Thou mayest

Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men.” – Douglas Bader

Unfortunately, I have succumbed to my own rule against intellectual porn in running across this quote somewhere (it wasn’t Pinterest!), and I can’t seem to find any context other than that the guy was a bit of a rule-breaker. In any event, I shall borrow the phrase and try to provide my own context as I try to tie together the long-winded journey I have taken through should, s’pose’da, the democratization of selfishness and embracing responsibility.

The world is full of people with opinions of what is right and good. Put all that aside to focus on one simple truth – you are the one who chooses what path your life takes and you are the one who will bear the consequences of your choices. Others may try to deceive, flatter, assuage, persuade or reason with you into behaving in ways they feel most appropriate, but you ultimately must choose and act, perhaps sometimes in accordance with external pressure and perhaps sometimes against.

No matter what you choose, you will be able to find people who are more or less like-minded and you will be able to join with them. However, if your beliefs and values are important to you, you may never find a perfect match once all the nuances are considered, but you can probably get close. As for that final yard of difference…well, the cost of holding on to your beliefs and values may be isolation and loneliness and whether that is a price worth paying is what you will have to consider.

Choosing is a process and a journey, one that is much more important than the result of any particular choice. Any particular poor choice can be learned from and potentially even corrected in subsequent choices. What is so important about the process is that it is the process by which we explore the most important life that will ever exist for us and the only one over which we have any semblance of control – our own.  Perhaps this journey is what the poet T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote these words about exploration:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– Little Gidding, section V

Applying these final thoughts to a trio of characters from East of Eden, let’s follow the way certain verses of the Old Testament impact the life and journey of Sam, Adam and Lee. At first, Lee, a Chinese thinker and servant, describes the process of trying to understand the verses when he took them to the Chinese wise men to ponder them:

“The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking – the beautiful thinking.” Page 301.

What they were trying to understand was whether the English translations of a verse in the Cain and Abel story meant that man is ordered to triumph over sin or promised that he will triumph over sin.  After this beautiful thinking, they came to the conclusion that the correct interpretation of the verse is that man may triumph over sin – that the choice is his. The importance of the distinction? 

“’Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice…And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing – maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed – because ‘Thou mayest.’” Page 301-302.

This was a revelation to the three men. Sam, embracing the possibility of the human soul for growth and for being able to handle more than others might think possible, decides to no longer shield Adam from a potentially devastating piece of information. He decides to let Adam choose whether to take “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you,” regardless of the fact that he is not certain whether Adam can handle it. Sam is ready to take whatever blame may come if the “medicine” destroys Adam. The information ultimately is proven to be a medicine, and Adam is able to recover from the shock of this new knowledge and to re-start his life as a result of it.

Finally, Lee and Adam discussed the importance of this concept ‘Thou mayest’ to Sam after Sam had died:

“[The concept of ‘Thou mayest’] set him free,” said Lee. “It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.”
“That’s lonely.”
“All great and precious things are lonely.”  Page 520

Your soul is too important to just give it over without thought in obedience to any system. It is foolish to do so. Apply some beautiful thinking to your life. Examine what is uniquely important to you, and live your life accordingly. Upon reflection, some of the rules you currently find yourself under may provide you useful direction, but if those rules, created by some authority figure via some unknown process influenced by unknown factors for an unknown purpose, conflict with what you feel is right, whose side will you choose?

Responsibility vs Blame

If you look up the definitions of “responsibility” and “blame”, you’ll find that they can be somewhat circular.  “Responsibility” can be defined as “the fact of being to blame for something” while “blame” can be defined as “the responsibility for a fault or wrong”.  However, responsibility has additional definitions indicating that it has broader usage.

