SS: Letter from Laura

As readers will know, Laura is a contributor to the Blog, who has written for us several times, and who has been missing for a time. But, she is back! In her moving and important letter she explains her short absence and offers some wise suggestions for us all.


Dear Bob,
You don’t know what you have until is gone. That is the idea I want to explore here. How is that possible? And what is to know that I have something? And why does it matter? I think I’ll start with the last one.   I’ve had a tough year of cancer treatment. Before I was diagnosed I was riding my bicycle, eating fairly well, although eating too much sugar perhaps.  Those bikes rides in the backcountry were so energizing, so pleasurable, so refreshing. I miss them. I miss being fully mobile and strong. I keep thinking that the day I am able to ride again I am going to savor the journey even more. But I will savor it more only because I’ll have the memory of being impaired and how terrible the feeling of being sick is. As with other things, I think that a person can live not appreciating enough what she enjoys moment by moment. But I appreciated my rides before. It is only that I miss them because I love riding free. It is like a wine lover having a glass of nice wine after a long period of abstinence. His pleasure level will be higher than before. Now think of something much simpler. Every day I wake up, get up and walk. But I can’t say I enjoy these actions as I enjoy riding a bike, so it is a different feeling, a deeper one. What happens when I am sick in bed, with a bad backache or healing after surgery? That day I miss my capacity to get up and walk and it just dawns on me the complexity, perfection and wonder of moving to stand up position and how the body holds itself and stands there with no pain or difficulty and then starts to move legs and arms automatically with such a beautiful synchronicity and grace, without pain or difficulty. Every basic function my body has is terribly missed when for some reason it can’t perform. I miss them so dearly simply because I understand all these things are part of being human and being able to move and explore. And as I gain this appreciation, then I care more and I feel more in tune with my body. Not so much before and even less when I was a teenager. Does it matter that I really comprehend what nature has given me and what I have now? Yes. It is important to have this connection just so I live more deeply my moments on this planet and I take better care of myself and others.   By saying that it is important to really comprehend what nature has given me and what I have now means that that understanding is not so straightforward. You can ask a healthy 6 year old whether he can hear and he would obviously answer he can. So he evidently knows what capacities he has; same with me. So it is not just awareness. To know you have these amazing abilities is something beyond the mere realization one can perform some action. The thing is, you gain something to add to this simple awareness when the capacity is taking away. You marvel and realize how miraculous (not in the religious way) is. And in that moment of enlightenment you say, wow! I have it!. But it is this going to the nothingness what makes knowledge complete and perfect. I wonder, though, whether this fleeting moment can leave a permanent print. Or will I go back to take things for granted? I want to keep feeling the glory of what my body does and how it lets me move and experience. Routine, I guess, is what could take me back to the old not knowing what I have. The job is to do anything possible to not lose that knowledge.     I wake up feeling so happy that I can stand up. It is real happiness. Living the moment is what matters now. I want to be always thinking deeply about the want of simple abilities and the joy of having them.  Because I want to know well what I have before it is gone.
Laura.

Letter from an Existentialist in Japan #6

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“It’s not the experience that happens to you. It’s what you do with the experience that happens to you.” – Bertrand Russell

Dear Bob,

I’ve arrived at the halfway point and a distinct part II of the experience, because now I’m having it with someone else. We met shortly before my departure (serendipitously delayed 3 months) and fell in love, as one does when one is funemployed and set to depart. So rather unaccording to plan, I’ve gone from doing this whole thing alone to living, teaching, and being alone together with someone I frankly don’t know that well. I will certainly come to, at least in relation to me (and vice versa…I pity the fool).

Of course it’s enriching and just more fun to share. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed at being alone. I didn’t accomplish what I meant to with my freedom and solitude other than revel in it and now I feel like I’ve missed my chance. And it’s all because of what a terribly undisciplined person I am; a “slave to my [base] desires” (according to Ms. Matriarch).

Maybe that’s all I am. I prefer to think of myself as who I would be if I could, and I just need to put myself in the right circumstances to flourish, but here was my chance yet again, and it seems I have failed to prove my higher desires as more than merely a wanting to want. My fear that I am just an empty vessel after all and that any joy de vivre I experience is actually only from the expectations I set up about the future that inevitably fail by my own lack of followthrough, which is to say, lack of actual desire…seems closer to true than ever.

My language acquisition is going pretty poorly too. I’m just not a studier, never was. I will only learn if it’s incidental to fun or necessity. Like I’ve grown attached to the unusually existential children’s show character Anpanman  (pan = bread = his face, which he feeds to starving children), whose great theme song senpai translated for me literally to teach vocabulary and grammar. And I learn the things I wanna say in class, like “gutaitekini” which is “be more specific”. I love when there’s just one word for a thing.

Teaching is going ok I think. Again, how am I to know. I just know that my classes are way better than when I first started and what I thought were great ideas at the time I’ll never do again. But for some reason I am so much less satisfied. It can only be failed expectations. Also, this assembly line format, having so many different classes each day only once a week, makes it really hard to really grok each student. I need the relationship or else I just feel kinda useless and expendable. I know that’s a lot to ask wherever I teach, but’s already hard enough with the language barrier. Anyway, I have enough longer classes with some real gems that I won’t get depressed over it or anything.

