Just Another Day in Shawshank

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Liberty of the people is not my liberty!”

—Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own

“You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say ‘Holden Caulfield’ on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say ‘Fuck you.’ I’m positive, in fact.”

—Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a sense of confinement on some level. Throughout each major phase of my life, that I was tied to an invisible leash was obvious enough. Like most people, I was introduced at an early age to the concept of having to be at a certain place at a certain time. First it was preschool and kindergarten. Then it was elementary school. Then it was junior high school and senior high school. Then came college. Then came my first job. Eventually it began to dawn on me that there would be no end to these impositions. But I still assumed that there was such a thing as freedom somewhere in the world, and I continued to cling onto the hope that I would somehow be able to attain it someday.

Then I had a revelation: that prison wasn’t limited to a particular place, that it interpenetrated every inch of the world around me, and extended far beyond what the eye could see. And just as quickly, it occurred to me that all political, religious, scientific, and artistic efforts to redeem the world were doomed to fail, because you just can’t redeem a prison. The only real redemption is escape.

Ever since I began to see the real world in its entirety as a vast prison, I’ve found it to be a tad easier to live in, at least in some ways. Human misery becomes comprehensible in this context. I no longer think of misfortune as something that “ought” not to occur, but as something that is all too normal and expected. It’s easier to get over a bad day when I consider that it was just another day in a metaphysical Shawshank.

Of course, some areas of this prison are far freer than others. On one end of the scale, you have the concentration camp, and on the other end, you have the Scandinavian prison/rehabilitation center. I was lucky enough to be born into an area much closer to the latter. Indeed, the title of this blog entry is somewhat misleading because where I live is a whole lot nicer than Shawshank State Penitentiary. Comparatively speaking, just being able to access the Internet and blog is in itself something that can be seen as an enviable privilege. Nevertheless, the fact remains that prison is prison, even if it boasts trimmed lawns, wide roads, supermarkets, wilderness parks, and a considerable number of personal liberties.

The tragic thing is that any sentence in this prison is necessarily a life sentence. This place is my cradle and it will most likely be my grave. There is no true freedom here, only transient illusions of it in the form of small consolations, like having a bottle of cold beer during a break from laboring on the prison rooftops under a scorching sun, or hearing The Marriage of Figaro streaming through the public address system during what was supposed to be just another dreary day of soul-killing routine.

Despite the overwhelming odds, I still have hope that I will be able to escape this prison one day. I have no idea how, considering that the walls and shackles are not physical things but an intrinsic aspect of the very mode of existence, but hope is its own justification. I hope to prove Holden wrong. I think he’d like that.

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In Blood Only

By Jin-yeong Yi

“What is Love? Ask him who lives what is life; ask him who adores what is God.”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “On Love”

“[L]ove easily obtained is of little value; difficulty in obtaining it makes it precious.”

—Andreas Capellanus

“Love often attains its most luxuriant growth in separation and under circumstances of the utmost difficulty.”

—Charles Dickens

“The fountains mingle with the river, / And the rivers with the ocean; / The winds of heaven mix forever, / With a sweet emotion; / Nothing in the world is single; / All things by a law divine / In one another’s being mingle:— / Why not I with thine?”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”

Incestuous relationships, especially ones between brothers and sisters, has fascinated me for a long time. There’s little doubt that this has much to do with the highly taboo nature of incest, which unlike homosexuality has yet to gain widespread acceptance.

Since I don’t believe in moral facts, it would be of little use for me to discuss whether consensual incest is “right” or “wrong.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s neither right nor wrong, like everything else in life. What I will say is that my perception of consensual incest is on the positive side. In the same way that I personally tend to support earnest relationships between people of the same gender, I tend to support the same between people who have been placed in the unusual circumstance of being both blood-related and in love. While I certainly have reservations about the consequences of inbreeding, I don’t see the relationships themselves as being any less “real” or “legitimate” than what most people think of when they hear the word “love.”

Do incestuous relationships, even those between fully consenting adults, hurt people? Of course they do. So do homosexual relationships. So does apostasy from one’s inherited religion or political party. So do non-incestuous heterosexual relationships, even, when there’s a conflict of interest (love polygons; parental disapproval pertaining to ethnicity, religion, and/or class; etc.) involved. Chances are that someone’s always going to get hurt regardless of the nature of the relationship in question.

For me, the ultimate question here is whether two people agree that they wish to be together, that they wish to journey through life side by side as the closest of companions, as partners who honor and cherish one another as they share the gift of life.

