Why you are not important
On escapism, egocentrism, and the sense of self in interconnectedness
A.: Good morning!
B.: Hello there!
A.: I thought I was the only early bird around…
B.: Is this your regular waking hour?
A.: Yes. I got out of bed at half past six. Basically just in time for breakfast. And you?
B.: Maybe at quarter to five. Went to the beach for a swim. Then walked around the area. It struck me how familiar everything felt, even though this is my first time around here.
A.: You have certainly seen something like it before. We are the same country after all.
B.: So close, yet so far apart. It is sad. Soldiers ready to kill each other for arbitrary lines on a map in defence of some ruling elite’s interests, ideologies indoctrinating us into hating each other, pomp and circumstance obscuring manufactured histories and the absurdity of it all. What are those elaborate constructs of humankind but vanity gone wrong? Vanity rationalised as necessity and wrapped up in a discourse of pragmatism.
A.: I feel you. It is why we are here, after all, hoping to establish relationships that can help bridge the gap. I found the whole idea intriguing: to bring together bloggers and activists from the region.
B.: We hope for the best, though I feel that ten years from now all this will be but a distant memory or, perhaps, an inspiration for future writers.
A.: Time will tell. I hope we succeed, despite the daunting task. Do you mind though if we stop talking about politics? We don’t have that much time and I would prefer to know more about you: your interests, your background. We will get the chance to elaborate on the political aspects later in the workshops and during the remainder of our stay at this hotel.
B.: Speak your mind.
A.: Let’s start with the information we have already. Is there any particular reason you went to the beach so early?
B.: It is summer time. Beaches are always packed with people. The only way to avoid them is to either go late at night or at dawn. Else you wait for winter.
A.: Why eschew people to begin with?
B.: I would turn it around as not having a pressing need to be with others the whole time and seizing the moment to be reminded of our place in the world. Why crave the attention, the validation? Our intuition, what our immediate experience conditions us to believe, is that we are the protagonists in our life and the makers of its story. Everything revolves around us. It thus is easy to be misled by the subjectivity of impressions into developing an overarching egocentrism and, eventually, extending it to a collective mindset of anthropocentrism. When we seek people in situations we do not really need them to be in, it may be that we are ultimately craving for stimuli that reinforce the illusion of self-centredness. Did they see me? What are they thinking about me right now? Such preoccupations spring from that point of view. We want to cling on to the belief of playing the protagonist because we are afraid of the truth it conceals: our impermanence, as well as our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. We dread it. Unless we learn to live with our fears, normalise them, and eventually overcome them. The appearance of loneliness reminds us of our actual condition: we are not the centre of the universe and we are not responsible for everything that happens in our life, even within the scope of our subjectivity. When a person is on their own, they begin to understand how their actuality compares to their socially-constructed self. No matter one’s status among their peers, once they step outside that zone they are framed differently.
A.: Hmm, I was not expecting that. You will have to elaborate anyway. My guess was that you had some kind of social anxiety. Perhaps body image issues, which would explain the behaviour of hiding from the public eye.
B.: Those are pertinent considerations in their own right, though they do not apply in my case. I could go to the beach at noon, but I prefer not to. It is about finding a balance in life between our nature as social animals in our own constructed world and species that exist within and because of a wider system of factors. Too much sociability may feed into that sense of inflated significance one has within their particular social milieu. On the other hand, absolute loneliness deprives us of engrossing and fulfilling experiences. Think, for example, what true solitude would do to a person if they could not even listen to music, or generally have access to anything that is of human design or origin. The process of enjoying art, of being exposed to culture in general, makes manifest an intersubjective phenomenon, even though there may be no interpersonal directness or reciprocity involved. Through the cultural artefact one experiences a subjectivity, hence the intersubjective reality of the moment. As social animals we fulfil our potential via immediate association with others at the physical and emotional levels, such as with an embrace, a kiss, or through friendship, etc., but also broaden our horizons with the intellectual or aesthetic works of others. The categories of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the mystical are analytical constructs. In practice, they are bound up together as aspects of the same presence.
A.: So the human being is a complex, multifaceted entity that is connected to their environment. And this environment encompasses other such beings.
B.: I would just add a fine distinction: we are not “connected” to our environment. We are yet another factor in the system which we subjectively understand as environing us. Every presence has its environment as seen from its own subjectivity, yet every said presence also exists as environment, or part thereof to be precise, in the perspective of another. It is why I hold that the agency-structure divide must collapse in to itself when studying human affairs where agents—other people in their own subjectivity—can operate as structure in those cases where their actions reproduce the structural aspects of their collective order.
