This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be
back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you
all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty
words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are
suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are
collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction,
and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of
eternal economic growth. How dare you!
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear.
How dare you continue to look away and come here saying
that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions
needed are still nowhere in sight.
When I see Ess tonight after work, I could apologize, but she wouldn’t understand. I’ll have to find a better way to apologize.
A few weeks back, Essie found an egg at the base of one of our front yard shrubs — we haven’t seen the mom of the egg at all, and Mykala and I are pretty convinced that this egg isn’t going to hatch. Why should we share that guess with Ess, though? We don’t even know what animal it is from. Then recently, another one appeared by the base of one of our tomato plants.
I just love the enthusiasm and hope and joy Essie takes in little things like this. We’ll keep checking every day.
The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist
(Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and
disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it
kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult
truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss,
and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.
So you could write a book (or, heck, a novel) about this one point, but Hägglund is going to continue to pull the threads of this logic and see what we can learn both about how to live our daily lives and how to conceptualize life itself.
The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases
atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with
theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical
relationship to the host (which, for instance,
contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not
interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead
of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there
is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the
definition of the secular life so that it incorporates
many of the elements traditionally thought of as
religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s
thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him,
a religious institution is really just a community that
has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a
shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The
object of devotion is thus really the community itself.
These two ideas together force one who has grown up in religion (could be any religion, could be many religions, doesn’t matter) to ask themselves (a) which of their human anxieties are they salving with religious conceptions and (b) what societal ills are quelled by the existence of religion. Asking these questions allows one to recontextualize religion in life: only then can you choose or reject religion itself. In the absence of this deconstruction, you are simply choosing or rejecting religion’s idiosyncrasies, specificities, and people, not the ideas put forth by it or the social institutions buttressed by it.
And to sidestep the fact that I don’t have the time to read Ludwig Feuerbach’s “The Essence of Christianity”, I have to avoid Wood’s deep dive into Feuerbachian thought and instead head to this conclusion:
Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their
harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative
to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no
need to close down all the temples and churches and wash
them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead,
religious practice could be seen as valuable and even
cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human
quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double
assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning
and that most religious values are unconsciously secular.
We are meaning-haunted creatures.
Dayum. I’d wear a t-shirt that read MEANING-HAUNTED. So let’s look at meaning more:
Savagely compressed, Hägglund’s argument goes something
like this: If what makes our lives meaningful is that time
ends, then what defines us is what Marx called “an economy
of time.” Marx is, in this sense, probably the most
secular thinker who ever lived, the one most deeply
engaged with the question of what we do with our time. He
divided life into what he called the realm of necessity
and the realm of freedom. Hägglund adopts these
categories: the realm of necessity involves socially
necessary labor and the realm of freedom involves socially
available free time. Rationally, Hägglund says, we should
strive to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the
realm of freedom. But capitalism is systemically committed
to exploiting most of us, and to steadily increasing the
amount of labor at the expense of our freedom. Capitalism
treats the means of economic life, labor, as though it
were the purpose of life. But, if we are to cherish this
life, we have to treat what we do as an end in itself.
“The real measure of value,” Hägglund says, “is not how
much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor
time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and
explore what matters to us (quality of free time).”
So at this point, with these enormous excerpts, I’m just providing thin and ill-informed color commentary on Wood’s great piece of writing. I’ll stop. Just go and read the thing! I have to leave with one more quote, though:
…as Hägglund puts it, “our own lives—our only lives—are
taken away from us when our time is taken from us.” We
are familiar with the secular charge that religion is
“life-denying.” Hägglund wants to arraign capitalism for
a similar asceticism. Religion, you might say, enforces
asceticism in the name of the spiritual; capitalism
enforces asceticism in the name of the material.
And one more thought: ask yourself why capitalism works. Sure, it’s a way for us to specialize, to agree on a system where we barter our effort and our skills not onesie-twosie by individual transactions but rather in service of the whole scorekeeping system called money. And what happens when there’s a system of scorekeeping? We get to declare winners and losers, villains and heroes, us and them. Humans LOVE “us and them”. It’s like their favorite thing in the whole world to do: exclude and judge. So while I love love these ideas of annihilating fundamentally inhumane capitalism, doing so means you still have to solve a tougher problem: replacing the human need to count dollar by dollar why they are winning a game (only some of us agreed to play) with something else, to satisfy the desire to score-keep.
