Jerome Loving opens his book Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself with the following remark: “During Walt Whitman’s lifetime, his poetry was generally reviled, condemned by reviewers as obscure in content, deficient in diction, irregular in rhythm, and absent of rhyme.” Humans, driven by natural insecurity and an obsession for self-stability, try to hang on to their basic practices, whatever they are. As we age, we tend to long for whatever our earlier days of comfort were. And for the most part this conservatism is based on imaginary and romanticized pasts; the difficulties, the worries, and the horrors of those pasts are bracketed, repressed, or forgotten. As with the present MAGA folk, we dream of returning to a past that never was quite as projected. The “white America” of the 1950s was rife with social nonsense and genuine horrors for many in our culture. It was not a moment of “greatness” however one may wish to define it.
This regressive conservatism infests most cultures and lives with what Santayana called “normal madness.” American Christianity, for example, ridicules the myths of ancient Greek religions and those of contemporary Islamic doctrine, but posits belief in “virgin birth,” “Noah’s ark,” and host of miracles that, as David Hume pointed out, defy every natural law without a shred of actual evidence. . . normal madness, a madness we accept without question. This madness is driven by repetition of memorized or memorialized habits, not by reflective reasoning. We make a constant push to keep things as they are or were, or as we imagine they had been. We couple this cultural force with a corollary fear of anything smacking of novelty, creativity, and genuine freedom. We fear and resist pretty much every otherness that confronts us. We reveal a pervasive, dangerous, and fruitless cultural habit of rejecting the new and idolizing the old. And all the while, the obvious stares us in the face; things change. The cosmos that is our home is dynamic, not static. Humanity needs to change its habits of habit change; we need to accept the fact of change and instead of simply dismissing it, take aim at ameliorating our cultures through the change. For its own benefit and ultimate survival, humanity needs to become reflective concerning its present and its future; and this, in part, must begin with a clear and honest assessment of our past. Note that Bach, the Beatles, and Punk were all denied the status of “music”. . . and despite this have come to be “classic.”
Scientists hypothesize that our Earth will run out of breathable oxygen in one billion years, long before the Sun burns out in five billion years. Of more pressing concern, we already know that we are living in a time of species extinction not witnessed since the demise of the dinosaurs. The cosmos, the Earth, and WE, human cultures, are constantly in transition. We are a miniscule biological blip on the timeline of earth’s history and even more so in the history of the universe. We are arrogant well beyond our means. Our ignorance far outweighs our knowledge. And yet we champion income and material acquisition over learning–arrogance and blindness do not serve us well. The question should never be, “how do we recreate our past or our imagined past” but “how can we adapt the changes of new generations in ways that make our lives and the possibility of species survival better?” The normal madness of human conservatism with which we currently live is a weapon that, if developed, is most likely to end the human race.
Consider the “nation state.” It is a human creation and one that is for the most part outmoded by global communication, global economic interaction, and the actualities of global disease. Why does Russia think it needs a piece of the Ukraine? Why do we allow arbitrary boundaries that have no natural existence to make otherwise humane individuals into hateful proponents of genocide? These questions have no good answers. Perspective is required; we must stand back from ourselves and our cultures. Gods will no longer help us except as illusory entities providing psychological solace in the face of our self-destruction. In both time and space, we humans remain immeasurably small. Our penchant for allowing sociopaths to dictate how we live needs to be revealed for the sham that it is. Where kindness and compassion would improve our chances of surviving, we allow insecure egos to pursue their greed for power and to effectively manipulate us by way of our various normal madnesses. In the terms of Thoreau and Whitman, we need to awaken. These are things most of us know at a personal level; almost without question we will help the most reviled neighbors in the midst of a disaster or crisis. But we fail to see the larger importance of this willingness to help others–of kindness, caring, and sacrificing.
Life is in the transitions, in the changes we bring about and live through. Nothing, literally, remains the same. We can, in fact, not go home. This does not mean we need to give up all traditions and memories; but it does mean we need to be reflective about our traditions and our memories. One may retain religious beliefs without turning them into weapons to harm others. We need to find ways to better ourselves and those around us; this will never happen if we think we already have all the answers. Human spirit comes alive in the midst of important transitions; we mark our histories by way of these moments of transition. But we need to be on the lookout for the disasters embedded in these moments. The building of the United States involved both human slavery and genocide; these are simply facts and to ignore them is to allow the worst elements of our world to continue unfettered. So-called “originalism,” taken seriously, is an open danger to ameliorating our culture. In its origin, the United States did not allow women or any non-white folks to vote; it allowed slavery; it advocated violent acquisition of land. The ideals of justice and equality were just that, ideals. As we move forward, we need to look for changes and transitions that breathe life into these ideals, that expand these ideals to include all humans, not just the ones that our normal madnesses condone.
It is indeed good to be alive. Living means change. How things change is in part under our control and this is where we need to place our energies. If I spend my energy bitching about someone else’s sexual orientation, I will lose that much energy that I might have spent on making something better. The economy of our energies is ultimately quite simple. If I spend my energies trying to grab a piece of the Ukraine, I will lose the ability to help others in need. Opportunity cost is real. I don’t pretend we have the wisdom to make good decisions in all of our transitions, but it is a reasonable guess that aiming to make things better for all is more likely to bring about good results in the long run than aiming to kill others, dominate others, and make others’ lives filled with fear. Again, we know this with our personal experiences; we know fear and we know personal damage. Inflicting on others the things that have stunted our own lives makes no sense. We need to reawaken to what we already know; making thoughtless cults of anti-awakening is just an attempt to hang onto something that never was. And ultimately it is pissing in the wind. We should want better; and we can do better. Life is in the transitions and it is up to us, all of us, to ameliorate in the midst of these transitions. We do not live in a logical matrix; we do not have any absolute knowledge; we do not have an absolute resting point. We are paddling along a cosmic stream; we cannot see around the bends in the river ahead; the best we can do is to learn how to paddle well amidst the instabilities and the surprises. We can only do this if we change our habits, our attitudes, and our willingness to acknowledge where we actually are. . . we are in transition.
Photos by Monster!