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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Keeping it real (?)

I was making dinner the other day when I heard Eli Jaxon-Bear on this show, talking about "what's truly real in life". Some of what he said fits pretty well with some of my own attitudes. Consumer culture does kind of suck, and the constant hunger we seem to have for more stuff is probably masking some other hunger we really have but can't work up the nerve to address. There doesn't need to be poverty or starvation, but there it is because we're pretty bad at thinking beyond our own individual interests. Appearances are deceptive. I'm down with all of that.

But something about what he was saying just rubbed me the wrong way. His big claims seemed to be that we're all basically asleep and that the life we feel ourselves to be living isn't real. Basically, we all have it within us to escape the horror of this life by just "waking up" and seeing that this individual existence is an illusion. Yes, this is Schopenhauer and the Buddha packaged to address particular bits of modern crappiness, but for some reason the way he presented it made it suddenly way too simplistic.

I think it is very easy to deceive oneself about the goals that are worth pursuing, or about what shared humanity requires of us, or even about what our human essence really is. I don't know whether the soul persists after this life ends (and you don't know, either, so don't start with me). But none of this means that the life I am living now -- with the everyday struggles of setting goals and trying to meet them, re-evaluating who I am and who I want to be, and trying to play well with others -- isn't real. While my particular trajectory of experiences and self-awareness does not wholly define me, it is not completely irrelevant, either. I certainly don't think that my personal experience is a "lie".

The rub, I think, is that as humans we are deeply connected to other humans, yet we are simultaneously going it alone. I don't think this is just the unfortunate result of Yankee propaganda (about self-reliance and rugged individualism) or of manipulation by advertisers. It's a side effect of our having minds that belong to us alone; you just can't get into my head, and I can't get into yours. We can interact in various ways to share what we're thinking or feeling, but we can't get into each other's heads to check the fidelity of the transmission.

And here, I find myself liking Schopenhauer a bit better than Jaxon-Bear. Because of the loneliness of our isolated little heads, how we get through the hard stuff is by developing sympathy for the other isolated minds out there and doing what we can to break the isolation. But part of that, I think, has to include acknowledging the reality of the experiences we're faced with on our own (for Schopenhauer, the reality of the suffering). And our shot at overcoming the suffering and the isolation (for ourselves and for others) happens here or it doesn't happen at all. That makes my individual experience, and in particular how I choose to use it, of the utmost importance. This is all the reality we're going to get.

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