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The freedom of it all (teaching & living) really does come at a psychological price for me. On one hand, it’s what allows me to be the teacher and person I will naturally become/what is most suited to me/meant to be(?). But then who’s to say that this person is the most effective to achieving the outcomes that you really want? Maybe I/we all would be better off with some steering, or limits. At least when there is constraint then you can shoulder the blame to the circumstances and not feel so responsible. With freedom, the degree to which you can be satisfied is virtually limitless, and what is satisfaction but a feeling that you have done everything in your power?

Ugh, enough of this! I could think myself senseless if I let myself. I need better control of my thoughts, then I’ll have a chance with my actions. I’m dabbling in meditation now. Well, I’m on day 8 of the app I’ve had for 2 months. Just 10 minutes a day. I’ve been told by too many people I respect over the years how necessary it is, but I’ve always been skeptical. Then I realized that so many intellectual skeptics swear by it too – including my number one, Sam Harris, so I really ought to give it a real go. I’m kind of desperate here. Maybe desperate enough to delude myself into a clear mind if I try hard enough.

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Sorry I’m not writing more about life in Japan. It’s just life now (one I am so grateful to live seriously it’s the outer life of my dreams) and I’m back to being a neurotic, dissatisfied, self-loathing person of unknown intent. Wow, happiness isn’t dependent on external circumstances? What a revelation!

I just wanna write. Whatever comes out when I manage to sit myself down and open up a Word document and place my fingers on the keyboard is the only kind I can really do unprompted. I just hate forcing things, always have. I’m not bragging, it just sounds better than “I hate trying”. But it doesn’t feel good to be so excessively self-indulgent like this. I have so much else I want to talk about. I’ll try and write something more anthropological about Japan next month*. And I’ll try to be a good partner.

Thank you for reading anyway, and ’til then,

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  • Jess

  • If there is anything in particular you or y’all would like to know about my experience so far as it has to do with Japan or teaching, please ask in the comments and if there’s enough I can do a little Q&A

Practical philosophy

Files found in a scrapbook:

Back in another century I had a newsgroup for philosophy students.

existentialism
They could ask questions about course content, rant about most anything,
and communicate any time of day or night. The first piece comes from
the newsgroup for existentialism:

I don’t wanna make a long talk even more drawn out, but I feel compelled
to relate my story. 1’11 keep it brief.
Towards the end of the semester last year I was diagnosed with a sinus
arrythmia and premature ventricular contractions -layman’s terms: a
funny heart beat that sometimes beats backwards. Fortunately these are
relatively benign conditions and since there’s no underlying heart
disease I’m gonna be safe. However, it was during the first week or so
of my diagnosis when I was completely terrified that I first discovered
aloneness. It was the oddest thing, during one episode of a tachycardia
(a racing heart beat) all the people in the room and everything I was
watching became something akin to a TV screen. It was as though I was
just watching actors on a screen, that they really weren’t people and
that there was only me, for if my vision did fade and I fell into that
black hole that I’m constantly struggling against those people I saw
would be gone away from me and no longer BE THERE. I was alone. I wish
I had to words to explain it, but there I was alone. Everything else
was just a fiction, the only thing there was for me was me, waiting for
my heart to explode. Scary stuff . However, when I came home to my
girl friend, and saw the worry, pain, anguish and everything I felt
reflected in her face, and then when our eyes met and I realized that
those feelings she had were because of me, I realized I was not alone,
and that everything I do is connected with her. A deep and touching
moment. I do now believe that if there is one saving grace in this
lonely world, it is love and with love you don’t need to be alone, for
love transcends words, consciousness, all that love says what words
can’t. In other words, I’ll never die alone as long as my girlfriend is
with me, I’ll just be alone after I die.

Deep stuff huh?




The following exchange is from an email discussion:

Bob:

I just wanted to thank and congratulate you on “The Absurd Hero” which
I just finished reading from the Internet. Camus is my hero, really, and I
find him, among all, the most courageous and honest of humans in his frank
confrontation with life. Your essay is timely. I have a heart disease which
which is progressive and can only be treated by transplant sometime in the
next few years (whenever my condition reaches the point of end-stage). My
problem is: being a follower of Camus, and agreeing with him that life is a
struggle of Sisyphus’ proportions, why get a transplant?  It seems to me
that he’s right about suicide, and that, like William James, the passion
and the struggle to do the right thing make it worth it, to seek to extend
it 15 years (by transplant) when one is given by nature an “out” is
another, more tormenting, choice. At present, I’ve “gone along” with the
intent to transplant me (I’m seeing transplant clinic doctors every other
month), purely on the pretense that when I am in a hospital bed, and the
only thing that can save my life is a transplant, I’ll see things
differently. However, I am tormented by my lack of authenticity here: I am
not making a choice that I would make if I were going along with my real
desires, which is to let nature take its course and quit the struggle. I’d
welcome your observations. How would you, or Camus for that matter,
respond to my plight?

Dr. Richard ****,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.



