Adrift in a Sea of Change

Ship adrift in danger
Life's shoals

We do not chose our sex, race, genetics, temperament, culture of origin, parents, birth history, and time and place of birth. We may influence our interpersonal environment after birth, but only that which is closely bounded in space and time and already constrained by culture, collective and personal history. We grow by degrees to awareness of the inner and outer worlds and the factors which influence these worlds, but mostly our ignorance is abysmal, and our knowledge a reflection of social beliefs.

Knowledge is After-the-fact

Age correlates with experience, but the two are hardly synonymous. Much life experience may be redundant, a line etched again and again upon the same set of points. Experience is redundant not because of the literal sameness of everyday tasks, but because the attitude applied to experience and the preoccupations of mind interspersed between awareness and life’s freshness.

Experience falls into epochs, such as early, middle, and late childhood, adolescence, and early, middle, and late adulthood. The epochs arise due to biological change and cultural expectations associated with age. Epochs define different ways of knowing and acting, different values and goals.

As children we think as children. We do not discriminate discrete foundations of knowledge, the utility of different logics, or observational bias. Inner, outer, and cultural dicta are completely confounded, truth is presumed the knowledge of the collective, and so intelligence is stamped with the intelligence or stupidity of the collective.

Even when we think ourselves mature, in the sense that we are adults making adult decisions, we operate within cultural expectations of adult behavior and the limits of experience given to us by age. Within the confines of any epoch of our life, we cannot stand outside of ourselves to experience the outcome of choices rendered during that epoch, except in the most immediate sense, but not in the sense that would allow us to see the long-term effects of our actions because these long-term effects can only be known in the far future. Thus, even in adulthood and with the best intentions, our actions are conditioned by circumscribed results which may be completely contrary to long-term aims.

Popular Culture

Culture provides algorithms for discovery and proof of knowledge. As the methods of science, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology have become popularized, American culture, with its pragmatic bent, has readily incorporated these methods to produce a new cultural phenomenon, a culture dedicated to its own change. The old American culture summarized in pragmatism, Yankee know-how, and Horatio Alger optimism, supported by concrete truisms handed down as formula generation to generation –thank you, Benjamin Franklin– has given way to a populist deconstructivism which supports no formula, except perhaps to distrust authority. Transience and obsolescence drive consumption. Name recognition for Miley Cyrus far outstrips Witgenstein, Fermat, Bohr, Bohm, and the entire membership of the American Academy of Science.

Mass culture
Mass culture

In media America, style is culture, and style has no memory. Style as culture further aggravates the perplexity of life’s passages. Not only is each epoch of life’s passages defined by different ways of knowing, but each epoch is subject to kaleidoscopic shifts in slang and dress, hero and heroine, ideas and ideologies. Even if a choice were to be evaluated for its long-term effect, there is no continuous ground from which to examine it. Change in style renders questions dated and meaningless.

The Dilemma

If there is no continuous ground, wherefore is the ground of morality or immorality, right or wrong? We are adrift on a sea of change with no compass or reference wherein lies the attraction of psychology and the human potential movement to the waning generations of the past decades. If the compass is not without, perhaps it is within –in the form of images, feelings, intuitions, or the self with a capital “S”. Unfortunately, the “centeredness” and “self-realization” promised by popular psychology often served as a sham rationale for narrow self-preoccupation. Although the jury may still be deliberating about the social-psychological consequences of the 1960’s, the poor are poorer and the rich are richer. With the apparent disappointments and costs of this era, no wonder half the world pursues normative absolutes in the form of fundamentalism, conservatism, and tribalism. Even contemporary liberalism embraces its ideological contrary, fascism, in rampant political correctness.

Nearly 150 years ago in the book Either/Or, Kierkegaard formulated the modern dilemma as a choice between faith or hedonism, between Christianity or the pursuit of pleasure. As a life purpose, Kierkegaard argued hedonism is unsatisfactory because pleasure constantly must be renewed in new and different forms, and the pursuit of pleasure itself becomes burdensome. In the language of this essay, Kierkegaard’s alternatives translate to commitment to an absolute or the absence of a ground.

Among world religions, only the Asiatic religions seem to address change as an ultimate experiential reference, and only Buddhism suggests that change itself may be absolute. But if change is absolute, what about self, what about life after death, what about right and wrong? What about the core assumptions of Western culture which assume an absolute? Are we ready to validate a culture dedicated to continuous change? And if we think we are ready, we should spend some time in Buddhist retreat to experience how Buddhism is a temple to the past in appearance and form.

In his Four Quartets, Eliot observed, “Humankind cannot stand too much reality.”