics, and political oppression—all historical realities that have led to the creation of the “black ghetto culture,” as some put it. Someone sitting around the bonfire said, “How can you be such a racist?”

I shook my head. “I’m speaking of demographics,” I said. “The facts on paper are clear. Black people have been historically oppressed, the results of which can be seen in these neighborhoods. To discuss these facts and opine over them is not racist, no more than if we observed that affluent white neighborhoods are the result of all the many privileges given to white people over the decades.”

There was a moment of silence around the bonfire, as if those present were trying to find fault with my assessment. I went on: “If we can’t openly discuss these facts without being labeled as ‘racists,’ how are we ever supposed to work toward a solution?”

Many might therefore wonder just where racism does enter the picture. Racism happens when anyone observes demographical statistics like those aforementioned and then applies them to the race as a whole and, by doing so, suggests that the root cause is merely ethnicity and nothing else. For instance, a man might say, “Well, son, I grew up around those people and let me tell ya, they’re no good.” The truth is that maybe (and maybe not) some of the people you grew up around had some issues, but does that mean you are justified to claim the entire race, as a whole, is represented by the few people you knew in your youth? Does that mean if you encounter a black man at a store or in a restaurant or even on the street, you’re within your rights to assume your life is in danger simply because of who he is? And would it be right for him to look at you and think that just because you’re white you must be judging him?

No, racism happens not when we observe statistical facts but when we use them to judge an entire group of people. Or when we come at the situation with hatred inside simply because we don’t like things that are different. Or when we’re just afraid of that which we do not yet understand. Racism happens when you bring your prejudice (and by the way, that word literally means “judging beforehand, without any data”—hence the prefix pre and the root judice) to a situation with the aim of oppressing, subjugating, harassing, or in any other way persecuting that which is different from you.

For example, I was recently at an event where those with me were discussing the changing temperament of a white woman we all knew. It seemed she was going through some difficult times and hadn’t been herself lately. It was then suggested that perhaps she was being abused in her current romantic relationship, to which one in our party said, “Well, look at who her boyfriend is.” We all knew what was meant. Her boyfriend was black. Thus, the automatically assumed situation was that this black man was doing what “all black men” do: harming a white woman. That is an example of racism. It didn’t matter that the boyfriend was probably a very kind, loving, faithful man—no, his skin automatically determined the sort of person he was.

I agree that facts, in and of themselves, are not racist. I also know that stones, in an of themselves, are not weapons. But anyone can throw a stone at your head. Intent is everything. And when facts are distorted to fit agendas, or embellished to cast a wide reaching net of bigotry, or used to subjugate one group at the benefit of another group, that’s when we have racism on our hands. It doesn’t matter who or what the group is: gays, Jews, blacks, whites, Mexicans, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats—any absence of equality and justice is racism.

To wit, if I were to post photos of a human heart, or a human brain, or a set of human lungs, would there be any possible way to determine if the owner was black or white or liberal or gay or whatever? No. The heart of a black man looks the same as the heart of a white man, and the brain of a Muslim looks the same as the brain of a Jew. There is, in actuality, only one group. Human is human.

Free Kindle Promotion for my Books

From now until midnight on Wednesday, three of my books are available for free on Kindle. (Not paperback.)
Click on any one of these three titles to be taken to Amazon, where you can get the Kindle edition for free. Again, this promotion ends Wednesday night.
1. The Offbeat Rhythms (Volume 1) 
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2. Portrait of an Infidel: The Acerbic Account of How a Passionate Christian Became an Ardent Atheist
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3. Letters From a Dissident Philosopher
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Thoughts on Happiness and Sadness

Experience has taught me that no one is happy. But perhaps that is my own pain projecting what I, in some sadistic, self-centered, subconscious attitude, hope to be true (how sick is that)? I mean, if no one is happy, then perhaps that means my own unhappiness is somehow lessened in scope. Misery loves company and all that. Or that bullshit about how if we’re all unhappy then no one is.

Maybe. Or, perhaps there’s just the stark fact that never once in the history of my living upon this planet have I ever encountered a human being whom I could describe as being genuinely and enduringly happy. I have seen happiness, yes. I’ve even experienced it myself. But observing some fleeting happiness here and there or feeling momentarily happy is not the same as witnessing someone who is constantly or at least predominately happy. This I have never seen. I’m not sure anyone has, really.

Is it possible that “happiness”—whatever that may mean in our individual minds—is a projected state of being that exists only in theory? We all have this idea of what happiness might look like, and we all know quite well that reality doesn’t match this idea. Perhaps the resulting deficit, which is created when reality fails to meet our projections of what should be, is then interpreted to be the opposite of happiness, something we call “sadness.” If so, then what we are calling “sadness” is actually just the normal state of reality, or, if you prefer, simply what is. Sadness, then, is not actually a term of measurement that describes a necessarily negative experience, but rather is a term used to describe normalcy. But because the term “sadness” has a certain meaning and definition, the context of which we all know quite well in our various languages, we are inclined to experience the normalcy of reality as though it is a bad thing, something to be mourned and feared and wept over—something to disdain, in short. And yet all that has really happened is that instead of accepting reality as it is, we projected something better in our minds, something we called “happiness,” something that may or may not be attainable. When our projections failed to manifest in reality, we characterized ourselves as “sad” rather than “happy.” But in this sense, “happiness” is an imagined stratum of experience that, in all likelihood, is unachievable. Thus, we are consigned to sadness—a sadness which is no less projected than our version of happiness is.

In other words, our sadness is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the default consequence of not dealing with reality as it is. In fact, reality, when you really think about it, is under no obligation to be either “good” or “bad.” Indeed, reality is neither—it simply is what it is. It is we who assign meaning to our experiences. It is we who burden reality with our expectations and our sense of entitlement. Existence, which is sterile and neutral on its own, is colored only by that which we end up bringing to it. We are therefore the creators of “happiness” and “sadness.” They are experiences to be determined by us. But we behave as though they have power over us, as though happiness is some set quality that we can either experience or miss out on, and “sadness” is the default setting when “happiness” has been missed.

But if we are the creators of “happiness” and “sadness” (and we must be; otherwise reality is biased on its own and we don’t stand a chance), then that means we can, each of us, be as happy or sad as we choose to be at any given time.

This hypothesis (which is by no means verified, mind you) suggests that I am the author of my own sadness, and so are you. Why, then, don’t we choose to author happiness? What is keeping humanity from making that choice in their minds? What stops us from simply deciding to be happy rather than sad in the same way we might decide to get out of bed rather than sleep in?

The answer, I think, is that we believe happiness is an arbitrary state of being that might befall us or not befall us depending on how the chips fall. Perhaps we believe happiness is some sort of karmic reflection of how we behave, and thus we are motivated to do good rather than evil. Or perhaps we believe happiness is the byproduct of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, and thus we are motivated to move meticulously through life without ever making mistakes. Whatever the case, we believe happiness is something that happens to us in the same way we might contract cancer or go bald. As such, we approach life as though it’s a lottery, one we might win but which, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know we probably won’t. Sadness is therefore the default position we assume when we lose this lottery.

What if happiness is less like a lottery and more like a buffet? What if it’s just there for the taking? What if happiness is a decision anyone can make at any time? What if—(and the implications here are staggering)—sadness is just as much a buffet? That would have to mean that most if not all the humans on this planet are loading their plates with one experience (the bad one) when they could just as easily load their plates with the other (the good one). This is a truly appalling thought, however. Why? Because it suggests that the thing we call “the human condition” is really just the biggest fucking waste of time and space and resources that has ever gone down this side of existence.

The Mystery of the “Human Condition” Solved in Less Than 1,000 Words…

a (1)Sometimes being a human feels like a constant internal struggle between two opposing forces. Such a conflict will always produce a troubled experience, and yet we often find it odd that our lives should be characterized by ongoing inner strife. We’re perplexed as to why life should be so exhausting when, in actual fact, it makes perfect sense. When two opposing forces come together under one roof, it is highly unlikely that the result will be peace and tranquility. Thus, seen in this light, the vexing nature of the human condition, which philosophers have grappled with since time immemorial, actually has a rather mundane explanation: a house divided cannot stand.

What are these two opposing forces? Quite simply, our instinct versus our intellect. We are, biologically speaking, nothing more than a mammal. We may have made ourselves more than that, but biology put us in the trees and the fields and steppes with all the other mammals. That is who and what we are at the genetic level. As such, when you strip away the civilized confines we have contrived and imposed upon ourselves, we are just another animal. And like all animals, we have innate drives and impetuses wired into the very strands of our DNA. We call these drives and impetuses instincts. While some instincts urge us to behave in acceptable ways and others urge us to behave in what we’ve come to recognized as unacceptable ways, none of the urges are our fault. We are not responsible for what we are at the genetic level. We may try to override those urges—we may even succeed in doing so—but the fact that these urges, whatever they are and whether or not we defeat them, are inherent to us is not something we need to apologize for. We are, when you get right down to it, biological machines whose first and most basic inclination is to operate from a place that exists beyond thought, a place I call the instinctual core. And whatever else instinct might be, one thing it is not is rational.

