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To Reign in Hell
As is known to those who take the time to think on such esoteric topics, it is impossible to know the good without the bad. There is a middle state, without judgment, where nothing much matters, but too much lingering here and one discovers a kind of personal entropy: since all decisions are equally of this middle state, there's no point making any decision. Linger in the stream and let it pass. Of course, in that state, there is also none of the reward of accomplishment.
Making choices after all defines us. From the simplest satisfactions when we choose to clean our homes or organize our lives in a better fashion, to the greatest choices, when we stand our ground for a principle or ideal, choice makes us feel alive because in it we are exercising the capacity of life. This capacity is at its simplest level motion, and at its most complex motion through the world of ideas. We feel alive when we encounter a choice and make a good one. We feel dead when we shirk from these choices, even if we're "comfortable" with our warm homes, cars, video games, pornography and serving-size packaged prefabricated foods.
Excepting such a middle state, we live for making choices toward what is good and avoiding what is bad. As with all judgments and categories, these exist in a spectrum from simple goods like a clean house being superior to a filth-hole, to complex ends where we prefer a society that is not failing to one that allows us excess of comfort. Our choices are informed by our knowledge of what is good, or what ends in an order that is beneficial to us, and what is bad, or what results in less organization and less beneficial aspects. Disorder is another form of entropy, one that is fatal to individuals and societies alike.
Our knowledge of good and bad is entirely dependent on experience, although we come pre-programmed with some knowledge. Snakes are for the most part bad, in our genetic heritage, and depending on where our families originated, there may be other primal fears and primal desires. Germans seem to like order and cleanliness over all else, where to an Italian, a warm house full of good food takes precedence. What we all share that is not learned is a knowledge that some things will end well, and others will not. If we are attuned to ourselves, we become uneasy deep in our gut when we are part of a course of action that we suspect will not end well.
We wonder if indeed our universe learned by the same method, since our thoughts and their maturation so resemble the processes we see in nature whether planets forming from circling gasses or species adapting general principles to specific environments. Our furthest conjecture might envision a nothingness so absolute it is not even an empty space, only an absence in totality, which at some point through a routine error was able to recognize two parts of itself as distinct, and thus created "space" so both could exist. Is the universe made of thoughts? It certainly seems as if it acts that way.
In John Milton's "Paradise Lost," the most beautiful of angels so made Error and rebelled against an all-seeing God, and was thus cast into a Hell, dividing existence between Heaven and Hell and their mediate zone, this mortal space of time and body we know as "life on earth." Satan, cast among the wreckage with his fellow rebels, reflects on his fate with the stolidity of a Greek tragedic deity: It is better to reign in hell, he surmises, than to serve in heaven. From error comes new life, and from Satan's fall comes what we know on earth as the significance of choice between good and bad. With only heaven, there was no need for such choice, and through error, the universe expanded.
When we return from our spacy conjecture to the reality of our present time, we can see a parallel construction: without certain knowledges, we are unaware of how what transpires will end. A child will not be concerned when people around him or her are taking methamphetamine, because that becomes in that child's experience "normal"; in the same way, a child can be inculcated to live around any population or behavior, but this does not mean such behaviors will end well or poorly. In the same way, we who grow up in a certain society know it as "normal" and must actively assess its tenets and actions as to how they will end.
But our experience limits us, and in this we see the wisdom of hell. Most grow up in the normalcy and do not second-guess it, but accept its failings as a matter of course and do their best to dodge them. Fewer than one percent of all people question the actual direction of society or its future impact. Among those, only a few have either sought or seen hell and remained mentally intact enough to process it.
Of course, hell takes many forms. Some find hell on the battlefield, others in a broken home, and still others in crime or economic desolation. Others find it more subtly in the interactions of people. Win an award, get a promotion, make a work of art, or get famous, and suddenly you find that your friends are retaliating against you. Or sniping, expecting you to pick up the check and not care about the damage they do to your house. In the quiet moments after such events, when the puzzled mind attempts to diagnose the situation... and one realizes that other people can be motivated by revenge, small-minded envy, and even a simple parasitic desire to steal.
Having seen hells created by humans, or even the hell that a solitary human can bring to us, we become more critical of any potential action. Our sphere of good expectations has been violated, but much as Satan in discovering hell found a certain liberation, we find that we are disassociated as a result from an illusion. We no longer believe that all is well no matter what we do. Through the impact of horror, and by seeing the empty and false motivations of others, we realize not only that we are in the driver's seat of our own lives, but that there is no guarantee things will work out alright on their own -- more likely, they'll turn out terribly, since many of the people in command have the same revengeful outlook as the others in whom we discover anew hell.
