In Praise of Perplexity

Our world praises certainty. We must be confident even when we are unconfident. We call this self-confidence. For, the truism goes, if we don’t believe in ourselves, who will? That we shouldn’t believe in ourselves occurs to no one, though we spend so much of our time telling each other how others are completely wrong.

What we mean is that we should be self-confident. People that think like us should believe in themselves. Other people, however, should have a bit more humility. They are arrogant, or are narcissists, or fools.

If someone is full of facts and figures but are self-evidently wrong by our standards, they’re simply liars. After all, anyone who is self-confident but wrong must be deliberately trying to deceive the sheep they’re leading. They’re wolves wearing sheep’s clothing.

Thus, being confidently wrong is equated with lying, but being uncertain is equated with a lack of self-confidence and ego and there is no other way. You can be a confident liar, but never confidently uncertain.

Socrates, however, provides the third way: the paradox of self-confidence as uncertainty and uncertainty as a crucial step along the way of knowing.

Much of what we think we know, we do not. Socrates would call this “opinion”, or the ungrounded belief that things are the way that we believe they are. We may may be correct in saying that Chicago is south of Milwaukee, having never seen a map, and having learned this in school or in conversations with our peers. But we don’t know this, as a fact, if we haven’t traveled the road ourselves. This is what Socrates would call “true opinion”, an accident of having knowledge in accordance with reality — but not knowledge of reality, directly.

In the Meno, Socrates explores this precise question in a discussion about whether virtue can be taught. His discussion partner, Meno, wants to know if virtue can be taught. Socrates, however, is uncertain just what virtue is. Only in know what virtue is, as it is, can we really know if it can be taught. If we don’t know what a sunflower is, for example, we cannot have much of a discussion of how to grow it. Questions of soil, sunlight, and watering practices are irrelevant, since a sunflower might very well be a plasma explosion on the surface of the sun and, thus, questions of organic growth are simply nonsense.

Thus, Socrates begins reasoning with others from a state of perplexity. Meno, who was trained in traditional educational methods, begins in a state of certainty and assumes the very thing that he seeks because he is not sufficiently troubled by the issue. As a result, Socrates seeks to show Meno the way through his attempts to “teach” a slave boy how to calculate twice the area of a square.

Socrates, then, must begin the process of discovery by guiding Meno into a state of perplexity; any conversation that begins with one or another person assuming they know what they know cannot be a discussion. Instead, they must have an argument or a debate. Both are zero-sum games that result in a winner and a loser. Today, this means that both people conclude that they are the winner and that the other is the loser.

This is essentially what the Internet exists for to do: to convince people that they are the winners and the others are the losers.

Socrates attempts to show Meno this problem through his conversation with the slave boy. The slave boy begins with certainty. He is confident that he knows how to calculate the area of a square. But as a result of Socrates’ persistant questions, the slave boy comes to the conclusion that he does’t know how. “By Zeus!” he exclaims. “I do not know!”

“I do not know” is the beginning of knowledge, a state that we are generally unwilling to accept. This perplexity — or aphoria — enables us to actually know something and to actually have conversations with another person, for we become aware that we do not know.

Positioned within a realm of uncertainty, we can begin to seek certainty. We leave a false reality and enter a hazy realm of possibility. For the first time, we become aware of ourselves and our limitations and realize that we do not know what we once thought we knew.

Perplexity is typically associated with fear. It can be associated with cruelty, when a master of knowledge so turns his students around that they can’t believe in themselves — or much of anything. However, it doesn’t need to be. My children, when they are perplexed, become excited. They ask wild questions. They explore strange pathways. They’re enthused to discover a hidden world, full of meaning.

The fear of God is may be the beginning of wisdom, but the beginning of the fear of God is our proper alignment within our strange and veiled world — when we discover that we are not omniscient beings ourselves. Only then does the world open up to us together as it is.