However, we are also beings that have inexplicably evolved to the point where our brains are capable of reason. For better or worse, we now have access to logical thinking, the fruits of which are manifested in our species’ attempts to “civilize ourselves.” In other words, at some point in our distant past we were able through the use of reason to conceive and project an “imagined ideal” for existence, something that required forced behavior on our parts, something that promised to bring order and stability and even prosperity to our experiences on this planet. We conceived of this thing called “civilization” and it looked good to us. It seemed doable. But even though we were able to conceive of it mentally, we never asked ourselves if we were ready for it instinctually, and thus we charged ahead and took ourselves out of the fields and caves and put ourselves into cities where we—mere mammals—could play “house” and artificially fashion ourselves into creatures of intellect rather than instinct. And we do alright at it, most of the time. After all, our brains are indeed stunning machines of complex thought capable of way more than any of us can actually imagine. We’re so good at complex thought, in fact, that we have actually allowed ourselves to forget our true identity, that we are merely animals who wear suits. We are forcing ourselves to operate from a place I call the intellectual core.

Therefore, we are a creature that has two places from which to draw its motivations. One of them is innate—the instinctual core. The other is, for the most part, self-imposed—the intellectual core. Sometimes the drives that originate from these two places are in agreement. Most of the time they are not. Thus, when you have a creature whose existence is characterized by a continual inner conflict resulting from two equal and opposing forces doing battle with one another, it makes perfect sense that the standard existential experience of that creature would be one of angst and despair and erraticism and exhaustion. Our instincts bid us to behave in one way; our intellect bids us to behave in a contrary way. Which will win? Some people are better at winning this battle than other people. Some people will just never win it. We call such people “evil” or “deviants” or “monsters,” but perhaps they just don’t have the same energy to mitigate the inner battle that you or I may have.

In any case, I can’t help but feel that the philosophical riddle of the human condition, which has inspired more books and poems and late night conversations than anything else in the history of our species, is actually no riddle at all. It is, when you really get down to it, a rather simple and plebian case of “left” and “right” trying to exist together on the same hand.

The Story of How, in 2009, I Withdrew From Society…

In the thirty-second year of my life (2009), on what was an unusually warm day for late February, I stood on alone my patio and looked at out the world before me. The sight was less than inspiring. I was, after all, living in an apartment complex in a suburb outside St. Louis, Missouri, so what I saw was basically just another building with a few barren trees behind it. That was okay, for I’m nothing if not highly imaginative. So, as I stood there and surveyed the grayish siding on the opposite building and the lifeless trees behind it, and the overcast sky behind those, I used my formidable creative resourcefulness to visualize much more than that…

I saw the blood vessels of society—sidewalks and streets and highways and hallways and railways—those arteries by which the masses move to and fro in their daily frenzy to hasten death. I saw the multitudes scurrying about through them, meeting deadlines, racing home, racing away from home, chasing this and that, running errands that lined the pockets of their bosses, fleeing from this and escaping from that, speeding toward bondage, doing anything and everything to stay busy, stay occupied, and stay distracted.

I saw the blinking lights of temptation, the Sirens, that relentless onslaught of ads and images that flash before the sheep as they scurry through those blood vessels—ads and images designed keep them wanting things they don’t need, lusting after experiences that never fulfil, blind to the fact that true life is actually passing them by, or rather that they are passing it by. I saw a race of people addicted to mindless information, not knowledge.

I saw joy and pain, but it was all too clear to me which one weighed more. The heavier of the two, and therefore the more effective of the two, was by far the pain. I perceived marriages, families, communities, and even entire nations reacting to the collective ache that resides deeply within our species, and I saw that carnage that ache always leaves in its wake. Everywhere the great voice of humanity was calling out into the air an existential groan so loud and so pervasive that there was no place to go where it could not be heard.

I saw warfare being raged in all corners of the globe as humans fought humans over pennies and scraps of land. Houses were on fire, cars were overturned in ditches, and dead bodies lined the streets. Everywhere people were lost, displaced, turned out from their homes, wandering, living under bridges, and starving to death. The entire landscape was one great graveyard, as though the entire surface of Earth was covered with more tombstones than God himself could count.

I saw the great centers of régime and rule: towering buildings like fingers reaching into the sky, buildings hewn from stone and marble wherein insidious leaders conspired in dark rooms to keep the masses enslaved. I saw men and women in suits and uniforms, carrying rope nooses in their hands, all clamoring together their demands for order and power and control. I saw corrupt deals being brokered by impish-looking wicked agents of oppression. And sitting on a throne in the background, watching all of this take place, was a fat man dressed in dollar bills, smoking a cigar and cackling with great pleasure.

I saw the spidery web of lies that connects everything to everyone. No one was free of that web—not even me. Its sinister strands reached everything, and half of the victims didn’t even know it. People were born, lived, and died under to oppression of infectious deception that bound all things together in a perverse and dysfunctional amalgam of greed and manipulation and abuse.

I saw a great dining table upon which a decadent feast had been laid out, and at that table sat finely dressed people who were stuffing their fat faces with whatever their hands could bring to their mouths… and standing—no, trembling in the background were millions and millions and millions of starving children so thin a stiff breeze could blow them over—and all of them were crying and very near death.

I saw lives being wasted, lives being taken, lives being destroyed, and lives being exploited. I saw people hurting each other… and hurting themselves, driving metaphorical nails into their own hearts and the hearts of others with cold insensitivity. I saw people killing themselves… every-where… constantly… I saw guns shoved into mouths, blades drawn across wrists, and pill bottles falling to the floor.

I saw young girls huddle up in dark corners, crying and hating themselves. I saw young men carrying the weight of their fathers and collapsing under it. I saw old men staring in the mirror, asking themselves how life went by so quickly and why they never stopped to enjoy it even for a moment. I saw old women cloistered away in their spinster homes, cursing life and cursing God for their loveless existence. I saw shuddering children hiding in closets and under beds, hoping and praying that maybe today Daddy won’t touch them “down there…”

I saw games being played, as though people were mere chess pieces to be moved about upon some global board by an unseen hand. Husbands playing wives, moms playing daughters, sons playing fathers, and no one being truthful about their agendas. There were shifty angles everywhere, and everyone used them, even unto the destruction of his neighbor… even unto the destruction of himself.

I saw throngs of men and women living out the entirety of their lives without ever once having told another person what they thought or how they felt. There was widespread silence, like an epidemic. No one was communicating with anyone else, at least not about anything that mattered. And the reason people couldn’t open their mouths was because they couldn’t open their hearts. They had no idea what they thought, or how they felt, because when they looked within themselves all they saw was… nothing.

I saw the planet Earth itself, rotating unsympathetically, apparently having no idea of the sordid shit that unfolds upon its surface on a daily basis, or else not caring about it. I saw the Universe through which this planet is moving and the indifferent mechanics and laws that allow it to exist, and I wondered what or who, if anything, was causing those laws to be. Whatever or whoever that person or persons may be, I wondered if they knew about the situation here on Earth, and if so, what they thought about it.

And I saw myself standing on my patio, fully immersed within the bowels of all that, seemingly at the mercy of its inevitability, not a part of a solution but rather a willful partaker of the problem. I saw myself caught up in the game, caught up in the cycles, caught up in the wretched system, and marching along with a billion others toward a death that would probably come too soon and without my having earned the right to embrace it. I saw myself not as living thing who was making the most out of existence but rather a corpse that had long ago given up any hope of anything better. And the worst part was that I had actually accepted that. I had resigned myself to such an existence, as though the thought of anything else was preposterous. I was living my life, if you can call it that, not for myself but for everyone else, being and doing exactly what I was told to be and do, a dutiful, malleable, acquiescing victim of that thing we all call “the way things are.” I saw myself as a cog in a sinister wheel, a peg holding up his tiny share of the yoke, a man going everywhere and getting nowhere, a man doing much but accomplishing nothing worthwhile, a man who had forgotten or who perhaps had never really known exactly why he was alive and what he was supposed to do with that gift.

I saw all of these things in the span of a mere instant, and they crushed me. Turning away, I went inside, fell down on my bed, and wept so hard I thought it would kill me.

Over the next few days I thought a lot about this vision (for lack of a better word). I felt as though the weight of it was reclining heavily on my shoulders and lodged deeply within the corridors of my mind. “The world,” I kept saying to myself, “is just so fucked up and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

To be fair, it could be that my overly pessimistic attitude during that particular time in my life was clouding my view of reality. Even so, it was only by a few degrees, for I knew in my heart that what I had “seen” as I looked out at “the world” that day on my patio was way too close to accurate. This is not to say that one cannot find the good things that abound in the world, for they do exist. But sometimes it just seems like you have to looker much harder to find them, as if they’re not as readily observable as all that other bad shit.