Dreams of an Endless Summer Day

By Jin-yeong Yi

“That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

—Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

“[T]he human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“We are masters of life and death, we rationalists. It has been a fine adventure, this half century of conscious existence, with all its labor and trouble and injustice. Huxley once sincerely replied to Kingsley, who sympathized with him on the death of a child, that they were proud and happy to have had the child just those few years with them. That is the spirit. An hour of sunlight is better than none. To have been born and lived and died is, for the man who knows how to live, a privilege and an opportunity that he might never had had. You have had the joy of seeing your children slowly rise through the phases of blossoming and ripening around you. You have known the fragrance of wine and flowers, the delights of art, the fascination of science, the joy of battle in a good cause…. How can any man have the effrontery to grumble that the feast is not eternal?”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

—The Bible, 2 Peter 3:8 (King James Version)

All of us were born terminally ill. Even before we came into existence, we were sentenced to death, and our sentence hangs over our heads every moment of our lives.

I don’t think I’m afraid of death. I think Mark Twain had a point when he said, “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I’m comforted by the fact that, when my time comes, I will be in good company, that is, every single person who came before me.

And yet, as I watch the world crumbling around me in slow motion, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of regret at the thought that nothing, including all that I cherish and see as noble and beautiful, will endure. This feeling is especially strong when I look upon a person who embodies qualities I admire. “If only this sublime creature could live forever!” I sigh ruefully. And the feeling is hardly less strong when I look upon that glorious process of discovery, learning, and growth called life. Existence is painful, but grand. I lament the transience of these things even as I remind myself that when I die, I probably won’t be around to give a damn.

I’ll be frank. I hope that there is an eternal afterlife. To me the notion looks dubious at best and absurd at worst in the light of modern biology, cosmology, and neuroscience, but I am crossing my fingers and wishing upon my lucky stars that when I close my eyes for what is supposed to be the last time I will open them again to find that the book of my life has a sequel. Yes, even though it looks like the odds are stacked sky-high against me.

Some of my fellow skeptics question not only the existence of an eternal afterlife, but its desirability as well. They argue that eternal life would be boring, without shape or form, or without value. “Life is precious precisely because it’s finite,” they reason. It is difficult to argue with that. I can only say that the fact that I exist, that I have consciousness, that I have a pattern and process that I can call my own in the first place, is precious to me simply for being what it is because it might not have been.

As for eternal life being “boring,” well, I think that would depend on each individual, as such adjectives describe our subjective experiences of things rather than the things themselves. And why would eternity have to be boring? Because it’s too long? What if the nature of time in the afterlife is completely different from what we have here? What if the afterlife is a state in which we forget about time entirely?

Of course, while I’m alive, I cannot go beyond mere speculation. The answer will come only when I die, if it ever does. For all I know, that may take many years to happen. But for the time being, allow me to indulge in some fantasy:

It may be that the present world is a lot like a vast, gigantic train station, and that the present life is essentially nothing more than a period during which we humans wait for our trains to arrive at the platform. Generally, each of us gets his or her own private train, because it is rare for people to depart this world at the exact same time. But depart we will. It is only a matter of when. Some people depart after dozens of moons. Others depart before they even get a chance to see what the train station looks like. Either way, everyone is on their way out.

This waiting period is, in the grand context of things, trivially brief, but for many of us humans it is still long enough to build civilizations, wage wars, open businesses, pursue careers, accumulate learning, create works of art, nurture romances, raise families, cultivate friendships, and fret about matters big and small. In the end, however, all of this is simply our way of occupying ourselves while we wait for our respective trains, which will take each of us to someplace better. It wouldn’t do to become too attached to a place that we are supposed to eventually leave anyway. All of our troubles in this train station, no matter how overwhelming, are transient, and will have no lasting ramifications. No matter what happens to us, we won’t miss our train. Viewing things in this light, we can set aside at least some of our fear and our bitterness and think of this brief period as a chance to learn and prepare for the great journey ahead.

Believing that something is true without evidence may be irrational, but hoping that it is true, no matter how improbable it is, is not. And, for my dream of an endless summer day of discovery, freedom, wonder, and joy; I have as much hope as I have doubt.

Rediscovering God in a Godless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God – but to create him.”

—Arthur C. Clarke

“If there is no God…if there is no thing called ‘God’…if He is nothing, can’t something come from Him?”