Socrates does not leave the slave boy in the state of perplexity, but this perplexity is the starting point of knowing. We can only be free to choose when we know what is real. In a state of un-knowing, we lack freedom. Place a people in a darkened room and they cannot rightly choose. They can simply bumble around, breaking glasses and knocking down books, and once in a while find a useful tool. If they do not realize they are in the dark, they will never be given the free choice to select from the items in the room. Only when they realize that the room is dark, and they need light, can they begin to make rational choices — and only when the light goes on can they actually be free to choose.

Let’s change how we do things. Let’s come together in a state of perplexity, comfortable with uncertainty and probability.Lets be confident that the room is dark and actually have a conversation about that darkness. Perhaps, then, we might discover that someone has access to a dim light that might lead the way to another light and another light and another — and, perhaps, to enough light that we gain access to the world as it is.

Let’s praise perplexity. Let’s reason together rather than argue apart.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Study: Just Throw Your Hands in the Air and Not Claim to Know Anything

A recent study from the Institute of Research Studies suggested that the best option is to just throw your hands in the air and not claim to know anything.

Dr. Willy Duneboggle conducted the study of a 1000 Americans who have access to the full content of the internet, hundreds of media sources, and a full of battery resources for developing critical thinking and data-analysis skills. The researchers gave the 1000 Americans the exact same set of information as the control group who were simply asked to sit and offer their opinions without any information on the topic of the day.

The research group turned out to reach confident conclusions despite their beliefs being in direct contradiction to other equally confident members of the study group. The research team then compared the results to a group of people that spent their time ignoring all sources of information and who spent much of their time eating and taking nap. After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that you might as well be quiet and take a nap: all groups formed the same distribution of random opinions about everything.

Dr. Duneboggle pointed out that the results extended to arguments about religion, politics, and the quality of Marvel films. “What’s remarkable,” he said, “is that even when both groups were given the data about how much money Marvel films made, one set of people concluded that this meant that the films were true cinema, one set of people concluded that the films were pop culture garbage, and another group simply had no idea what Marvel films were despite being given actual copies of the movies.”

Consequently, the data showed that no matter what information people were given, people appear to know nothing about the given topic but, nevertheless, seemed to enjoy opining about it — except for the people who hated opining about it and enjoyed hating opining about it which was, for research purposes, essentially the same thing.

The study’s co-author Professor Sarah Huh, noted that the conclusions were based on strong research methodologies, explaining that the researchers were “reasonably confident that the results are statistically significant. That is, we used a 95% confidence interval to draw our conclusions. This means that there’s a 5% chance that we were wrong. Since no one will probably go and do the study again, there’s no real way of knowing whether we’re right or not, so you might not actually want to believe a word I’m saying.”

“Instead,” Professor Huh said, “You should probably just ignore what everyone is saying about everything and just go spend time with your family and friends and focus on enjoying the time you have on this earth which, studies suggest, might be limited.”

“Then again,” she added. “Who knows.”

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

The Vials of Life and Death: A Fable

Once, a man inherited magical vials from his father, vials that his father inherited from his father, and his father from his father. When the world was young, the man’s father told him, water was drawn from the well of knowledge and the well of life. These two waters were mixed and stored in the vials and provided the power to cure many evils in the world. 

Yet the world broke when it was young, and a few vials filled with death and ignorance were scattered among the vials of life and knowledge. The vials of death and ignorance could not be separated from the rest, nor identified, except through years of careful study. Further, death and ignorance would not remain in a single vial, making the thorough study of the vials essential. One could not simply discover all the vials of death and ignorance and remove them from the collection. What was once a vial of life might become a vial of death. 

Consequently, an extended study of the vials was necessary. Indeed, the vial of death could not be easily discovered even after usage, for the power appeared to be the same as the power of life — at first. And so, the man was entrusted with the vials that gave him the ability to bring healing, death, knowledge, and ignorance. 

The man received his inheritance from his father and was warned to use them, if at all, only after wary reflection on each vial’s nature. Yet soon after his father’s death, the man’s land suffered violence from outside and came under attack. War broke out. The man was young and cared much for the suffering of his people. He felt the passion of their passion and the fears of their fears, for they were rural folk and unaccustomed to violence. 