A.: I see. Then…
B.: Sorry to interrupt, but this is important to add.
A.: Please, go ahead.
B.: There is this distinction between the internal and the external worlds. In essence, it too is analytical, for we cannot have whatever is deemed as internal on its own. We can discern it as a pattern, or a system, or a system of systems with its own local rules or strata of ever more particularised rules, but we cannot sever it from the magnitudes that render it possible. Put simply, it is impossible to have a human enveloped in a capsule of nothingness, affected, determined, or otherwise influenced by nothing, yet remain human in the way we know it. Even the expression of being environed by nothing is meaningless! And I actually believe that existence as such is impossible from nothing, in nothing, towards nothing. There is always something. We cannot even conceive of nothingness as such, but only outline it in negative terms as the opposite of presence. The moment we describe nothingness, we render it present and, thus, non-nothingness. So when we contemplate an object in its environment, we are actually elaborating on an analytical distinction that rests on subjectivity.
[ Read: On non-Being and the prime mover (2021-04-03) ]
A.: Fascinating! Tell me more about the beach then. Do you exercise? How good is your athletic performance?
B.: I do exercise a bit using just my body weight. Nothing extreme though. No obsession with it. You speak of performance, which I interpret as referring to a competition of sorts. When you try to become a champion, you make sacrifices in pursuit of an end. You do not think about the consequences, as you obstinately seek to bask in the ephemeral satisfaction—the glory—that the championship provides. Sport can become an addiction, as with everything that is not done in moderation: it is exhilarating, you live for it, you dream about it. So if you are, say, a footballer (soccer player) you are forgoing the longer-term health of your legs’ joints, among others, in order to compete for some trophies over the span of an otherwise short professional career as a sportsperson. To me, glory is fundamentally the same as seeking attention. You become an avatar in the public eye as you the person is reduced to the figment of you the celebrated performer. I do not measure my performance nor try to out-compete anyone because that is not the point of being athletic.
A.: What is the point then?
B.: To enjoy a better quality of life than what you would have had without any degree of physical activity. I suppose you are already familiar with the implications on the likelihood and severity of chronic diseases, but think about experiences in everyday life. You want to take a stroll down the park, walk up a staircase, go swimming, travel and explore sites where you will likely have to climb some elevation, dance, and so on. If it is within your means, you want those experiences to require as little effort as possible. They need not become an ordeal.
A.: What about those who cannot commit to sport?
B.: They must be treated with respect and concerted efforts have to be made to accommodate their needs while improving their lives through other means. Me being athletic should not be misconstrued as an exhortation for everyone to follow in my footsteps. Each person is unique and must operate accordingly.
A.: All clear! I confess to be hungry and not at my best right now. It still is seven o’clock, after all! Don’t know where you are getting all that energy from.
B.: That’s fine. I got carried away. An early swim can do that sometimes.
A.: I have taken mental notes of what you just said. I think I got the gist of it, but we’ll need to revisit some finer points. I also wish to add my own thoughts to the discussion. Let’s check the buffet and afterwards head to our first workshop. We’ll have plenty of free time in the evening, probably at dinner and for the rest of the night.
[ In the interest of time… ]
A.: May I take a seat?
A.: I noticed you sitting here by yourself and thought I would join you. My room overlooks the swimming pool. Right there. Normally I dine at around 20h, but an hour ahead of schedule should make no major difference.
B.: The others said they would dine at around eight as well. I am just used to my ways. Besides, I like my meals to be as unceremonious as possible, the food bland, austere, forgettable, the whole process short and to-the-point. A meal that you keep thinking about is a bad meal: it distracts you. Trying to coordinate a meeting with ten people and cater to everyone’s tastes just turns an ordinary event into a special occasion.
A.: I think I know you already. “We can always socialise afterwards.” Correct?
A.: I take that grin as confirmation. I have been thinking about the topics you covered at the breakfast table. As I mentioned earlier in my introduction to the group, I am studying psychology. Will be a sophomore this term, but am still advanced enough in what I do.
B.: I remember.
A.: You said something along the lines of everything being connected. Like how there cannot be a human in nothingness and so on. And how agency and structure are not different in certain cases. This got me thinking about my studies and specifically the notion of escapism. Are you familiar with this term?