Responsibility can be used both pre-decision, as in, “I’ll take responsibility for making the decision” and post-consequence, as in, “I’ll take responsibility for the fall-out.”  It can also be used affirmatively, as in, “I accept responsibility” or negatively, as in, “I shirk responsibility.”  As a result, responsibility is a fairly neutral word and requires additional context to understand which flavor of responsibility is connoted.  On the other hand, blame deals exclusively with the fall-out from negative consequences.  No one accepts blame for a job well done or a good decision, and it is therefore much less subtle than responsibility.

Recalling a couple of prior posts, embracing should and s’pose’da brings with it a certain safety – the safety of belonging to the selfsame herd from which should and s’pose’da gain their meaning. Maybe the desire to belong to the herd is the desire to avoid the fear of being alone – of being singled out, separate and alone, having to hang in the wind by yourself, or of stepping away from the known and comfortable (no hell is more comfortable than the one you know).

In nature documentaries, the narration of a wolf or lion hunt inevitable contains the phrase “the predators work together to single out the weak or young or old from the protection of the herd.”  Perhaps we humans, being social animals after all, have an instinctive fear of being singled out because it means instant death.

In modern times in the developed world, however, the danger is not from wolves or lions that separate, attack and kill those cut from the herd, the danger comes from the herd itself.  Consider this description of sheepthink, as applied to the army, in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:

“After a while, you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the whole crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men…Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you.”  Page 25.

Or this description of how the herd protects itself from internal attack from page 131:

“I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system.”

One way the herd beats you into submission is heaping blame on you for rejecting their should and s’pose’da. This is regardless of whether your separateness results in greater or lesser happiness or success.  The result is inconsequential; you are blameworthy simply for being different. Ironically, at the same time, the herd allows you to shirk responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  Whatever the herd’s faults, it is an enabling herd. When the herd’s wisdom is wrong, blame is softened and responsibility is obscured because failing according to the rules can be waved away with “it was just bad luck” or “it comes with the territory” or “it’s a rite of passage” or “it’s just the way things were supposed to happen”.

However, when you separate yourself from the herd, the opposite happens – responsibility falls heavily on your lonesome shoulders, and it may be lesser or greater depending on the wisdom of the decision made or action taken.  But the former herd will mercilessly heap scorn and blame, whether deserved or undeserved. As a result, cutting oneself from the herd requires extraordinary strength and belief in oneself, for when “men do not trust themselves any more…there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.” (East of Eden, Page 12). For a more modern bent on the concept, Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School is quoted here as saying, “[A]nxious individuals seek out and rely more heavily on advice, even when the advice is obviously bad, because they do not feel confident in their own ability to make good judgments.”

This may be a harsh way to frame the issue – to suggest that followers are simply weak and that only the strong are truly independent. However, as I’ve stated before, what really happens is not that an individual cuts off all belonging, but only that an individual is able to choose to which group to belong. It is the act of affirmatively choosing that is important – of considering, of weighing, of thinking and of embracing the heavy responsibility and the breathtaking opportunity contained therein– this is what constitutes living.

It may very well be that the result you come to is what your (former) group would consider “coming to your senses” or “coming home”, but the important thing to remember if you do decide to “come home” is that the decision will be yours for the first time. It will not have been a mere blind acceptance of “what is and always has been and always will be” but an eyes-wide-open deliberate choice. How the group embraces you upon your return is much more a reflection on them than on you.

In East of Eden, one of the characters, Sam, makes a decision to reveal a potentially devastating piece of information to another character, Adam, based on his (Sam’s) own judgment that revealing the information was “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you.” Sam says, “I think for once I will not be careful. Lee [a third character], if I am wrong – listen – if I am mistaken, I accept the responsibility and I will take what blame there is to take.”  Lee responds “Are you sure you’re right?”  Sam replies, “Of course I’m not sure. Adam do you want the medicine?” Adam says yes and off they go.  (See page 304.)

No one is ever sure that they’re right. No one CAN ever be sure they’re right because the future cannot be known ex ante. Everyone makes choices based on the best information available at the time. The question is, are you willing to stand on your own and take the blame or do you stand, unquestioning yet protected, in the group?

