Category Archives: Judgment

The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

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On Passing Judgment

The robot ghost of Ram Dass, one of my favorite self-help gurus, posted the following to his Facebook page this morning: “The judging mind is very divisive. It separates. Separation closes your heart. If you close your heart to someone, you are perpetuating your suffering and theirs. Shifting out of judgment means learning to appreciate your predicament with an open heart instead of judging. Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” This statement is why I love Ram Dass. His personal philosophy is so opposite to mine that I feel he is my spiritual uncle, still part of a family from which I was estranged long ago.

Since the dear old boy obviously didn’t post this himself and since the invisible automaton (whether human or a AI postbot amounts to the same thing) tasked with marketing his personality isn’t programmed for discussion—and since the commenters on the page seem more like the postbot than the guru—I will add some thoughts here with my morning coffee.

It would be easy to say, “Judge and prepare to be judged because this is human nature.” But responding that way is useless without a lot of support: what is human nature and how can we know it? What is judgment? How are passing judgment on others and the experience of judgment being passed on you similar and different? And why should this part of human nature be preferable to the idea, “judge not.” If I can’t develop some reasonable working hypotheses here, I can’t argue with the guru at all.

And yet there is something I feel when I read a statement like, “Separation closes your heart.” I think I feel angry, indignant. Same with, “Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” So I want to explore these feelings as a way to at least get to some subjective truth, some way of knowing myself. Because if I can’t come up with answers to the above questions, more objective ways of knowing are foreclosed. In the end, while thinking about this, I have only myself, my feelings, my sense that something rings true or false. Where do these negative feelings come from? Why was I experiencing them when all the guru was saying was that it’s good to come together with people and try to understand them?

Inception

I was re-watching Inception the other day, a movie I like a lot and one that manages to be extremely clever while also being high-concept and super-formula-driven. And I thought about something a screenwriting teacher from AFI once said about the social function of movies, especially high-concept ones: they provide novelty (i.e. new information); the reinforce dominant social values; they offer vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life; and they generate a sense of closure (i.e. everyone lived happily ever after until the sequel) as opposed to real life where there is never any true closure. Inception does all these things.

After watching Inception multiple times, I felt like I finally understood it enough to think about it critically. And as soon as I reached that point, I started to get depressed because here was one of my favorite movies showing me something about all movies and, by extension, about human nature. Inception provides a complex matrix of streamlined ideas about lucid dreaming and subjective filters for reality (novelty / new information); it has the usual provincial social values of most action films (hero must set things right with wife and family who don’t understand what he has to do to make a living); vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life (unlimited funds, beautiful women, travel, super powers in a “heist movie” frame, and meanwhile the corporate energy moguls are portrayed as sad clueless cretins); and it gives a sense of closure (the Total Recall ending—is this reality? Does it matter if you’re happy?). All well and good. We can pick any high budget action film and get the same layout. But what does this teach us about what we need? Because we will obviously pay good money to get it.

What I realized while watching Inception for something like the fifth time is that we are indeed separated. We are indeed suffering. And this is so horrible that we need to enter another frame of reference (the fantasy world of the movie) for relief. Inception, like so many other movies in its genre and in general, gives new information because our days are monotonous and we are bored. It reinforces social values because we feel uncertain about what we are told to believe about our lives. It offers emotional relief because the conditions of our lives regularly depress and discourage us. And it gives a sense of closure because this suffering only ends at death and since we don’t understand death, we can’t look forward to closure there, either.

In short, Hollywood understands the nature of our constant pain and offers us a very straightforward transaction: pay a little and get a little relief. We might criticize the movie industry for this, but really there is a lot of sincerity there. Hollywood wants to make great amounts of money, sure. But people also want to make Star Wars, Escape from Alcatraz, Key Largo, High Plains Drifter, and Citizen Kane because of the power in creating something like that—the vast cultural impact that comes with satisfying the above human needs so deeply that people will carry some of that satisfaction for the rest of their lives. Because life will be hard for everyone whether they open their hearts or not.

Separation is a Given as is Judgment

So when the guru tells me that separation breeds suffering, I have to agree. But this is why I’m estranged from that particular family: we cannot avoid suffering and it is disingenuous to claim that we can. This is how I feel when I think about my own experience as a social being. Suffering is inevitable because culture depends on being able to use stable and replicable data (old, often monotonous, information). A stable society depends on shared values that are nevertheless constantly being challenged in a divisive and uncertain world and therefore need reinforcement. We’re very upset about these things. And nothing is ever completely handled. It’s never over.

I think I get angry at such self-help advice because it presupposes things can be solved. And that, if I only change myself, suppress something in myself, root something defective out of myself, I will have life handled. This makes me angry because it seems like a lie, like marketing, beneath which is a very old, very Christian idea: you are defective the way you are. You must atone for this defectiveness by conforming to the pattern we give you. Only then will you find release from your suffering. Rubbish. I would rather watch a movie and find temporary relief, then think about and understand why.

There is a lot to be learned from gurus advocating self-help and self-change, even if those gurus are engaging in stealth Christianity. I like Ram Dass for his infectious cheerfulness, his sense of humor, and his intelligence. However, when it comes to what I must do to feel better, my emotional sense is that I would rather indulge in who I am than try to become who someone says I should be.