B.: Yes, but it would be better to elaborate on your thesis.
A.: Basically I wanted to discuss this concept of getting away from an environment you do not like. Is it possible and what can we learn from such tendencies?
B.: Earlier I was speaking in general terms. What we would consider metaphysics or, if you will, the abstract structure of all that is. When I claimed that we cannot have an object without an environment, I did not mean to imply that it is impossible for particular cases to be reconfigured. In plain terms, it is possible for a given human being to switch from one social milieu to another, such as by migrating. What is not possible, I contend, is for there to be existence in nothing, a presence without environment. So, in our example of the immigrant, they can move from one cultural context to another, but they cannot avoid being environed by something, perhaps another culture.
A.: Do you think escapism is a valid feeling?
B.: I believe this question needs to be reformulated. Just try to imagine an invalid feeling. The emotion itself takes place. What may be up for debate is whether its underlying triggers or expectations and desires satisfy the principle of correspondence when assessed against the actuality of the case. For instance, a narcissist who arrives here at nine o’clock, may feel ignored by the rest of the group and harbour a feeling of indignation when, in truth, it was known that everyone preferred to have dinner at eight.
A.: The feeling occurs, then. We need to test how justifiable it is, where that makes sense.
B.: Validation in general is a tricky concept for feelings. This relates to what I said in the morning about going for a swim when no-one is at the beach. If you feel a certain way, you do not need a stamp of approval from others to add credibility to the emotion. They do not hold the authoritative view nor do they activate the chain reaction the feeling causes. Insofar as the emotion as such is concerned, the opinions of others are irrelevant. It is why I arrived for dinner at seven: what our group thinks is not my problem. If, however, it is their attention that you ultimately seek, then your actions have some ulterior motive. We would need to identify the triggers of those behavioural patterns and study the emotions related to them. Still, this is not matter of the flawed concept of “valid feelings”. They are all valid. We need a more refined approach than such binaries.
A.: I have been thinking about escapism as a means of experimentation. It can help set aside your current condition to seek experiences that are not possible in your ordinary life.
B.: There’s a contradiction there. Isn’t escapism possible within your ordinary life? And, by extension, isn’t the derived experience possible as well? Again, my point is nuanced, as I get what you are saying, where escapism is a virtual escape from a physical situation, but I think we should not neglect the potentiality of any given case. For there to be escapism, there has to be a potential for escapism. The case must render it possible.
A.: Can you point at something specific?
B.: Would you agree that video games are considered at least by some as a form of escapism?
B.: Now suppose we invert the roles. Say that your ordinary life is that which unfolds within the game world. Can your avatar in the game seek out escapism or otherwise alternative experiences?
A.: I think not. That would have to be programmed into the game. Plus, there are some genres where that scenario cannot be formulated, such as puzzle games. Though I guess this is the same principle of being programmed to do something.
B.: Exactly! More generally, that plane of reality would have to hold the potential for such a state of affairs.
A.: And we can apply this insight to games as such. Like you can only ever do what the game permits, whether by its developers’ intentions or not. Including the bugs, of course. Those too are part of that plane of reality you mentioned.
B.: It is the same with all experiences. An agent of action can only seek those which are possible in the given structure. Agency is a function of structure, yet the latter consists of other agents of action. What I implied earlier by the impossibility of a decontextualised presence. Everything is contextualised, framed, informed, conditioned, determined by other factors. And because an agent is a factor in the perspective of others, the interplay of factors is neither linear nor one-directional: it is cyclical and dynamic, else helix-like (spiral). Dependence is inter-dependence, existence is co-existence, unless we are explicitly conducting analytics where we mentally isolate certain factors. Furthermore, there are feedback loops, which rest on a medium of communication that conveys meaning. It is a foundational language that ties everything together. To your specific point though, games are a great metaphor of the predicament we find ourselves in. We are expected to operate in certain ways and fulfil particular roles. To be predictable much like the automata in the game world. While our socially-constructed life cannot reprogram the natural order, it tries its best to push it to the side.
A.: This only raises more questions though.
B.: It always does. It is what I do. We’ll get to them, but let me press on that last point. Listen to this song and I will explain why I dislike it.
A.: What? You don’t like Frank Sinatra?