Nevertheless, he remembered his father’s instructions. Though he decided to use a vial to heal the land’s suffering, the man studied the vials for months before deciding which would give life. He drank that vial and called on the power of life to strengthen his people’s hearts and organize their spirits. The man also gained knowledge of weapons that would cast the enemy away and give peace to the land. The people banded together and drove their enemies into the wilderness.

Peace reigned. However, the land suffered again. Starvation swept across the lands after a long drought. Many forests and fields were destroyed during the war and the construction of defensive weapons. The wilderness stretched itself into the places that people lived. Streams and rivers dried up. The man now studied the vials, looking for one that might bring life — though perhaps with less caution and more eagerness to heal his people’s suffering. Indeed, the man had a new love, and he feared for her life. 

After a month of study, the man perceived the vial of life and knowledge. He drank from that vial. He saw — with clear knowledge — that he could dig into the earth and sink deep wells that would give them the water they needed. He rallied the people, taught them the ways to find new waters. Pure liquid burst forth in springs and rivers, and prosperity came over the land. The crops rang green, honey-gold sang from the hives, and all the land was happy and full. The man’s wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son.

Yet prosperity brought a desire to possess and rule, and now the people had weapons to dominate others. A new generation of leaders arose. They oppressed their fellow citizens and stole from them. In fear for himself, his wife and son, and his people, the man once again studied the vials. One night, the leaders pounded on his doors, demanding his wealth and magic.

So the man drank another vial. He was confident it was the vial of life, not death, for he had not been wrong before. The vial gave him knowledge of people and the power to persuade. The man cried out, and a crowd sprung up to protect him. The leaders fled back to their strongholds. The man gathered the citizens together, and with their collective will and weapons, the treasonous leaders were driven into the wilderness. Peace once again rested on the land. Once a rural people who came to town rarely, the people began to gather together. Their small village grew into a city, wealthy and powerful, as more and more people flowed in and the people planned and discussed and debated on its streets. The city became known for its wisdom and strength.

Yet a sickness appeared soon after; death that occurred quickly and cruelly and spread with the speed of an autumn fire. Again, the man was afraid for his family and swallowed a vial after a day’s study; his need overcame his caution. He gained a greater power than before. The man created a powerful compulsion that swept over the diseased people. They left the town, entered the wilderness, and passed into the eternal shadow. Anyone that had touched the diseased and sought to cure them passed beyond as well. The city was healthy, but the streets were empty. Few people remained. The wealth left the city, and its defenses were abandoned. Marauders roamed the land. The man’s house was empty: his wife and son had also passed beyond the walls into the wilderness, for they had cared for the ill.

The man grew old. Broken and alone, the man drank a vial and asked for the power to understand rather than heal. And he wept bitterly when he saw that he had not studied the vials enough. The man had, each time, drunk from the vial of death and ignorance – for what brings life rather than death can only be known through patient contemplation and gentle Time. Much that appears fair can corrupt and destroy if not approached with wisdom and caution.

The man’s heart broke, and he fell to the ground. He had sipped, for the last time, from the vial of death. What remained of the city found the man’s body and gave him a hero’s funeral. Neither knowing the vials’ nature nor how to understand their powers, the people poured their contents into the ocean, where they mixed with all the world’s waters. 

So it happened that all humans drink of life and death and knowledge and ignorance. And even now we cannot distinguish between the two vials, for we do not have the patience to study and separate the waters. 

Photo by Brianna Fairhurst on Unsplash

News without Action is Dead: And Most News is Dead

How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning paper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides some insight into some problem you are required to solve? … most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to anything meaningful. This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the “information-action ratio”… [we receive far more information than we act on and most of the information is irrelevant to us.]

A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its content.

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

We should consider this in the context of the modern internet and social-media infrastructure. When I think about the news that I react to and get me worked up, I realize that very little of it has an impact on my life. The pandemic, true, impacts my behavior — but little more than how I shop, or that I wear masks, or how we run school. But that’s old news. The news did not cause me to get my COVID shot. The news simply created anticipation. My action was caused by getting an email that allowed me to sign up for the shot.