—Stephen Colbert, interview with Lawrence Krauss

I am an atheist, but I believe in God. Depending on your cultural background, this sentence may have made absolutely no sense to you. Not long ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either, because the only definition of “God” that I was really aware of was the omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent monotheistic, patriarchal deity of orthodox Christianity. My inquiries outside of the Christian mainstream; specifically in deism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Spinozism, as well as progressive Christianity; eventually cured me of this myopia. I came to realize that the word “God” could mean anything at all. Then finally, I realized that the word could mean something for me as well.

Seen in this light, the “One nation under God” controversy seems pointless, a complete waste of time, even. There have been myriad religions throughout the millennia that affirmed different and conflicting definitions of the word “God.” Depending on the definition, “God” can be something affirmable for everyone, even atheists. All that one needs to do is to refashion the word for one’s own purposes.

One of the people who helped open up the possibilities of this Word of words to me was the Dutch Christian pastor Klaas Hendrikse, a religious maverick who caused his share of controversy in the late 2000’s with his book, whose title is translated as Believing in a God Who Does Not Exist: Manifesto of an Atheist Pastor. He explained, “God is for me not a being but a word for what can happen between people.” His words never faded from my consciousness, and they continue to inspire me in my ongoing quest to find out what God means to me.

In the same way theists use the word to denote what they worship as the Most High, I use the word as a linguistic vessel that gives expression to my subjective emotional reaction to something I find to be particularly beautiful or sublime. In this sense, I may experience the presence of Godhead, in varying degrees, when looking at a work of art, listening to a piece of music, reading a book, watching a motion picture, gazing at natural scenery, or ruminating on the wonders of science and mathematics. If religious service is the contemplation and worship of everything that one holds to be holy and sacred, then daily life for me is, on some level, one continuous, unending religious service.

The word is also a source of daily inspiration in my life. For me, God is the impossible standard of absolute perfection. God cannot be reached; God can only be pursued, for God is infinite. We can move toward God, but we can never reach God. This is only natural, for God is infinitely above us. But as long as we move in the direction of God, we cannot help but grow and evolve through our efforts. To understand God is to recognize that growth and evolution have no end point any more than progress with a musical instrument has an end point–that there’s always, always room for betterment. Amen.

An Answer to Camus

By Jin-yeong Yi

“If we turn from contemplating the world as a whole, and, in particular, the generations of men as they live their little hour of mock-existence and then are swept away in rapid succession; if we turn from this, and look at life in its small details, as presented, say, in a comedy, how ridiculous it all seems! It is like a drop of water seen through a microscope, a single drop teeming with infusoria; or a speck of cheese full of mites invisible to the naked eye. How we laugh as they bustle about so eagerly, and struggle with one another in so tiny a space! And whether here, or in the little span of human life, this terrible activity produces a comic effect.

It is only in the microscope that our life looks so big. It is an indivisible point, drawn out and magnified by the powerful lenses of Time and Space.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Vanity of Existence”

“LIFE: To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions; to return step by step to imbecility, from the time of lisping to that of doting; to live among knaves and charlatans of all kinds; to die between one man who takes your pulse and another who troubles your head; never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going! That is what is called the most important gift of our parents and nature. Life.”

—Denis Diderot, L’Encyclopédie

What’s the purpose of life? What’s the point of living? As a nihilist, I do not believe that life has any intrinsic meaning or purpose. There are people who believe that, without intrinsic purpose, life is not worth living. I’d say that whether your life is worth living or not is up to you. The way I see it, it’s a question of feeling, not fact, and that desire is purpose enough.

For me, Camus’s question, “Why not commit suicide?” isn’t terribly difficult to answer. First of all, it is all but certain that the Grim Reaper will come for me eventually whether I want him to or not, and there’s no need for me to summon him ahead of schedule, at least not right now. If I have even half a reason to keep living, why not continue with my journey and see where it leads? I, for one, am interested in seeing how my story ends.

Another reason why I’m not in too much of a hurry to kill myself is that the disappointments of life have their impact lessened by my belief that experience as a unified whole is more important than happiness. Happiness comes and goes, while experience is for keeps.

So why live? I think each person must find their own answer. Here’s mine:

I live to learn, to improve myself, to experiment, to explore trails on which few have trodden, to overcome challenges, to reflect, to grow, to wonder, to enjoy, to laugh, to love and be loved, to be inspired, to create, to experience Beauty in its myriad forms, to dream and to accomplish my dreams, and to see just how far the rabbit hole goes. In a word, I live to live.

Countdown to the New Year

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Russian rocket scientist and Cosmist thinker Konstantin Tsiolkovsky once said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” As inspiring as this quote is, I think the true cradle of humanity is the real world as a whole. The real world is all cradle no matter where you are within it, whether on Earth or Mars or another galaxy.