B.: The singer and the genre are fine. It is the underlying value system of the specific lyrics that annoys me (Luck Be A Lady is the song). How “lady luck” should behave “lady-like”. In the background lies the chimera of the American dream, while what comes through is the nouveau riche pretentiousness as well as the insecure and possessive gentleman. Hypocrisy, hypocrisy writ large. Those too are mini-games of sorts where people have to conform with what their role substantiates. The so-called “lady” must be lady-like because rules, unwritten or otherwise, dictate thus. Again, what I mentioned earlier about trying to maintain a parallel world that we can reprogram on a whim. To allow the person which qualifies as a lady to behave in an altogether different manner without the risk of persecution, we need to rewrite the game’s algorithm, which means to re-institute society. Still, we know that to institute is to enact rules and those are always creating new roles. Much like a game must be the product of some code which determines what is possible within it. There can be no game without prior programming, just as there can be no future society whose values have not been prefigured by its predecessor.
[ Read: Notes on Rules (2020-07-01) ]
A.: This adds another perspective to escapism. Plus, it provides grist to the mill of my curiosity! Many I have conversed with typically think of escapism as something bad, deplorable, undesirable or, at least, dismiss it as an experience that is not part of reality. What do you think about that?
B.: The notion of “reality” is problematic in this context. It rests on a tenuous distinction that reduces nature to an idealisation of nature. I have explained before how humanity has a tendency to idolise and to exercise idolatry. This is done by associating a presence with an idealised version of it, only to eventually conflate the two.
[ Read: Why it is not just about you (2021-08-03) ]
A.: Please elaborate, as I do not follow.
B.: In this case, the idol of nature does not encompass imagination. The capacity to imagine is part of being a human. Remember that all potentiality is contingent on the structure. So if we hold that nature exists and all which exists is real, then it follows that imagination as such exists and is part of this reality as well.
A.: Isn’t that a problematic conclusion though? Would it not make it impossible to tell what is sheer fantasy and what is not?
B.: It is a fine point. Only if you are conditioned to think of nature as an idol of itself. Consider it this way and connect it to what we covered earlier on the topic of valid feelings. If someone hurls a stone that hits another person, the latter will feel pain. The injury is the effect and the cause is the impact of the flying object on the person’s body. We could trace the cause further back and also reason about contributing causes, but let’s keep it simple. We are inclined to claim that such event is real. We can touch the stone. It travelled through space over a certain time. There was an impact on another tangible surface. A discernible sense of pain followed. Now suppose that someone thinks of their deceased pet. They may feel happiness, sadness, or a mixture of other emotions. Here we have a memory as the cause, with the effects being those feelings. This too is real because the emotions are, in practice, a series of biochemical reactions, much like the infliction of physical harm. If the effects are real, the cause must be the same. In a third case, we may have someone who imagines the world in a certain state of affairs and is shocked about how things may play out. Again, an idea has physical consequences. Ideas are intangible, but they too exist somewhere—where exactly is beside the point. And we can extend this insight to every aspect of the imaginary. Whether the whole process starts endogenously or exogenously is a secondary consideration as it does not change how “real” it is. The gist is that imagination and its products are part of the potential of this plane of reality and, in this particular sense, are not distinct from what qualifies as empirical evidence. We can still disambiguate the two magnitudes by employing heuristics and by holding certain parameters as constant. It is what I mentioned earlier about the analytical distinction between internal and external worlds.
[ Read: On materiality and emergence (2020-12-20) ]
[ Read: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28) ]
A.: What gives escapism its negative connotations?
B.: Expectations. Take the objectified lady that Sinatra sings about. She—or should we say “it” as the role of ladylikeness bestowed upon her dehumanises her, reducing her into an object controlled by a conceptual straitjacket?—has to behave in a certain way, even though she may not feel like it. So she has to wear make-up and dress accordingly to be cute at all times even though she may prefer to remain simple and, say, forage herbs and study the local fauna of the nearby mountains. Thus a lady who does not behave in a lady-like fashion is derided or discriminated against for her ‘escapism’, for her preference to lead her own life free from desires that are not hers. Escapism in the way you implied it earlier as experimentation can help us relieve some pressure from oppressive circumstances that we cannot physically undo. To find refuge in a virtual place we can trust. The mark of a tyranny at the quotidian social level, not just the political regime, is when people react negatively to you feeling good about yourself and them wanting to control how you should act and what emotions you ought to experience.
A.: So escapism can be therapeutic in the way I had implied it, even though it may not be sufficient in its own right—that is another discussion though. Also, now I understand that my question this morning about why you went to the beach at the crack of dawn was insensitive. Sorry!
