Thursday, July 25, 2013

An Actual Taxonomy of Naught (AKA part 3, last part)

In my last two posts, I explored a number of experiences of something that is not a thing—call it naught, nothing, emptiness, space, or maybe just negativity. Here are terms for the experiences I described:

Utter mystery
Lack of God/Absolute
Boredom /Aimlessness
Personal Uncertainty/Anxiety
Personal Possibility
Listening and Asking questions
Being open to influence/challenge/change
Collective uncertainty
Collective possibility

            In this last post, my task is to divide these up, so that in the future when I want to discuss emptiness, I can be more specific, since I have found that “space” sounds vague, and “emptiness” often sounds much more depressing than I want.

Two Ways to Typify an “Empty Space”
1)      It could be a lack of something desired.
2)     It could be a necessary condition for developing identity and connection.

1)      It could be a lack of something desired.
a.      A lack of knowledge = Utter mystery.
b.      A lack of grounding = lack of God/Absolute, also Boredom/Aimlessness
c.       A lack of relationship = loneliness, also inauthenticity/hollowness
d.      A lack of completion = personal uncertainty/anxiety, personal possibility

2)     It could be a necessary condition for developing identity and connection.
a.      Identity requires emptiness:
                                                              i.      Undetermined future – freedom, space for potential, and for change
                                                           ii.      Undetermined perspective – space for reflection, the ability to step out from our current beliefs and take a critical stance, to both choose and change our courses
b.      Connection requires emptiness:
                                                              i.      Listening/Questioning – making space for the other to fill
                                                           ii.      Collective uncertainty/possibility – engaging the social world with both our needs and desires, and also openness to the unexpected

Modes of Comportment towards Emptiness
Emptiness can also be divided up in terms of what one might do with it. While I think my categories are pretty solid, I expect that different people would populate them in their own way.

1)      Sit “in” it.
2)     Leave it empty.
3)     Fill it.
4)     Fill it, with the expectation of a new emptiness ahead.
5)     Create it.

1)      Sit “in” it.
Before trying to act in relation to emptiness, it’s valuable first simply to feel it. I like to talk paradoxically about sensing the “shape” and “heaviness” of emptiness. By shape, I mean: Is it just a part of me? Does it encompass all of me? Do I find that it encompasses my relationships, my culture, or even encompasses the whole realm of human activity? How big does it feel? By heaviness, I guess I mean: How bothered am I by this emptiness? Do I find it oppressive, or perhaps liberating? What are my instinctual feelings or reflexive actions when I feel it?

Once I have dwelt a little in this emptiness, I might be better able to decide what to do with it…

2)     Leave it empty.
A lack does not immediately mean that the space needs to be filled. In my understanding of secular spirituality, there is strength and growth in simply letting mystery and lack of God be. Sometimes when I’m lonely, I don’t need other people, but rather I need aim more intentionally at solitude.

3)     Fill it.
If I think I am languishing from this lack, then maybe it’s a sign that I shouldn’t be empty in this regard. For me, sometimes these are nothings like loneliness and inauthenticity/ hollowness.

4)     Fill it, with the expectation of a new emptiness ahead.
Aimlessness doesn’t feel good, but it also tends to emerge right after I accomplish a goal. So, when I’m feeling bored or aimless, it’s good to find a new goal, but I shouldn’t be too surprised or upset when I find myself in another empty space afterwards. This generally holds for personal uncertainty/anxiety, possibility, and that whole sense of incompleteness. I can pursue greater stability and I can develop my potential, but my future will continue to remain open. I can and should aim to fill my life with great things, while expecting it to remain incomplete.

