A rather fetching—and tipsy—young married woman offered to buy me a drink at Hearsay last night where I was performing, after telling me that my voice was ‘amazing.’ I expressed my sincere thanks and ordered a second IPA. Her young husband was thoroughly engrossed in conversation with the fellow sitting to his right, at the bar, so I sat down beside ‘Darcie’ and commenced to chat. She designs ‘out of the way’ aircraft routes for well-to-do private pilots (like ‘John Travolta’) but she finds the work utterly boring because of the narrowly defined and unimaginative nature of the job. When I told her that my first passion is for philosophy she lit up—as if to tell me that this was a love we shared. After a moment she asked me: What is your philosophy? In thirty words or less—what is it? I was taken aback. In all these years, so far as I can recall, no one has ever asked me precisely this question. It made me think of two things that are worth taking a closer look at: (1) I am not in possession of a thoroughly articulated, positive philosophical program, and (2) there is a danger of distortion (of perceptions and ideas) bound up with abbreviation and abstraction.
Abbreviating and compressing our responses to the persons, events, ideas, and so forth that we encounter in daily life appears to be a trend that is on the rise. The tempo of urban life is speeding up and we communicate more and more exclusively by means of email, iPhones, and other electronic media. Does this accelerated tempo of our routine, daily activities at school, office, gym, shopping center, and so forth, produce side effects that are deserving of our serious concern? Does this electronically based, accelerated lifestyle typically result in the trimming away of everything but the ‘headline news’ from our awareness of ourselves? From our relationships with others and with our environment? Our consciousness of our place in history and of our relationship with the ‘sacred’ (if such a ‘relationship’ exists in the first place), to name but the most important arenas?
As the actual number of such wafer-thin, piss poor communications and cognitive experiences proliferates, our chances of encountering and bonding with persons who have managed somehow to avoid being carried away by this trend—persons who are still able to ‘take their time’ with ideas, feelings, friends, family, themselves—become slimmer and slimmer. Because the engrossing, unleisurely contemporary American life has become the ‘new normal’ for a majority of educated persons, a markedly rushed, superficial form of interior and interpersonal ‘discourse’ has emerged as perhaps the unavoidable by-product of our new busy-ness and our absorbing mundane priorities. Having unofficially become the new standard of consciousness and everyday communication, this new, degraded mode of discourse both mirrors and serves to prop up the hurried, undeviating pattern of daily behavior that many of us are enmeshed in today. Other, more deeply-delving and leisurely modes of thinking, evaluating, imagining, talking, loving, playing, etc., simply entail too much effort and inconvenience, once we’ve become accustomed to the brisk (and often unintentionally brusque) mode of thinking and speaking that has emerged as the new norm.
Make no mistake: this new mode of consciousness is nothing if it is not pragmatic. It is all about getting things done—and done with—for the moment, for the day, for the quarter, forever. It doesn’t really have a talent for ruminating or for allowing the creative imagination to wander ‘off track’ into terra incognita. That sort of thing feels like an expensive luxury or an unforgivable indulgence—or worse, a flirtation with danger: the very real threat of derailment. Derailment, that is, of the forward-racing, destination-seeking train from the narrow tracks that must be followed to the end of the line. When our lives are on track, wandering is anathema. It simply means error, deviation, and a sudden collapse of momentum. Breakdown. Better to keep steaming along once you get your speed up—otherwise, you will never be able to make it up the steep inclines that one encounters, now and then, along the way. And when we slow down—when we stall—say, because of some little damsel tied to the tracks up ahead—we use up so much fuel just to get up and running again! Better to maintain a brisk pace and worry about all that we’ve run over and flown by later on, after we’ve reached our goal.
But at some point, many of us experience one of two things: either the destination keeps receding, so there’s no end in sight, or we reach our long-desired goal and, after a day or two of festivities and tooting our own horn, we are hammered by the crushing question: Was this worth all that effort?
I am tempted to suggest that the surest path towards a wasted or missed life is this straight line—this plotted course—that I have been sketching. At some point, doesn’t it become painfully clear for some of us that everything linear, everything ‘plotted,’ everything ‘mapped out,’ either has to be thoroughly anatomized or ‘put on ice’ before a more spiral-like way of moving into and through life can be explored? The straight line—of the directed course, say, of a compulsive habit or a rational system of some sort—is recognized as the great impediment to our rounded development. We see—in a flash, as of lightning—that following a straight path leads to a kind of sterility, a gradual loss of color-vision, imaginative degradation unto death. The longer we follow such undeviating lines, the more helplessly addicted we become to the meager, narrowly-restricted rewards won from our long years of fretful, dogged servitude. And, of course, as we become increasingly dependent upon the meager sustenance and the dubious sense of security provided by our straight path, we simultaneously become more and more unfit for living the larger, messier, richer, and more adventurous life that has secretly been beckoning us—from both sides of our straight highway.
At some point, it seems, the straight road actually turns into a kind of conveyor belt carrying us towards a giant warehouse full of others who have lost their ability to walk (let alone, run) and who are left to shrivel up and expire. But we do not die peacefully in that malodorous warehouse. In that ‘Hotel Terminus’ into which the conveyor belt delivers our crippled, worn out bodies and our much-abbreviated souls, we are compelled to wonder, with irrepressible regret: Why didn’t I exit from that crowded ‘freeway’ while I still had good strong legs? Why didn’t I deviate? Was it because I had the wife and kids in the car—and I was worried that they might not be able to hack it in that mysterious, off-road territory? Or was I too wrapped up in a competitive race for the ‘finish line’—where even if you win, you lose, since victory is obtained at the cost of an unlived life (as a fully-fledged deviant)? Or was I simply too timid to stray from the familiar?
It seems to me that the best remedy against such a dismal denouement is to start questioning and energetically challenging all straight lines, all plotted courses, all conveyor belts, and all rational systems as soon as we start to feel the redemptive-subversive impulse to deviate, to wander, to err, to slow down, and to defy. Alas, many will never feel this impulse—or at least not with sufficient strength to come with us or even to understand why we must stray ‘off course’ in order to locate the spiral path that meaningfully combines circularity and depth, extensiveness and intensiveness. We cannot persuade or convert such persons and it is best to waste as little time as possible attempting lure them from their treadmills and their cubicles. We may be lucky and find a few persons, here and there, who can travel part of the way with us, but much of the journey will necessarily consist in solitary travel at night, since daylight hours in the desert-waste are brutal and can overpower even the strongest and most resourceful deviants. I am told, however, that after putting this desert behind us, we eventually arrive at the edge of a luxuriant forest—filled with creatures the likes of which we have never beheld.