B.: There is no need to apologise. Sincere ignorance is not a crime in my books. It should provide the impetus to educate and to redeem those who do not know, not hunt them down with extreme prejudice. The ones who treat such ignorance as a mortal sin and take offence at your slightest misstep are acting in bad faith and are ready to pick a fight for ulterior reasons. Humanity has time and again created injustice on a monumental scale in pursuit of what appeared to be a just cause. What I find problematic at the outset is dissonance: you know exactly how things stand yet opt to operate as an ignoramus regardless, while having the temerity to be vociferous in disseminating your uninformed views.
A.: A subtle but important distinction. Why do people have all those expectations then? Like wanting someone to behave in a certain way or whatnot?
B.: I would speculate that it stems from the inclination to avoid unpredictability. Uncertainty disturbs us and drives us to reach early conclusions through which we entertain the illusion that we know more than we actually do. The untrained mind wants to treat everything as having a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It will go to great lengths to provide answers to unanswerable questions and it will cling on to the impression of certitude those engender. To hypothesise is different though, because it remains open-ended and subject to review.
A.: How does that translate into daily life?
B.: Think about the saying of “the evil you know is better than the one you don’t”. It still is an evil throughout though your familiarity with it offers you, in a somewhat paradoxical way, some sense of comfort; comfort in what to expect.
A.: You are saying then that if given the option humans may prefer a bad situation they are familiar with over one they cannot predict? This obviously goes beyond the phrase you referenced.
B.: Humans enact rules that govern their collective experience in an effort to establish a modicum of predictability. There is, nevertheless, a fine line between working towards a basis that makes social life function smoothly and becoming outright intolerant of any tendency that upsets the norms. As with our example of “lady luck” being expected to act all “lady-like”, whatever that means, there is a point at which the belief in perfect predictability in one’s behaviour inevitably results in denial of their personhood; and personhood entails the capacity to act, which implies the possibility of acting in a manner that upsets expectations altogether. While it is understandable that all societies have rules, the difference between benign practicality and pernicious absolutism is one of degree. Much like the distinction between poison and medicine where a tiny portion will heal you while an overdose shall prove lethal—or what I do with a bit of sport instead of being obsessed with it. Moderation is key. Every culture, including those which fashion themselves as enlightened, comes with the latent risk of mistaking its rules, its own institutions and conventions, for natural constants. Such falsehoods underpin attempts at stamping out any deviations from the norm as unnatural or otherwise undesirable.
A.: Basically you are saying that there needs to be a balance and people must remain vigilant. How does one go about finding that sweetspot?
B.: I don’t think there is a way to answer this in advance or, rather, to know what the balance is in a case yet-to-be-constituted. If you do not have the factors of the case, how can you opine about their interplay and draw the indelible lines of the categorisation you are about to make? It is why the real value of thinking things through is not about the answers you give but the attitude you maintain. The right answer may change—it always does. What will allow you to arrive at it consistently and to adapt to evolving circumstances is a certain disposition towards knowledge and learning.
[ Read: Why I won’t compete with you (2021-06-20) ]
[ Read: The Dialectician’s Ethos (2020-09-30) ]
A.: Would you call it “wisdom”?
B.: Perhaps that’s the word for it. While a simple definition of wisdom may be that it consists in the capacity to make the correct judgement under the prevailing conditions, I like to think of it slightly differently. Wisdom is the ability to determine when to upset one’s own justifiable precepts and why. It is what distinguishes the grand master from the disciple. The latter will be dogmatic as they faithfully follow every rule to the letter. While the former will understand how to apply the rules or refrain from doing so. There is no dogmatism, just an understanding of what is in effect and the reason behind it. This still is about the correct judgement call, though a bit more elaborate.
A.: I see. We’ve ventured too far from our topic though. How would you tie this in to the theme of escapism?
B.: We spoke about the uneasiness caused by uncertainty and how humans will explore ways to distract themselves from their actuality as ignorant, as not omniscient. There is a sense in which our theories about us and the world at-large, our conduct in general and the concomitant aspirations, are themselves a form of escapism as we try to avoid the inconvenient truth that we do not really know as much as we think we do.
A.: Is that bad then? Can we reach a state where we do not try to avoid our condition?
