Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In Defense of Windmill Tilting

I would be hard-pressed to define myself without somehow using the word "cynical" somewhere; I even get pissed off at billboards when I feel they're trying to screw me over somehow. There's an idealist in there somewhere, but he's well-tempered by experience and does not choose his battles lightly. I sometimes wish that I was as able to trust now as I was at four, when everyone I had met in my life was worth trusting.

But today, while quietly surfing the web when I should have been crunching numbers for my company, I came upon this man. I was so taken aback by the story of a man who gave up almost all he had for a belief that what he was doing was right that I read the story no less than three times. I can barely believe stories like this anymore - I inevitably attempt to find key phrase which will explain why this man is really doing what he is. He has lost everything, yet he still pushes on against the people he believes are wrong. My second thought, of course, was "what a crazy person!" Our own era's Don Quixote.

Of course, despite our wry smiles at the futility of his quest, it's hard not to love a man like Shahbazi. Don Quixote really did believe in all of the virtues he espoused, and that is why he is such a sad object of ridicule - no one else in his world did. He refused to learn the hard lesson that most of us learn sooner or later: none of those ideals come to much when placed alongside our need for security.

Because the cynics are undeniably correct: nearly everyone in the world is motivated first and foremost by survival. This need to maintain one’s existence is extended to all aspects of life, and securing that survival means building up a base of material safeguards - a bank account, a means of transportation, a shelter – only when you go beyond these necessities things do you reach what a reasonable person would call “excess.” But can you honestly call having more money, more valuable things which could translate to money, “excess”? In a time of need those chandeliers and that diamond broach could be sold for food or defense, and the more one has, the better equipped they are when all of that money becomes necessary and not superfluous. And it is this mode of reasoning that will eventually lead us to say that nothing, not personal jets or private islands or whole nations, will ever really be enough.

Americans are lucky, and I don’t believe that anyone should fault them simply for that, whatever their inclination. Like it or not, we have inherited all that the greed, ambition, and hard work of our predecessors has sowed, and without uprooting the system which supports us and throwing all of that luck away, we are forced to live with it. You’ll note very few movements devoted to taking 40% of each American’s salary and giving it to the poorest countries in the world – such a movement would be rightly described as hopelessly extreme. On the other hand, confronted with the absolutely astounding mass of wealth that we have acquired, each successive generation of Americans has chosen in large part to sit back and enjoy it rather than promoting change and putting what we have to better use. Why do you suppose that is? The need to survive only goes so far. The purchase of one’s third SUV should be enough to give one pause: why, really why, do I need this?

The acquisition of material things, for reasons described above, is inherently cyclical. The more you have, the more you want. A starving man wants only food to fill his belly – what does he care of a Taj Mahal or a Porsche 911? If he were told that those things could be his, it would not matter to him until he had been first been satiated and sheltered… I would wager that he would find a way to sell that car to accomplish those things before he did anything else. I believe that most people are very aware of their limitations, and that is probably one of the most important reasons that America is in the state it’s in today: this country has removed most of our material limitations, and the only ones we have now are our own. We’ve been told since we were children that our potential was all but limitless - 20 years later, what you’re left with is a generation of people who believe that they have infinite potential and have achieved almost none of it. And every one of us is pissed off. We all want more and we’ll take it where we can get it, even if it means the local BMW dealership.

This is why I feel that the Don Quixotes of the world are so important: they want something else. This is why I refuse to ridicule the true believers of the world, no matter what it is they believe. I don’t believe there are many of them, and by today’s standards each and every one of them are certifiably insane, but they deserve our respect nonetheless. They differ from the rest of the population in only one way: they put their beliefs above everything else, including their own survival. For this reason we have cause to fear these people as well: they are probably the most dangerous people in the world, and the only ones truly committed to enacting change in a world they do not and cannot fit into. It is not by chance that America is finding fundamentalist terrorists to be such a great threat, despite their small numbers: these people are true believers, and that makes them far more powerful than most of us will ever be.

These people will never be happy in our world; they will never be satisfied. No one who resorts to violence to further his or her beliefs is deserving of praise, but to fail to respect the potential of these people would be foolhardy as well. On the other end of the spectrum, of course, others who believe equally strongly are working to enact changes that would benefit those around them, usually largely without any success. I doubt Jesus himself was ever much pleased with how things were in Jerusalem, either, nor was Buddha content with the state of the Hindu world during his lifetime. But those two men devoted their lives to making things better, to teaching people a better way to live, one not wholly devoted to survival – later, of course, more common people used those teachings to further their own selfish ends, but the words themselves still resonate with us because they reflect a worldview that we find so hard to reconcile with our own: one which assumes that there is more to life than simply making it to tomorrow.

