That Faraway Stare

This time it’s different.  The next time you think you’ve been here before, remember that you haven’t.  It’s different this time.  This goes whether you’re happy or sad to be where you are.  Maybe you are making a career move, or facing illness, or losing something important, or gaining something wonderful, or whatever is new and exciting, or familiar and dreadful.  Stop and remember this:  you do not know what will happen.  You may think you know what will happen.  But you don’t.

We’re inclined to think, often, that we’re right back where we started from.  We aren’t.  It’s always different.

A Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who died in 470 B.C., “maintained the perpetual change of all things.” (The Random House Dictionary).  He famously wrote–I’m paraphrasing–that “all flows, all is flux…that one never steps into the same river twice.”  By relating the reality of our lives to a river he points out that the river, like reality, maintains only the illusion of sameness.  The form of the river appears to be the same, but that is all.  The river itself has changed and is, in fact, an entirely different river.

The water, and everything in it, is different.  The undercurrents and logs, and sticks and danger points, and fishing holes have all changed beneath the surface, moved location, or disappeared, altogether.  But, he says, something remains the same.  It’s the “orderly principle, according to which the change takes place.”  In other words, the only thing which doesn’t change is change itself.

This can be scary, especially to a child, but when accepted–usually by adults–it can be exhilarating.  Of course, we have no choice whether it’s true or not, only whether we accept it as true or not.

Stoic philosophy is popular today, especially in the podcast universe.  Perhaps, because most podcasters are entrepreneurial and this philosophy comports well with entrepreneurial edicts of persistence in spite of difficulty.  The best explanation of Stoicism I’ve come across could be summarized as follows:

The reality of life is comparable to being chained to a horse drawn wagon (the predominant means of transportation when these ideas were being hashed out), which has suddenly taken off down the road.  It seems that the stoics are saying we are without choice in this brutal reality we call life.  But they aren’t saying that.  They are saying we do have a choice.  We can choose to run with the wagon or be dragged along the ground by it.

The novel Crime and Punishment was written by Feodor Dostoevsky in 1866.  It’s dark in a subtle, meticulous, everyday way that makes it, somehow, all the more unsettling.  I read it over a decade ago and it seems to have darkened with age.

If it’s so depressing why, then do I and many others still read it?  One reason is that I’m aware of its status as a classic.  I’m inclined to suffer through it simply because others have.  The other is that it is simply gripping.  Being drawn into such an expert telling of a story so that you actually shudder for the main character, and the unfortunates being wrapped up in his warped existence, is so real that it is undeniably a work of something like genius.

Still, though, why read a book as dark and depressing as this?  Why do we read novels at all, whether heavy or light, for that matter?  Why do we engage any art (films, books, paintings) that remind us of human frailty?  I don’t know, but somehow, I believe, it’s an ancient, primal drive inside each of us—to get the story.  One so primal that it’s evolved into a pleasure of its own, separate from the undeniable utility of the lessons held in them.

Imagine a brutal period in human prehistory.  Imagine you are a child.  You are hungry.  You haven’t had meat in weeks.  This isn’t exactly abnormal.  The only normal is the abnormality of your eating habits.  You eat meat when it’s available and, in the winter, it is almost never available.  Imagine the hunters are just returned from the weeks-long hunt into the wilderness or upon the plains interspersed with rocky, low ridges.  

They return with leather leggings and leather coats and fur hats matted with frozen mud and blood.  The smell, so foreign and strange, is both horrific and exhilarating, like adults reeking of cigarettes and liquor returning to their children after a long, rambunctious night out.

Not all of them, however, have come back from the journey.  It’s cold and windy out there, on the plain.  A few, hopefully talkers, have that faraway look in their eyes.  You weren’t there to see what they saw, but this is less important than the promise of meat soon to fill your belly.  The wind howls and it’s getting dark, the moon rises and a big fire is being stoked to celebrate the return of life to the clan.

The only evidence of the drama, the terrible reality which beheld the returning hunters is stove away inside their skulls.  The smell of burning meat begins wafting through the camp, as fire light flickers from between tents and huts all scattered about.  The feast, once done, has the hunters beginning to unburden themselves of what lay out there, beyond the light of the fire and the rocky ridge flickering in the fire light across the plain.

Now your hungry mouth is becalmed and it’s needs replaced by your greedy eyes and ears absorbing every morsel of information, invective, inflection, eye roll, and shudder for the facts, nay more, the truth!

Stories, whether in books or around prehistoric campfires, are mental glimpses of what is out there, beyond our visionary reach, but no less real.  The blood on the hunter’s blade is the prose of Dostoevsky’s pen dripping from page to page, and as real as it gets.

In the 19th century, it was popular to both indulge in novels, and criticize them as time wastes; in much the same way social media is both widely indulged and criticized today.  Novels were frivolous distractions, inefficiently educating us at a time when information was not readily available to anyone with a smart phone.

Now, however, it seems the scarcity of information is emotional rather than factual.  Facts abound while truth becomes correlatively more and more scarce.

Ambition is the human decision to make a meaningful picture of life.  It is to maintain the premise that life has value and that building and creating is the magic that will unfold the world to us.  I believe gripping stories help us participate in this faith.  Faith says, “I do not know the potential of this world.  I will proceed and let the magic unfold before me.”  It does not waste time in judgment.

To be human is, as Colonel Chamberlain said resting under the tree before Gettysburg, to have the “divine spark.”  It is to be given God’s power to decide what will and what will not be given importance.  But, unmercifully, we are denied precious control over our lives.  We are limited; fundamentally marked for destruction and tragedy, or the loss of the ones we love.

It is an act of faith, of religion, to proceed in spite of these gross limitations, fundamentally inherent in our existence.  I think about the author of this novel as I read it and wonder how one who has the awareness necessary to craft such a thing could be, yet forced, as we all are, to endure, nonetheless.

It’s the double-edge of the life we are born into.  If it’s painful to read, what must it be like to write?

Dostoevsky’s story is about how a man, miserable and self-loathing, nearly beyond endurance, is imminently capable of making things worse for himself.  He digs deeper and finding no bottom, scratches further.  That is the summarizing idea of the book.  

In sum:  Things are always changing.  Don’t be afraid of this.  Maintain your poise, go with the flow and stay alert for opportunity.  Don’t make things worse while they are in flux.  If anything, it will make for a good story.