Richard,

Thanks for the message. I appreciate your comments on my paper, and the
description for the tormenting problem you are facing. Your description
of your situation is moving and the torment sounds genuine.

Observations? Let me start with my favourite quote from Camus: ‘To
breathe is to judge” – whether taking the next breath is valuable or not
is a judgment you must make; no one can make it for you. Just remember
that although Camus starts with that provocative sentence about suicide,
his essay is really an argument against suicide. Part of the struggle
may indeed be to have a heart transplant which, I’m sure is a struggle.
As you indicate, the real torment comes from your attempt to be
authentic, by which, I take it you mean to match your desires and your
actions. But you don’t, I take it, have the necessary information to
make any final decision now. Nor can you predict’ with anything like
certainty, what your decision will be as you approach the O.R.

I wonder also about your notion that you should let ”nature take its
course” – which ‘seems to presuppose that nature has a course. But as
Camus would say, nature has no particular course, she just IS. We’re the
ones who make decisions, have a program, look for value.

As Koheleth says: ‘Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is
to behold the sun.” As long as that is possible, celebrate it.

Bob
Director, Institute of Practical Philosophy


Bob,
Many, many thanks for your observations. This is precisely what I
needed and conforms to my intuition about things. What I am feeling right
now, is, I wish I knew this Bob Lane. I very much admire the handle you
have on the greatest philosopher I have ever read.
Thanks again, Bob Lane.

Richard

Richard ****,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Sunday’s Sermon

acj

Who is the author? Regular readers of the Blog will recognize this quote from Albert Camus, who is one of Bob’s heroes. I just did a search for Camus on the Blog and this list will indicate the many times he has been written about here.

It was on January 4, 1960 that Camus was killed in a car crash.

His works live on though, and he continues to be relevant. Take a look at the list.

In January of 1960, a powerful sports car was traveling north in France towards Paris. Albert Camus was a passenger in the car. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and had been called in the presentation speech “the conscience of the 20th century.” He had been an actor and an editor, a dramatist and a novelist, and was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis in World War II. He was forty-six years old and well known around the world. Camus was traveling to Paris with friends after spending the New Year holiday on his property in the south of France. It was raining. The car came out at one point on a straight, clear stretch of road. About midway it went off the road and rammed into a tree. Camus was killed. One newspaper at the time reported, “It was a dramatic end for the young writer who was a leader and interpreter of the philosophy of postwar France’s wild, young existentialist set.”

If the existentialist set in France was wild, this is hardly a charge that can be leveled against Camus. A more thoroughly earnest man it would be hard to find anywhere. And yet, his sudden senseless death there on the road lends support to one of the fundamental ideas of the existentialists movement: that life is absurd, senseless, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, without rhyme or reason; life is illogical; the only god is the god of chance; “Time and chance happeneth to all men,” as the preacher said many years ago. And yet, in his works Camus is stating, is demanding, that life has value without having meaning. In so doing he is rebelling against two things: on the one hand, nihilism, that is the belief in nothing; and on the other hand, the Christian concept of contemptus mundi, contempt for the world, which forces one to turn away from the living, present moment and to be concerned about some time in the future. ( Humanist in Canada, Lane)

End of sermon.

camuscamus.jpg

 

Albert Camus

 

Academia has posted an excellent paper on Camus titled The Tender Indifference of the World by Jean-Philippe Deranty

available here with his permission. More on Camus here.

January 1960

camus-2_thumb.jpgIn January of 1960, a powerful sports car was traveling north in France towards Paris. Albert Camus was a passenger in the car. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and had been called in the presentation speech “the conscience of the 20th century.” He had been an actor and an editor, a dramatist and a novelist, and was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis in World War II. He was forty-six years old and well known around the world. Camus was traveling to Paris with friends after spending the New Year holiday on his property in the south of France. It was raining. The car came out at one point on a straight, clear stretch of road. About midway it went off the road and rammed into a tree. Camus was killed. One newspaper at the time reported, “It was a dramatic end for the young writer who was a leader and interpreter of the philosophy of postwar France’s wild, young existentialist set.”

If the existentialist set in France was wild, this is hardly a charge that can be leveled against Camus. A more thoroughly earnest man it would be hard to find anywhere. And yet, his sudden senseless death there on the road lends support to one of the fundamental ideas of the existentialists movement: that life is absurd, senseless, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, without rhyme or reason; life is illogical; the only god is the god of chance; “Time and chance happeneth to all men,” as the preacher said many years ago. And yet, in his works Camus is stating, is demanding, that life has value without having meaning. In so doing he is rebelling against two things: on the one hand, nihilism, that is the belief in nothing; and on the other hand, the Christian concept of contemptus mundi, contempt for the world, which forces one to turn away from the living, present moment and to be concerned about some time in the future. ( Humanist in Canada, Lane)

And now the story continues. Kamel Daoud has published a “counter-argument” novel, Meursault, Counter-Investigation in response to Camus’s The Stranger and has been threatened with death by an imam. (Read more here.)

Camus is as relevant today as he was in the cold war period. His insistence on human values in this absurd world speaks to us about war and torture and poverty.