At the end of a ride on a great wave we find ourselves gasping and spitting, with the sharp tang of brine penetrating our sinuses, sand in our eyes. Our minds filled by a euphoric kaleidoscopic replaying of the ride’s thrills. Meanwhile, the next wave is about to land on us, pushing us down into the coarse sand, stealing our next breath, whether we’re ready for it or not. We’d like to be able to cherish the moment just passed, riding not just effortlessly but borne along upon the power of wind and water. We’d like to rush back out and do it again. We’d like it all to just stop, even for just a moment, for a lot of contradictory “reasons.”
None of these desires can or will be granted. Moments continue to unfold regardless of our capacity or desire to meet them.
It strikes me, bodily, that our current moment finds us reeling in much the same way. Not every great wave leaves us euphoric. Many leave us gasping for air, deeply shaken, wondering why we ever came out here in the first place, questioning our sense of autonomy, that we are somehow “in charge” of our days, if not our lives. This movement suspends disbelief, leaving us with a phantom limb sensation that what’s been happening is a “ride” we’ve “chosen” to “take.” No matter how uncomfortable, and even dangerous, it might be, these assumptions are hard to dismiss, that is, even if we notice.
For me, what is most salient about this ride, over the last decade at least, has been a pursuit of understanding, an intention to look into events, ideas, situations, and conditions with the aim of coming to grips with what early-on came to be encompassed by this term, Our Enormity. My first blog, Horizons of Significance, was started and has been guided by this intention. At once to establish a chronicle of an extended moment in time, a description of what it’s like to live and think as the Twenty-first Century started to bite in earnest; and also, as it is embedded in the title, to provide a scan of our horizons in search for what is significant.
This search was fueled by a belief that discovering significance allows us to cut through futility and find paths to right-action. If not right-action, a shaky ambition in the best of times, at least to find ways to dissolve binds, pause reactions, and perhaps find ways to respond to what is perceived as significant.
This quest has been possible for me at least in part because of the limitations on what it has ever been possible for me to do. Much of it could, and has been done, in a certain kind of solitude. A solitude born of temperament and trauma, protected and maintained by a certain private security and one deep and abiding relationship.
This search has always been intertwined with a desire, a desire based on a need we all have as social creatures to live in wider relationship. This desire, not finding the usual outlets in extended family or companionship among groups of friends or colleagues was bent into an acceptance of solitude coupled with a search for meaningful connections wherever and however improbable or remote in distance or probability these pursuits might take me.
A solid decade and more later this has resulted, not as the then-tantalizing pseudo-promise of “Virality” that seemed right around every corner of the internet in those days. It has instead brought me three distant friends and has brought us a very different sort of viral presence as we either hunker-down or flaunt in giddy dereliction our individual responses to the opening gambits of Pandemic.
This “ride” has been, to follow the body-surfing metaphor, a giant, hollow-faced, gaunt wave with plenty of velocity but not much body. It has tossed me/us onto a steep and pebbly shore.
Far from that surfer’s ideal, riding a copious frothy wash that takes us “all the way in” where we pop ourselves upright on dry, sugary sand and blink in the warm sunlight. The day’s rides’ energies dissipating slowly through rippling muscles, our being suffused with an unadulterated Joy. The end of this ride is blunt, obvious, and far from joyous. Any sense of feeling properly “prepared” for the next wave is missing even as a certainty that many such waves are racing towards us penetrates us to our bones.
The wave metaphor for me goes back into my childhood. It endures. Another metaphor, the Titanic Disaster, goes back just as far. These moments of “significance” for me beat a contrasting tattoo throughout my childhood. Moments of glorious Joy in bright sunshine and cold water coming when they could in short summers on those few days when the wind blew strongly from the right direction and the tides were high at mid-day. The other, repeating in the dark, lit fitfully by a flickering black & white TV, watching “Saturday Night at the Movies!” enchanted by an odd delight in disasters retold, seeing that “A Night to Remember” was going to play again….
Leading up to April 2012, the Centennial of that tragedy the Titanic loomed large in my imagination ten years ago. A narrative chronology of associations had me ticking-off the salient moments in that tale. The sense of dread accompanying celebrations of exceptionalism and hubris, “Unsinkable!” or “The End of History!” all seemed to flow from the same source. The stage when those warnings go unheeded. A mad fool’s rush into disaster. The sense of an eery unreality following the moment of contact. A certain pitch to the deck increasingly difficult to ignore. This stage, more a series of repetitions, re-enactments, recollections of having passed through the relevant “steps” before and watching them recur again and again. A felt need for imaginative engagement to be able to perceive any of this at all. After all, the deck remained solid underfoot. The band continued to play….
