Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

on knowing nothing about everything

Tonight, restored by the briefest walk by our park pond, restored in merely twenty minutes from a solid day of solid work, I'm thinking of the problem of certainty. In many ways, my list of things to do, a benchmark for how I must spend parts of my day, provides me a kind of footpath for what to think about, as Woody Allen says, rather than nuclear war or abused children. The tangible tasks I have set myself are things I am certain I must achieve, and perhaps there's something I can grasp onto in that.

Yet as I reflect on a Summer that so far promises to keep me fully preoccupied, I think of how many things I do not know.
I don't mean facts, though Heaven knows there are precious few facts I feel I do know, sometimes. I take some pride in being a jack of many trades, but lately I wonder if I might not be less than a face card in some ways, say a 5 or a 6 of some trump suit. Tonight's post will forbear discussion of my personal inadequacies, though in the weblog of my mind this topic gets much larger play than it does in the weblog in fact.

I think faith and hope become words used so often by folks who wish to put narrow religious interpretations upon them. I'm not against the religiosity of words, of course, but that is a different discussion for a different time. I mean instead that faith and hope have a concrete meaning which is not depend on some belief in an afterlife.

I always like that fellow Felix Adler, who focused his efforts on how to live an ethical life without the supernatural trappings of religion. Although he frequently used the imagery of people of faith, he sought a way of hope and faith that did not depend on Heaven or Hell. He had this to say about hope: "We must press on through the darkness, and the terror of it, if we want to reach that holier light beyond" and "In action lies our salvation". I do not believe that by this, he meant that he intended to go to some literal Heaven because he was a good man. I think instead that he meant that one must carry on with the things that matter to one--the things one finds right if you will, in order to find the way to survive the day to day terrors of living.

I think that despair comes easily, and that it perhaps always has done so. It's so tempting to ascribe to this dehumanizing age so many ills, and I think it's inarguable that the last one hundred years have had at least their share of dislocations, both in western and in eastern culture. But human discontent and misery seems to me to span centuries. Still, I think that a good five minute pause on any of a hundred societal ills could drive one to distraction and defeat. So many times, too, one feels one's own individual place amid those despairs amounts to so little. It's like being a pampered lapdog on the Titanic.

I wish I could say that I know the answer to all things, and can teach it to everyone in a nine-sided temple festooned with a crescent, a star and a cross, and presided over by meditating monks. I wish, instead, that I had the ability to "see" what everyone needed, and say just the right thing. All those Marvel comic book characters have the wrong superpowers. The superpower I covet is the superpower of the ability to bestow grace and faith upon others. Not a faith in a creed or godling, but that simple faith, the faith that says "it's going to be fine" and "this is the role you are to play".

I find that I don't know the answers to many of the questions.
I can't say what is the noble quest, or the perfect politics, or the compromises worth foregoing and the compromises worth making. I find that I feel almost defensive about my faith and my hope, because I cannot present some worked out philosophy that supports my feelings of ecstatic possibility. Even to the extent that I have "things to say", they usually don't amount to much more than soupy Golden Age of Sci Fi things like "if we can just keep from killing ourselves until our ethics catches up with our technology, in ten generations or so we'll really be something"--hardly a clarion call for hope.

I always disdain all those political parties in historic times which cloaked themselves as populist "know nothings". Frequently, this was an excuse to engage in reactionary, sometimes racist, behavior, in the guise of rejecting the complexities of progress. Yet I find that the things I know about happiness are few and not particularly intellectual. One thing I know is that happiness is individual, and that it is not the most important thing. I have known people who endured much discomfort and unhappiness, but nonetheless lived lives without despair. I have known different people with extremely similar facts in their lives, one happy, one miserable. I know to a certainty that some of my real life friends would find the stresses and shortcomings of my life unhappy indeed, while I find mine blissfully happy. Why is this? Certainly not personal virtue, and I flatter myself it is not that I am an imbecile. I think instead that different people set the bar at different places for happiness. There is something to be said for not settling for happiness too easily. I love that in Goethe's Faust, one is damned only when one is content.

But for myself, happiness is a matter of tiny things. My windowsill cactus grows, because cacti grow for all but the most neglectful, and I am happy. I receive payment for the fourth straight successful auction of my chapbook, netting a per-book profit of 1 dollar and 50 cents, and I am happy. I finish a work deadline, and I am happy. I see my wife at the end of the day, and I am happy. I submit poetry to three magazines, after years of not doing so, and I am happy, even as I know that the natural result will almost inevitably be rejection slips. I plan more magazines to which to submit poems, researching guidelines, reading others' poems on-line, and I am happy. I read friends' posts here on LJ, and I am happy. A friend has good news, totally unconnected to me, and I am vicariously ecstatic. Even the sad posts, and I am happy that someone has shared with me. I read a great novel, and I am happy.

I guess I find about myself that I know nothing except to cling to what works, and to luxuriate in small joys. But that's hardly a credo for anyone but me. But all I know to do is read my book, do my chores, take my walks, and find time for hobbies. It's a tiny life, a life not large at all. But I have faith in it, and hope from it, and I am not sure why. But I do.
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