Even so, February of 2009 (when the aforementioned “vision” took place) was not a good time for Valerie (my wife) and I. We had recently limped home to St. Louis from Missoula, Montana in our failed attempt to relocate there. Some of our personal life decisions during that time, which made complete sense to us and, looking back, were indeed the right decisions for us to make, did not sit too well with many of our family members and the fallout from that had caused some ostracization. The result was that we were not only hurting (emotionally and financially), we were also on our own in the midst of that hurt with very few people coming alongside to help us through it. I was now in my 30s and it seemed to me that my career was never going to take off. I lived through each day with the continuous, nagging belief that I was just a miserable failure who had nothing to offer, a waste of space, a loser of the first degree. The stress from that, coupled with despair such feelings always bring, led me to emotionally withdraw from Valerie, an act which of course damaged our marriage. And so, when I stood on my patio that day in February and looked out at the world and saw all those atrocious things, my mind was already in a fragile, negative state. I was obviously predisposed to see darkness rather than goodness.

Nevertheless, my own personal struggles at that time notwithstanding, there is no denying the white noise of this world, for those who take the time to listen to it, is usually singing a melancholy tune. No one has to try all that hard to see the ugliness that characterizes life on this planet, but it seems we do have to strain ourselves to find the good (and yet I still err on the side of Locke rather than Hobbes; go figure). The vision I saw that day wasn’t based on fantasy. Sadly, it was based on reality. In short, the world as it exists now is an awful place. You can go on denying that, if you want to. You can hide behind your rosy outlook and your faith and your momentary blitzes of fleeting happiness and convince yourself that I’m just painting too dire of a picture, but your unwillingness to face the truth does not change the truth: the world is an awful place.

If you disagree with that assessment, consider that the current statistics indicate a million suicides on this planet per year. That means a person is killing themselves somewhere in the world every 40 seconds. Every 40 seconds! If that weren’t bad enough, think about the following horrific realities. As I write these words in early 2017, there are 162 nations on Earth. 151 of those nations are currently at war. Only eleven countries on this planet are at a state of peace. Recent data suggests that last year (2016) 50,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States alone.[1] On average, police departments in most civilized nations report at least 250,000 rapes per year.[2] As you read this sentence, 795 million people alive on Earth at this very moment are starving. That’s 1 out of every 9 humans. It’s estimated that over 100 million people are homeless worldwide, and that 42 million people are engaged in some form of prostitution as a means of survival. Most prostitutes are children and women under the age of 25. At least 60,000 cases of sexual abuse involving children are reported each year per nation.

I could go on, but perhaps now you are starting to get the fucked up picture?

The world sucks. It’s a terrible place filled with terrible people doing terrible things. The sun rises and sets and the planet turns and in that time millions of people all over the world are abused, oppressed, deceived, displaced, tortured, and killed. And then it all gets repeated the next day…

I think the most horrific aspect of all is that most of us have a general idea about those aforementioned statistics, and yet we just go on living our lives as though nothing is amiss. We hear about the rapes and the wars and the abuses and suicides and all the rest but, at the end of the day, as long as we have our beer and soda and cheeseburgers and fucking Netflix, we look the other way. Right? As long as we can save 15% or more on car insurance and have the latest digital piece of technological bewilderment and spend our Christmas gift cards on whatever we want, we’re good. Why should we care that the predominant experience of most humans on this planet is one of atrocious suffering as long as that suffering doesn’t crawl across our own front yard? The casual indifference and the willingness with which we immerse ourselves into our many distractions is, to me, too distasteful to fully contemplate, let alone comprehend.

As I considered these things in the week that followed my vision, and as I thought more and more about the vision itself, it became all too clear to me that I was one cancer cell among a global disease, that I was a part of something that was harmful to me as an individual, harmful to the species as a whole, and harmful to the very planet upon which I depend for nourishment to sustain my brief blip among the timeline of existence. I understood with great sorrow and remorse that I was plugged into a system that was indirectly designed to kill me and everything else I loved, that my life was just a strand in a tapestry woven together by the sorrow and tears of billions of people. I saw what I was and what I was doing with my life and I was appalled. With anger and tremendous resolve, I vowed to myself, “No more.”

And then one night in early March, I was pacing around in my study, agitated with all this stuff and puffing away on my pipe, when suddenly a thrilling and outlandish thought occurred to me. I stopped pacing and turned to look at my bookshelf. I could see the book I was thinking about even though the shelf was at the other end of the room. The spine was cream-colored, the words large and black and instantly recognizable. Though I hadn’t pulled that particular book off the shelf in years, it nevertheless was among my favorite works in all literature. As I stood there on the other side of the room, eyeing that particular book on the shelf, I slowly began to plot my next move in life…

Was it possible?

Could it be done?

I started smiling as I realized that, yes, it was possible and, yes, it could definitely be done. Checkmate, I thought, crossing the room and pulling the book from the shelf. I held it in my hands and looked at the black and white cover, faded with age and wear. I knew what I wanted to do, what I had to do. My whole life, it seemed, had come down to this moment and there was nowhere to go but forward into what would surely be a major departure from “normal” life. But if Thoreau[3] was able to pull it off, then so was I. So, I took my copy of Walden and went into the living room to thumb through the book as I waited for Valerie to come home.

STRENGTH IN SELF

When I first read Thoreau’s Walden, I was fifteen years old and had never once set foot west of St. Louis, Missouri. Still in high school and painfully unaware of the true depth underneath that thing I kept hearing about called “the real world,” I read Walden not because I was all that interested in Thoreau or the book itself but rather because it was on a list of literary mainstays given to me a few years prior by one of my English teachers who noticed my embryonic yen to be a writer. This list, said she, contained the names of the best books ever composed in the English language and if I really wanted to be a writer someday, these were the books I would need to read beforehand, the better to develop my intellect and vocabulary. Since I was a relatively introverted young boy (except in the company of females who happened to fit my fastidious criteria), I earnestly began to make my way through the list, which included other distinguished titles such as Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Camus’ The Stranger, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books (along with The Hobbit) just to name a few.

When I came to Walden, I knew only that its author, Henry David Thoreau, was one of the nineteenth century’s Transcendentalists, although I didn’t exactly know what a Transcendentalist[4] was. As I devoured the book, I became romantically enamored with the notion of a man shunning regular society to live in the wilderness, as Thoreau does in Walden, yet to my relatively inexperienced mind, I couldn’t quite comprehend what such an experience would be like. It wasn’t until I was 25 in 2003 that I finally went west and beheld with trembling wonder the provoking, transportive beauty of Nature (driving through Colorado and Wyoming and Montana will do that to you). Nevertheless, even in my youthful ignorance at age fifteen, Walden had an enormous impact on me, not only on my budding development as a writer but also on my growing individualistic views toward life itself, views that have stayed with me and influenced much of what I’ve become and done.

Of all the many nuggets of wisdom to be found within the pages of that great book, one of the lines that stands out the most is, unfortunately, the one that most people can quote even if they’ve never read the book. It’s a famous line, known by many, referenced on many a greeting card and bookmark, yet filled with more profundity than could ever be grasped by the uneducated multitudes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.                                                                                            

I am overcome by the treasure trove of statements here. To drive life into a corner… I know exactly what he meant by that. I too feel a similar, constant urge. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… What a beautiful, horrifically haunting statement of what I feel every damn day of my life. And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I too dread that specter which hovers above dreamers like Thoreau and I, that horrendous thought of coming to the end of my life and, looking back, recognizing that I hadn’t really lived or spent my time well. And though Walden is a book about going out into Nature to make sure true life happens, one doesn’t necessarily have to do that. Real life can happen anywhere. You don’t have to be in the woods to live “deliberately,” or at least I don’t think so.

But do you have to be alone to do it? Maybe not, though it certainly helped Thoreau. And given my current feelings toward the world and the people in it, I suspected it would help me as well. But being alone, especially on purpose, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. We are taught through the vehicles of societal propaganda—films, shows, songs, books, cards, magazines, and the like—that happiness is to be found in being with people. Spouses, significant others, family, friends, coworkers… The overwhelmingly loud and blatantly invasive message of pretty much everything we see in culture is crystal clear: if you’re alone, you’re a loser. To be alone, according to popular opinion, is to somehow fail. You need to be surrounded by people, this message says—people who care about you, people you can trust, people you can be vulnerable to, people who will be there for you when the proverbial shits hits the fan. Family, we are told, is one of the best institutions on Earth, which any wholesome, healthy, happy person embraces. To be in love, the songs tell us, is to be alive. Sitting at home with no one to talk to—this is considered too awful to accept. The friendless rogue who wanders in darkness and solitude is thought to have nothing a sane person would envy. Why lay on your couch a read a book when you can stagger home from the nearest bar after having raised too many glasses with people you might not like if alcohol weren’t in the picture? Or why meditate within yourself when you can be distracted from such things by the pitter-pattery feet of rambunctious offspring? No, the message is loud and clear: if you want any possible shot at being happy, you must surround yourself with other human beings, no matter what. There’s strength, were are told, in numbers.