The feeling now hovers around sensations of dizzying height as we rush to the stern, incongruously rising as our vessel sinks. A growing sense that others are already dying around us and that we’re not that far from hitting those icy waters glinting below us.
If the past decade has been a time of sorting and arranging deck chairs for want of any perception that meaningful action was possible we have now entered a time when we must face the fact that, however we hate to admit it, action is ninety percent stuff that happens to us and not what we deliberate and decide to do in response. Reacting, we are re-discovering, is not just a fool’s fall-back. Most of the time reaction is all that is ever available.
This essay might seem to be an effort to delineate the particulars of Our Enormity and an effort to show reasons for despair. Quite early-on this chronicling and journey of discovery brought me to the realization that our notions of optimism and pessimism, hope and despair, are bankrupt. An acting-out of a sense of entitlement we, and I include anyone reading this, share. A feeling, an insistence, that we don’t have to do, or have done to us, anything we haven’t “signed-up for.” This is the most salient evidence of our customary view that we somehow negotiate the circumstances in our lives and that we hold some power of veto over Fate.
Lost amongst all the dying and destruction just coming into our immediate view over that horizon, ever rolling is another kind of death. Until now all the changes, as seen from our perspective as a tiny subset of internet connected Westerners, no matter how much they loomed, they have appeared to be mere possibilities, probabilities of doom among a variety of potential “outcomes.” We felt as though we were gazing at a menu, expecting that the meal might not turn out as we had hoped, but continuing to harbor a detachment, a feeling that we might still salvage the evening….
What-is is beginning to appear sobering. At least to those of us not frantically fighting-off any perception or understanding in a frenzy at this point reduced to farcical tantrums indulged by nominal adults.
What-is has begun to morph from an exciting way of looking at how we might become integrated consciousnesses and is beginning to show itself in all the unalloyed actuality of an accident scene. Crushed glass scrunching underfoot. The metallic taste of blood. The smell of leaking gas….
What-is is beginning to show itself to be much more than an entry into vital engagement with the present. What-is is showing us why delusion and escape have always been so seductive in the first place. It is mostly intractable. It erodes any attempts to put an optimistic spin on our prospects. We cannot be unbound without an awareness of its existence and this must, we are discovering, include the actuality of how little range of movement/action is ever available to us.
Life continues to find a way as it always has. Where there is life there is still the possibility of unimaginable miracles of change. But, we begin to recognize this story does not necessarily include any of us. And, our definition of life and where it is to be found needs to be expanded beyond imagination for these axioms to remain true in the long run. The extent of Our Enormity races ahead of our understanding, ready to obliterate life wherever we may find it.
Shuffling along we are bombarded by realizations of how many others views of themselves and the world are imploding, leaving people gasping. “I can’t breathe!” This is the lament of our Age. For too many this is literally true. Whether from novel or “heritage” diseases or as the result of brutality and hatred. For others it is more a reaction, a hyperventilation resulting from a sense of moral panic, a “hysteria” of sorts. A coming-home-to-roost of Nemesis until now only held at bay by prodigious acts of projection, beginning with the term Hysterical itself. Foisted upon subjugated women, blaming their fertile physiognomies for the anxieties forced on them by male oppressors. The Hysterics we see today close a Karmic Circle. Their fragility finally visible beneath all the projections onto women, queers, snowflakes…. It was always there, residing in psyches broken by the illusions their holders have fought so hard to defend. Another curious reversal. Defense implies a desire for self-preservation. Today so many choose to maintain their Ego-defenses over life itself.
At some point, as everyone around us appears to be losing “it,” if not their minds in toto, it becomes impossible not to start to wonder, “When will it be my turn?”
Having passed through mental crises before may bring some comfort. Let us extend pity and condolences to those just arriving at a sense of the fragility of the self at this late date! That, and a deep wariness over how their reactions will continue to compound misery and suffering for us all as their awareness of their condition sinks in. Proprioception and the mental hygienes this one odd term stands in for are powerful tools for sharpening our sanity even as they strip us of the false-comforts of delusional certainties.
This chronicle, this search, has made it clear that we are all damaged. We are all fragile. We are all subject to delusions. And, let us let this last point sink in. Delusions are by definition invisible to those holding them. No practice of mental hygiene will “vaccinate” us against this fact-of-life. At best they can only keep us wary, “Where are my delusions hiding? How will they turn around and bite me?”