Postman notes that news about weather causes us alter our behavior, as in the Texas freeze. If you’re in Texas, news about when the power will come on will cause you to alter your choices. But all the conversations about wind farms, natural gas, nuclear power, privatization of the grid, and so forth? Does that cause any real action or have any impact on our behavior? You might argue that it might affect voting, but it really doesn’t — because that happens only every two to four years and doesn’t really express the broad range of opinions we hold.

Perhaps that’s why we have the internet mobs — we want information to produce action. But like the telegraph, the Tweet or Facebook post demands that its content be burned. It expects to be forgotten — the action as insignificant to our lives as the useless information that caused the action.

So we fulfill our need to believe that our actions have meaning through telling ourselves the lie that our actions are actions. But they’re not: they’re digital ghosts, as incapable of touching the world as the news that animates these spirits.

Death of a Hive

Once, a hive of bees lived together in perfect harmony. The worker bees busily did the work of the hive; they knew where the pollen was and how to collect it. The drones cared for the queen and helped populate the hive. The queen, of course, laid the eggs and gave meaning and direction to the whole hive. As they cared for her, she cared for them and gave generation upon generation.

One dark spring day, the Queen died before her replacement was born. The hive was thrown into chaos and confusion. Some worker bees continue to collect pollen and create honey, since that was what they knew. They continued in the old traditions and the old haunts, reproducing the old ways and old days. Thus, honey was still being made and stored away. But no new bees were born. All that remained were the few final eggs the queen laid before she died, and these eggs and new larva formed the basis of the hive’s long-term hopes.

Some worker bees, sterile as they were, reasoned that the hive had need of a leader and that they, experts in where the flowers were and how pollen was to be stuck to their legs for transportation, could assume the role of the queen. The drones joined with the new worker bees, the new queens, since they needed to serve someone or something and continued, in some small way, to care for the few remaining eggs and larvae. A few, though, ceased to serve anyone other then themselves.

Some worker bees remained traditionalists, though they were just as sterile as the worker-queens. These older worker bees remembered the old queen and continued to produce honey with traditional methods. However, they were focused on maintaining the traditional ways and largely ignored the new queens and the ways of the hive.

Both sets of workers were, of course, to unable reproduce but the crisis demanded their immediate attention — to the maintaining of the tradition of honey-making and creating order and efficiency. An uneasy alliance was formed for the good of the hive. Meanwhile, the drones continued to care for others or themselves.

By the end of spring, the remaining queen-workers were larvae when the queen died. Almost all traditional workers had died off. The new class sought to bring about improved efficiencies and new ways of doing things, by providing other drones and workers with guidance as to when and how to gather pollen.

The first generation of worker-queen advice had conflicted little with the traditional gathering techniques. But over time, as the youngest workers grew up and the oldest workers died, few maintained the previous traditions. Large groups of workers focused on new techniques of gathering pollen exclusively from the spring tree flowers that populated the plains, and the annuals that lay on old laws; mainstays like clovers were forgotten.

Meanwhile, the drones began to eat their way through the honey rather than care for the new larvae. No new workers — whether the new queens or traditionalists — or drones were being born by this point in early summer and, thus, an aging population of traditional workers were producing most of the honey.

Access to the royal jelly was given, though primarily for the worker queens as a way of sustaining their leadership, which was necessary to provide order to the hive. More and more Drones and workers, past the end of their life cycle, began to die off – solving, the new generation of workers queens rejoiced in their private moments – the problem the declining honey supply.

When a lost egg hatched, the hive rejoiced at the possibility of a new worker or drone. But it was a true queen.

They killed her immediately.

They despised the freakish creature. The new generation no longer had the capacity to recognize their queen.

It was summer. The hive was functioning well enough, now: there were enough workers. The old drones and workers had died and the amount of honey that remained served the remaining bees.

More time passed. By late summer, the final worker-queen died of old age among the bodies of its siblings. The hive was empty.

A bear wandering by was disappointed by the lack of honey and local biologist blamed the empty hive on hive collapse disorder — the sudden death of workers leading to the death of the queen.

