Mary Cooper: Sweetheart, are you sick?
Sheldon: I hope so, because if this is well, life isn’t worth living.
-The Big Bang Theory
I hope I'm having a mid-life crisis. Otherwise, there is no reason for me to mope around half-heartedly. I'm so bored, and I use that word fully understanding the privileged life I'm living. I spent years running a process in the back of my head that sought to find out anything more to life than its material aspects. Now, I just want to engage deeply with what's here and now.
I find it sometimes difficult to teach in an Art dept. in a research university. The disciplinary epistemology is, unsurprisingly, relentlessly Idealist, anti-intellectual, and theological, wrapped in the American presumption that self-actualization is the point of everything.
-Benjamin H Bratton on Twitter
What is a good life? మంచిగ బతుకుడంటేంది? అదేదో లాబ్ల టెస్ట్ చేసి ఒక ఫార్ములా కనుక్కున్నంక దాన్ని అప్లై చేసుడు కాదు అనిపిస్తుంది ఈ మధ్య. I read a while ago that part of the problem with Humanities over the past few decades has been its reformulation as Social "Sciences". And as much as the practitioners can learn something from the Scientific approach, a different modality is required to assess the situations ((I have a problem using the word, er, problem when talking about many real-life events/ situations; Because they're not problems to be solved but happenings to see, understand, dance with, learn from etc.) it deals with.
Anyway, back to my immediate situation.
I don't know how many of you think about "How to live?", but I do; a lot. It's another matter that most of it is either short-lived or confined to the space within but I relish having conversations with, and around, that question. I did and, fortunately, still do. Because without that question being the central focus of my life, and it doesn't have to be like a formal problem that I need to solve but more like a guiding light, I don't think I'm doing much justice to being human (though it would be hubristic of me to assume that other types of being don't/ can't do it).
I want to stop hedging everything I do. I'm so risk averse that it inevitably pushes me into the 'mainstream' route despite knowing other options. It is evident in the way I speak/ write1;, in how I deal with taking a stand, in how I take life decisions. I refuse to fully embrace my gut instinct. That quality in itself is not probably a bad thing, its better to be skeptical about my own claims to knowledge and clarity, but I've taken the game to the other extreme where I just follow what others insist on, probably for a good reason, probably not, and then whine about it later. I don't want to come out on the losing side. And its bizarre because I consciously refrain from framing life in those terms.
Lose against who? Because I don't mind 'losing' in material terms as long as I make experiential/ narrative gains. I think there are two opponents:
1. Posterity- This is a big deal for me. I don't want to grow old and looking back realise than I'd taken the wrong turn somewhere and ended up far from where I ought to have been. This presupposes the fact that our lives are teleological and that there's one correct way in which I can achieve self-actualization. Where I can transcend all doubt and regret. Even I know with some certainty that this is ludicrous. I'm always going to have regrets (which in itself is a function of my present state of mind than past events). And if not, and if the universe has a purpose for me, I needn't worry about taking the wrong turn because I will eventually be led to light. And anyway, its ridiculously hard to second guess the 'right' thing to do going forward not partly because right and wrong are posterior labels.
2. Audience- "लोग क्या कहेंगे?" I have no idea who these bloody people are or why I want to impress them. Sravani is convinced I perform to an imaginary gallery inside my head and I think she maybe right. I'm always performing, giving imaginary interviews, humbly deflecting compliments, cherry-picking anecdotes to fill New Yorker type profiles. And it is this audience I'm most afraid of disappointing2. This feeling probably comes from growing up with a sense of entitlement and while that may have given my more than a little intellectual confidence, it has also led me to believe that, and there's no unarrogant way to put this, I'm built for greater things than most people. Although, I don't seem to have the necessary ingredients needed to accomplish that.
Thus far we've covered the personal angle. Now, to a more social view.
I understand that we need first principles to guide us into living the good life. But I also know principles come from experience, are not sacred, and might sometimes have to be broken to do the right thing. If they are broken, we call the person lacking integrity and doing arbitrary things as a matter of convenience or malice. If they are not broken and things move downwards, we say the person lacks imagination and courage to go beyond prescription and do the right thing. This is as much true for running a constituency as much as its true for following a certain social script you get handed over to you for being born in a certain place at a certain time.
Again in The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon talks about Münchhausen's Trilemma:
This is a classic example of Münchhausen's Trilemma: either the reason is predicated on a series of sub-reasons, leading to an infinite regression; or it tracks back to arbitrary axiomatic statements; or it's ultimately circular: i.e., I'm moving out because I'm moving out.
This is the problem with searching for prescriptions for How to Live. Because I've lost belief in the sacred, I can't believe in something for its own sake. But the moment it becomes more prosaic, it loses its sheen, and thereby, its power. Either way, I don't get the simplistic, one-size-fits-all mantra for life. To claim individual sovereignty is to strike a (Faustian?) bargain to carry the load of my actions and their outcomes. And yet, I also know that's not entirely feasibly, not just for reasons of practicality but also because we now see that the world is complexly interwoven and not only can we not really ascertain the outcomes of our actions but also that we're too powerless in the larger scale of things3.
I've meandered a bit here but its such a relief to be able to write, even if its just a bunch of convoluted thoughts. I want to meet interesting people, see different places and lifestyles, read gorgeous writing, do something meaningful; And document my experiences. I've come to the conclusion that there's no permanent panacea for dissatisfaction and confusion, and maybe that's not a bad thing, but in as much as I can navigate the world to increase a few aspects of being, I'd really like to work on it.
God, reading this post, I'm so thankful and relieved at being able to blog this. I'm probably never going to be a 'great' writer, and I don't know if I want to be, but as long as I can blog, regularly and honestly with atleast a modicum of grace, I don't want to ask for more.
1 The fact my writing is so obfuscatory is because of my personality. (We could discuss later how the mask reveals more than it'd like to)
1. Because I don't want to 'tamper' with the high-quality thought process that's unspooling, I don't like to work on it. Maybe a part of it has also got to do with the fact that staring at it head on only reflects my incompetence and breaks the delusion of profound truth.
2. Because making a statement means being open to be held accountable to it later and though I make a point of saying I'm not afraid to be wrong, maybe I am. Or maybe its just intellectual honesty. Because only my doubt is experiential, most clarity seems borrowed and temporary.
In his poetic Physics in Seven Brief Lessons, Carlo Rovelli exalts doubt. I hope he knows how insidious it can be. And I also hope my doubt is more intellectual honesty than just cowardice and/ or laziness.
2 Truth be told I'm also afraid of disappointing/ confronting many real people but in that case, atleast occasionally, my rebellious streak breaks out.
3 Could that be one of the reasons for the rise of spiritual gurus advocating individual action as the highest calling?