In contrast, every inch of the dream world is permeated with wonder. It hardly matters where you are or what you are doing when you are inside of your own universe and conscious of it. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the extraordinary becomes magical.

Sadly, we can enter the dream world for only an hour at most each day. The rest is spent in the prison of the real. I not only acknowledge this fact, but I intend to make the best of it. That’s partly why I named this blog “The Practical Dreamer”: I aspire to be someone who has his head in the clouds with both feet firmly on the ground, someone who knows how to divide his time between two worlds–the world imposed upon me, and the world that I fashion for myself.

The year 2013 rapidly approaches. There’s no telling what will happen in the coming weeks and months. All I can say is that, as long as I’m in the prison of the real world, I intend to be productive and, of course, practical. I am determined to use my time wisely, to have my act together like I’ve never had it before, and to pursue my goals like I’ve never pursued them before. Because it is always now or never.

The Transcendental Longing

By Jin-yeong Yi

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

—Henry David Thoreau

“Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Upanishads

As I mentioned in a previous entry, one of the biggest discoveries of my life was that freedom doesn’t exist in this world. And never have I felt so strongly about this as I have this December, the month that is supposed to be my favorite time of the year. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never felt so aware of how much of a slave I am to reality.

I am a superlatively greedy person. Believe it. No amount of material possessions or even positive experiences could ever satiate me, because my desires are infinite. I am so greedy, in fact, that not even the entire universe, to say nothing of the entire world, would be able to satisfy me. If there is something that would be able to satisfy me, it would be something that perhaps will forever be beyond my reach: unlimited freedom, the state of being bound by nothing except the limits of my imagination.

The situation of my niece, who is in her final year as a toddler, illustrates the point for me. On Christmas Eve, while I was sitting in the kitchen having dinner, I heard her and her father (my brother-in-law) in the other room arguing for the hundredth time. She was throwing a tantrum because she didn’t want to dress for Christmas dinner. As her father was an attorney and a lover of literature equipped a strong command of the English language, she was naturally losing the contest of wills. As I listened to her miserable, defeated wails, I thought about how the world made so much more sense if I looked at the whole of it as a prison. My adventurous niece, so full of vitality and curiosity, was only beginning to discover just how limited her freedom really was.

In my view, the real trouble with the human condition actually has nothing to do with economics, politics, law, race, religion, science, art, culture, or the 1,001 other issues that we discuss and debate ad infinitum. The trouble is a vast conspiracy. Not a conspiracy of man, but a conspiracy of nature. It is what placed each and every one of us in a prison that we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. This prison is not a particular society, or a country, or even a planet. It’s not the “Matrix.” It’s the real world itself. It’s a place where we’re trapped in vessels of crude matter that are always at the mercy of forces that are pitiless, capricious, and indifferent. It’s a place where we are forced to waste decades of our lives struggling to collect pieces of fancy paper and metal tokens; where we are forced to push and shove each other out of the way for that job, that house, that girl/guy, or that parking spot. It’s a place where we are forced to wait in long lines. It’s a place where we’re always being dragged down by the needs and expectations of others. It’s a place where we are forever slaves to time, always having to be at a certain place at a certain point on a sequence-cycle of numbers. It’s a place where we are forced to live in constant anxiety and fear. It’s a place that refuses to bend to our wills, to be moved by our desires. It’s a place where we know how to fly, but were never given wings. It’s a place that promises so much and makes good on so little of it, perpetually setting us up for frustration, failure, disappointment, and regret.

This is why I think that it is meaningless to complain or be bitter that my life in the real world is not what I’d hoped it would be, because it would be like an inmate complaining or being bitter that his life in prison is not what he’d hoped it would be. In both cases, it is silly to have had expectations. There are redeeming things about the real world, of course, in the same way there are redeeming things about prison, but that doesn’t change the nature of the place. The real world is a prison. Not just this society or even this planet as a whole—this entire universe is a prison. And all of us are inmates.

The real world is beyond help. It has always been, and always shall be. No ideology, no religion, no politics, no science, no art, no music, or any other form of human ingenuity can ever save this place, because to save it would mean to change the fundamental nature of it. The only option, if one exists, is to escape.

Personally, the knowledge of my situation gives me hope. If I didn’t know that I was in prison, I would never have thought to look for a way out. I look at the lifeless stone walls around me, and my mind whispers that I just might be able to escape. I look up at the starry heavens through barred windows, and my spirit shouts out that one day, I will.