I Awoke As A Lilly

I awoke as a lilly. The valley was still and soft, still sweet with the morning dropsy. The air was cool, but there was still that hint that a warmer day was to hcome. I was not bothered to be a lilly. Nor was I surprised. I simply turned toward the morning sun and stretched out my leaves and I waited — waited for the warmth and the light and the nutrients that were to come.

And I knew I was beautiful. There was no question, no other thought, other than a knowing of my own beauty. It was not cognitive, it was not anything other than that — a knowing.

Descartes implied this. He implied that one could not separate thought from being, knowing self from existing.

But I — I could not separate the knowing of my own beauty from the world around me. As a result, I shown to the world whether I could be seen or not. The question of being seen was not one that I could even know. There was only the beauty.

Only the beauty which needed to be. One day I would wilt. One day my petals would fall one by one, drift from my face and decay into the peat and the dark-moss soil. One day that would happen. but that was not today.

And even then, there would be no fear in my heart. Only regret that my beauty was no more. But for now,I did not shine for anyone — I did not shine for the possum that sniffed at my stalks when the moon had reached its heights; I did not shine for the heron that stood, head cocked, one one leg, searching for fish. I did not shine for the couple that passed by on the woodchip path that commented on my color and figure.

I was beautiful because I was beautiful — because beauty needed to be expressed. Not even that: because beauty. The cause and the explanation followed the action. the initial impulse was thoughtless.

And what could one expect of me? I was a lilly. I could think of nothing else.

But now that I am a man, I wonder — I wonder whether that beauty was something I can know possess. Whether there is that thing that can be expressed without thought without mind without other, the thing that is done for its own sake.

As I place my legs into those grey pants and I tighten the suit-noose around my neck and I look down the road at the cars that follow me and the cars that precede me, now I wonder whether this is something that I can have.

When I was a lilly I knew all that I was.

Now that I am a man, I know nothing, for I need others to tell me who I am. And without them telling, I do not know. I do not know much of anything. I was a lilly, once, and true. And now I am a man and I am less than a lilly — and more.

Starbucks Stoppers & Decision Fatigue

Yesterday, in a state of need for something that could warm the cockles of my heart, I grabbed a cup of coffee from Starbucks for me and my wife. Today, in a state of need for something that could make my dead-tired heart beat, I pre-ordered a cup, stumbled in to the store, and grabbed it off the coffee-shelf.

Presumably, the cup I took was my own.

The difference between the drive-through and the walk-in, other than the effort involved, is that Starbucks employees ask the drive-in customers whether they want a stopper and the walk-in customers get a stopper.

I assume this policy is due to Starbuck’s commitment to reduce waste, the same kind of commitment that led them to do away with straws (mostly). Why hand out stoppers to people who don’t need or want them?

Persevering the environment and reducing waste are admirable goals, so this is not a critique of Starbucks. But in the fatigue-addled state I was in, I was struck by why some people might resist such changes. — or other small or large changes, good or bad.

We’re experiencing change-fatigue in the most rapidly changing culture in history, in a COVID era that’s produced even more rapid change, though justified. (Masks! Social distancing! The end of the handshake! The very air you breathe is an evil miasma!)

We’re exhausted.

We’re only equipped to make so many decisions in a day and decisions that impact the automatic portions of our mind add to stress and general weariness. Thus, we’re only capable of dealing with so much change on an annual basis.

We’re also disinclined to like change that we did not initiate ourselves, especially when the change impacts our daily routines in small, obvious ways.

As a society — and industries — we frequently fail to think about the negative impact that positive changes can bring and how even good changes, when piled upon other changes, can produce misery and exhaustion. We tend to assume that all good changes are good, ignoring negative externalities.

Perhaps we should count the cost.

We’re an exhausted society and an exhausted people.

I don’t mean that our culture has exhausted its inheritance and is nearing its end; if it is, this is because we are exhausted by change. I do mean that we need, as a culture, to find ways of helping each other with change; to find and embrace things that do not change, or change in the way of the tortoise. I mean that we need to marry love of our (and our neighbor’s) virtue, productivity, safety, and the like with love of our (and our neighbors’) hearts and souls and strength.

