Saturday, January 30, 2010

The answer to life, the universe, and everything (according to a 16-year old me)

Hayden Higgins
November 16, 2006
42To let down one's guard is the bane of all societal existence. In practice, it is altogether too easy to deny oneself the freeing wonders of the natural world in favor of the constructed and predictable. Once upon a noontide journey, or perchance three, I myself made the perilous leap from the calculable norms of society to the untamed, unbounded natural realm.1
Ab ovo2During my virgin voyage, I chanced upon a scraggly goosefeather, of no great importance in the general scheme of things, if you will. This feather was Only Visiting. He was Only Visiting, I came to determine, because he was a feather, and such is the nature of feathers. Even whilst bodily attached to their aviating owners, feathers are inevitably transient, even nomadic. Once separated from their brethren upon the breast of some snow-white bird, a feather becomes an animal of its own accord; they know no home- the air wrenches them from whatever scarce family and friends they may be blessed enough to possess, to undertake a hazardous new journey, each journey more trailblazing than the last. Whilst these ruminations are inscribed, I can only envision my feather arriving from- no, better, nobler: embarking upon a sojourn of the most mysterious and epic mien. God-willing my feather will arrive in good graces, and with stories enough for campfires to come.
Peradventure our own culture could adopt a mantra, to be emblazoned upon our coats-of-arms, similar to the one our favored feather holds dear: no leaf shall go unturned. The feather is unafraid of surrendering to a higher will and allowing its petty contentions to inhibit the ultimate goal. Indeed, the feather carries this slogan proudly, turning down no request for adventure, with curiosity even the cat could be jealous of. The feather is, nonetheless, governed by no plentitude of laws and restrictions; he is policed by no outside force, save the natural laws Newton held dear. His freedom is apparent, even to the casual observer: a second, minute, hour, week, month, day, year, decade, century, millennia, eon, eternity henceforth, where will our feather be? Anywhere- swimming with salmon, flying with finch, or (alack! that it should make this choice, with such wonderful options-- but to each his own) contentedly lying precisely in the same spot he occupied a second, minute, hour, week, day, month, year, decade, century, millennia, eon afore. Lo! that I have no such choice apparent before me.
Why not?
Society has long sought structure. Mayhap this is the definition of humanity. Scientists and professors, MDs and philosophers, magi and wizards have spent innumerable hours contemplating what makes us human. Self-awareness? Moral values? Look into nature. Look at her through the microscope or telescope, no matter- you will find always and everywhere the same result. Maximum entropy. Randomness, and an irrelevant, nonchalant air. Where is this entropy in humanity? Where has this nonchalance gone?
It died, along with Santa Claus, Achilles and Patroclus, Jesus Christ, the Mahatma3, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Jim Valvano, rock and roll, innocence and Brett Slinger, in that Elysian Garden. Humanity is a self-organizing system. Everywhere we tend towards order and the predictable- what we order at Starbucks, the stock market, sports. With abstract mathematics like chaos theory, the most advanced quadrivists4 may with reasonable precision foresee the sales of any given product at any given time. We thrive on schedules, blame everything hectic for our woes, return to the same comforts day after day, and scorn the unknown. Is predictability beneficial? I say nay.
In William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Ralph, always the voice of reason, declares, "The rules are the only thing we've got". Freud would be proud. We may safely venture to label Ralph the ego. We may also, with no considerable endangerment to our livelihoods, inquire as to the prevalence of the ego within our society, and the effect thereof, thereupon. The ego rules with an iron fist-- his crimes are premeditated. His is not a temper to kid with. However, the id is portrayed in The Lord of the Flies as the basest motivation-- primal instinct. Id is directly responsible for the breakdown of every notion of regulated society, as the boys descend below even Rousseau's noble savage. Freud would be proud of the guts spilled in the name of the id.
But can this id be always to blame? Our organized, neat and tidy, black and white society enters in the affirmative. However, man and his artificial nitpickings represent but one side of the Dionysian dichotomy- the yin and yang. Reason and emotion have but always been locked in a Titanomochal5 onslaught worthy of mention alongside Gettysburg and Troy in Valhalla. Nature always has, and always will, play the role of the compulsive id; indeed, it has instilled within us the base instinct that defines the id. The wild acts upon every fleeting whim, it matter not how ephemeral and inconsequent it may be.