Strength in numbers. Yes, perhaps that was true when humans were hunter/gatherers wandering around for food on the steppes of Africa. Perhaps that was true when white families were moving west in covered wagons through land that didn’t belong to them but rather to their dark-skinned, unwanted neighbors. Perhaps it was true when lawlessness and wanton cruelty reigned supreme, as in the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe or the American “Wild West.” But is it still true today? Maybe not. After all, we who populate this little planet have fashioned a lifestyle for ourselves that, for good or ill, has redefined what words like need and survival mean. So, perhaps “strength in numbers,” while being an essential philosophy in the yonder days of yore, has today evolved into something of a hindrance.

Or… perhaps these are just the angry rants of an introverted misanthrope? Maybe. Maybe not. Scratch the paint off of any misanthrope and you’re likely to find a wounded humanitarian underneath. Besides, I’m not sure I would characterize myself as a misanthrope. Indeed, misanthropes hate their fellows whereas I only mildly dislike them. I do not abhor my species. I love my species—I just don’t want much to do with them, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a misanthrope. It makes me, well… a bit of a dissident.[5]

Nor do I oppose the importance of family and friends. To be sure, there is a comforting, reassuring fortitude that spreads through one’s being when, in the healthy presence of friends and family, love, trust, and acceptance are being exchanged. The only problem is that such a case, while being ideal, is the exception, not the rule. Most families are dysfunctional. Granted, a person can live with a certain amount of dysfunction (and writers like myself thrive on it), but all too often the amount of dysfunction pervading the average home grossly exceeds that which is bearable. The result is that humans all over the planet are growing up without approval, acceptance, affection, and tons of other adjectives that start with the letter ‘a.’ Families all over the world are torn asunder by differences of opinions, divergent lifestyles, abusive tendencies, infidelities, and an appalling lack of basic communication skills—all of which are in some way contingent upon what a particular society is or is not saying about the current values of a given historical period. If the family is supposed to be the bedrock that undergirds the emotional development of our species, were are all fucked, because the family has failed.

As to the importance of friends, I admit I’ve experienced a few friendships in my time that were singularly beneficial to me, to say nothing of being profoundly rich and transformative. And yet, I cannot escape the knowledge that the closest friend I ever had, a man who was like a brother to me, eventually betrayed me and revealed himself to be the very antithesis of everything I value in humanity. Not that my experiences have any bearing on the species as a whole, or that the carnage of my broken friendships necessarily means your friendships are doomed. I can only offer what I have learned through repeated experience in this world: given enough time, most people will let you down. Some versions of being let down are navigable. That is, you can get past the infraction (if indeed you have any kind of heart within yourself and are not disposed toward bitterness and resentment). But some versions of being let down are just not navigable. Sometimes the people you love and trust the most are the ones who will twist and crush your soul into an irreparable bit of wreckage.

As a man of evidence and a steadfast believer in the inevitability of logical deduction, I must submit what should be obvious: the truest brand of strength that could ever be experienced by a human being is that which comes not from others but rather from yourself. Yes, whatever beauty comes from loving someone else, whatever comfort comes from knowing someone has your back, whatever sense of identity you may derive through the approval and acceptance of others—none of it could possibly compare to that which you should be deriving from yourself. After all, the people you love may come and go. Family members die. Friends may depart. Spouses may leave. But as long as you’re alive, the only person who will always be there, the only person who will be constantly accessible, the only person who will still be standing if everyone else falls, is you. You, within your own self, are that last ally when all others have been driven away. Thus, you are the most important ally. If you cannot trust yourself, trusting someone else doesn’t mean much.

Is there strength in numbers? Maybe. No, the answer is probably. But there is certainly strength in self. Or rather, than can be. Sadly, most people live as though they’re their own worst enemy rather than their greatest ally, and there are an infinite number of reasons as to why that is the case. But if those reasons, whatever they may be, could be overcome, perhaps the lay of the land on this planet could look very different.

As it stands now, the lay of the land is a dismal one. We are a species of creatures disconnected from each other and, worse, disconnected from ourselves. The human race is like window that cannot be shut—it’s constantly gaping open, letting the unwanted in and allowing the treasures to spill out. We have no footing, no grounding, no center… We look within ourselves and there’s nothing there, nothing to stand on, nothing to hold on to, nothing to steady us. We float, and it’s agonizing. All we want is to land, but we never can because there’s simply nothing to land on. Our individual inner worlds are a holocaustic debris field of abysmal holes, unhealed wounds, and persistent aches. To be human is to hurt. Or, as first the Buddha and then later Nietzsche said, to live is to suffer.

Why then should humans consider looking inward for their strength? Why should they seek stability from within when all they see there is cold desolation and emptiness? It therefore makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that our societies should be as they are now. Homo sapiens, who once might have held a lot more promise than they do now, have become a medicated, sedated race of willing zombies who lurch from one distraction to the next, never stopping to assess the sanity of it all, never stopping to address the underlying causes, never stopping to remember, even for just the tiniest of moments, that life is supposed to be lived deliberately, not passively, not detachedly, not with a stoic shrug of the shoulders and a half-hearted commitment to merely maintain a level of rudimentary functionality. Life is supposed to be driven into a corner, not casually discarded like a lot of crumpled-up paper. Life is supposed to be lived, not merely endured.

The paradox here is that the deteriorating state of the collective human soul is not our fault, even though it is totally our fault. We did this to ourselves, to be sure. And yet the relationship between humans and the Cosmos in which they live seems to have erected a brand of reality that made this deterioration inevitable. Each of us are born into this system and, as fish are born into water—water in which they must remain if they are to survive—this is all we know. We had no say in the matter when we exited the womb and took up residence in this war-torn place we call “existence.” Things were as they are when we got here. That’s not our fault. And yet it is our fault. Why? Because each of us, after having arrived here, has a responsibility to do something about it, to change it somehow, even if only by tiny degrees. Some humans do that, but certainly not enough. (I’m not talking about those who lend their talents to literature of filmmaking or art, nor those who heal wounds or perform surgery or lead nations. All of those are fine things, but contributing to the Zeitgeist, such as it is, does not necessarily help free those who come after us—it may help to entertain, amuse, enlighten, or even inspire them—but if the situation within their broken hearts is not altered for the betterment of the species, it ultimately doesn’t mean much.[6])

At any rate, what we have here is two-fold: a species of creatures who 1) need to draw their strength from self, and 2) have lost the ability to do so. And while marriage and family and friendship and fellowship are all healthy, helpful things—they will ultimately continue to fail all around us because joining two or more broken “selves” together does not a healthy, helpful situation make. If I have nothing inside cling to, and neither do you, what goes does it to for us to marry our deficiencies together? Two aching souls, when joined, are still two souls that ache. It’s therefore better to get yourself whole than worry about how many friends you have or whether you’re going to meet Mr. or Mrs. Right.

But no one wants to do that. To journey within oneself and do battle with what is found there is a task for which few volunteer. It’s too difficult, requires too much time and energy and effort, and ultimately seems impossible anyway. Indeed, when you feel defeated before you even begin, how are you to say motivated? And why bother, anyway, when there are so many other diverting things to think about, such as professional sports and sex and Netflix and drugs and food and chocolate and parties and going on vacations and abusing alcohol and the fucking Internet and whatever else people use to medicate their ache and distract themselves from their appalling deficiency of inner tranquility. The prevailing manifesto of our race seems to be a simple one: turn the TV on, turn up the radio, go to a bar and get lost in the mindless chatter and forget the fact that you’re hurting, that you’re not whole, that you secretly yearn for the kind of life that has been driven into a corner, all while never believing you’ll actually ever experience it. That was once my manifesto, too. I now live by an entirely different one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story of my withdrawal from society…

A BIZARRE KIND OF MAN

When Valerie came home from work that evening, I sat her down and told her that I was on the cusp of a major shift in my life. She understandably appeared apprehensive after hearing that and said, “Okay, do you want to tell me what that means?”

And so I did. “I need a change,” I began. “First of all, I’m thinking about quitting my job.” (I was a substitute teacher for a local high school at that time.)

“Okay,” she said nervously. “Is that doable?”

I explained to her that it was indeed doable. We weren’t exactly swimming in money, but we weren’t exactly under the strain of expenses, either. We had already decided not to have children, nor did we want the headache of being homeowners. Ergo, we could survive on her income alone for an indeterminate amount of time.

“But why?” she asked.

“I’m getting to that,” I replied, “but first I need to know if you’re good with me withdrawing from employment for a while, no matter what.”

