On Resisting the Urge to Give Up

On Resisting the Urge to Give Up

On Resist­ing the Urge to Give Up  —  the world we see is the one we get to live in. Choose well how to do so!

My first and most pop­u­lar book,

This End­less Moment.

Learn to live a full and sat­is­fy­ing life. 

I sus­pect that scream­ing, “I’m bored!” has moved from child­hood into what pass­es for adult­hood these days. 

There seems to be an epi­dem­ic of ennui about, as peo­ple pre­tend that it’s OK to watch from the side­lines as the world disintegrates.

There’s an idea in Tom Rob­bins’ Even Cow­girls Get the Blues:

One of the char­ac­ters is a Japan­ese anti-guru who lives in the hills near the cow­girls’ ranch. 

At one point, he’s hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with one of the “girls,” and they’re talk­ing about the state of the world. 

He says that the biggest prob­lem fac­ing human­i­ty is “ambu­la­to­ry catatonia.”

And doesn’t that just seem to be the case?

This way of see­ing things might just have start­ed with Kierkegaard, who noticed the obvious:

Since bore­dom advances and bore­dom is the root of all evil, no won­der, then, that the world goes back­wards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very begin­ning of the world. The gods were bored; there­fore they cre­at­ed human beings.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813–55), Either/Or, vol. 1, “Rota­tion of Crops” (1843; tr. 1987).

Kierkegaard was fol­lowed by such nota­bles as Niet­zsche, Sartre and Camus; they explored mean­ing vs. mean­ing­less­ness. Thus began the mod­ern exis­ten­tial­ism move­ment, which was a “notic­ing” of how fun­da­men­tal­ly weird the world is.

By the end of World War II, exis­ten­tial­ism was at its height. Euro­pean exis­ten­tial­ists thought that noth­ing could be any worse than, nor a more clear-cut exam­ple of, the mean­ing­less­ness of life than the destruc­tion caused by WWII. (Lit­tle did they know, eh?)

French philoso­pher Jean-Paul Sartre first gave the term exis­ten­tial­ism gen­er­al cur­ren­cy by using it for his own phi­los­o­phy. Explic­it­ly athe­is­tic and pes­simistic, his phi­los­o­phy declared that human life requires a ratio­nal basis but the attempt is a “futile pas­sion.” Nev­er­the­less, he insist­ed that his view is a form of human­ism, empha­siz­ing free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty.
The Encar­ta  —  Desk Ency­clo­pe­dia Copy­right 1998 Microsoft Cor­po­ra­tion. All rights reserved.

Or, to put it more humor­ous­ly, this car­toon seems to cap­ture it all: (This car­toon was a part of a t‑shirt col­lec­tion by a com­pa­ny called Bovis Threads of Kingston, Ont. A web search failed to turn up the com­pa­ny after 1999. They seem to have gone “bel­ly up.”)

The mes­sage is a bit hard to read. It says:

I’m not here
You’re not here
Don’t leave a mes­sage
There is no beep

The Sartre ref­er­ence from Encar­ta con­tains the seeds of liberation–read the last sentence. 

Free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty is actu­al­ly the anti­dote to the stul­ti­fy­ing effects of being human.

Thus, exis­ten­tial­ism  —  in its purest form  —  makes much sense. Note the fol­low­ing def­i­n­i­tion of existentialism:

A phi­los­o­phy that empha­sizes the unique­ness and iso­la­tion of the indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence in a hos­tile or indif­fer­ent uni­verse, regards human exis­tence as unex­plain­able, and stress­es free­dom of choice and respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­se­quences of one’s acts.
Excerpt­ed from The Amer­i­can Her­itage Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage, Third Edi­tion Copy­right 1992 by Houghton Mif­flin Company.

There are par­al­lels to Bud­dhism here. Bud­dhism has no inter­est in the sto­ries we tell our­selves  —  life just “is”  —  we just “are,” and the only sane approach is to first notice, then act.

Exis­ten­tial­ists (and Bud­dhists) reject the notion that life is pre­de­ter­mined and run by some­thing (i.e. god) out­side of us. In Bud­dhism, there is end­less cau­sa­tion… things emerge out of what comes before… but every­thing lacks mean­ing.

There is NO mean­ing that is “for all time and for all peo­ple.” Instead, we are left with per­son­al under­stand­ing (or lack thereof…)

Life is “about,” or “means” whatever I choose it to mean.

We hate this.

We want our beliefs to be “what every­one believes.” Some are so inse­cure that they want some­one as mean­ing­less as Trump to enforce their beliefs. 

This hap­pens because of our gut sense of mean­ing­less­ness is so scary; we don’t want to feel alone, float­ing aim­less­ly in a mean­ing­less uni­verse. This is actu­al­ly what draws Trump fol­low­ers in so deeply. It’s the Kool-aid of “I’m part of a spe­cial group.”

So, how does this relate to ambulatory catatonia, and Resisting the Urge to Give Up?

First, the cata­ton­ic among us only “get” the first piece of the exis­ten­tial­ist paradox:

…the unique­ness and iso­la­tion of the indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence in a hos­tile or indif­fer­ent uni­verse, regards human exis­tence as unexplainable…

As I just wrote, this idea can be scary  —  that we are cast adrift, alone, in a lit­tle boat on a dark and stormy sea. There is no mean­ing, no direc­tion and no help from “above.”

Giv­ing this real­i­ty, three options exist: 

  • fall over­board and drown, 
  • stop pad­dling and tune out (ambu­la­to­ry cata­to­nia) or 
  • enjoy the pad­dle anyway.

My approach to this existential dilemma is contained in the second part of the definition, above:

…and stress­es free­dom of choice and respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­se­quences of one’s acts.

Many of us, rather than liv­ing in the now, suck­ing the expe­ri­ence out of life, are still stuck in past rela­tion­ships and sit­u­a­tions, as if frozen in motion. 

We obsess and obsess, and noth­ing changes, except for one thing: the num­ber of days of your life goes down by one, each day. You don’t get ’em back at the end.

To be self-respon­si­bly free is to let go of attach­ments to the past. It is to let go of obsess­ing about the future. It is to find this moment, again and again, and to seize the moment and wring the liv­ing out of it, swal­low­ing the moment whole, so to speak.

To do oth­er­wise is to stop in your tracks, and plead for res­cue, or to freeze and hope that some­one is com­ing to even the score and lev­el the play­ing field.

In the mean time, life con­tin­ues apace, nev­er once look­ing in your direc­tion nor car­ing how you are doing.

This week, look at how you are fixed in place, by your assump­tions, by your fear, by your lack of courage. Then, decide to exper­i­ment with leav­ing ambu­la­to­ry cata­to­nia and the dread of mean­ing­less­ness behind, and live despite it all.

It’s really the only life there is.

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