B.: What matters is that this plane of reality has the potential for escapism. Whether we can avoid it or not is also within the horizon of possibilities. We might or we might not. Those who can are the ones who are at ease with the radical uncertainty of our condition, those who do not dread it and need not flee from it, those who are not disturbed by the truth of our impermanence and the fact that our presence consists as partiality, not individuality in the strict sense of a decontextualised presence.
[ Read: On individuality and partiality (2021-03-14) ]
A.: On a side note, it is fascinating how this all started by discussing the otherwise mundane task of you going to the beach at a certain time.
B.: You will know intuitively when you have made progress once you can learn about the greater things through the seemingly little ones.
A.: Sounds cryptic. “Progress” in what sense?
B.: To answer that I need to re-frame the issue. I mentioned earlier how briefly avoiding public scrutiny can help you train to overcome your egocentrism. It will make you understand that you are not the author of your life, as having exclusivity over it but, at best, a contributor to its sprawling narrative.
A.: Yes, I remember.
B.: When you reach that state of consciousness, when you admit that you are but a part of a greater system, you are humbled by the recognition that what you can do is not really of your own making. You are endowed with certain talents, physical characteristics, personality traits that were not of your own choosing or design. You are predisposed to pursue certain fields of endeavour. You are exposed to a social-cultural milieu that conditions the way you think before you even begin to develop faculties of independent reasoning. That civilisation furnishes artefacts which enrich your life by broadening your horizons, such as language, music, science, technology, the content of everyday conversations, etc. It is a vast corpus of work and/or knowledge developed incrementally by innumerable contributors over the ages. You both build on the works of others and are inspired by what is available in your environment. It happens regardless of whether you realise it or not, want it or not. There is, in other words, a structure that conditions your agency.
A.: What about making progress towards learning about the greater things through the smaller ones?
B.: The egocentric agent fails to recognise the fact that their output is contingent on the structure or, to put it simply, they are deluded into thinking that their works are exclusively their own. Hence their insatiable desire for confirmation. Whereas the one who is free from such misconceptions is prepared to give back what they have taken and to add their own contribution to the commons which continuously enrich their life. Maybe you are familiar with Homer’s Odyssey. The poet starts by appealing to the Muse, the goddess of poetry in this case, to tell him what to write. While this is an artistic and theistic metaphor, it does hint at a profound insight: that even a masterpiece has no exclusive author in the strict individualistic sense that an egocentrist would think of their fruits of labour. Progress then, of the sort I alluded to, is the process of growing out of one’s egocentrism.
A.: Thank you for the detailed explanation!
B.: You are welcome! But wait cause there’s more.
A.: Of course… Just like that swim which has nothing to do with swimming.
B.: Myth has it that Prometheus, a titan or else a god, taught humanity the art of handling fire. This is not literally about pyrotechnics, but an allegory of someone who shares vital know-how which then forever broadens the possibilities of those who get to implement it. I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity. To this day we use fire, both literally and metaphorically, to drive our vehicles, power up our houses, use computers, prepare food, and so on. Such critical know-how is a common resource because a higher being shared it with the world rather than keep it exclusive to the domain of some elite. Couldn’t Prometheus—or every one who follows the example of the titan by being guided by the “Promethean Ideal”, as I would call it—license their work instead and live off of it as a rentier, much like the modern world’s unscrupulous overlords who connive to enclose the commons? No, because a higher being knows that they too are not the centre of the world and that they too are part of a greater whole. What the myth teaches those who listen and what Homer tells us at the outset of the epic is that despite our subjectivity and the immediate sense of egocentrism that we have, we must aspire to expand our shared stock of knowledge rather than extract from it; aspire to empower others just like they have empowered or are empowering us; aspire to be more god-like in our disposition by overcoming our ego.
A.: Are you religious?
A.: Why not?
B.: The immediate answer to such questions is their inversion, namely, why are you—not you in particular but the person who makes the positive proposition—religious? What does that give you? For example, are you a Christian because it teaches love at some level? Then would you hold that one cannot express love without being a Christian? Is religiosity of that particular sort a prerequisite to loving? And if it is, how can love exist without religious beliefs, such as how does your dog or a child that hasn’t been indoctrinated yet love you? There is no need to answer those questions. I am just being schematic. We could ask the same for the community aspect of religions, such as attending church on Sundays in hope of getting a date or gaining the favourable opinion of your peers in pursuit of some other benefit. My point is that all positive propositions, which is to say every thesis that states how things finally stand, must ultimately be justified. The burden of proof falls on those who want to make such claims. We, on the other end, maintain the option to provide counter-arguments in an attempt to probe further, else to approximate the truth, if we feel like it. And in doing so, we may simply disagree with what is presented to us on the premise that it does not make up a cogent argument.