The Grand Experiment in stressing the conditions for life on Earth we have called our civilization has been making it clear that life succeeds by the coincidence of its capacities for meeting the challenges of an environment with a situation in which those capacities are not overwhelmed by conditions beyond a creature’s, or a community’s abilities to adapt. Neither capacity nor livable conditions can be taken for granted. At best these variables align for long enough so that descendants may continue to adapt at a pace-of-change that can be met by their capacities. We, in our ultimate Hubris burn this candle at both ends. We destroy the livability, the vitality of the entire Web-of-Life while seeking to eliminate our capacities to recognize and adapt to any changes at all. This truth can be found simply by looking around, especially wherever the smell of teargas and pepper spray linger in the air.
It is tempting to laugh, a cold, cynical chortle, when we see that “on the one side we have those crying out, “I can’t breathe!” and on another, “I need a haircut!” Or that horribly banal sewer-trap of a statement, “ALL lives matter!” Beneath all these expressions, the pitiful and the long-suffering both, lies a truth that no one can breathe. Beside this horrible realization is its sister, No one can see the other.
This is not a call for relativism. Another term invented as a projection of derision by those unwilling to recognize the limitations of their own greedy, narrow views and thrown at anyone attempting to widen our common points of view. Everyone is damaged. Everyone is fragile, but, in the face of a horrendous imbalance of outcome we may be forced into a kind of triage. Lifeguards are trained to deal with the self-destructive reactions of some panicked drowning victims. Even they need to know when they must withdraw from situations in which such flailing may kill them too.
History is flush with the bloodlust of those eager to march off into war. “Hurry! It’ll be over by Christmas! We’ve got to enlist!” Less obvious have been those who have struggled to resist such impulses and then only responded to violence with violence when every other option seemed closed. There’s a whiff of this eventuality in the air, in that toxic brew we are trying to breathe today….
The intellectual realization, the insight that what drives our march to self-destruction, to Omnicide, is in large part driven by our failure to acknowledge death. Particularly our own deaths. That death is ever-present and may arrive at any moment. It is another thing to have our narrowing circumstances and increasing precarity shove this realization in our faces and down our throats.
“I can’t breathe!” Is no longer just a catch-phrase. A “virtue-signal” – another of those malignant terms invented to disparage those of us grappling with hard questions by those refusing to have a conscience at all. We cannot breathe and we cannot swallow our increasing awareness that all is not well, that nothing is “OK.”
Our Titanic time-line would now place us at the start of the plunge. We see how fleeting the perceptions of permanence life indulges us in as those just a bit less fortunate pass quickly and irrevocably from alarm through a silent conversion to the certainty of death and from there to the private pain of dying ending in their conversion into lifeless cadavers. We feel this as a premonition of the startling effect of immersion into the frigid waters coming ever closer.
This dynamic we can observe going on all around us. A closing-in, a closing-down of selves. A loosening of social bonds, everything from “compassion-fatigue” to the day-by-day narrowing of intercourse among us. Intercourse, a correct, but somehow off-putting term for all social and personal interactions. It is no wonder that our culture’s Libido has itself been shrinking and falling away over the last half-century. Beyond the fictional Jack and Rose, the Titanic disaster offered few tales of heightened passion, of the life-urge taking a sexual turn in the face of those cold, unsparing waters.
“The cure is there in the disease!” So said the ancients and so we seem to reluctantly rediscover in each generation. This realization is cold-comfort when it looks as though the disease will kill us first! Never-the-less it remains true.
A decade ago I had premonitions that what we were in the midst of was a rediscovery of Tragedy. The epic Juggernaut of our culture’s embrace of the myth of Triumphant Whiteness, rolling over everything and everyone in its path after WWII, all but eliminated any awareness of Tragedy, burying it under a Disney-fantasy of endless Progress and endless profit. At least among those most deeply infected. This orgy of self-regard and violent expansion fueled by cheap oil and the cracking of the atom along with the breaking of any thread of a legacy of true wonder and humble questioning by relentless attacks on our psyches brought into being by “marketing and Public Relations” that left us both lacking a sense of the Tragic along with any working sense of self-preservation.
We need both. Nemesis works to bring us the opportunity to redress both these failings. No matter that we run, kicking and screaming at the prospect! Jung’s Shadow is as true and impactful as E=MC2. Both have shaped our Age. The more we repress the harder the Fate in store. Einstein’s equation gives us a back-of-the-envelope sense of the calculus involved. The “E” of our Shadow, however tiny and insignificant we would like to believe it to be, equals the “Mass” times an incredibly large constant, “C” squared. This is a stupendous amount of energy available to Nemesis to counter our hubris. It has no appreciable limits. As the “Mass” of our delusions increase so does the “energy” of Nemesis. We either recognize our limits, the fact that we cannot escape death, or Nemesis will kill us.
Tragedy resides in the coincidence of destruction with the realization that it was avoidable and unnecessary.
What will it take for us to learn this?