The freedom to take these whims at face value, to act upon them without fear, hatred, and lust, is something Grail-like for humanity. So long we have coveted peace and order; but does reason and the ego really bring peace and order? Though narrowly averted, the Cold War stands as proof enough of the danger of the ego. The coldly calculated extermination of the Race of David in Nazi Germany and the execution of ethnic Kurds in Baath Iraq serve notice that not every crime is committed in a passion. The id is not what we seek; it is that connotated with it which we endeavor to bring home to Camelot. This connotated ideal is that each and every human should have infinite freedom, with the appropriate restrictions for protection of life, liberty, and happiness of others; no man shall turn down an offer for fear of failure. This is the bĂȘ te noire of the ego: fear of failure. That grasping for a hold on the past, in vain hope that one may rewind the videocassette of life, should be-- would be-- could be-- nevermore.
Clint Eastwood explains, with such eloquence as we may expect from a Real Tough Cookie such as himself, this feeling:
"It's like I always tell you, kid.
You gotta act when you think it's the right thing to do.
Otherwise, you feel like your gut's full of pus.
Even if you get the hell beat out of you.
If you fight, you feel okay about it." *
As we may expect, such a theme has been touched on before, however briefly. The ancient Romans even had a term for it (they're never short of them): carpe diem.Seize the day-- Unsurprisingly, a couple of them (Romans) even wrote about it, with Horace § being the most notably attached to the idea. I think Horace and those of the Dead Poets Society would have appreciated the feather, in all its smallness and squalor. Veritably, Dirty Harry himself could identify with our fluffy feather, even empathize.
The feather knows one thing, one thing we could all learn from: the means is more important than the ends. This is lost in our culture, in which the ego urges us to achieve, reach, realize a goal, no matter the ruthless price to be paid. So many people lose themselves in the quick-hit culture we have cultivated; we grow MDs on a diet of SAT prep, flashcards, and sleep deprivation as if they are being grown on the vine by an epicurean French vintner. Lost in translation are so many of the experiences integral to true success and contentment later in life-- social skills, an understanding of failure, self-discovery, finding things out for yourself. Self-determination has gone the way of the horse-drawn wagon and cocaine in soda. Nature would have the status quo go that way, if she could.
My feather has gone on furlough. Perchance he is simply Gone Fishing, and intends to return at a later date; but the gut brusquely informs me he has given in to his nomadic ways, and I shall see him no more. Another feather now occupies his sphere; but this one is grey, grand, and plumed, not so raggedy and disheveled as my displaced friend (it does well to think that the old feather came from a young and awkward gosling, at an indecisive age, and that this new inhabitant was descended from a patriarch at the apex of his life-cycle). Perchance this extravagant visitor even kicked my wayward tenant out; do feathers have their own hierarchy of class, stratified such that higher-ups may lay claim to whatever prime land they desire to occupy that very day? After all, one never observes more than a solitary feather within a radius of five or so metres.
But frankly, this assertion is utterly ridiculous. It is conspicuous to the keen reader that it is a flawed human who allowed such a fantastic notion to cross his pitifully incompetent mind. No feather leaves under the jurisdiction of another; each is equal, each is fearless, each is. Everywhere lies a twig, a leaf, a pebble, and for what? For exploring, for learning. How many roads must a man walk down- before we can call him a man? None. The answer is not blowing in the wind6-- it is right here. It is there, too. He is born a man, will be raised a man, will live a man, and may he die a man, rest his soul. I think this may be the purpose of life- to chase a feather in the wind7, that is. We all need the freedom and confidence to be hopeless Romantics8 sometime or another, safety net or no. The assurance that to be caught in sweet, sublime surrender to the Almighty would not be so horrid is as natural-born as anything. It is our God-given right, should we choose to accept it.
Wherever my feather is, I hope his is a rising sun; I wish we could all take more chances.
Nature is a willing accomplice.

The following are footnotes. In the original text they appear at the foot of every page. Hence the name, 'foot'-'notes'. Notes at the foot of the page. Ingeniuos.
#1 Everything is relative. Oakhill Park is not Tierra del Fuego.
#2 From the beginning. Latin.
#3 Gandhi
#4 It has come to my attention that I have Shakespeared this word from thin air. It is derived from the Latin quadrivium, referring to the four upper branches of education, primarily mathematics.
#5 The never-ending war betwixt the armies of Zeus (Olympians) and Cronus (Titans)
# From White Hunter, Black Heart (1990)
Odes, 1.11
6 Bob Dylan. Blowin' in the Wind. CBS.
7 Jones, John Paul, and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin). All of My Love. In Through the Out Door. Swan Song, 1979.
8 Referring to the 19th century school of thought with an emphasis on Nature and emotion, NOT the popular American band of "What I Like About You" fame.

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