A.: Let’s suppose that I answer those questions. What would you say then?
B.: There are matters which are open to interpretation and thus contingent on subjectivity, and those which are not. If, for example, humanity unanimously decides that it no longer wishes to be bound by gravity and, say, codifies such a belief in law it will have no effect on its condition: the Earth will still pull it to the ground, ceteris paribus. Whereas humanity can decide on what it means for a person to behave in a “lady-like” fashion, if I may re-use my previous example: there is no objective or convention-independent condition at play or, if there is, it is too obscure for us to grasp it with certainty, hence the differences in opinion.
A.: And how does that relate to the question of being religious?
B.: An impartial observer will discover that the practice of religiosity is replete with diverging views and traditions. There are numerous religions and even more branches or sects within them. In light of this evidence, the impartial observer can only state the agnostic or sceptical view, that of not knowing for sure: the apparent controversies reveal the obscurity of the underlying theme and the futility of trying and failing to provide definitive answers. Those involved in the theological debates are not sure about the underlying theme though they like to pretend otherwise. Both extremes of theists and atheists, both aspects of the same coin of certitude. Consequently, if you were to explore these topics, I would consider it valid to not only elaborate on the substantive aspects of your statements but also include aesthetic considerations.
A.: Aesthetics? How?
B.: One who suggests that they like—“like” is the operative term—belonging or not to this or that denomination holds a fecund approach, as it hints at the underlying subjectivity of the matter: it is not pretentious. This is not to say that we ought not to believe in something or that religion as such is superfluous, but rather that we should recognise that ours is a belief, some conventional arrangement, which implies that we might be wrong. It is the unwillingness to remain dubitative and inquisitive which sustains the existential escapism of claiming to know what we do not.
A.: Piecing together dubitativeness and the inclination to avoid unpredictability that you speculated about, can we maintain that the two are one and the same? That we are curious at some deeper level because knowledge or the appearance of knowledge makes us feel better?
B.: That could be the case. Though I would differentiate them at the level of their application or else their modalities. It is the same as how a shepherd must work with the prey drive of their puppy to train it for the rigours of herding sheep. Herding and hunting derive from the same place. Their application differs. A puppy with no pronounced pray drive cannot grow into a shepherd dog. A human who is gripped by the dread of their unpredictable condition, who is readily aware of it, is at the same time one who has the potential to use their propensities in ways that can liberate them from their agony. It all starts by exposing oneself to experiences that reveal one’s insignificance, through which comes the realisation that egocentrism is an illusion that holds us hostage to our fears.
A.: How do you go about achieving that? Do you just wake up one day and decide to stop doing things the way you used to?
B.: It depends on the person and the circumstances. In my case, I left my hometown to pursue university studies. My naive and misinformed plan at the time was that I would go abroad, perform some otherwise boring tasks, and eventually come back to my prior state as if nothing had transpired. It turned out that life had other events in store, which led me to migrate and roam around. To cut the long story short: I have yet to return after fifteen years. Throughout this time I have pondered how circumstantial our sense of self is. When you are with your friends in your comfort zone for practically your whole life you develop a warped identity that falsely attributes to you characteristics which are actually environmental. For example, you are treated as a cool fellow by your peers to the point where you fancy your coolness as innate. Then you move to another place, well beyond your bubble and that impression is gone: people who do not know you do not recognise any intrinsic coolness in you. At first you are in denial, though in time you admit that what was once thought to be yours, what would once manifest as your power, was a product of a multitude of factors in their interplay which you just happened to borrow, be the user of, or otherwise the medium through which it was expressed. Bewildered at being unsettled yet oddly fascinated by the newfound uncertainty, you ask: “what is truly mine, then?”, “what did I contribute to such an impression of self that no environment can take away from me?”. As the years go by and you keep reflecting on that problématique, the honest answer always points at your insignificance in the grand scheme of things: “not much, my friend; not much”.
A.: Interesting! Your transformation, so to speak, was a matter of luck or serendipity. While it is common to say how I can relate to your story, the truth is that I have no notion of what it means to have your identity challenged in such a thoroughgoing way. How does it feel? Maybe you can offer an example?