It sounds tautological, but we love games and capitalism persists because it is a game we love. You have to find a game that’s just as pervasive and distracting to the human animal, without being so harmful. And then: world peace, right?
Hi, Ess. I really should check in more often here, but of course I have many excuses: all those little things I’ve been working on that seem big now and I’ll forget in the future. In between those, I get to see you. I’m not always there, though. For that, I am very sorry.
Sometimes you dress up as Super Essie:
And sometimes you dress up as a cat:
Or you tuck Poppy in for bed:
But sometimes you fall and lacerate your forehead so badly that, when your Mama looks at it, she immediately knows that it is time to go to Children’s Hospital:
And you then endure days of heat and constant applications of Bacitracin:
After which your Puppy Surprise named Missy, whom you received after doing a spectacular job listening and holding still at the hospital, comes with you for removal of those stitches, but has her puppies at the doctor’s:
And even though she’s having a big day herself, Missy still has time to comfort you when you’re waiting to see the doctor.
I’m not going to forget driving straight from work and coming in to see you at your room at Children’s, wrapped up in your Mama’s hug, new stitches in your head, wanting nothing more than to show me the colorful rainbow popsicle you were eating.
And I’m really really not going to forget that when we were all leaving the hospital together, you wanted to ride home with me, and that I drove around town, watching the sun get lower and lower in the sky, listening to your gentle breathing while you napped away the troubles of a long, long day.
Some library books we’ve been reading to Ess recently:
Herman and Rosie is a jazz and NYC-themed love story and when Ess wanted a story read to her in the middle of the night, that’s the one she picked. I think she picked it because it’s long for a children’s book, but it still has a nice gentle pace for late-night.
The Life Cycle of a Penguin is representative of these little (and sometimes not-so-little) factual books that she devours when she’s into something. Right now she’s really into animals having babies. She’s got a birthing center (padded with Kleenex) set up in her room, and after emerging (with plenty of labor sounds — she’s very clear that having an animal is difficult for the mother), her stuffed mammals promptly get licked clean by their moms and begin nursing. Lots of nursing. SOMUCH nursing. It’s very sweet.
And then When the World is Full of Friends — what a great title. Plus, those illustrations by Anna Currey just make your heart sing, don’t they? Mykala and I are going to find something by her to put on our wall.
Mykala and I have what we call everything’s going to be OK moments. They occur when, unexpectedly, you take a deep, clear breath and, finding the typical tightness and anxiety missing, begin to feel the awareness, just over the fence of obligation and the ditch of depression, of a peaceful field of calm.
My understanding of these moments has been subtly, but profoundly, wrong.
You see, like an ignoramus, I took the phrase at face-value: everything (all the events in your life) is (in the future) going to be OK (will turn out nicely).
That’s not it. Really really not it.
As I initially had it, I seemed to imagine on the other side of the fence just undulating hills of astroturf covered in prepackaged food. Like I could, naked and naïve, go to a fake world and experience nice, simple, things; no grit or moxie or spirit required.
Everything is going to be OK means choosing to feel that it will all be… OK. Critically, you are not to be blamed, you are not to feel less-than, you must not accuse yourself of failure when you feel deeply all will not be alright. Rather, the phrase describes a perception that there’s the modicum of a sliver of a possibility in there that you’ll feel, eventually, that it will be.
So, on the other side of that fence of obligation, that ditch of depression, you wish for a variegated, treacherous, beautiful, bountiful, harsh, verdant, real landscape where you get to bring shelter on your back, friends for the journey, a good strong pair of boots, and a thoughtful spirit. To see where you’ll go, what the weather will be that day, and how the seasons will bend you.
This is something like a flowering of Buddhist awareness, and, as always with these sorts of things, the terms are pedestrian, the analogies insufficient, and the lesson only clear once learned.