For now, I’ll take the stopper. My kids like to topple my lattes.

All Things, Old and New

On this day, of all days, I struggle to find that depth I once knew — the deeper parts (“deep unto deep”) that dragged me in until I, nearly drowning, water in my lungs, eyes lolling upwards, I caught a grasp of the thing itself and took a breath in and, coughing, taste a brief bit of air — just enough to sustain my life when dragged under again. Have I drowned in the spirit of the age? Am I now floating, limbs dangling limply, accepting this world?

I repeat that refrain each year — each year after year, it becomes harder to remember what the breath is, or how to find it? Age brings with it a comfort with drowning, until one misses the point where he accepts water as ether and forgets the purpose of his lungs. 

Rather than finding that depth, a weakly shudder, forget to open my eyes — indeed, I forget that I have eyes, and accept shadows as substance. Even now, as I write, I think, “This is not the thing; nor is it touching on the thing. It does not satisfy, but nor does not contemplating that thing. I am pleased to miss that breath, nor am I displeased. Perhaps my skin has grown around my chains and I no longer have a means of at least rattling them and reminding myself that the song of the chains is closer to true sounds then not.”

Passion is for the young: it is not wisdom. Nor is a lack of passion. Nor does passion bring one to wisdom; nor does not not. Some tide pushes us up and out and draws us back and in, and who knows where that tide may be. Doldrums were well-named and yet, not; dolor, pain, splitting. Yet the doldrums do not split and do not cause pain except in a secondary sense — the calm causes us to forget what we are divided from — that is, motion forward. 

Increasingly, my thoughts are more and more divided from the world-that-is and the world-that-Is, though I miss this in the hurry and bustle of life. (I wrote ‘hurry and burry’, but ‘burry’ refers to having burrs or prickles or pain — and one needs the right kind of prickles.) 

I write of inwardness, not outwardness. I would not trade the outwardness for gold; nor am I dissatisfied with life. I am dissatisfied with my lack of dissatisfaction with my own inwardness.

A birthday – and a facsimile of inwardness.

As I reflect on the state of the world at this time and the rattle of keyboards on digital pages, I see that we have moved beyond the Word. The Word was spoken and lived, but that was not enough. We wrote the Word, pen on page. But that was not enough — even that was too substantial, for it was physical and an imitation of the true existence. So we created the printing press and then the typewriter, distancing ourselves  even further from the Physical Word. But that did not create enough distance — so we created the computer and the keyboard to make words and the Word even more substantial. And so we have arrived at the pinnacle of our attempts to distance ourself from truth — for we can have the word without any actual need to connect it with physical existence. And so — we have the post-truth world.

It was too much to have the Word-made-flesh, so we made it pen, then paper, then zeros and ones — so that we can shut it off and it can be no more, and we can rest smugly in our own superiority, for we have killed without killing and can claim no moral culpability.

I have a voice, but it’s the voice for the wrong Age — and would be a good voice for no age.

We have a plague, and it is not COVID-19: it is a plague in our souls and, like COVID, most of us are asymptomatic and claiming complete health. Rather than masking our tongues and mouths, we breath out on everyone — and are surprised and blame others when they die.

I cannot even begin to connect my external actions with my internal motions. I am in the dissertation phase; I write one paper, and I am decreed and entitled to all the privileges that represents. Yet — inwardly, I have not even begun an elementary education in the ways of the world.

My enthusiasm for the degree makes no sense in reflection, for in reflection, there is nothing in the mirror. Like a creature of darkness, light reveals that there is nothing there.

In the past years, I have moved beyond despair — that is a cause for rejoicing — and despair, because despair compels change and contentedness — the long, good rest.

I fear that I have nothing to say to anyone, for I speak only my own language; like the Greeks who called the northern tribes barbarians (“bar-bar-bar”, they sounded to the Greeks) I open my mouth — and: “Bar-bar-bar”.

