There Shall Be No Home For Us

All these years I’ve carried around with me the idea that I’ll ultimately find a home and that I’ll stay there for as long as my days will allow. This despite the fact that since I turned 18 I’ve not lived anywhere for longer than two years at a time except for the three and a half years I spent in New York City. Half of my life, then, I’ve been on the road or, shall we say?, on the Way. What makes me believe that the future will depart radically from the past?

As Americans, we have this odd, unconsidered notion that one day we’ll “settle down.” This will occur once we’ve established ourselves in our profession and found a suitable partner with whom we shall spend the rest of our days. It’s only natural, we believe, that we’ll have a physical location called home that matches professional stability and familial love, tethering the former to the latter.

However true this neat package (home-profession-family) once was (and one really should doubt whether it was ever very true for many), it is no longer true today. Precarity rules over professional life, with the number of freelancers on the rise; over family life, with attachments made and ended; why not too over one’s physical location, the place that one calls home? I’m no longer convinced that our historical moment is one of settling even once our 20s or 30s are through. No, it seems many of us shall continue to be nomads.

But now, relinquishing the royal We, I must speak for myself since I’ve not had any ideas of professional stability or cozy notions about the bourgeois family. Instead, I’ve clearly believed that my partner Alexandra and I, both being seekers and wanderers of the heart, would one day hunker down, marking an end of our journey. That, of course, couldn’t be more illusory.

In truth, our home, as it has been for so long for me, will henceforth be a bivouac, a sojourn, a temporary enclosure, a place to look around and explore for a time. Wanderers seeking Truth are like that. Like us, they live in rural Appalachia for half a year and then among the redwood trees of Northern California for a bit; then among the Joshua Trees of Southern California for five seasons; then among the mountains of Ojai for however long. And where next? And when? We don’t deign to say when or where but open-minded we must remain. Sensible seekers, we mean to be flexible without being in a hurry.

Clearly, we have both had buried within us some idea of community, believing this to be semi-permanent without granting fully that community is scarce and, like the full moon, brilliant in our day and age. My friends will likely continue to be, as they have so far been, scattered across the globe, and community will go on being an idea that comes into existence over a campfire one night, bursting out of the felicitous flames, only to vanish as the coals are cooled by the fiercely insistent wind.

The American poet Wendell Berry may call us to scrunch down into a place and be good stewards of this patch of earth, and as much as I like that vision I realize it cannot be mine. The desert fathers and mothers of the third through eighth centuries CE went into the desert and there grappled with their vices and lived. Such, I believe, is closer to Alexandra’s and my fate. Ever to be wanderers, always to be near the wilderness, never to be finally at home, and, one hopes, to be okay with perpetually being on the Way…

‘Mattering Matters’

We can’t pursue a human life unless we believe that we matter. So argues Rebecca Goldstein on The Edge and in Free Inquiry. Some 30 years ago, she says, she was inspired by a view offered by the protagonist of her novel The Mind-Body Problem.

There seem to be at least three claims she wishes to make. One is that “mattering matters” above all to human beings. We are driven not just by a will to survive but most importantly and most basically by a will to matter. Another is that we implicitly or explicitly having “mattering maps”: we occupy a certain area of the map which, I take it, helps us to articulate to ourselves what matters to us. A third is that we’re able to evaluate our lives in the light of what matters to us. If what matters to us is X, how do we stack up: as somebodies or as nobodies?

A helpful illustration comes from her essay, “Feminism, Religion, and ‘Mattering.'” From the Homeric age and onward, the Greeks adopted what she calls an Ethos of Extraordinariness. What mattered to them, we might say, was leading an extraordinary human life. She cites the example of Achilles in The Iliad who, when given a choice between leading an ordinary yet long life and an extraordinary yet short life, opts for the latter. It is extraordinariness that truly matters to him, and even the most cursory reading of The Iliad confirms Goldstein’s view.

She goes on to argue that Socrates introduces us to a novel turn, making a turn from the heroic to the reasonable. “It’s the pursuit of reason that provides the only kind of extraordinary that matters.”

Though she denigrates the religious, we needn’t follow her lead. Instead, we could say that the religious person is someone who adopts an Ethos of Union: what truly matters to such a person is leading a life in union with what’s truly ultimate. In actuality, it’s possible to combine the two theses in order to say that the life led in union with what’s truly ultimate becomes an extraordinary human life in its ethical manifestations.

What I find especially appealing about Mattering Theory is that it accords with a basic intuition I’ve had for about five years. When I came up with a one liner for my philosophy practice–“I teach individuals and organizations how to inquire into the things that matter most.”–I had the sense, then unarticulated, that mattering matters to us simpliciter. With Goldstein’s help, I can generate a set of fundamental questions:

1.) What matters most to you?

2.) You say that X matters ultimately to you. Are you sure that X is worth mattering?

3.) Suppose X is worth mattering (for it may not be). What sort of basic statement can we make out of X’s mattering? (E.g., the life that truly matters is an extraordinary life. Or: the life that truly matters is one that is in union with what is most ultimate or most real.)

4.) If that is your basic statement, what sorts of self-evaluations do you make? To put the question differently (and this with Charles Taylor): what sorts of qualitative distinctions do you make most fundamentally (noble/ignoble, sacred/profane, just/unjust, etc.)? Do you, say, wish to lead an extraordinary life in Y but believe that you’re not or not so able?

5.) How do you go about leading a life that “fills out” that conception of a well-led life?

The point is to flesh all this out in our lives, and it is philosophy that guides us in the fleshing out.