One of the reasons my wife is a goddess among women is that she always believes in me, without question, and she never hesitates to trust me and support my decisions. So, when she said, “Of course,” I smiled and kissed her. A lot of women would have denied their husbands such a request.

I then went on to tell Valerie what I was thinking. To paraphrase, I basically said the following: “I’m just done. With everything. People. The world. Society. Things are just too strange out there for me right now. They’re too ugly. I don’t want to be a part of it. Whatever is going on outside of those walls—” I pointed to the walls of our living room “—is no longer good for me. I get hurt out there. I get messy out there. And I’ve forgotten what life is supposed to be like. I’ve forgotten what is important. I’ve forgotten who I am, and who I’m supposed to be. And every time I walk out that door—” I now pointed to the front door “—I lose myself just a little bit more. So, what I want to do is this: I want to be dead to the world. I don’t mean that I won’t go places with you, or take you to restaurants now and then, or accompany to your family’s place when face time needs to be put in, I just mean that I am withdrawing from most general societal expectations and endeavors and will instead be spending a great deal of time in solitude and seclusion.”

“Doing what?” she asked.

“Thinking,” I replied. “Pursuing knowledge. Reflecting on myself, and what my place in this world should be… if indeed I even have a place in the world. And healing. I’m a wounded man, as you know.” (Valerie did know—she knew all too well about my ridiculously abusive childhood and the many unresolved sources of pain that abounded within my heart and mind as a result of that abuse.) “I’ve never really taken the time to address that stuff,” I added. “To pursue healing and recovery and, if possible, redemption, whatever that means. I believe it is imperative for me, my life, our marriage, and our future, that I address these issues and come to terms with them and with myself. And I want to find out if there is a better way to live life, something that’s different than what I’ve been doing, something that’s removed from the way everybody else does things, something that goes against the grain of this world because the world, as I see it, is a fucked up place with all the wrong priorities and values. I want to do what Thoreau did. I want to remove myself from the world and drive life into a corner.”

“But didn’t he go out into the woods,” Valerie asked?

“He did, yes. My withdrawal from society will be a bit different, though. As he went into the woods, so I intend to go into myself.”

“What does that mean?”

“I intend to be surrounded not by forests and lakes and trees and whatever else Thoreau saw when he looked out of his cabin at Walden Pond, but rather by my demons, my unanswered questions, and my unresolved insecurities and doubts and hang-ups. I intend to be immersed not in the beauty of Nature but rather in the ugliness of self, to do battle with what is found there, and to assess my character and my foundations as a person. My wilderness will be that which exists within my own tormented mind, and there I will reside, just like Thoreau, until I can make sense out of existence and my portion of it. I will spend my days reading and journaling and thinking… and tracking down every last little bit of knowledge that I can in order to complete myself as an individual.”

“I think I understand, but… why do you have to avoid society in order to do all this?”

At that point I told her about my vision,[7] and then I said, “Today’s society is like blaring radio that constantly follows you around. No matter what you do or where you go or how hard you try to think about the deeper things of life, this radio is broadcasting intrusive noise at full volume, without rest and without pause. And the noise is harmful, at least to me. To be a part of what’s going on out there—” I again pointed to the front door “—is to hold that radio up to fucking my ears. I need to get away from it. Society is like a swimming pool filled not with water but with syrup. We’re all trying to swim in it but no one really gets anywhere because the substance is too thick. It’s a hindrance. I need to get out of the pool, Valerie. I need to get away from that radio. I need to wash all that damn syrup off me and try to remember what it’s like to move freely through the air. I need to breathe. And I believe I need to be alone right now to do that.”

“Do you need to be away from me, too?”

I clutched her hand and kissed it. “Never. I need you with me. I can’t ask you to withdraw with me, although you can if you want to. But no, I can’t do this without your love and affection and support guiding me and undergirding me each day. Without you I don’t stand a chance.”

She smiled. “Okay. I support you. Do what you need to do. But you know, a lot of people are going to look down on you for quitting your job. They’re going to think something is wrong with you and that you need help or something.”

“Is that what you will think, too?”

“No way. But they will.”

“Fuck them all,” I said. “They’re part of the problem. They’re part of that fucking radio. They’re part of that noise. I don’t need them. And I don’t care what they think.”

“I don’t either,” she agreed. “I accepted a long time ago that I was married to a bizarre kind of man.” She smiled and then added, “But that’s exactly how I like it. So, when are you going to start?”

I grinned and stood up from the couch where we’d been sitting. “Right now,” I declared. “Right this very moment.”

A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON

The very first thing I did was consult the history books. What, I wondered, was the precedent for withdrawing from society? Was there even one? I knew from my exposure to Christianity[8] and my somewhat limited grasp on the rest of the world religions that going into willful seclusion was nothing new. History is replete with examples asceticism, the act of withdrawing from society and abstaining from worldly pleasures in order to achieve some sort of spiritual awakening or religious experience. I wasn’t looking for the latter, nor did I have the slightest intention of giving up my worldly pleasures. If anything, I was going to need those pleasures all the more. As to the withdrawing from society, it occurred to me that the best definition of what I intended to become was a hermit,[9] a word that today has earned a certain negative stigma. Indeed, we tend to think of hermits as miserable, unwashed, unkempt, unhinged old men who live in derelict houses with overgrown weeds and spooky looking trees in their yard. Not exactly an image I was keen to portray. And yet something in my gut told me that I was on the right track, so I did some reading on what the term hermit means. I began, as anyone should when attempting to comprehend an unfamiliar concept, with the etymology of the word itself.

The English word hermit comes from a Latin word: ĕrēmīta, which itself is a Latin translation of an older Greek word: ρημίτης (erēmitēs), a term meaning “of the desert.” The connotation is that a hermit, in the original sense, was a desert dweller. But over time, the word eremita came to be associated with anyone who lived in seclusion from society. Recluses, for instance, or religious ascetics and those who lived monastic lifestyles on the fringes of civilization.

In Arthurian legends and medieval literature, hermits were often depicted as extraordinarily wise men who kept to themselves but who, for one reason or another, would present themselves to the knight-errant, he who was on some sort of spiritual quest. The hermit, who indeed was typically described as unkempt and hirsute, would in some way aid the knight or impart some crucial information to him that would help him locate whatever it was he sought. In some cases, a hermit was a wizard who possessed magical powers.

As I said earlier, the word has lost some of that meaning today. Hermits are seen as inept dropouts who withdrew not because they deemed it to be healthier but because they couldn’t hack society. The implication usually involves some vague armchair diagnoses of sociopathy. The term loner, for instance, which today is interchangeable with the idea of a hermit, carries a negative stigma associated with socially-inept teenagers who bring machine guns to school. But my reading on the subject led me to understand that a hermit, in the classical sense, was a person of great significance who epitomized positive ideals rather than negative ones.

Notable hermits from the historical record include:

  1. Anthony of Egypt– a fourth century desert recluse sometimes regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism
  1. Jerome– a fourth century Doctor of the Church[10]
  1. Gregory the Illuminator– a fourth century saint who brought Christianity to Armenia
  1. Sarah of the Desert– a fifth century desert recluse whose spiritual aphorisms are still widely read today
  1. Benedict of Nursia– a sixth century monk known for establishing the Rule of St. Benedict, regarded as a founder of western monasticism
  1. Peter the Hermit—an eleventh century priest who lead the First Crusade to the Holy Land (1095–1099)

 

More interesting than those actual historical personages are, to me, those hermits found in literature and/or popular culture. Perhaps the most famous hermit in today’s mind is Obi Wan Kenobi, the Jedi living in seclusion on Tatooine at the beginning of the first Star Wars film (1977). Adhering to the medieval literary tradition, Obi Wan appears to Luke Skywalker just as the latter’s quest is about to begin. Obi Wan then aids Luke in his fight against the Empire. Another famous hermit in popular culture, one I was already quite familiar with, was Zarathustra, the central character from Nietzsche’s[11] work, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (translated as Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, published in several parts between 1883 and 1891). In this incredible masterpiece, Zarathustra is recluse who surfaces out of seclusion one day to impart his important philosophical message to humanity.

Through my reading I learned of several more hermits scattered here and there throughout literature. In each case the hermit, while perhaps being somewhat eccentric and even socially adversative, never embodied today’s stigmas of sociopathy, deviancy, or maladjustment. No, the classic hermits were not “creepy,” they were fascinating men and women of incredible knowledge and tremendous inner resourcefulness, men and women who punched through the bullshit of their day to find greater truth beneath the veil of their civilization’sation’s diversional lifestyles. The classic hermits were people who shared my sentiments about the world in which they lived, people who looked around at how their fellows were coping with existence and decided that there was another way, a better way. They were people who found a way to turn off that blaring radio and escape that pool of syrup. They suffered the ridicule of those who taunted them for daring to bypass the conventions of their society to find solace in something higher, something greater, something beyond those fleeting opiates for which the masses regularly settle. And they were people whose decisions in that regard later engendered them to have great influence over those they came into contact with, for even hermits cross paths with rogue travelers and lost wanderers from time to time.

