Saturday, 4 May 2013

Envy for Sisyphus

I do not often write emotionally; as I've said before, I rarely feel the need to express my emotions to other people. But today my soul cries that its anguish be spoken and my soul's anguish happens to be on topic. I apologize in advance if this emotional display is unseemly.

Eve Tushnet suggests that I seriously underestimate the dangers of paralysis in the face of making a decision. Her concern with critical thinking is that it will keep you in the anteroom when you hate being in the anteroom. (Seriouly, go read the post.) This is a fair but false accusation. It is fair because, based on anything I've written, you wouldn't know how familiar I am with the agony of uncertainty. But the trouble is that, for me, it does not matter whether I've accepted or not, whatever that means; the doubts, as Eve notes, never go away. There are many many times that I would give anything--ANYTHING--for certainty. I feel lost, perpetually. I sometimes feel as though I have no purpose; this may come from the fact that I no longer know what career I want to pursue. I want a quest, you know? I want some sort of project that will give meaning to my decisions: I don't care whether I find a career or write a novel or take up a cause or fall in love or whatever. I am jealous of those children who stumbled upon Narnia, yes, but I am jealous even of Camus's Sisyphus; he may be faced with a meaningless task, but it is his meaningless task, and he knows he must do it and how it is to be done.

I know that my depression is making this worse right now. Stephen Greenblatt writes in "Invisible Bullets" that Shakespeare's Prince Hal is a reverse Midas, that everything he touches turns to dross. That is how I feel right now; any project to which I turn my hand appears worthless soon after I begin. But it's not just a recent thing. I've always felt this way, to an extent. In my undergraduate I met many people who believed that God had a special plan for them and they had some access to this plan; they claimed to feel the voice of God within the stillness of their souls. Try as I might, I could never hear this voice, but I wanted a special plan so badly (even though, really, I suspected that they were all fooling themselves). I convinced myself that my special plan was to develop a spirituality for those whose only experience of God was as a terrible and ringing silence, because such a task could only be completed by someone who had no personal experience of God but nonetheless believed (ie. me). In the end, though, I couldn't even believe that sorry sort of plan: if God has a plan for me, I do not presume to know what it is.

So if my reaction to what pretty much anyone else is saying on this seems, I don't know, bitter, it's because I am a little bitter. Not toward God, who I don't think has an obligation to explain himself to me or anyone else, but toward anyone who has made me feel like I need to be certain of things (or, to anyone who has acted like I have an obligation to explain myself to them). Maybe there is something in our culture which reprimands people who are overly certain, I don't know, but our culture isn't homogenous and there absolutely is something in our culture which has no sympathy whatsoever for those in the anteroom or, for that matter, those like me who presume to be in the main chamber without having a clue what they're doing there or whether they are even in the right building. It's not just that that's an uncomfortable position to be in; quite a lot of people make it an uncomfortable position to be in. I don't begrudge anyone their certainty, but I have seen so many people use their certainty to shame others, or at least justify the shaming, that I fear certainty makes it easy to weaponize beliefs. So the thing behind my tentativism, maybe, is terror. Terror that I will be excommunicated for my heresy, terror that I will be steamrolled by someone else's special plan, terror that I might be the one trodding on another as I pursue my own glorious purpose, terror that someone might hallucinate the voice of God demanding my sacrifice. And horror too that many people are experiencing these things even when I am not. And maybe I'm wrong, but I cannot imagine that any of these things would happen if the perpetrators were just a little less sure of themselves.

So I say I would give anything for certainty, for a purpose, for a quest, but this is not true. If there is something I am certain of, it is that I cannot tell anyone else's story, that I have an obligation to do no harm (or at least as little as possible), that I have an obligation to empathy. I will take on whatever agony I must to maintain these principles, and so if this means that I suffer uncertainty--for there is suffering in uncertainty--so be it.

This is what I say when I feel brave. The other side of the coin is that uncertainty seems to be part of my disposition. It is not a thing I chose in the first place. Do I think I am a better person for my uncertainty? Yes: the less certain I am, the less of a jerk I am. (Though I take Eve Tushnet's point that uncertainty doesn't combat oppression very effectively, and it should be noted that I am certain about some things, especially w/r to feminism and environmentalism and other causes that don't have handy names.) Do I think the world would be a better place if pretty much everybody was more willing to concede that they might be wrong? Yes, I do. But I will not pretend to have chosen this for myself; all I have done is accepted it, or owned it as they say. And I really cannot blame people for abandoning an openness to truth as they grasp for certainty, because I know as well as anyone how miserable uncertainty can make you.

But I know I have also celebrated uncertainty and postmodernism and so forth in the past, and while I have trouble celebrating it at this moment I still know that it is worth celebrating. In a way I've written about it a bit already when writing about fantasy novels. There is a joy not just in discovery, but in knowing that there is more to find than can ever be found. And instability can be just plain fun; when things are open to change, you can play with them, you can create, you can experiment. There is suffering, and today my soul screams for the kind of certainty others have and I do not, but if the possibility for certainty was extended to me, I would be tempted to take it and I would still turn it down. And I shall try to remain the joy it can give to keep me through until I am better able to experience that joy again.

Now, look, other people can write all they want about this, but for the time being I'm utterly sick of the topic so unless I've already told you personally that I'll answer your questions, I reserve the right to ignore your question. I'm not saying I will ignore it, just that I reserve the right.

Note: When I say "certainty," I mean more than just certainty about particular facts. I mean something closer to "metanarrative," or "certainty in a worldview," or "an idea that you know how to live a good life." I don't mean "feeling like you know all of the answers," but I do mean more than the sense of certainty in saying, "I am certain that there is such a thing as gravity." So I acknowledge that I'm not even sure myself exactly what it is I'm objecting to, and I promise I'll think about it, but I don't promise that I'll come back with answers. I can't promise that at all.


Eve said...

I do hope that nothing I wrote came across as shaming you/others for being uncertain. That was really not my intention.

Christian H said...

You did not sound as though you were shaming at all; you sounded very sympathetic.

Eve said...

Ah ok, thanks.

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