On the Judicious Use of Terror (6/26/18)

Even if I have many deep resistances to a number of his diagnoses and proposals concerning modern man, Nietzsche can always be relied upon to poison the comfort zones and block access to the many escape routes in which so many of us continue to seek refuge. Those readers who follow him are often ushered into a vulnerable condition of existential exposure from which it can be difficult or impossible to exit after we have had as much as we can take of this “nihilism.”

Nietzsche’s subtly corrosive prose spoke seductively to that skeptical part of my soul that has always been inclined by nature to regard all human-cultural narratives, myths, religions, philosophies, and moral systems as arrant fictions. Moreover, the primary purpose behind these elaborate fabrications is not to communicate or reveal the natural truth – or stark reality – of our existential plight, but to insulate us from this terrible and potentially crushing truth. After suffering through this “unmasking” of myth and culture – and seeing through them so that their function as protective shields against the hard, cold, merciless truth was plainly exposed – the skeptical/cynical part of my soul initially exulted in what seemed like a vindication and confirmation of suspicions it had been harboring for years. This initial feeling of exultation was strengthened by the fact that these dark suspicions had been so persistently and forcefully repressed by the other side of my soul. This other side refused to believe that the actual universe – beyond the “cave walls” of my culture, of any culture – was utterly devoid of any metaphysical or teleological foundations that were capable of endowing our human existence with a higher moral meaning and purpose.

If Nietzsche was correct – if his violent and irreverent unmasking of religion and morality, meaning and “Being,” exposed the awful truth of our existential predicament as a species – I would be obliged by my intellectual conscience to systematically uproot and dismantle every last inherited myth and lie that has been planted in my mind since boyhood. Since virtually everyone I know, every song I sing, every book I read and every movie I watch is infested with these lies and cave-assumptions, I would also have to learn how to insulate my newly purged mind from this constant flood of delusions with the same ferocity previously devoted to insulating myself from these very truths that the skeptical part of my soul had sniffed out, early on.

Little wonder, then, that I felt so alone, so divided, and so alienated – for years – from everyone and everything that had hitherto been so comfortingly familiar, reassuring, and grounding. The skeptic in me had won out, at long last, over the innocent idealist, and my “world” had been turned upside-down. What had been discredited and destroyed in this upheaval had been so foundational to my former worldview and my sense of who I was that, for the first time, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something eerily inhuman about the new perspective that was emerging from out of the rubble of my former worldview and identity.

Eventually, after a few painful years of being aligned almost exclusively with the hardheaded, uncompromising skeptic in my soul, I began to balance out a little bit. Unlike Nietzsche, who seems to have remained steadfastly uncompromising till the bitter end of his thinking career, I found it necessary – let’s say for the sake of mental health, which trumped my concern for rational-logical consistency – to ambivalently oscillate back and forth between these two very different standpoints within myself: the myth-friendly part and the no-nonsense skeptic/nihilist. I would not go so far as to say that I “relativized” the skeptic simply out of fear and anxiety, but in large part because I recognized that I had primal doubts about the adequacy and ultimate accuracy of the radically skeptical perspective.

This accommodation to my softer “human, all too human” side helped to relax – but not to eliminate – the enormous tension that had built up since the collapse of my former bearings and beliefs. While I would remain divided within myself for years to come, this “healthy” compromise probably prevented me from going mad or from turning into a complete misanthrope, a very real danger at the time. This concession to the fragile, needy – or in Nietzsche’s terms, “herd-like” and “decadent” – human ego on the part of the hard-boiled, mythless skeptic/cynic could not, by itself, heal the rift in my psyche. But it could buy me some time to recharge after the depressive, disorienting upheaval—time to gather my wits and other resources for the difficult work that lay ahead. That work is now underway.

A large part of this inner work involves my attempt to answer the following questions: Do we, as a conscious, culture-dependent species, absolutely require the belief in divine or superhuman support and sponsorship in order to thrive, and does the “death of God” also mean the fall of man into savagery and brutal barbarism? Given what we have learned about ourselves as a species – from history, from mythology and literature, from science and modern psychology – is it likely that our better angels (if they indeed exist) will prevail in the ongoing showdown with the darker and more bestial parts of our natural inheritance? Are modern technology and the power it has unleashed more likely to bring enduring comfort and relief to our plight—or to hasten our self-extermination in a conflagration of feverish competition over limited resources?

So, where do I stand (or swim!) on this question of belief? The simple but honest answer is that I stand in awe before the majesty and mystery of existence. I stand in wonder before the bottomless depths of the psyche. I stand in humble respect before the profound questions and the imaginative responses raised and offered by our great, long-suffering human ancestors – the shamans and the mystics, the poets and philosophers, the saints and the scientists, who have left us with so much to reflect upon and digest. I see myself as a modest servant and grateful participant in this always urgent, unresting quest for answers – followed by the search for balance after the answers we receive have disturbed and threatened to “undo” us. It’s only natural for human beings to go crazy or succumb to despair when they’ve remained terrified for a long, long time. Courage is perhaps our most precious commodity – when it is alloyed with wisdom – and those of us who find the courage needed to confront the terrors of existence must not hoard our courage in proud isolation, but share it with those who need it as much or more than we do.

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