5)     Create it.
This mode is different than the others, as it is not a response to emptiness, but rather a response to a lack of emptiness (ß Figure that one out!)—meaning, if things don’t seem right, sometimes the best question is: Do I need to make a space here? This would apply any time I experience an internal block, or a block between myself and other people. Actions like dwelling in silence, listening, asking questions, and remaining open to collective uncertainty and possibility would fit as ways of satisfying this need.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Taxonomy of Naught, part two

            Following part one, this part is much more difficult to talk about, as it involves kinds of emptiness that I’ve only recently (the last 10 years) become aware of, and feel nowhere near resolving. These are the kinds of emptiness experienced when I consider my relation to other people.

            Again, some terms I expect to come up: space, silence, solitude, loneliness, opening, possibility, uncertainty, unpredictability, need, desire. This time I will present three observations and illustrate with some experiences.

  1. I am not enough.
My initial experience of this is usually boredom. While I am an avid consumer of media and have a nice variety of personal hobbies, there always comes a time when I’ve been alone too long and grown tired of entertaining myself. This sounds like a superficial kind of emptiness, and yet it comes up over and over.

A somewhat deeper experience has been my growing awareness of my need for acknowledgment—that I’m good, that I’m funny, that my creativity is valuable, and that my thoughts and feelings make sense. This is a fundamental human experience, and yet something I didn’t really understand until Hegel pointed it out. It turns out that it’s difficult/impossible to know myself unless I feel known.

So, this emptiness is not so much a space, as it an incompleteness (another appropriate word would be loneliness). In the last post I was calling this a lack, but it feels more correct here to call it a need. I am incomplete such that I am brought to greater fullness in connection with others.

   2.   Not all connections are fulfilling.

A social opportunity or interaction can feel empty in a lot of different ways:

A)   Sometimes it’s because I’m at a bar or a party, and the environment (loud, dark, shifting) leaves no space for the kind of interactions I enjoy.
B)   Sometimes it’s because I feel like I have nothing to say, or no interest in the topic of conversation (or the other person in general).

C)   Sometimes it’s because I feel like one or both of us (or all of us) are treating the other(s) as functions, as props for playing out personal desire or drama.

D)  And a lot of the times it’s because I feel like we are only making a connection to cultural interests, and not to each other. (I still love discussing cultural interests, and believe that a cultural interest can serve as a tool for making authentic connections.) 

How to typify these experiences as emptiness? In A and B, the failure to connect can feel like a shortcoming (my own, someone else’s, or of a social space). In C and D, I guess the best word is inauthentic—which I think is an emptiness best illustrated by the word hollow.

  3.   A fulfilling connection requires space—in so many ways.

Recognizing that I have a need to be filled by relationships is not enough; I also have to create an opening for those relationships. Confusing, right? I explained the need in #1; now I’ll talk about this opening. Authentic relationship requires me to effect a stance of openness:

A)    In conversation-- being silent in order to allow them to speak, creating a space in myself for their words by listening, inviting them to fill that space by asking questions.

B)    In activities— letting them decide what to do when and how.

C)    In being influenced, challenged, and changed—recognizing that what makes sense to me is not the last word in knowledge, opinion, priorities, and paths.

In all of these instances, the challenge is to remain open to another person in all their otherness—being more than my image/use of them, being unpredictable, and being divergent from me in so many ways. In all of this I strive to be open to the possibility for self-improvement (feedback) and, for lack of a better word, awesomeness—that awesomeness that emerges sometimes when two or more people come together to share and create in a graceful way. The uncertainty that awesomeness will occur (and with that, the possibility of its opposites—awkwardness and awfulness) makes this especially challenging.

And yet this responsibility to create space is not absolute, and thank goodness—sometimes this activity feels threatening, and very often exhausting. So, it has a limit:
In order for all of this to work, I also have to be a thing; I have to be solid, taking up space, sometimes even pushing back if necessary. While active emptiness is a key component in relationships, it’s not ultimate—I should never strive to make myself into a nothing or merely into a function. I have to empty myself in order to make space for others, and yet never do so completely. Balancing this tension feels like a life-long skill.