In the same way an inexperienced Satan could not know the power of his own choice, because he never had the chance to screw up and get thrown into hell, modern people are inexperienced and know not hell. They are virgins of true depression, true fear, and true horror because they have surrogate experiences of pleasure and pain within a system that doesn't vary -- although it postpones all of its biggest disasters much like it puts its trash in landfills, criminals in prisons, toxic waste in oceans, incompetents in government. They get excited by a change in job, and get depressed by a broken car. But do they face real horror or victory, the chance for change not in an event within their lives but the form of those lives themselves?
Until one knows hell, one cannot look into the structure of things. Behind the visible, behind the immediate, there is the way elements of a situation interact to perpetuate it. To see hell is to realize how those things bring about negativity. To see hell is to wish to know the only way to avoid it is to tackle these difficult and complex but rewarding invisible structures. Any idiot can bash an attacking wolf on the head, but how many can realize the misdirection of an upstream tributary disrupted a hunting ground and brought on the wolf? Or spotting an error that does not attack like the wolf, but leaves out necessary things, laying the groundwork for future failure. To see hell is to realize, like Satan did, that the visible is only part of what must be considered.
To realize hell is to see that the invisible world must be tackled. We cannot exist in the solely visible world, where tangible concepts are presented to us and we vote upon them or buy them but never change the structure of society. The visible world is what humans create for one another, with words and symbols and flags. The invisible world, more than what they say they mean, is the future results of their actions as designed. The invisble world is what will determine the difference between heaven and hell long before the impact of decisions past makes those states come about.
Critical thinking, or the ability to analyze complex structure where there is no single supporting idea (linearity) but a balance of all points balancing all others (architectonic), is the rarest of abilities in our world. It requires thinkers who dedicate time and energy to understanding, but it also requires a vision of enough hell to desire heaven. It is not surprising that our best thinkers, writers, leaders and artists warn us that our society is a path to hell, and most repeat those words and change nothing of their behavior or political outlook. They haven't seen hell, because hell is invisible until its consequences are felt. For those who can predict those consequences, hell arrives early.
The ancients considered critical thinking to be intelligence. They knew that with enough practice and indoctrination, marginally intelligent people could be made "intelligent" in a narrow field with few tactics that need applying. You can teach almost anyone to be a computer programmer, because most of the "thinking" is responding to variants on already-known scenarios and memory work to find the right matching piece in response. It's like fitting shaped blocks into holes. Our smart people today are singular function linear thinkers, of a partial intelligence that allows them to excel in one area without an ounce of critical thinking, and for this reason they do not recognize hell. They must be shown hell, and this is why our authors and thinkers try increasingly to represent it.
Yet for those who can make the trip from a heaven of ignorant blithe oblivion (modern living) to a realization of not just personal tragedy but the poor design of a civilization leading to inevitable future hell, the experience is life-changing. Small cares fall away. The yawning gap between perception and reality that will swallow us becomes apparent in all that we see. When this wears off, we become accustomed to enduring situations that are so poorly designed it is clear they will end badly, but most people blithely march onward into them. They are ignorant of hell, visible or invisible.
In contrast to our product-oriented media, which tries to make different hells (war, ghetto, sodomy, drugs, AIDS) seem appealing because of their lack of rules, those who have experienced hell have a different look in their eyes. They want to get away from it, because they realize that while the experience of hell is revolutionary, living in hell is not -- it is tedious, both in daily endurance and in knowledge of its certain failure. People who have seen hell tend to find wisdom in traditional family roles, in intangible pleasures like creativity and learning, and in removing themselves from the city to contemplate insignificance under a boundless night sky. They have seen hell, and realize that our modern heaven on earth leads to it, and they must escape.
But of course for most it is too late. They don't have the time, and they don't have the brainpower at hand, or the learning, to see hell, much less the invisible hell. This is why in our society, 90% of the people are oblivious and 8% are busy profiting from hell while only 2% are actually worried. Hell is easy to avoid, now, because they are worried about visible hells like war and anarchy. Our society of course as an all-inclusive place is bias against genius, because not only do they not need including, but they resist efforts toward norming. It detests those who rise above the crowd as they are both socially and bureaucratically awkward to explain to others. This is why few voices speak out about what hell awaits us, but these tend to be the smartest and most experienced voices.
When one has experienced hell, the world expands most prominently into two options: the choice to continue on a path to hell, or the choice to head elsewhere. For those who have not seen hell, the idea of hell -- "freedom" to a teenage self-indulgent Satan in Heaven -- seems appealing. But to those who have seen it, hell is not only not appealing but not rare. It is mundane. The freedom of hell and the oblivion of heaven lead to the same place, which is failure, and the determination of the experienced is to avoid both. Much as the universe recognized its own emptiness, and Satan saw his own failing as liberation, we can find liberation in looking unblinkingly into hell, and then steeling our resolve to choose another path.
October 11, 2007