What I value seems invaluable to this Age — I attempted to type unvaluable, but my device autocorrects it. Isn’t this like our cultures and friend groups? The moment we try to speak *truly*, we are autocorrected: “You should not say that”, “You cannot say that” to “You will say this” — until we no longer have our own content and type away, not even noticing that the words we wrote are no longer the words we write.

And so we lose even knowledge of ourselves.

Politics: a fool’s game that only a fool would play. Yet aren’t we all fools?

I would, normally, journey to the city, rather than spend the day at home. But sickness leads to health; and isn’t it better to be with family then alone? Perhaps — yet everything has its season. How do I traverse that particular contradiction? 

Few joys like being sung happy birthday by your children in the morning; few joys like being in community; few joys like knowing that your are valued. Yet few needs like the sorrow of being alone; few needs like discovering your insignificance; fews needs like tragedy and loss. One cannot be both a monk and a husband, a priest and a father. In this, the Catholic Church understands a mystery — for contemplation and action, silence and noise, inwardness and outwardness — cannot live in the same home. And yet — they must for us to be whole, and all of existence longs for that completion of action and thought.

I once knew someone who had a cheap dollar-store plaque on her desk that went something like this: “Resistance from others is affirmation that you’re doing the right thing.” Well, no. And yet we believe it and add, with no irony, a second statement: “Affirmation from those that think like us is affirmation that we’re doing the right thing.” — and that is not any closer to the truth, for neither affirmation nor challenge has any bearing on whether we are in the truth.

And so 41: it passes. I type in my garage, transition back into fatherhood, look at the whispering trees and dreary sky and today shakes with the complexity of life. For this year was no different from any other year — we play at its newness, its uniqueness, its challenges. “My God!”  We pray to ourselves. “A year like no other and, lo, if anyone had just listened to me and my side things would be different.” And yet it would not be — for we are just travelers on life’s way and though the road may be rocky here, it will be rocky again; though it may be grass and water for a moment, soon it will be sand; we pass from landscape to landscape and forget that life is loss, life is gain, life is living and dying and pain and joy and though these things rise and fall in intensity — they are ever present. History has given us these challenges before — of plague and injustice and justice and health and will again, until history is no more. 

We live with our current philosophies, gained by the landscape around us — like the Bedouins or Native Americans or Europeans or Modern Americans — forgetting that the landscape and the world around us gives us our philosophies more than thought because we live in a physical world and pretend, unwisely, that our thoughts are our own. 

The Greeks were the Greeks because their geography split them, made travel hard, isolated them in their own minds; the Romans, because their geography allowed them travel and put them at war with those around them; the Mongols because of their plains; the Chinese because of their isolating mountains. In these times, we praise freedom — or argue for systematic injustice — or attack the police — or attack those hurt by the police — or claim to be victims — or claim others are victims — or fight the system — or accept the system — because of the geography around us. 

We look at those people we have chosen to live with, those people who live on our little islands with us and share our thoughts and also believe that the river Nile is a god because it brings us annual life. A decade from now, our geography will have changed and all those who are “wise” — those sophists! — will now have new ideas, but missed that they have changed because they are secret pantheists, unwittingly worshipping the ground that bore them. — even those on the left, even those on the right. 

Only those few that lift their eyes to the sun and do not worship it (not the Son, but the sun as an allegory for truth and meaning and what is real) will find that they may resist the influence of geography; only those will any real connection with the past, with ideas that struggle against all ideas of this Age and the Ages to Come may discover that they have pushed beyond the contingent into something real. And they run the risk of leaving the path and drowning in falsehood, worshipping the wrong thing, falling before idols they do not recognize. But those in the pantheistic present — they will always worship idols. 

Better to die in the wilderness, in search of what is and risk grave error, then to guarantee it, living in this world and these ideas, and the memes and empty babbling of this and all Ages of heathens.

My friends that read this and reach this point in this little essay on thought: I pray that you leave the path in this coming year, as I pray the same for myself.

—A birthday comes and goes, and marks the beginning of the end of a beginning.