Now that I’ve laid out the varieties of emptiness in my life, I hope to write one more post pointing out some patterns and types, and maybe come up with some wisdom about comporting myself around each.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Taxonomy of Naught

Not all nothing is the same. First, some terms: Nothing, Mystery, Lack, Absence, Finitude, Emptiness, Space, Hole, Void, Freedom, Possibility, Silence.

I think it would be best to develop these terms by reference to some personal experiences.

The first set of experiences all relate to the question: Is there God?
For a long time I believed in and had a personal relationship with God. In the middle of some solitary prayer one day, the thought occurred to me that I might just be alone in a room, talking to myself. While years of theological study shaped my conceptual journey to atheism, this experience was the seed and, to today, the stuff of my disbelief.

I began calling myself a non-believer about three years ago, and in those three years my experience of “not-God” has evolved.

  1. Actually, for a long time before I lost faith I was captivated by the experience of mystery. After reading Kant in Div School, I recognized that there was no way to know if the furthest reaches of my metaphysical knowledge constituted a boundary (implying something beyond) or a limit (implying an absolute end).  While Rabbi Heschel tells us that the experience of ineffable mystery implies a transcendent presence, I feel like we can only honestly say that this mystery calls attention to our ultimate ignorance. There may be “something” “in” the mystery, but I can go no further than mystery. Related term: Finitude.
  2. At first upon becoming a nonbeliever, I experienced a lack. This is the kind of naught I experience when I actually wish there were something there. I yearned for that personal relationship with God, and instead felt that my yearning was reaching out into… nothing. I felt a space, a space created by my need, left empty by the lack of something to fill that need. Related term: Absence – implies the failure of a need for presence.
  3. Eventually the yearning for a personal relationship dissipated, but a feeling of emptiness remained, and this involves in some part the emptythrone. I don’t feel this emptiness all the time, but rather only when my philosophy or other passions seem to require an absolute. I seek for meaning in life, and am reminded that meanings exist, but no single absolute or inherent meaning. I seek for value and purpose in my life, and am reminded that value and purpose are human pursuits, not cosmic installations. So, empty doesn’t mean bad or depressing, it just means… well, I think that will get developed more in the next section.

Related terms: Space, Possibility, Freedom.

The second set of experiences all relate to the question: Who am I and what should I do?

These experiences are much more personal than the ones related to God, and thus harder to analyze. I’ll present all of them first, and then throw in some terms.

  1. I don’t remember the exact experience, but I know I was about 11 or 12, and one day I was bored, and emotionally overwhelmed by the internal demand to fill time. I became depressed—was life going to be this unending desperation, this nagging need to fill time and mind, in order to stave off worthlessness?
  2. I really enjoyed college and graduate school, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t make the most of my time there—I know this because of the inordinate amount of time I spent recreationally. I loved my studies and did my work passionately, but I never had a clear idea what I wanted to make of it as a profession.
  3. Now that I am somewhat on a career path, I don’t know exactly what or how much I want to make of myself professionally. I’m thinking about this in two different ways: (A) It’s almost impossible to be a full time heath teacher, so I need to expand my options—the most available (but unsuitable for me) option is teaching gym, and the most desirable (although not yet comprehensible) option is teaching English; and (B) How ambitious should I be? I see people “climb the ladder” from teacher to administrator, etc. I daydream about publishing a book and appearing on TV. How far should I go?

I think space, possibility, and freedom are functional in all of these stories. In my God-stories, there was a kind of void that could not ultimately be filled, whereas in my personal narrative, the emptiness is invested with possibility and freedom, and so experienced as a demand to be filled. The lack, in almost every case, is one of purpose or meaning. Something like ignorance or cluelessness is present to, as the question “What am I for, and what is my time worth?” hangs over every story.

During #1 and #2, these experiences were depressing. Now that I am living out #3, I take a more accepting and hopeful attitude. My future, even when I have a vision of it, is still a blank space that I slowly fill. It’s just the nature of becoming to have a “nothing” of space, possibility, and freedom before me.

