Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sam Smith, "Despair and Survival" (Excerpt)

"Despair and Survival"
by Sam Smith

"Ever since I read Thoreau in high school and adopted as my own his declaration that he would rather sit alone on a pumpkin than be crowded on a velvet stool, I have made the pursuit of individual freedom a part of my daily business. I follow it like others follow football. I know the game, the players, and the rules. And one of the most important things I have discovered is how few people are able to help you much. The psychiatrist with his elegant degree, the minister with an eye on the vestry's budget, the philosophy professor just short of tenure, and, yes, even the author of this book are likely to fail because their work has become partly the suppression of their own free will.

This compromise may in the end represent a better balance of desire and action than that of which you dream, but it will not necessarily guide you well. It will not teach you how to do something even though you are afraid; even though no one else is suggesting that you do it let alone making you do it; it will not tell you when to take the risk of doing the right thing or trying something that no one has done before.

Which may be why one of the wisest observations on this subject came to me from a former LA narcotics detective. This detective, investigating corruption and involvement by intelligence agencies in the drug trade, has repeatedly put his life at risk to get to the bottom of an extremely dirty business. He has two bullet holes in his left arm and one in his left ear. While describing his efforts to a small group, someone asked how he managed to stick at it year after year despite having been shot at and threatened. He said he had borrowed a trick another cop had taught him; when in danger he simply considered himself already dead. Then he was able to move without fear.

Such an ability to confront and transcend - rather than deny, adjust to, replace, recover from, or succumb to - the universe in which you find yourself is among the things that permits freedom. This man, with Buddhist-like deconstruction and Christian-like rebirth, had taken apart the pieces of his fear and dumped them on the ground - a mercy killing of dreams and nightmares on behalf of survival.

Yet imagine the health column in your local paper suggesting that you cure your phobia by going about pretending you are dead. Or phoning your psychiatrist in the middle of the night and having her tell you, "Just do the drop-dead thing I told you about and call me in the morning." There is something almost perverse and subversive about the idea; like playing Russian roulette with your brain. One of the rules of our culture is not to let our minds come too close to death.

Albert Camus, on the other hand, claimed that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. Of this provocation, Christopher Scott Wyatt has written: "According to Camus, suicide was a sign that one lacked the strength to face "nothing." Life is an adventure without final meaning, but still worth experiencing. Since there is nothing else, life should be lived to its fullest and derive meaning from human existence."

Kierkegaard said that "the more consciousness, the more intense the despair," and that the torment of despair is not being able to die. But lurking in this death wish, paradoxically, is a passion for life. If one survives this perilous proximity of death, one consciously chooses life.

But just what has been chosen? Certainly not a pristine and puerile Pleasantville of the soul. Perhaps it is what one of Camus' characters says: "I have surrendered myself to the magnificent indifference of the universe." Or perhaps we make Kierkegaard's "leap of faith," of which Donald Palmer wrote: "The negative is present in all consciousness. Doubt accentuates the negative. Belief chooses to cancel the negative. Every mortal act is composed of doubt and belief .... It is belief that sustains thought and holds the world together. Nevertheless, belief understands itself as uncertain, as not justified by any objective fact."

It is, in the end, your choice. Take a leap of faith and end up at the local church hoping someone can explain all this better to your kids in Sunday school than you can, or ride bareback across the philosophical and theological plains. In either case, as long as you fully engage with life, doubt will not be far away."
- Sam Smith, "Despair and Survival", from the book “Why Bother?”

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