Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Journal of a Soul 26

Order versus Disorder

Clouds over Baldoyle recently
Somewhere, sometime, long ago at the dawn of consciousness, which, I should imagine, roughly corresponded to the emergence of civilisation around the great rivers of the world from Mesopotamia to Egypt to China and so forth, there was a first great push for order among humans.  Humankind had begun to order itself, to create systems to help itself better survive in a hostile world.  Together, human beings could create and invent ever easier and better ways of surviving.  And so, progress was now possible with these first steps of co-operation. And so, indeed, prehistory gave way to history as civilisation after civilisation sought to record all their efforts at self-betterment, both successful and unsuccessful.

And today, we are the rich inheritors of multifarious cultures and we possess a sheer abundance of ever-expanding knowledge which has its foundations in those early cultures we described above.  Having been born in a relatively poor and young nation, namely Ireland, in 1958, I was, like my contemporaries exposed to very little new knowledge as it were – most of it was then contained in the written media and in the school books from which we learned our traditional school subjects. I recall well the arrival of the first television set into our little town of Roscrea, Co Tipperary in 1962 when I was only four years old. The National Television Service, RTE, was founded on January 1 that year.

And so as I grew up, the world became simultaneously and paradoxically both larger and smaller.  Larger, insofar as we would gradually come of age by learning through the medium of the TV how bigger and richer nations lived.  We would also desire the goods they had and to do the activities they engaged in.  We would want to travel more and experience and learn at firsthand what it was like to live elsewhere.  It became a smaller world, too, insofar as we are now beneficiaries of what Alvin Toffler long ago so aptly described as “the acceleration of change” in the early 1970s – so much so, indeed, that we can now call up any amount of relevant (and irrelevant) information at our fingertips through modern technologies such as smart phones and i-pads etc.

Obsessed with Information and with organising it

The Public Library, Baldoyle
In short, we are still obsessed with information – indeed, we might truly describe it as information overload – and we are equally obsessed with ordering that information into all its relevant categories and classes, subcategories and subclasses.  The web of knowledge gets evermore intricate as the world seemingly progresses.  Note the adverb here, as human progress is surely a matter of philosophical importance, and questions can indeed be raised as to what exactly progress consists in – thoughts for another post there, I should think. The internationally famous contemporary British professor of philosophy, A.C. Grayling puts it thus, and many are wont to agree with the learned professor:
“The development of science and technology shows us that, as a species, we have grown clever; their misuse for war and oppression shows us that we have not yet grown wise.  Moral heroism is required for us to teach ourselves wisdom” (The Choice of Hercules, Phoenix, Orion: London, 2007, p.68)

Disorder breaks in

If you own a property you will realise how much maintenance is required and much if not all of it on-going.  Things naturally break down – The Second Law of Thermodynamics and all that.  As soon as a house is unlived in, nature begins to have its way all too quickly with grasses and weeds growing from every available crack and crevice.  In other words, we have to constantly labour to bring about order, and also to keep order in place lest it suddenly descend into disorder and chaos.

Meditation as a Coping Strategy

I remember one of my acquaintances remarking many years ago that no one gets out of life alive.  In spite of all our individual efforts to keep order in our individual lives we grow old and die.  The existentialists were keenly aware of this patently obvious absurdity at the very heart of the human predicament: - the self-project which each individual sets out to accomplish will come to nothing in the dust of our death.  Admittedly, collectively as a culture we amass mounds of information, much art, buildings of great architectural value, languages, the intricacies of mathematics and sciences of all types as well as the more creative stuff of poetry, novels, drama and so forth.  And yet, as individuals we come to nought.  This was at the heart of Irish National Broadcaster, Marion Finucane’s interview with the dying writer Nuala O’Faoláin some two years back.  Nuala was heartbroken, she said, on learning that her death was imminent because all the order and shape she had built up in her individual life would now simply become nothing – all the facts she had learned, all the experiences she had gained, all the insights, the teeming brain, the languages, the literature, the writings, the music she so loved, the art, her three or so apartments, her wonderful friendships, her next writing task – all gone, forever, dissolved into nothing as her individual life, her little selfhood of her own creation, was snuffed inexorably out.  That, indeed, is the human dilemma, the existential condition under which we all live. 

And yet, meditation is only too aware of this. After all, it was Siddhartha Gautama’s (the Buddha) own lived dilemma, too, how to deal with suffering in all its manifestations – mental, spiritual and physical.  For him, the key was to learn to become detached from the concerns of life, to learn to get over clinging to either things or persons – in short, to learn acceptance and detachment.  This is the Buddhist philosophy of life, a way to live serenely and sanely in an all too frenetic and insane world.   

And so, what does living wisely mean? I argue that it means something along the following lines:

To learn that there are no easy answers to life’s big questions and that  those who propose such easy answers are singularly unwise, misled and misleading.

Sometimes we have to learn to accept events in life that we can never ever understand.  Acceptance, of course, here is never blind acceptance which is sheer fatalism.  By acceptance here, I mean that graced place of equanimity where one arrives spiritually, having worked hard at either solving the problem at hand, looking for help from as many quarters as possible, seeking advice, doing one’s best to come up with some partial solution and so on.  There is little or nothing more one can do against the inevitable at that stage.  Hence, acceptance is a wise position because one has expended all the necessary energy and a further expending is nothing short of wasteful and useless.

Knowing one’s strengths and limitations, and playing life’s game in that knowledge.

Forming good relationships and working at them like a gardener cultivates his patch of ground.

Learning the limits of human knowledge.

Being humble in a Socratic way – the admission of ignorance can be the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.

Learning things by doing – the practical knowledge or wisdom (phronesis) advocated by Aristotle.

Learning through meditation to accept whatever order there is in chaos.

Doing things slowly, mindfully and consequently well.

Perfection does not exist – it is an unobtainable ideal.  Everything has slight imperfections somewhere.  Excellence is a different matter.  To excel at something need not mean being perfect at it.  The nearest description I found for “perfection” was in the Bible where one translation described it as being “whole” or complete.

Finally, one must learn the harsh truth of all existence, namely that life is not fair, and by all the logic of statistics could never be.  Mostly, life is a matter of sheer randomness and luck.  How, when, where, to whom and in what medical and monetary circumstances we are born are all matters of varying circumstances.  We are dealt a specific hand of cards and we had better play them as best we can to our advantage if we are to engage positively at all with life!

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