Having digested these matters, I sat in my study and smiled to myself. I felt certain now that I wanted to follow in these footsteps, and I understood with a peaceful sense of having finally come to understand at least a small portion of my destiny that withdrawing from society would not only be good for me, it might actually be good for the world from which I was withdrawing. But I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I do that too much as it is. So for the time being, I shelved any thoughts that my exit would have ramifications on those around me and focused instead on my own journey which, it seemed, was just beginning. After all, just as I had told Valerie, I intended to go into myself, just as Thoreau went into the woods…

LIVING DELIBERATELY

I recalled Thoreau’s phrasing when he said he “went to the woods” because he wished “to live deliberately.” I’ve always been haunted by that sentence, mostly because it seems to embody some long forgotten approach to interacting with existence—forgotten, it seemed, even in Thoreau’s time. The phrase is highly evocative, and it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t fully comprehend everything it implied. So, as is my custom, I packed my pipe, lit it, and went outside to smoke and think beneath a (somewhat) star-filled night sky.

“Living deliberately.” I repeated the words aloud several times, scrutinizing their apparent meaning (although I’ve come to understand that often the best nuggets of wisdom are derived when you discover a word’s less-than-apparent meaning—the hidden connotations that lurk just below the surface of most word but which are often missed by those who, unlike me, do not err on the side of the logophile[12]). I recalled the meaning of the word deliberate. As an adjective, it means “done with intention,” “done on purpose,” or “done carefully and slowly.” As a verb, it means “to consider deeply” or “to consider carefully.” For instance, I might say something like… “A judge deliberated the verdict for quite a while” (the verb usage), or “She was deliberate as she snuck through the house” (the adjective usage). Associated words would be calculated, premeditated, weighed, thoughtful, measured, and meticulous. Ergo, the overwhelming subtext of the word deliberate involves the idea of approaching a certain matter, whether it be the sealing of an envelope or the living of one’s life, with a sense of extreme care, caution, and purpose… to be intentional in one’s actions. Indeed, if one considers the antonyms of deliberate, words like careless, unwitting, sloppy, casual, and indifferent, it becomes clear that “to live deliberately” is to conduct oneself with a great deal of purpose, control, and circumspection. Is that what Thoreau intended to do when he went to the woods? It seemed likely. And yet I still got the sense that there was more to it than that, as though living deliberately involved something a bit more aggressive than just proceeding with care and caution.

So I focused on the words intentional and purposeful, specifically in relation to how most people in society live their lives. To live “with purpose” is to live with something driving you, something dictating your actions and the impetus behind those actions. And to “live intentionally” is to know ahead of time what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you want out of the endeavor. In either case, what we have here is a life that is fueled by a predetermined set of values, objectives, and priorities. On the surface, it might seem like the majority of people do live this way. After all, what is more prevalent in the world than religion, and what is religion if not the embodiment of predetermined values, objectives, and priorities? Yet I couldn’t help recalling that the ideals of religion and the actual implantation of those ideals by the religious are usually miles apart. Most people concur with a religious creed in theory while doing little or nothing to exemplify that creed in daily life. It also occurred to me that there are indeed driven people in this world, people whose ambitions for wealth and power command their every move as they climb the various ladders needed in order to finally sit in the fat chair. One might say that these people live intentionally and with purpose, that they live deliberately, but I’m not sure that I agree. I think they are chasing their goals with purpose and running a race deliberately, but whether or not they are actually living life is a debatable point. It seems to me that all they’re really doing is hurling themselves toward death.

I’m not sure the majority of people do live deliberately. There’s a certain necessary aggressive insistence for joy and profound experiences that should characterize the way we spend our days—and this, it seems to me, is lacking in most people. I don’t say that as a judgment on others; I say it as a confession, for as I thought about these things that night on my patio, I knew that I too, in my own way, was guilty of them. But now that I was taking on the lifestyle of a hermit, now that I was withdrawing from society, I decided that not only was I done with the world, I was also done with living accidentally. It was time for me to begin living deliberately, with intention and with purpose. The next questions were therefore obvious: What was my intention? What was my purpose?

The answers were just as obvious, and again, Thoreau provided them: to “front only the essential facts of life” and “drive life into a corner.”

But what exactly did that look like?

THE ESSENTIAL FACTS OF LIFE

When Valerie had asked what I’d be doing while in solitude and seclusion, I told her that I intended to spend my time reading and thinking and healing. But what would I read? What would I think about, and why? Most importantly, how exactly was I supposed to go about healing when, in all honesty, if it were as easy as I made it sound, everyone would be the picture of mental and emotional health. Pain, of which there are all kinds, is not an easy thing to combat—that much was obvious. And yet I knew that if I didn’t come away from this experience with at least a good portion of that pain conquered, it would all be for naught. But that meant first revisiting the pain and understanding it (since in order to defeat an enemy we first need to understand our enemy—any cursory reading of Sun Tzu’s[13] The Art of War (the fifth century BCE) or Machiavelli’s[14] book of the same name (1521) made that clear). Was I prepared to do that? Was I prepared to journey in to my pain and make my bed there for a time?

I told myself that I was.

As for what I would read and think about, I decided that in the days to come I would do some research and then form an appropriate reading list, which should, I reasoned, give me plenty to think about.

I finished my pipe bowl and went back inside. Later that night, after Valerie fell asleep, I built a fire in the fireplace and, once the flames were alight with the soothing crackling sound only good wood can produce, I stretched out on the living room floor with my journal. What, I asked myself, were the “essential facts of life,” and what did it mean to “front” them (face them)? And what did it mean to “drive life into a corner?” Why did Thoreau use that particular phrasing? And what would a life lived like that look like?

With a sense of embarkation, I opened my journal, turned to a blank page, and wrote at the top: “The Essential Facts of Life.” My intention was to list them out so that I could repeatedly reference them in the weeks and months to come. But what were they? It occurred to me that different people may answer that question in different ways. In other words, perhaps each individual has his own take on what constitute the essential facts of life. So I scribbled the word “my” between the words “of” and “Life,” so that the heading now read, “The Essential Facts of My Life.” Now the question was a bit easier to answer, and so I began making my list.

Relationships.

That was the first thing I wrote down, but I soon as I did I was tempted to just cross it out. Being a self-confessed dissident who flirts with the lighter shades of misanthropy, and as one who was at that very moment orchestrating a withdrawal from society, it seemed a bit oxymoronic to consider relationships as an essential fact of life. But I kept it because, in the end, even though I’m not the biggest fan of other people, there are relationships in my life that are vital, relationships that, were I to lose them, would cause me considerable heartache. My beautiful wife, for instance. And the few friends I had (I have never been one who has hundreds of acquaintances masquerading as my friends, people I see regularly but who likely know as little about me as I know about them—that’s not my style; I’ve always preferred to keep a smaller circle of very close friends, people who know me as intimately as I know them). And my family, such as it is. These relationships are indeed essential to my life.

The next thing I wrote was reflection. While others may see that as an interesting fact of life, they might not see it as essential. Nevertheless, it’s tremendously essential to me. Without ample time and space to reflect on life, my choices, my thoughts and feelings, and my interactions with others, I cannot function. Meditation and contemplation have always been foundation upon which I’ve built my style of existence.

Next I wrote expression. Indeed, unlike so many people in this world who feel the need to hide their thoughts and feelings and inclinations, I’ve always been someone who absolutely requires self-expression. It is not my way to keep quiet. Whatever’s going on inside me, whether it’s creative or some heavy piece of existential insight that I’ve been wrestling with, or some dark, dysfunctional bit of baggage, I simply must have means by which I can express it. I cannot function without such an outlet, and this is one of the chief reasons I became a writer.

I finished the list by writing the words recovery (since it’s always been my deep desire to pursue healing inasmuch as is possible for me), evolution (by which I meant personal development, emotional growth, and mental maturation), illumination (I must have a reliable and regular means by which to increase my personal knowledge—on all subjects), and welfare (by which I meant safety and security, since, as a victim of horrific childhood abuse, the lingering effects of which were constantly with me, feeling a sense of safety in life—as illusory as such a feeling might be—was nothing if not essential to me).

There were likely more ideas that could have been jotted down, but I didn’t want to overwhelm myself, so I stopped there and surveyed the list as a whole:

 

The Essential Facts of My Life

Relationships

Reflection

Expression

Recovery

Evolution

Illumination

Welfare

 

Feeling as though I had a decent start, my next task was to ascertain what it would look like to “front” these things. I understood the usage of the verb to front in this instance. It meant to face something head on, and deal squarely with it. In other words, my withdrawal from society would have to be, among other things, a determined effort to understand these characteristics that make me me, fully digest every-thing they implied regarding the living in my life and make them my driving force. Facing these essential facts of life, to me, meant accepting the weight of their repercussions and allowing them to dictate my destiny.