Intellectual Porn

“The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.”
– Abraham Lincoln.

Internet porn is a feast for the eyes and the penis.  In the space of a few minutes, your brain can see hundreds, if not thousands, of tits and ass.  Your penis may even be simplistic enough to think that this spread of T&A is all available for mating.  It’s a lot to process.

The problem with internet porn is that it is not satisfying.  It requires ever greater novelty and numbers to maintain an interest, and even an erection.  And it lacks certain aspects of real sex that may, from a certain angle, even increase its appeal compared to real sex.  It presents an idealized version of a woman – a woman sans complaint, who never lacks desire for the viewer, who never requires anything for herself or who’s never un-showered or smelly or otherwise not ready to be taken in any environment, from any angle, at any time.  She’s PERFECT!  I’ll take two…thousand….per minute.  Got a delivery system for that?

The insidious thing about internet porn is that while it temporarily satisfies the penis, it does not satisfy the soul, and even worse, it lowers the viewer’s capacity for enjoying real sexual intimacy.   It is fake sex.  Real sexual satisfaction can only be arrived at via the process of real sex.  Real sex includes a real woman – a woman who sometimes can go for periods of time without complaint or needs (whether in the bedroom or out), but more often than not has unsexy real-world problems and stresses; who sometimes wants you and sometimes doesn’t; who sometimes is freshly showered and totally prepared for a rendezvous, but more often than not is busy doing or worrying about other things when the mood may strike.

Real sex also requires more time and energy than simply walking up to a woman, lifting up her skirt (who wears pesky underwear!?) and going at it for 30 seconds like a couple of baboons in the wild.  The foundation of satisfying real sex is an investment in a woman’s soul, which requires regular and routine maintenance. To the foundation, a framework of finding time in a busy life to focus on each other must be erected.  A roof and walls of sensual touching and talking finishes the basic structure.  Only then is the table set for the real feast to begin.   For more on this fascinating subject, watch an excellent talk entitled the Great Porn Experiment given by Gary Wilson at TEDxGlasgow, available at the time of writing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSF82AwSDiU.

Internet quotes are the intellectual’s equivalent of internet porn.  In the space of a few minutes, your brain can consume tens of quotes, distilling hundreds of years of wisdom into the space of a few sentences.  One might even be forgiven for a sense of smugness as one nods in agreement with this quote or that.  Using quotes as a reminder of former explorations is one thing, but trolling quote sites, such as Pinterest, as the main source of intellectual nourishment is wholly another.

The problem with internet quotes, as with internet porn, is that this is fake intellectualism, and it is just as insidious.  It robs the viewer of real intellectual pursuit, while leaving the viewer believing he has been edified as a result of an intellectual pursuit.  In the meantime, a pattern is born where the viewer spends less and less time actually thinking of the topics covered by these quotes while being spoon-fed stylized intellectual T&A.  It can be quite intoxicating, but only superficially, since no real learning occurs.

Much like real sex, real thought requires a build up.  It requires intimacy from foundation to framework to roof and walls.  Even the meandering or boring detours contain insight.  Fleshed out with a broader context, the thought embodied in a quote gains more meaning, not less. Distillation doesn’t give you “the good stuff”; it leaves behind the impurities that gave the thought its essential character.

More importantly, by meandering through real writing, like a disciple with a master, a reader learns a process – a process that can then be replicated when one begins to walk alone.  The nuance of one’s experience can be lost when one knows only how to seek the headlines.  The world perhaps becomes more black and white, and the reader loses the ability to see and accept the gray world as it really is and concomitantly loses the ability to navigate the complex thoughts, emotions or situations that will invariably arise in the real world.

Wisdom, therefore, is not a commodity, despite its widespread distribution.  It cannot simply be consumed via voyeuristic intellectuo-tourism.  It can only be arrived at as the product of a head-long journey into the unknown; otherwise it’s just some nice words in a pretty font.