I’ll stop here for now. Do check out parts two and three.

I almost called this post “God is empty, just like me” but it turns out that those appear to be pretty different kinds of emptiness.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I re-wrote “Blurred Lines,” and now it’s about CONSENT

            So I know I’m really late to the game on this, so I’ll be brief: Apparently there was a lot of controversy over this Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines,” and to what extent the lyrics are “rape-y.” About a week ago I finally heard the song and watched the video, and here are my thoughts:
  1. If you ignore the lyrics (keep the vocal cadences), the song is AWESOME. Just a total feel-good groove, completely infectious.
  2. The song definitely trivializes sexual consent.
  3. The video has its own issues, which I'm not touching.
           For a great analysis of the song and video, plus an excellent lesson-plan for analyzing consent in music, please read this post from the FearlessSexuality Educator.
           For a video of the song that has far fewer issues, please watch and listen to the Muppets parody video.

           Meanwhile, I re-wrote some of the lyrics in order to make the song about consent. My lines are underlined, and are replacing whatever lines have been struckthrough.

[Intro: Pharrell]
Everybody get up (x2)
Hey, hey, hey (x3)

[Verse 1: Robin Thicke]
If you can't hear what I'm trying to say
If you can't read from the same page
Maybe I'm going deaf,
Maybe I'm going blind
Maybe I'm out of my mind I’m misreading signs

[Pharell:] Everybody get up

[Pre-chorus: Robin Thicke]
OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature
You’re not an animal, we are not bound by nature
Just let me I'll ally to liberate you
(Hey, hey, hey) You don't need no papers
(Hey, hey, hey) That man is not your maker

[Chorus: Robin Thicke]
And that's why I'm gon' take a good girl find a fun one
I know hope you want it
I know So if you want it
I know Say that you want it
You're a good girl fun one
Can't let it get I’d let you past me
You're far from plastic
Talk about getting blasted Don’t need to be hassled
I hate these blurred lines
I know hope you want it
I know So if you want it
I know Say that you want it
But you're a good girl fun one
The way If you wanna grab me
Must If you wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me just ask me
[Pharell:] Everybody get up

[Verse 2: Robin Thicke]
What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on dance to this song
What do we need steam for
You the hottest bitch got the hottest moves in this place
I feel so lucky
(Hey, hey, hey) You wanna hug me?
(Hey, hey, hey) What rhymes with hug me?(Hey, hey, hey)

[Pre-chorus: Robin Thicke]
[Chorus: Robin Thicke]

[Verse 3: T.I.]
One thing I ask of you
Let me be the one you back that ass to
Go, from Malibu, to Paris, boo
Yeah, I had a bitch someone, but she ain't  bad rad as you
So hit me up when you passing through
I'll give you something a beat big enough to tear your ass in two dance your ass off to
Swag on, even when you dress casual
I mean it's almost unbearable

I still have to act responsible
Then, honey you're not there when I'm
With my foresight bitch hey, you pay like me by
Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you
He don't smack that ass and pull your hair
He don’t wait his turn and hold your hand like that
So I just watch and wait for you to salute
But you didn't pick
Not many Don’t think any women can refuse should deal with assholes pimpin'
I'm a nice guy, but don't get it if you get with me won’t get ugly if you say no to me

[Bridge: Robin Thicke]
Shake the vibe, get down, get up
Do it like it hurt, like it hurt
What you don't like work?
Unless it sounds like work

[Pre-chorus: Robin Thicke]
Baby can you breathe? I got this from Jamaica why don’t we smoke this spliffy
It always works for me, Dakota to Decatur,
But if we get high, then consent will be iffy, uh huh
No more pretending
(Hey, hey, hey) Cause now you winning
(Hey, hey, hey) Here's our beginning

[Chorus: Robin Thicke]

[Outro: Pharrell]
Everybody get up (x2)
Hey, hey, hey (x3)