I packed another pipe bowl and sat in front if the fire, smoking and thinking deeply about these things. I suddenly recalled the words Kierkegaard:[15]

The most common form of despair is not being who you are.

I think these words are very true indeed, and I think in some obscure way that this is what Thoreau was hinting at as well. When he went to live in the woods around Walden Pond, was Thoreau attempting to find God? No, Walden does not seem to suggest that. Was he hoping to discover Nature? Again, I don’t think so. I think he went to the woods because he knew being surrounded by Nature would aid him in his ultimate goal, which, I think, was to find himself. Yes, I believe Thoreau went to the woods to discover the man he intended to be, and “fronting” the “essential facts of life” was his way of doing that. And now that I had my own list of the essential facts of (my) life, that’s what I intended to do as well.

LIFE DRIVEN INTO A CORNER

But what did it mean to “drive life into a corner?” As I have said, I absolutely love this phrase. In fact, this phrase alone is enough to justify an enduring adoration of Henry David Thoreau. What an amazing yet succinct construction of a words that carry such immense philosophical weight. But, again, what does it mean? To me, the two key words in the phrase are drive and corner. To “drive something” is to command the direction it takes, to force it to go where you will. To drive something means you are the one in control, and that which you are driving is at your mercy. It means that you can insist on any course and you will get what you want. And what precisely is a “corner?” I think in this in-stance it means that there’s nowhere else to go. There is no escape. There is no alternative. There is no chance that what you’ve driven into the corner can defy you. It means that things have been brought to a threshold, a precipice, and there is no way forward except acquiescence.

Therefore, to drive life into a corner is to take control of your own destiny. It means that you are no longer living accidentally but rather deliberately. It means that you have insisted on certain things that absolutely must characterize your life and your experiences, and if you will not be defied. It means that you are not a victim of what befalls you; no, you are the one calling the shots. And if bad shit does befall you—because bad shit will befall you—your response will not be one of weakness or defeat but rather calm equipoise and a determination to keep going. (since, indeed, it’s not how bad you fall that counts, it’s how you carry yourself as you stand back up). To drive life into a corner is remove all the peripheral bullshit that promises to fulfil but never does, those tedious diversions that vie for our attention and keep us from living deliberately. To drive life into a corner is to live with purpose, to live intentionally, and to have a say in who you are and what you become. It means that when you experience something, you are experiencing it to the full. You are present. You in the moment, not off in some dream world or lost in the bowels of your latest distraction. It means you are not a willing participant in the downward spiral that is our world but rather you are going against the grain, doing things differently, with the end goal of “sucking all the marrow out of life.” It means you are finished with reactionary living; indeed, you are now a person of action, not reaction. You’re someone who has whittled reality down to only those things that truly matter, and in those things you are immersed—everything else has fallen away or been driven away. You are no longer tossed about by the waves, those tumultuous exertions put upon you by others, those expectations that you never signed up for and don’t really understand anyway. You know who you are, and you like it. You live as you insist, and you do not apologize for it. And finally, to drive life into a corner is to know the truth and to accept that truth as it is, to embrace reality rather than fleeing from it or pretending it is otherwise. To drive life into a corner is to own yourself and your experiences on this planet.

That all sounds pretty fucking good, if you ask me. But it’s just a theory until you make it reality. The only problem is… well, how the fuck do you do that, exactly?

THE PERIOD OF SECLUSION

Obviously, I had my work cut out for me. It seemed as though I was taking on a bit more than I was prepared for, and yet I was all in at this point. I wasn’t backing out now.

That night (March 9), before joining Valerie in bed, I wrote the following entry in my journal:

Just a week ago I would never have seen this coming. And yet… I felt it coming, didn’t I? Yes, I think so. I think perhaps I’ve been heading toward this course for quite a while. There’s a sense of inevitability here, of coming face to face with my destiny. It doesn’t scare me, though. Not at all. I am positively brimming with exhilaration as I consider what may come of this. I feel like finally, perhaps for the first time in years, I am doing something good with my life, even if it only benefits my wife and I. Perhaps, in time, my actions here will benefit the world from which I am withdrawing. That’s a hope, anyway. Who knows.
As I contemplate the road ahead on this chilly night in March, I am struck by something Sir Isaac Newton once said: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” This isn’t entirely what he meant, but it occurred to me that there are astrophysicists who can tell us exactly what elements make up a star 6 billion light years away from us, but these same people could not look at my head and ascertain what my brain is thinking, nor can they look into my eyes and know what’s going on in my heart. How is that a man or woman can look through a telescope and, by measuring this or that, comprehend what specific elements make up an object swirling around in space so far away it would take billions of years to get there traveling at the speed of light? How is it also that these same men and women can be so accurate with such things while being so poor at knowing their own selves? Seriously, it’s been my experience on this planet that the majority of people are not self-aware. People don’t know themselves. And they rarely venture into the depths of their own heads and hearts to discover what lurks there. But a star on the other side of the Universe? This poses no problem to them. Humans astound me. We know so much about everything else, but when it comes to ourselves or the people close to us, we’re beyond ignorant. The truth is that I think people are crazy. As in, ridiculously insane. They likely think the same thing about me, but as a fairly well-known and somewhat controversial Jewish carpenter once pointed out, you can tell a good tree by its fruit. Be that as it may, I just don’t want other people in my life right now. They have the stink of the world on them, and I find it to be nauseating.
I need to be away from all that. I need to cut off that pipeline of bullshit the world and its drones want to pour into me. I am tired of being infected. I am tired of being coerced. I am tired of being judged, especially since I reject the standard by which this world judges me. I am sick to death of people and the haste with which they, like ostriches, bury their heads in the sand. I don’t want to be part of that. I don’t want to be part of this Great Age of Distraction. I want to know and remember what life is.
In light of all this, I have decided to make my exit. I am, for now, done with the world and the people in it. I don’t hate those people, I love them. I just don’t like them all that much right now, and I certainly don’t want them around me at the present time. Perhaps someday, when I’ve learned how to be among them without being of them, I will take my place in society again, whatever that place ends up being. But for now, with a full conviction that I am doing what’s right for me, I am considering the world dead to me. Only what exists between these walls of my home and within the books I intend to read will be considered “real” to me. Everything else, for now, is just an illusion.

Thus, in March of 2009, with my wife’s blessing and with no real game plan yet as to how all of this was going to unfold, I went into willful isolation. My Period of Seclusion had begun. I was, from that moment on, until I decided otherwise, a hermit. An eremite. A recluse. A dissident.

Over the next few days, I began making my extraction from society felt. The first thing I did was quit my job. The luxury of substitute teaching is that no notice is necessary, you just simply decline all future gigs. I also (temporarily) shut down my Facebook account, which, in 2009 (when all of this was taking place) didn’t amount to much as I wasn’t then the social media fiend I ended up becoming in later years. I stopped answering most phone calls (not all—I didn’t want my family to think I had cut them off) and de-clined to respond to most texts. I didn’t have many friends (again, that was by design), but the few I did have were told that I would be “out of commission for an indeterminate period of time.” A few questions were asked here and there, but mostly my friends knew to expect bizarre shit from me. I was, after all, as my wife correctly observed, a bizarre kind of man. (I still am.)

I was still a Christian in those days, but my association with that religion was as tenuous as it could have been without becoming nonexistent altogether. As such, I didn’t plan on involving prayer or Bible study in my forthcoming endeavors. I didn’t “ask God” whether withdrawing from society was “his will.” I don’t think I even thought about it. I still believed in God in some nominal way (although I was no longer sure what that even meant), and I still would have answered “yes” if someone had asked me if I thought Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but there would’ve been hardly any weight behind that “yes.” Ergo, my faith, ridiculously weak as it was, had zero bearing on what was to come. If anything, this dissenting season of my life probably helped to solidify the atheist tendencies that were already brewing in me and which, in 2014, would come to full fruition. For now, the relationship to Christianity was stuffed deep down in my heart’s pocket, right where I wanted it to be.

Besides, whether or not God approved of what I was doing seemed neither here nor there to me. The truth, if I may be blunt, was that I wasn’t interested in his will. Indeed, for years it seemed as though my willingness to defer to God’s will (whatever that was—I mean, how the hell do you interpret the will of an imaginary being?) had only led me in circles. I wasn’t better off for having concerned myself with what God may or may not have wanted—in fact my willingness to surrender control of my life was likely part of the problem. But those days, I vowed to myself, were over. And so I just charged ahead with my plan. I was owning my life. I was taking hold of my own destiny. I was driving my life into a corner. I was now living deliberately.

———————-

[1] This figure deals only with death; it does not indicate how many people overdosed and didn’t die.

