November 28, 2011

Closer Than They Appear

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There is a deep fear in the hearts of humans of upturning the presumptions about the workings-of-the-world that seem most essential to our comfort and sanity. The locus of real fear is always a deep truth.

Here’s a scary thought: we can’t care about the past, and are strictly forward-looking by our very nature. Claim: you can only care about an occurred event according to the degree its effects are presently experienced. You can care about the concept of the event, so long as you can rationally imagine experiencing it in the future; in this case the “caring” is the anticipation of a reasonable hypothetical. Essentially the claim is that you can’t care about things like high school and 9/11/2001 in the way you’d like to think, which is, I think, directly. You are only capable of capital-C Caring about 11/29/11 and onward, the sense you get of caring about occurred events is derived from the belief that occurred events have situated your present and future states.

­­Picture, for example, that you’re riding your bike — 10 miles from your destination. You’ve ridden 40 miles so far.  You hate that 10-mile stretch of road ahead from the pit of your hate-organ. The sections of road in the distance appear and widen, appear and widen. Holding the concept in your head brings about these weird associations to childhood and memories of being approached by an older, stronger, fire-eyed cousin — bracing your self for a beat down. You dread every anticipative micro-moment.

Now imagine you’re sitting down to write a paper that’s due tomorrow morning. You’ve eaten dinner, you’ve folded your laundry, you’ve washed your dishes, you’ve made your tea, your bladder feels empty, and your room looks clean. Your life has been tamed, and now the world hushes with anticipation. Here’s the thing: You’re ready to write — dreadfully, miserably ready to write. It’s 8 p.m. You won’t finish this paper until 1 a.m. Five hours ahead. Dread.

Lastly, think of yourself starting on a summer day’s work as a gardener. Your employer, who came out to greet you, has just gone back into her house. You can faintly hear the sound of the news on the TV in her living room. You can see her silhouetted through a draped window, holding a cup of coffee. You survey the vast garden, and confront the immensity of your task. You bend down, shovel in hand, and embark. You thrust your shovel towards the soil surrounding the nearest weed. The shovel strikes a shallow rock and is denied entry. You try again. Another rock. It’s 9 a.m. You get off at 4. This might be hell. It’s tough to say for sure, but it’s tough to say why not. Another rock. And another.

This visceral caring — this “Given the choice, I’d rather not pedal/write/dig for x amount of time” — is strictly forward-looking. It’s a concern for one’s future self.

Here’s the thing: Something happens to the concept when its referent moves from the windshield to the rearview. Something changes. As I finish my bike ride, I don’t care so much about that 10-mile stretch of tarmac behind me — it doesn’t look so hellish anymore. At 1:30 a.m., as my paper’s coming out of the printer, I don’t care so much about those five hours of writing. And getting back into my truck at 4 p.m. with the garden fully weeded, I don’t really care about those rocks in the soil. I clearheadedly realize that they couldn’t help being in the way of my shovel. They were just there. I hit them.

These examples, while trivial, illustrate an important aspect of how things work upstairs. Extrapolated, this observation has some powerful implications for less trivial examples, such as 9/11 or a rape case, about which one really wants to say, “I care that that happened” or “I wish that hadn’t happened.” The confliction created in our intuition is illustrated by the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” From D.F. Wallace: “You think that whoever it was that said that was for a woman getting raped? No way. He just wasn’t being knee-jerk.”

So where is the room Wallace is referring to when he says, “No way”? What enables this man to say “I wouldn’t wish rape on you” and “You’re better for having been raped.” Where’s the room?

Something very powerful and important happens to our intuition when the referent of a concept like “pain” or “struggle” switches from hypothetical and potentially oncoming to occurred and concrete and unalterable. It’s what allows us to say, “I’m glad that I suffered” and “I don’t want to suffer.” It’s the basis of resilience, this transition, and having it means never having to regret — he/she who is at peace with the moment he/she occupies is inclined to regard past experience either positively or at least indifferently, acknowledging that present experience is contingent on past experience. If we’re OKAY, and more so if we’re GOOD or GREAT, it becomes difficult and maybe even impossible to regard past experiences negatively, no matter how difficult or painful or immoral (from weeding to rape) the abstracted concept seems.

Is this all that scary? I don’t know. Depends on how you look at it and for how long. If whether you care matters far more than how you care, maybe not. But how you care also seems to effect whether you care, if you care about really caring, you know?

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur