Trial and Error
There are literally an infinite number of ways that any writer can begin a piece of work. I wrote and deleted seven introductory paragraphs to this one alone, before I even zeroed in on a topic. There's a lot of trial and error involved, unless you have a direct plan of action in mind, or have all of a sudden been gripped by the Muse and a freak Catcher In The Rye erupts from your fingers. We aren't all that lucky, so we invariably end up struggling through drafts, preliminaries, outlines, and many crumpled balls of paper before the creation process finally births a product. That being said, I'll stop myself short in drawing out this metaphor needlessly by stating that I believe life functions in much the same way. It's a simple statement, one which bears some explanation, as it has a large capacity for erroneous interpretation.
There is a definite plan of action involved in my attempts to navigate life; it isn't just a toss of the dice, which statements like "trial and error" tend to conjure in the mind of a reader. However, I think that learning is contingent upon the depth of experience had by the individual making the attempt to grasp the world around him and his place within it. You can theorize and prophesy, philosophize and argue, but you'll never know for certain if your plan is a good one until you try it out in reality. Experience is the greatest teacher, say the sages. Buried in this still simpler statement is a remarkably interesting technique for navigating life: you think of an idea in the present, test it out in the world, and based on its success or failure within the framework of life, you are guided by this experience through into future decisions/experiences. What is also interesting about this all this structuralization, inference and adaptive refinement is that not all of our choices pan out with immediate results, a consequence of reality which can get us into deep shit sometimes, since personal judgment isn't always as reliable as experience.
Sometimes though, you welcome that shit for the lessons it can teach you. Sometimes, nothing teaches the rightness of a path like being drowned under one's own stupidity in taking a wrong one. Take addiction for example: as a behaviour or mentality, it really isn't a pretty thing, and when you're sacrificing something of yourself - be it money, time, virginity, integrity - for a fix, it takes a long time for hindsight to catch up with you and slap you back into reality. I hear tell that there's a lot of interesting scenery in the scope of addictions, but the time wasted in getting to your goal (which for most seems to be some sort of ephemeral "wisdom") isn't always an acceptable tradeoff. Time becomes one perpetual present where all that matters is the hit, right now. Someone told me once that it amounts to taking a long road to a short destination; amusingly enough, it took me a long time to understand the wisdom of that rather short statement. However, that seems to be par for the course with most everything in life, now doesn't it?
Our society does a lot to peddle its insipid junk on us all, day in and day out. It sells lifestyles rooted in the right-now, with no mention made of consequences in the long-term. You'd think we would want to be more responsible with our behaviours and actions, what with being the "highest evolved species" in this "best of all possible worlds" and all, but it seems that all we want to do is consume plentiful and myriad distractions in order to drown out the oppressive meaninglessness of reality, which offers no solutions or answers for life's hard questions to anyone, - hell, it doesn't even offer the question any longer - merely the choice of consumption of its products, or death by withdrawl and attrition from the societal "teat". Most people don't ever seem to mature beyond their high school mentalities, so they remain easily swayed by the path of least resistance and whatever allows them an easy out with their ego intact. I've been out of high school for quite a few years now, but no one that I grew up with or have met since then seems to have mentally escaped that atmosphere of snobbish cliquedom and social stratification that castrated any potential usefulness high school or the illusory "higher education" we've all been told about might have had. You people want me to put faith in a sensible and sane future for the world onto the shoulders of the twenty-five year old peons who still preside over the deepfryers at Burger King and carve out a living at Barnes and Noble, silently cursing the fate which led them to the whoredom of selling the Da Vinci Code? Are you kidding? All these people will ever be suited for is consumption and selfishness, and I see nothing that will change their behaviour short of a cataclysmic nuclear war which will finally bring an end to their perpetual pressing of reality's "snooze" button.
Not only that, but they're completely addicted to these arbitrary solipsistic little worlds of theirs, full of drama, excess and exaggerations of themselves. The distractions offered to us all are many indeed - hey, we have to fend off the boredom somehow, right? - and our addiction to them can be very subtle, in the case of entertainment, or quite visible, in the case of alcohol/drug addiction. It doesn't help things that something like alcohol is so heavily endorsed by public opinion, who think it greases the wheels of social awkwardness, or that it's so mythologized by figures like Hemingway. When you think about his situation, it doesn't really make me trust that his writings are any grander for all his substance abuse, merely that he needed some sort of crutch to get him there; it reminds me of the point at which this column began - uncertainty of direction. From my current perspective of life, I couldn't care less whether people take drugs for reasons of self-oblivion, distraction, wisdom-chasing or otherwise, but I also realize that it isn't helping them do anything they couldn't have done better without it, despite whatever logic they use to delude themselves to the contrary.
I can remember back to when I was very young and would see my siblings perched around a coffee table trading shots of tequila before they headed out to stir shit up in the nighttime world; not understanding the bizarre ritual, but intuiting that it was necessary for the success of the activities to follow, I could guess that this was all in furtherance of fun, and it made me curious, but not curious enough to join in – the subtle to overwhelming changes that occurred in the participants made me question the reasons behind the ritual. The people I knew were gradually becoming different people altogether, beings that I couldn't rationally grasp or keep up with, in terms of the logic which guided their actions.
Despite this, I also noticed that all of the "role-model" adults in my life, and almost all such adults whom I encountered outside of my immediate family were also partaking of this behaviour, consuming these weird substances that I was told were badbadbad, but which were still consumed anyhow by these same moralizing hypocrites. I didn't then and still don't get the double standard involved, but it made no difference to me, as I still had childhood dragons to slay, and saw no point in trying to grow up so quickly, if this was the behaviour expected of adults.
Depending on how you look at it, you can't remain a child forever - people grow up, and perspectives end up changing. You start becoming aware of what goes on around you in deepening layers of comprehension; for me, I began to notice most readily the pervasive presence of advertisement, and it didn't only come from televisions. You see it in social expectation, conventional morality, the actions of your peers, the teachings of your parents – it was everywhere. I've never enjoyed watching maggots feed on garbage, as the creepy-crawly feeling made me shiver, but that was what I was becoming privy to whenever I looked around at the people I associated with.
At the point in time when I was realizing this about the world and how it defined the apparent non-direction we all seemed to be heading in, I also began to understand the attraction that alcohol held for the people my age: when responsibility for your life's decisions are a faraway prospect, and the fire of youth fills you, it's only sensible to further thumb a nose at conventional wisdom by doing what society doesn't want you to do: get bombed and raise hell, 'cause who cares, right? There's plenty of time before you have to be responsible for yourself; you have at least until age twenty-five before personal accountability becomes an issue, and Mom and Dad's bail money stops getting deposited in your savings. Lots of time to figure things out.
At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, there's a reason why you should listen to your elders: the depth of their experience. Sure, it's "after-the-fact" wisdom talking; everyone warns you about these things after they've been through them, and tells you to say "No" like a good little circus monkey, but you don't take them seriously because you have no comprehension of consequences in a society which doesn't remind you that short term decisions can have longterm consequences. You haven't experienced it - therefore, it doesn't exist as a reality, only as a potential, a variable.
There was a story which Voltaire wrote, I can't remember the exact tale, which centered around two men who were embroiled in debates about metaphysics, knowledge and consciousness; they happened across an old woman who was completely ignorant of any of these "larger" questions which arose such passion in them - she swept her front stoop, cooked for her husband, cared for her children, and trusted in a God she barely comprehended to look after the rest of life for her. The two men were struck by this, and asked themselves what was the better existence - the old woman's, in which ignorance essentially equalled bliss, or their own, where they were perpetually drowned beneath the weight of their questions, their experiences and their knowledge.
(I hope that the reader will forgive me for the contradictory statement which follows, but I trust that those who can make sense of the path I describe will find it and walk it. Every single one of the greatest thinkers who have lived throughout history have endorsed this method.)
Their answer given reflects what I will venture forth, which is an affirmation of the initial sentiments expressed in this column: You will never know until you try; however, those who speak from experience, speak for a reason. Wisdom forever remains theory until it is lived by the seeker; life is meant to be lived, but it does no good to waste it on distractions. We will put ourselves through countless trials, but you will only see the higher path if you have your eyes set on seeing it. Seek that higher path, and leave error and distraction beneath you.
December 10, 2005
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