America, it seems, suffers from a deficiency of true believers. I find it hard to take these people seriously who stand outside my door asking me if I’ve found Jesus yet. I’m inclined to believe that most of them are standing there because they were told to, because they want to belong, or because they simply haven’t thought much about the infinite on their own. On some days I simply get angry because they are very likely the same charlatans who have twisted the world’s greatest religions into callous means of population control. Most of the folks who preach these days are just more Tom DeLays, feeding off their power trip and reveling in the easy righteousness they've created for themselves.

Yet despite that anger and that skepticism, I try my best to give them the benefit of the doubt. Because maybe, just maybe, they really believe what they’re telling me. And those people, for a great variety of reasons, are always worth paying attention to.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


The other day I was driving in the rain on one of those Illinois highways that seems to have no beginning and no end, and I realized that my windshield wipers were going bad. The water was smearing and sloshing around, blurring everything in front of me, and even though there were few cars on the road so far out into the corn, it was pretty terrifying. I slowed down a bit, took a deep breath, and realized that it wasn’t as bad as it could be – even if my view wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t entirely obscured, and I could make my way if I was careful. As leaned into my steering wheel like the old man with bad eyesight I’m sure I will one day become, something was articulated in my mind that I had long known but had not fully come to terms with: I live every moment of my life largely confused at what’s happening around me.

Those who know me will be shrugging and nodding right about now, I’m sure. At least for me, however, it’s hard to come to grips with this possibility. But think for a moment about what you don’t and can’t know about your daily life. For example, it’s possible that tomorrow morning at 7:47 AM, right at the height of rush hour, you’ll be sitting in your car thinking about how you’re late again when the laws of physics as we know them will simply cease to function. Reality will suddenly bend into some incomprehensible shape, gravity will cease to exist, light will change speeds, and the universe as we know it might henceforth be something entirely different.

Now, that’s obviously highly improbable, but it’s not impossible. Keeping that sort of thing in mind, it’s apparent that nothing is impossible. Everything any human being has ever conceived throughout our existence and everything that we have not could all suddenly be true. I’m willing to bet that doctors and scientists around the world would argue with me and they would have an excellent point: there is no reason to believe that all of our knowledge is false simply because none of it is absolutely certain. I wouldn’t argue with them, either – the whole structure of our society and culture is built upon the notion that the world as we know it is inherently stable, and that point of view has worked for us so far.

Nonetheless, the possibilities are staggering. We believe that the sky will not fall only because we’ve been recording its failure to do so for the last four thousand years or so. But of course, the point here is not to argue that we know absolutely nothing (because, for one, how could I know that to argue it?) but rather to describe just how confused we are at the chaos around us. Even if we don’t like to believe it or even to think about it, we as human beings understand very little about what is happening to and around us. We make assumptions and postulates, compose theories and hypotheses that attempt to describe what our meager five senses perceive, but we have never and very possibly will never have at our disposal all the answers we require. Even the people we know best remain mysteries at times, and if you think that’s bad, try to understand your own motivations sometime.

In lieu of certainty, then, we fall back on our intelligence, that function of our minds which allows us to accurately decipher our sensory input, and wisdom, which allows us to make the best use out of what knowledge we have. We make our best judgements and take our best guesses, hoping our choices are the right ones. We make stands where we believe we should even when we’re not absolutely sure that we’re right because that is what we must do to be ourselves. This is the worst part for me; I want to be absolutely certain when I make my decisions, and will not be satisfied with anything less.

This means, unfortunately, that I am never quite satisfied. I will never have all the information, and knowing that omniscience would probably be a terrible fate does not make it any easier. It is a difficult thing to accept that logic will only take me so far, and even if everything I think and believe is valid, it still might not be correct. Given all this, I will continue to make my little assumptions and take my little stands and perceive my narrow view of the world with as broad a palette as I can.

Of course, a little bit of ignorance isn’t always such a bad thing. Remember what it was like to be a child? If what replaced all our mysteries from that era was so disappointing, think of how much we might be let down when we find out what really lies at the edge of the universe.

It’s just not within us to stop looking, however, no matter how futile or how dangerous. Seeing what’s down the road, after all, is what gets us home safely – and that, if nothing else, is a good reason to keep squinting into the darkness.