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Thursday, January 10, 2019

To Be Or Not To Be–Existential Answers For Dummies

Randall Potter was unconcerned about the leak in the roof, the bad flashing around the chimney, the dodgy flue, and the cracks in the bathtub.  He had more important things to think about – purpose, definition, meaning; and worse, being and nothingness.  Someone else would do the grouting, masonry, tiling, and fitting while he contemplated his life. 

His wife complained that his permanent and persistent existential crisis was no more than laziness.  With a little more practicality – or at least an acknowledgement that without attention the chimney would collapse and the bathtub leak would rot one floor after another on its way to the basement – he might even resolve some of his more persistent questions.  She, unlike him, never gave even an errant thought to death and dying, or the meaning of anything, let alone life.  She had been brought up to think straight ahead.  Peripheral vision only distracted from enterprise and end results.

Therein lay the source of their discontent.  As the house fell more and more into disrepair, her patience with her husband flagged; and even after many decades of marriage and putting up with his obsessions, she was nearing the end of her rope.  Randall, on the other hand, felt beleaguered and hectored by a woman who was all mortar and grouting, who never reflected on anything more important than reupholstery.  His wife was no dunce.  Far from it, she was intelligent, analytical, and logical.  It was just that she preferred to bank her brains and fiddle with getting through the week.

She, of course, never looked at things this way.  She was indeed using her brains in the only proven, verifiable, manageable, and sane way possible.  Whether there is or is not a God; whether  life does or does not have meaning; or whether death means eternal life or eternal nothingness,  were nonsensical questions.  Nothing was ever accomplished by such reflection.  No Kantian scholar ever looked into the abyss and calmly thanked his muse.   Better to wear yourself out with grouting, tiling, reupholstering, and refinishing and die in your sleep than questioning the unanswerable.

‘To be, or not to be.  That is the question’, a line from Shakespeare that has become a ditty repeated in sand traps, board rooms, and subways for the existentially-minded.  It is the kind of couplet that sounds right.  Everyone wonders if it is all worth it from time to time.  Taking two strokes on a bad lie, reading from the same balance sheet, rattling down the same tracks, eating the same pot roast – the sheer repetitiveness of it all encourages existential doubt, just not for long.  Most people never give it a second thought and wave it away until it shows up on the Beltway or in bed.

Image result for images olivier to be or not to be

Randall Potter thought about it all the time.  The tea he prepared in the morning was exactly the same tea as yesterday and the day before.  He made the bed so exactly that he forgot the day of the week.  “Didn’t I just make this bed?”.  He tried to change his routines to see if he could shake this disturbing angst.  Instead of getting off on the tenth floor of his office building, he got off at nine, walked the long corridors through the cubicles and meeting rooms, past the pictures of Indian women at the well, African villagers on tractors, and Guatemalan volcanoes, and up the stairs to his own room.  Yet in a week this route had become disturbingly familiar.  “Didn’t I just walk here?”.

Nothing seemed to work, and if the world was so subject to the same perceptual distortions; and that time came and went with no notice and far faster than he wanted, then perhaps it did not exist.  His attempts to reconfigure time and place, and hold them steady only served to increase his anxiety.  Life had become a wobbly, uncertain affair.

Meanwhile his wife who prosecuted during the week and reupholstered, grouted, and tiled on the weekend never once showed signs of philosophical frailty.  She simply put one foot in front of the other as she went out the door, retraced her steps on the way back, and was as happy as a clam.

Surprisingly, thought Randall, philosophy does not include her in any of their paradigms.  Considerations of being and nothingness – to quote Nietzsche’s phrase which generalized Randall’s existential concerns – never included ‘pedestrianism’, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach which enabled his wife to glide through life unencumbered and as moral and ethical as the most inquiring philosopher.  Everyone from Descartes to Lacan referred to man’s place in the world and added suggestions however abstruse about how to deal with misery, pain, poverty, war, etc. , but never gave pedestrianism a footnote.  Even women like Randall’s wife had to have evolved their particular response to existential questions; otherwise they would not be human.  The essence of humanity, most said, was the ability to consider it.

Image result for images nietzsche

Nancy Potter, had she been forced to answer this criticism, would have demurred.  The premise itself is absurd, she would have said.  No one ever asked to be put on this earth, and that alone is enough reason not to pay it much attention except to get through it in as personally satisfying a way possible. Philosophical reasoning began and ended with that one simple fact.

It was no surprise that the twain never met.  Randall could not help feeling that as randomly selected as he was to live in a world without meaning, wasn’t their some evolutionary imperative at the very least for using your brain for other than reupholstery and grouting?  What was the purpose of a big brain, capable of the most sophisticated thought, if it wasn’t to contemplate the unknown?  And if man was created with the ability to do so, then wasn’t the unknown ipso facto worth investigating?

A merry-go-round, an intellectual Ferris Wheel, a Mobius strip, and Sisyphus would be his wife’s reaction – again if she were ever asked – but Randall was never persuaded by her hammer-and-chisel approach.  Of course if it hadn’t been for her, the house would have long ago collapsed or washed away, but that still didn’t either resolve his questions or make anything more congenial between his wife and him.

Image result for image mobius strip

As he approached his later years and found himself still without answers, very much too old without every having become schmart, he wondered if it all had been worth it.  If, despite his big brain, philosophical leanings, and persistence, he had come to naught; he was no closer to any answers to his existential questions than when he started, wasn’t his wife right after all?  Yet how could he give up a life’s work so easily, lying down in the clover and looking up at the clouds?  No, there was still time.

His wife went on tacking, hammering, and grouting until her arthritis became too painful; but by then the house was in good shape as were the finances, so she could settle into another occupation, one more intellectual and inspirational perhaps. Nothing doing, of course.  There was no way she was going to spend her remaining few years in her husband’s yard.  She would simply teach and apply all her organizational, practical skills to her children and grandchildren.  She would be as busy, as useful, and as happy as ever.

Randall got it, but could not swallow it.  So what?  Marriage was difficult enough without having to complicate it with such things.

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