B.: It is like you are an amateur photographer. You take the occasional picture with your expensive phone, apply filters and the like, receive lavish praise from your friends and generally hold yourself in high esteem. Then you stumble across an unassuming yet expert photographer who, for whatever reason, wants to help you out by showing you the shortcomings in your positioning, the limitations of your equipment, the flaws in how you capture light and shadow and perspective. In short, all you believed to be true turns out to be a lie. Though you are a bit disappointed you take those words as an inspiration to learn. You are poised to push forward and explore the uncharted territory which opens up before you. Now extend that to your perspective on life in general, rather than any given hobby or occupation.
A.: I grow anxious to learn more about myself. Perhaps I will get that chance as well. Though right now I am inclined to be more purposeful than you ever was in those early days, at least based on your story. I have lived here my whole life. It is unlikely I will move out in the near future. Something else has to happen.
B.: Each person is different. There is no point in emulating my life, as you can never replicate everything that held true in my case. The constitution of each case is unique. You may only do what is within your potentiality and within that of the milieu you are immersed in. It may be that a more direct or more deliberate approach will yield the same or better results. This very conversation might be enough to get you started; an exchange of views that I did not have the opportunity to partake in back in the day, nor had the maturity to ever understand and appreciate. All I can do is share what was given to me: it is not mine in the possessive sense.
A.: I wish to start as soon as possible. Will you be at the beach tomorrow morning as well? Maybe you could show me exactly what to do?
B.: Careful with your enthusiasm. It is not to be taken lightly, nor to be done over the weekend or with a new friend you are excited about. I left home, but I also had to outgrow my self. That cannot be undone. Be prepared for the long journey and let go of the tourist mentality. As for showing you how it’s done, there is no secret. I just went for a swim and then for a walk. It is not magic. Nothing out of the ordinary. What matters is my perspective, which comes from the elucidation of all those concepts I have presented tonight and during breakfast. Just think about your place in the world. I do not need to be at the seaside to do that. I do not have to wake up early, nor to swim or walk or whatnot. It just happens that those activities are easier for me. Someone else may do the same through dancing or meditating. I don’t know: each person is unique.
A.: Can’t you at least keep me company? I will have all sorts of questions and you can help me think them through.
[ Read: why I won’t date you (2021-06-16) ]
B.: It is better not to seek immediate results. Avoid the trap. You are not prepared for them while you will not appreciate what goes into the end result. My allusion to the tourist attitude is meant to suggest that this is a process, not a one-off event or an exhibition of sorts that you can buy a ticket to. There are no shortcuts, no life hack that opens up a direct conduit to such a destination. Right now you are still acting out of egoism, as you are trying to hold on to your self-importance, thinking about why I would not join you and how that could be an attack on your cherished self-perception. Relax: it is not about me and you. Those false wants are to be expected at such an early stage. You will appreciate my gesture after the fact.
A.: Okay, I will not insist and shall instead commit to the task however I can.
B.: There is nothing more I can do about it, anyhow. These are not swimming lessons, nor am I here to judge you or otherwise measure your performance. I already told you all you need to know to get started. Do not underestimate an exchange of views just because it happens to be casual and ad-hoc. Do not dismiss this for its lack of professorial palaver. Just because there is music playing in the background and we happen to have dinner together does not mean that I am putting up an act. You will eventually understand as much. Take those words seriously. A friendly presence can still be a tutor and perform a tutelary function. An ordinary chat may change your life. It is the little things, as I remarked earlier, and how we might learn from them. Internalise what we have talked about and take it on from there. I am confident you can do it, otherwise you would have bailed long ago or I would have simply changed subjects. Me being at the beach with you will likely hamper your efforts and distract you from the task at hand. The goal is to escape from your egocentrism, not find excuses to spend more time with others in some new adventure. Don’t grow attached to me. Chances are you may never see me again once we leave this quaint place. I am all but irrelevant. Same goes for the snapshot of the person you think you are right now. Be prepared to leave behind your old world, forgo what you once cherished, just how I did with my hometown and the version of my self who in my memories stayed there forever. Besides, why would I even want you at the beach with me? It would defeat the purpose: recall that I need those rare moments of solitude and will thus do my best to avoid you. No hard feelings!
[ Read: On walking (away) (2021-07-19) ]
A.: Ah yes, I know: “we can always socialise afterwards”. Though I have yet to determine what time or day that may be…
B.: Neither have I.