Found Poetry: Being is Not Nothing (words of Martin Heidegger)

Anxiety robs us of speech.

Beings as a whole slip away.

Anxiety reveals the nothing.

How is it with the nothing?

Being held out into the nothing.

They are beings—and not nothing.

Being held out into the nothing is

Transcendence. Pure being and

Pure nothing are the same.

Nothing is the lighting-concealing

Advent of being itself.

Language is the house of being.

Homelessness is coming to be

The destiny of the world.

Thinking thinks the nothing.

Healing Being first grants

Ascent into space.

Language is language of beings

As clouds are clouds of the sky.

nature sky clouds blue
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Poem: Being and Ridiculousness

In that book, Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre’s
Antoine Roquentin gets kind of freaked
Out just looking at the root of a chestnut tree.
I thought it was pretty weird at first,
Because how can you get through life
If you freak out every time you see a
Tree root or some fool thing like a tree root?

You couldn’t go on, could you? It’d just be
One crisis after another until you went
Insane and did yourself in, but then
I kind of get it. I mean, if you look at
Anything for awhile, it can get you thinking,
And thinking is always the risky part.

Once you start thinking, everything comes
Into question, and you might not even
Be able to tell if a root is real, or you
Might start to think the root is conscious
And is staring at you, or you might start
To wonder if you are real. I mean, you
Could be part of the consciousness of
The root, but it wouldn’t have to be a root,
Either, would it? Any damn thing can send
Your thoughts careering out of control,
And you might just start feeling a little
Overwhelmed. You might feel like you can’t really
Talk to anyone, because you’re not sure whether
They are like you. Maybe they don’t see the same
Colors. Maybe they don’t feel the same feelings.
Maybe you are the only one who knows what
Pain is. Or maybe you’re just a character in their story.

But Sartre said he never felt that kind
Of nausea, and now you think maybe he was
Just an asshole. Maybe he just thought up a
Lot of stupid shit just to make money off
People who were socially anxious like
Roquentin or just anxious generally.
It was all just a joke to Sartre and his
Mescaline addled buddies, but you are
Starting to see things more clearly now.
You’re starting to want to punch that jackass
In the face, and you finally realize
Albert Camus was right about everything.

creepy dark fear grave
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Ricky Gervais and the Wrong Way to Grieve

After Life, created by Ricky Gervais, seems to be a quest to show just what it would mean to grieve in the wrong way. While grief counselors and well-meaning supporters will often assure us there is “no right or wrong way to grieve,” the central character, Tony, is destined to be an exemplar for how badly things can go when someone takes that advice to heart.

Tony recently lost his wife along with his will to live. Even without a will to live, though, he keeps living in spite of himself, partly because the dog needs to be fed. Maybe he really does feel an obligation to the dog, or he really wants to live, or he is just afraid to die. It doesn’t really matter why he keeps living, maybe, but several characters do make note of the fact that he does, in fact, find a reason to go on each day, even if he can’t say what it is.

So he goes on without wanting to live, which he feels gives him the freedom to do things he never would have done before. Of course, he always had the same freedom, but his suicidal ideation has now made him aware of it. The fact that suicide is on his mind tells him that if something he does causes things to get even more unpleasant for him, he will simply end it all.

This is, of course, a central tenet of existentialism, especially as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre. Humans have radical freedom to choose their actions because they can annihilate themselves at any time. This annihilation can come in the form of suicide or simply choosing to become a different person. Sure, you can’t actually become a different person, but you can choose radically different actions, and we are defined by what we do.

Suicide is also the central question for another existentialist, Albert Camus, of course, but for Camus the question of suicide should challenge us to find meaning for our lives each and every day. If I’ve chosen not to kill myself today, I must have a reason. I should be aware of what it is I am living for. If it is just to feed the dog, then so be it.

But Tony isn’t so far along his journey yet. He’s engaged in a little game theory such as that discussed by Robert Nozick and other philosophers. He’s decided that being a decent person isn’t a good bet in the game of life. While it would be better if everyone were nice, that is not the case. Consequently, nice people consistently lose ground to the selfish people around them. Tony reasons it is better to be a rotten person benefiting from the kindness of a few naïve but altruistic people than to be a nice person expending energy on people and getting nothing in return.

So Tony is pretty awful to everyone around him. I don’t think there is any need for a spoiler alert here as this is all laid out in the first minutes of the first episode. Tony does some awful things that have awful consequences for people who come into his contact. Brief flashes of remorse or regret let us know an empathetic individual still lurks in there somewhere, but people risk real harm by coming into contact with Tony.

In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Buddha tells the grieving Kisa Gotami to go to all her fellow villagers and collect a mustard seed from everyone not touched by grief. She returns empty handed, of course, as everyone is touched by grief. Like Kisa Gotami, Tony slowly learns this lesson, and it changes him.

In the end, though, I think existentialism drives the series more than Buddhism, but it is Simone de Beauvoir who gets the final say. Beauvoir believed, as did the other existentialists, that to be human is to be free if we constantly practice freedom as an act of will as Tony has decided to do. However, as we will ourselves to be free we must also recognize the freedom of others and will them to be free as well.