Splitting Open Reality

The most apparently ordinary occurrences can make us shudder and fill us with dread or awe. When asked about his weekend, a man replies that he had taken mushrooms and discovered the plentitude of becoming. A woman doesn’t know why she feels her home is uncanny to her, treating it like a train depot, yet uncanny it remains. A man hasn’t confronted the truth that his father died some 20 years ago and will never return. Out of the blue, a man senses for the first time the force of the question, “Why am I here?,” and has no answer. The absence of a person may, in the early morning, stir in me the gravity of lonesomeness, the taint of death.

Seen from this perspective, the triviality of modern culture is only a veneer pathetically and inadequately hiding from us what could come, at any moment, into plain sight: the truth that we bear within ourselves an inscrutability, a hint of the dangerous, a palpating sense of our quickened existences. Everyday words, buzzing thoughts, and a whir of action jolt us onward, careen us into the future like machines bent on constant motion, but a mere moment’s interruption can tear through all this. A fugitive emotion out of proportion with a current happening may slice into us from nowhere, ripping us and tearing at us, gorging on us. When we feel nagged by something, gnawed at, what would happen were we to peer into that nagging sensation until it took up residence in us? Our words, those great betrayers and steady liars, can unwind like cassette tape, pitching us into silence.

I have found that the philosophical question can be like a sword cutting through all this obfuscation and bluster, revealing hard bones and sinewy, tender flesh, thus delivering up our mysterious selves to ourselves. Pierced, split open, we are born.

The Tedious Thoughtlessness of Political Discussions

There comes a time when a question loses its force, becoming rather tired-sounding in our mouths. The fundamental question of the left has for some time been: “Who is getting screwed over, by whom, and what ‘infrastructure’ can be built to right this wrong?” It’s not the case, surely not, that people have ceased getting screwed over, both publicly and privately. That has continued and in some quarters become sadly, painfully more acute, and there are plenty of candidate culprits subject to blame: nation-states, corporations, warlords, governmental officials, patriarchs, finance, technology, and, more recently and nebulously, systems. It’s rather to wonder at a deeper level whether this is the fundamental political question to ask. I don’t believe it is.

It’s not as if I believe the right’s chief point of focus on being free to lead happy or excellent lives is all that interesting either. That too sounds terribly boring as a first and chief concern to have. Freedom is often attenuated to the point of becoming market freedom, and happiness looks dried out and musty, too much like bourgeois success.

Shall we go one step further? Let’s. What’s even more tiring is the differend–to use a term from the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard–between the left and the right. The right says, “We want to be free to be happy,” and the left replies, “You mean you want to maintain status and privilege at the cost of subduing, oppressing, and mistreating others.” When the left speaks, yoking itself to victims and bearing witness to perpetrators, the right may roll its eyes, replying, “What of high achievers? Are not strong individuals free to be strong? Birds of prey, as Nietzsche pointed out, love to eat tasty little lambs! Why must the strong be made weak like the rest?” Here are two different languages, arising out of two different worldviews, without any recourse to understanding.

And I think that if I would deign to make any substantive point in this post it would be that what has gone missing is an openness to bracketing our own basic beliefs and to just listening open-mindedly to each other. Where is there room for deeper considerations, far deeper than we’re used to, the considerations that expose us to far-reaching doubts, and where is there time for the birth of a new language to describe what it is to be political animals? If I don’t think we’re served well by either the fundamental question of the left or by the fundamental orientation of the right, then it’s enough to say that I think we could be well-served by a radical act of listening without preconceptions, without injury or merit in the hope–even more radical still–of thinking. I’d like for once to have a moratorium on the tedious thoughtlessness at the heart of our political discussions. I do not say that it would be easy, only during our unsettled age that it would be necessary.



A Zen Reading of the Book of Job

There is an easy way and a number of dense and difficult ways of reading the Book of Job, a book that foregrounds the question of unjust suffering. I’m going for the easy way.

Recall the main premise: that Job is an “upright and blameless” man who ends up losing his children, his wealth, his livestock, and his health. Why has God allowed this to happen to a man as upright and blameless as he, he laments. What follows are arguments from his friends, who accuse him, without warrant, of having sinned this way or that way, as well as his increasingly incensed replies to this charges. The story culminates in the Voice of the Whirlwind representing God’s enigmatic appearance and with Job’s transformation. (Set aside the folkloric Epilogue.)

The hard way is to grapple with the problem of evil head on and, I think, to come out of the puzzle of theodicy exhausted, wild-eyed, and empty-handed. I already announced that I’m going for the easy way: Job needs to learn a Zen lesson–namely, that some of our questions are asked from the wrong position. In this case, it is the diremption between man and the divine, between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal that gives rise to the question in the first place. That diremption produces second-order, theoretical consciousness, which, though no bad thing, isn’t up to the challenge of answering the questions it puts to itself. By the end, this harried and fraught dualism, this sense of “dread” (in Thomas Merton’s understanding of the term) has been dissolvedWhat has the Whirlwind done but ply Job with koan after koan about the mystery of creation, a creation so strange and beautiful and sublime that it belies the powers of human comprehension to grasp its length, breath, contours, and curvatures? Job’s conscious mind has been overcome and, in consequence, there comes the breakthrough.

Job, as if he had been pounded by Socratic questioning, has not arrived at knowledge but at a certain “mindlessness,” a state of being in which he can no longer resist, only stand stupefied and silent. It is a silence of fullness. What has disappeared is Job’s ego, that entity charged with asking the question of unjust suffering, and what arisen is an experience of contemplation, a beholding, the second stage of the mystical path.

The lesson I take from my Zen reading of the Book of Job is that in life many of our feverish, hot and bothered questions are asked from the wrong position. Rather than answer them, we need to step away from them and thus from “ourselves.” And what may emerge may be the fullness of silence.