[2] Again, this number is indicative only of those rapes being reported in these countries. The actual number of crimes committed is likely to be exponentially higher.

[3] Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), an essayist and poet from Concord, Massachusetts, known mostly for his works Walden and Civil Disobedience.

[4] Transcendentalism was a movement among New England writers such as Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederic Henry Hedge in the 1800s. The basic principle was that experience and insight, not logic, were the best means by which to derive the truth about reality.

[5] As to the word dissident, I can only say that, for better or worse, I have always considered myself to embody the definition of the term, which according to the Oxford Dictionary is as “a person who opposes official policy.” That, if you ask me, is a rather broad definition… and an ambiguous one, since the words official and policy can mean anything to anyone. For the purposes of all forthcoming discussions here, let us define dissident as one who intentionally and consistently makes an effort to be removed from that which is considered “normal” at any given time  (since what is considered “normal” in 2017 might be miles apart from what was considered normal in 1850—a strong argument that there actually is no “normal”—there is only what is “generally accepted at the present time as being the path of least resistance”). Associated words and themes would be nonconformist, heretic, heterodox, discordant, rogue, and rebel—the idea being that whatever the mainstream is, a dissident goes the other way. Having said that, it’s important to remember that going the other way just for the sake of being different is hardly admirable. The rebel who rebels simply because he loves rebellion is as guilty as he remains loyal merely for the sake loyalty. You need to believe in something for your stance and your actions to mean anything. Otherwise, you’re just another cog in the wheel rather an obstacle that stops the wheel.

[6] This is my personal opinion, obviously. Your mileage may vary.

[7] Understand, I’m using the term “vision” lightly; I don’t mean to im-ply anything paranormal, supernatural, or metaphysical.

[8] I was not yet an atheist at this time.

[9] I could have just as easily decided on the term anchorite rather than hermit, since anchorite literally means “to withdraw from society.” But I got the distinct impression that anchorites not only withdrew from society, they also withdrew to an isolated geographical location, and while the classic usage of the term hermit is very similar, it no longer carries that stigma of involving a geographical relocation.

[10] Doctor of the Church is a title the Roman Catholic Church gives to those saints whom are recognized as having been of great importance, particularly in relation to doctrine.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a German writer, poet, and philosopher whose work had tremendous influence on the scope of modern philosophy and intellectualism.

[12] A lover of words, their meanings, and their usage in sentences. True nerd shit.

[13] Sun Tzu, or Sunzi (c. 544 bce – c. 49c bce), an ancient Chinese military strategist and philosopher.

[14] Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), a Florentine politician, philosopher, and writer known mostly for his 1513 work The Prince (Il Principe). Machiavelli is considered to be a major pillar of the Italian Renaissance.

[15] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855), a Danish philosopher and theologian, often credited as being the Father of Existentialism. He is mostly known for his 1843 philosophical work, Either/Or.

Cogito Ergo Sum

I’m not against René Descartes. In fact, I usually defer to pretty much everything the man had to say. But there is one thing he said that I fervidly disagree with, and it happens to be the most famous thing he ever uttered. Je pense, donc je suis, he said. “I think, therefore I am.” (Cogito Ergo Sum, in Latin). This phrase originally appeared in his work Discourse on the Method (1637) but has since go on to be the catchphrase that essentially personifies the whole Age of Enlightenment. The use of reason, Descartes says, is enough to prove our own existence. Philosophically speaking, I get it. The thing is, I feel that here is a rather blatant instance of circular reasoning, a patent no-no in the hallowed halls of philosophy and rationalism. What Descartes is actually saying, it seems to me, is that because he possesses the ability to reason, he must therefore exist as a real, empirical entity. But this, to me, is the same as saying the following: “I possess the ability to run, therefore I have legs.” But that is the same as saying this: “I have legs, therefore I can run.” What has actually been proven here? Nothing. We didn’t came away from the statement learning anything new. The validity of our existence as living entities does not need to be confirmed by the ability to reason out that validity, because if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t be asking the question to begin with! It just seems circular to me. I feel like saying, “Hey Descartes, you know that the instant you opened your mouth to say something, you validated your existence. The instant you even formed the thought to say something, you validated your existence. In fact, the very moment you decided to contemplate your existence, you validated it. Thus, your famous statement, to me, is a bit redundant and categorically overrated. Sorry.”

Besides, do dogs and cats and birds and fucking monkeys not exist? If science is telling the truth (and I’m not sure it is in this particular instance), then animals do not possess the ability to reason. In fact, science asserts that animals don’t even know they’re alive because they don’t know what “being alive” means; they’re just automatons that live on pure instinct and nothing more. (Again, I do not agree with this.) But if that is true, then they don’t even exist at all, at least not if Descartes famous aphorism holds water. If existing requires the ability to reason out one’s own existence, then my cat doesn’t exist. “If Cogito Ergo Sum is a factual statement, your dog is just an illusion, Descartes. As is that lion that’s mauling you to death, or that bird that just shat on you. The bird shit dripping down your shoulder doesn’t actually exist, according to you, because the bird cannot reason out its own existence. Nor, for that matter, can the shit itself.”

Okay, I’m little soap-boxy about this, but still, Descartes is just wrong here. In my opinion, at least.

Why I love the Allegory of Plato’s Cave

In his work Republic (written sometime around 380 BCE), Plato recorded what some consider to be the greatest philosophical statement of all time. Through the use of the Socratic method[1] in the book, Plato has a fictionalized version of the real Socrates relaying a scenario to Glaucon, Plato’s brother. In this scenario, a group of people have been chained to the wall of a cave for the entirety of their lives. If this wasn’t bad enough, they are also positioned so that they’re facing the cave wall. They have never once seen what is behind them. It turns out that there is actually a bonfire behind them, and as various objects pass to and fro in front of the fire, shadows are cast on the cave wall, the very wall these chained people are facing. Since they have never not been chained to that cave wall, and since they therefore have no idea what may or may not exist beyond the confines of that cave, the shadows on the wall are the only reality these people will ever know, a manufactured reality that has no relation to what truly is.

Socrates goes on to tell Glaucon that a philosopher is, essentially, like one of those chained prisoners who is somehow freed. As such, he comes to understand the shadow reality he has been living, and thus recognizes it as false. He then exits the cave whereupon he is introduced to an entirely new scope of reality, one that he never before dreamed existed (and one, we must note, that may or may not be as false as the shadow reality he knew on the cave wall—a possibility that suggests there is always a new scope of reality to discover).

Through the use of the allegory, Plato was basically commenting that the majority of people live lives of relative ignorance. They neither know any other reality nor want to know any other reality. The reason they don’t want to know any other reality is that they don’t even know another reality is even possible! All they know is that which they have experienced: mere shadows upon the wall of a cave. The philosopher, then, is merely that person who, through his own fortitude and resourcefulness or through the help of others (“Take the red pill, Neo.”), has left the cave and thus gone on to understand a wider scope of existence.

What’s interesting is that Plato even mentions that likelihood that, once having been freed, a prisoner might look at the fire for the first time and note that it hurts his eyes. At first he likely doesn’t even understand the fire. As the truth begins to dawn on him, however, cosmic pain enters his mind, for he begins to comprehend the horrific scope of his erroneous views on reality. “Everything I’ve ever known,” he says to himself, “has been a lie.” He may even refuse to believe what he sees; indeed, he might even go back to his chains, preferring their comfort over the frightening and overwhelming implications of the new reality. Who among us can’t identify with this freed prisoner? How many among us, having been liberated from one thing or another in our personal lives, will actually go running back to it rather than square with the vulnerability of living without it (I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s assertion that anxiety is basically our negative reaction to the implications of freedom)? The Allegory of the Cave is therefore a remarkably profound and apropos commentary on the human condition.

In the dialogue, Socrates also explains to Glaucon that if a freed prisoner, having exited the cave and thus fully adjusting himself to the truth of his new reality, went back into the cave to try and free his brethren, the darkness of the cave would blind him in the same way the light did when he first left the cave. The prisoners would then infer from the freed man’s blindness that his journey outside the cave was dangerous and detrimental. As a result, they would more than likely resist his attempts to free them. They might even go so far as kill him rather than allow him to disrupt their status quo (I suppose that they are somehow able to commit murder while being chained to the wall is to be taken for granted). This was Plato’s way of communicating what so many people either fail to understand or refuse to understand: the pervasive instinct of humanity is to resist the truth, mostly because the truth, whatever it may be, is contrary to the comfort of our current situation. For this reason alone, the Allegory of the Cave is, to me, by far the most effective and transformative concept in all philosophy—or indeed in all of Western thought. Everything we need to know about our stymied progress as a species is communicated clearly here.

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[1] The Socratic method: a method of teaching through the use of rhetorical questions within a dialogue between two or more persons. This style of teaching is contrary to the most accepted form of teaching used in today’s universities, which is the lecture.