We must all suffer, but our suffering is shared by all those around us as both Kisa Gotami and Tony learn. Recognizing that means we will move forward with compassion and kindness, and that is the greatest freedom there is.

Camus on Wall Street

As a young man, angry as I was, Albert Camus spoke to me. Many described him as an existentialist who focused on the absurdity of life, which was true, but I think it missed the point. At the very least, it missed the main point I took away from his work. After going through some periods of despair, I found “The Myth of Sisyphus” to be uplifting and inspiring. Camus offered the surprising revelation that Sisyphus could be happy. Actually, Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus happy. If Sisyphus is happy, surely anyone can be.

But Camus does not tell us to choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances. He does not tell us to turn inward in a meditative trance to achieve happiness. He does not tell us to live in the moment. No, it is a defiant spirit that keeps Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus has the misfortune of not only having a dreary existence but also of being all too aware of it.

Many people appear to go through life without ever realizing they are living a pointless and dreary existence that would be torture if they thought about it for one second, but they do not think about it. Or they try not to, but Sisyphus does think about it. Camus says, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It is scorn for his masters that gets him through the day. Even if he cannot change the situation, his hatred for his masters is a victory over them.

So some of us continually rail against the state of the world, and we are counseled to accept our reality, count our blessings for what we do have, be productive, and live in the moment. Our rage, we are told, prevents us from being happy, but I think our rage, our scorn, our repudiation of injustice is what sustains us and gives us meaning. It gives us happiness.

Our scorn and anger sustain us because they declare that we are something of worth, even if we are worthy only to ourselves. In The Rebel, Camus says, “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to himself.” Rather than being a negative, rebellion is a positive expression of one’s humanity. To do otherwise is despair, which is silent. Camus says, “To remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinions, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases it really amounts to wanting nothing.”

Bewildered pundits, reporters, political observers, and sedated citizens ask what the protesters on Wall Street hope to accomplish. They have already accomplished something important. They have said, “no.” They have begun to live. They have chosen to want something.

How happy should you be?

I’ve never considered myself a strict Utilitarian in the narrowest sense of the term, but I always believed that suffering is generally a bad thing and that relieving suffering when possible is morally laudable. I still believe this for the most part, but lately I see myself in a dilemma of sorts. I have rejected all arguments for the necessity of suffering offered by theodicists, for I do not find belief in God to be more plausible based on the idea that suffering is the product of love and mercy from a being who only wants to motivate spiritual development and love for the good in people. I would be more able to imagine a merciful God who neglected to create life at all out of concern that life would entail suffering.

Given the fact that life with its attendant suffering is here (and unnecessary, in my opinion), I find myself agreeing that suffering does seem to be an essential element in developing any sort of moral worth. When I’ve met people, usually quite young, who have never faced financial difficulty, disease, or loss of a loved one, I generally find these people to be underdeveloped. They also seem unaware of the basic truths of life. The lack of suffering in their own lives makes them indifferent to the suffering of others. While most people believe we can’t take all the problems of the world on our shoulders, we also believe it is wrong to be “too happy” in the face of pain and suffering, but it is our own suffering that brings meaning to our experience of the suffering of others. We can never know the pain of others, but our own pain can make us care about what others may be experiencing. I realize some people experience pain and remain stubbornly egocentric, but I believe those who never experience any pain are likely to be incapable of placing any value on the pain of others. At least, they are unable to develop a fully empathic individuals.

All of this is said really to argue against the idea that we should be as cheerful as possible at all times. An old movie asked what is so bad about feeling good at a time when gloominess was trendy. Now, especially in the U.S., we have banished sadness, even when sadness is appropriate. We rush to the pharmacist when we experience the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or even more minor life changes. We are attempting to deny the experiences that make us human.

My feeling on this surprises me. When I was much younger, I read many of the existentialist philosophers. I knew then that the brute force of one’s own existence could lead only to anxiety and, in the words of Sartre and others, anguish. I remember now that Heidegger would have us find an authentic existence by contemplating our own death, an experience that pushes the superficial features of life out of our consciousness. Camus would have us constantly justify our existence by defending our choice to not commit suicide every day. For Sartre, the happy people could not be said to even exist in any meaningful sense–just automata going through the motions of life.

When I think of what it means to love or care about someone, I can’t imagine this emotion without pain. (I must add that I wish I could write this without hearing the strains of “Love Hurts,” but so be it.) We love our parents, our children, and, of course, our lovers, and each relationship is laced with deep pain, fear, worry, and uncertainty. The joy we get from these relationships can’t possibly outweigh the pain, but we find it worth the effort. Perhaps the pain intensifies the joy. It may be that the more pain we feel, the more we love. The more we love, the more we care for others. The more we care for others, the less pain we hope they will feel.

I’ve led myself to a paradox I cannot resolve. And I feel vaguely peaceful about it.