Friday, July 15, 2016

The return of Larry Darrell

Arise! Awake! Approach the great and learn. Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say—hard to tread and difficult to cross.—The Upanishads, 1.3.14
Life speeds away. In a moment it's gone, all of it, from the monuments people spend their lives building to the relations they spend their lives ignoring or forgetting. We look now to the implements of modernity for all things, for work, for friendship, for recreation, for security, and for connections to the world around us. As I sit writing these words, on one of those devices—a laptop—I periodically glance at another—a cellphone—to be sure no one is trying to reach me, to be sure that I am—for the moment—unencumbered by the world around me. Yet, I could just as easily detach myself completely, could turn the latter off and discard the former for a stack of paper and a pen. But I choose not to.

Outside, the sun burns brightly on a summer's day; it's late afternoon and, surprisingly at first, there are people out and about, on foot and on bicycles, traversing local paths and filling local parks. A renaissance of outdoor activity, it would seem, non-exist a mere seven or eight days prior, especially in the humid City of Dis that is South Florida. What has changed? Very little, in the physical world. But in the virtual world, Pokémon Go hit the app market fours days ago and now occupies the top spot for downloads, both in the Google Play Store and in the Apple App Store. And it's drawn millions of gamers out into the physical world for the promise of benefits in the virtual world. Because to play, users need to physically walk around searching for wild Pokémon to capture. Tweens, teenagers, and young adults are playing, mostly. But there's no actual age limit, as many adult professionals are fully engaged, as well.

Yet, the last week or so has also seen crowds in other places, unhappy crowds congregating for very different reasons than the promise of a Bulbasaur, a Charmander, or—for the very lucky—a Pikachu. The nation's soul has been rocked once again by a series of killings: first several cases of police officers killing black suspects—I'm being generous with the word "suspect," because as far as anyone can tell, one of the men killed did absolutely nothing wrong, whatsoever—in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, then a retributive attack on police officers in Dallas by a black shooter who was "looking to kill white people," especially those wearing blue. Predictably, there have been widespread protests over the former incidents in a number of major cities, along with non-stop outrage on social media and from the talking heads on cable news. And from the not-too-distant-past, the massacre in Orlando still afflicts the conscience of the nation.

Beyond that, there is Brexit, international terrorism (last night in Nice, France over eighty people were killed in an attack by another "lone" terrorist), the continued war against ISIS, the Zika virus, corporate greed, Russian oligarchs, Chinese sweatshops, Somalia, and the United States Presidential race between a widely disliked Washington insider and a self-important, self-promoting tool whose likes strutting his stuff in the WWE.

And then there's the day to day struggle to just survive, to put food on the table, to make ends meet, which—depending on the "where" and "who"—runs the gamut from true life-or-death decisions to worrying about one's market positions.

How can someone wrap themselves up in a pointless cellphone game—there really are no winners or losers in Pokémon Go—when #BlackLivesMatter? How can one worry about these relatively limited incidents in the U.S. when thousands upon thousands are dying or becoming refugees from war-torn areas in the Middle East? When millions upon millions are suffering all over the world, when children are going to bed hungry, when so many lack access to things like clean water or healthcare? When Climate Change threatens the world-as-we-know-it and the billions who live on it?

Where are the World's priorities? Where should they be?

But "the World" is not an entity. It never has been and never will be. The collective consciousness of "the World" or of a people, of a country, of a city is myth: there are no Zeitgeists, cultural or otherwise. There are only individuals, each with their own individual point of view, their own individual concerns and needs. And by and large, the vast majority of individuals on the planet instinctively know this; even most of those who are outraged on Facebook, on Twitter, or anywhere else are predominately driven by their own selfish desires.

That's why they play Pokémon Go and Angry Birds, that's why they watch Dancing with the Stars and go to baseball games. They live for themselves (and their loved ones, sometimes) and limit their selflessness to moments when it's convenient to be selfless.

I'm sure many people reading this are probably thinking I'm being overly critical, that I'm holding people to far too high of a standard. But that's not really it; the problem is that people have unrealistic views of the world, unrealistic expectations of their own agency in this world, and use both of these things unfairly as a cudgel against others, against governments, against political parties, against all kinds of groups, against corporations, and against all of mankind in general. They imagine that their empathy—and there's nothing wrong with empathy—when coupled with their support of this cause or that cause, with their liking or retweeting of this hashtag or that hashtag, has an efficacy is does not and cannot have. And at the same time, they imagine that the above is "enough," that in doing the above, they meet some sort of requirement that confirms they are "good people," leaving them free to do what they will with the remainder of their time and their lives, be that playing games, taking selfies, watching Netflix, or thousands of other past times. Oh, and of course going to work and getting paid, taking care of themselves and their family, going shopping, and basically just living life.

And they are fooling themselves in this regard. They're not good people or better people (than someone else) by virtue of their empathy and limited support of a cause. They're not bad people or worse people, either. By and large, they're just people. We all are. An individual life is a temporally limited thing. And it can come to a quick end in a variety of ways. When it does, Karma rarely—if ever—plays a role. People like to think that this is not the case, but that's functionally a means of feeding their own egos, of imagining—again—that there's significant efficacy to their lives, with regard to the universe as a whole.

All that said, life is not a zero-sum game. Because contrary to the philosophy of Ricky Roma, we don't actually keep score in life, he who has the most stuff (or the most fame) doesn't actually win. Life is a series of moments, of feelings produced by those moments, and the only score available is wholly internalized.

Do you feel good about yourself? That's the real question to ask. Are you happy in the moment? Why? Why not?

But it seems to me that people are becoming progressively worse at introspection, of seeking fulfillment and happiness from within. That is, I think, largely due to consumerism, to the non-stop bombardment of stimuli from the world. For my generation and those who have followed, the day is filled from start to finish with stuff, with things to do, to see, to hear, to experience. Moments of relative peace and calm during the daily bustle of work and school have disappeared, have become opportunities to check Facebook, to play Pokémon Go, to tweet something insignificant, to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or of Orange Is the New Black, or to buy a ridiculously over-priced coffee drink. Downtime means more of the same, or perhaps some binge-watching of one old TV series or another.

And there's an element of selectivity in all of this (when it comes to media), as well: people are becoming used to getting exactly what they want when they want it, thanks to video services like Netflix and to DVRs. Aside from the unbridled enthusiasm of waiting for the next episode of an over-hyped series or for the next big superhero movie, there are no pleasant surprises anymore, there's almost no channel-surfing, even. It wasn't all that long ago that people were talking about the over-abundance of choices on TV because of the advent of Cable. 100+ channels meant 100+ choices. That ship has sailed. The choices now—because of streaming services—number in the tens of thousands, easy.

There's always something to do or to watch, because of technology and a wide-ranging consumer economy. Always.

Kilimanjaro, from Sierra Mountaineering Club
Why bother to think, anymore? Why bother to examine oneself or ponder something as mundane as the meaning of life? Journeys of self-discovery have been replaced by binge-watching, MMOGs, Vines, and pictures of food. The wonders of the world are available in super high definition with the touch of a button; one can be amazed without ever leaving home. And when one does leave home, virtual reality is trumping actual reality now.

We are losing something important, I think. The sheltering sky is almost gone, as is the top of the world, and the cradle of civilization, as sources for deeper thinking and understanding of the world and of who we are. Living is becoming progressively easier, while Life is becoming harder.


  1. ...and stay off my lawn!

    J/K, Rob. I feel your pain. I'm on the verge of going off on some social conservatives who want abortions banned and creationism taught in the schools, yet are fearful that sharia law is going to take over the country.

    Thinking is completely out of fashion these days, it seems.