Of Heraclitus and Homesickness

By Jin-yeong Yi

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“Photography is the inventory of mortality. A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony. Photographs show people being so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; [they] group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies.”

—Susan Sontag

“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”

—The Bible, Matthew 8:19-20 (King James Version)

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

—Heraclitus

In The Man from Earth, a 14,000 year old Cro-Magnon explains why “home” is a highly time-sensitive designation:

Linda (L): Well, I don’t understand…why you can’t remember where you’re from. Geography hasn’t changed–I learned that in Professor Hens–

Art (A): Professor Hensen’s tepid lectures. But you’re right. 

John (J): Where did you live when you were 5 years old?

L: Little Rock.

J: Your mother, she took you to the market?

L: Mmhm. 

J: What direction was it? From your house?

L: I don’t know.

J: How far?

L: Um, three blocks?

J: Were there any…references that stuck in your mind? 

L: Well there was a gas station and a big field. I was told I could never go there alone.

J: And if you went back there today, would it be the same?

L: No. I’m sure it’s all…different and built up. 

J: Thus the saying “You can’t go home again,” because it isn’t there anymore. 

At around noon today, I drove to the town where I spent most of my childhood. This was hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event; I go there from time to time for recreation or shopping, and it is located less than half an hour away from where I live now.

The difference was that this time I went to the neighborhood I grew up in. I parked my car about a block away from my old street, and then made my way to memory lane on foot. I had forgotten where my old house was, but since I’d remembered the name of the street, I had been able to locate it with the help of Google Maps.

Besides my old house and the house to the left of it, I wasn’t able to remember much about the neighborhood. After taking a few pictures of the house, I turned around and strolled south for a bit, admiring the lush greenery that populated the area. There was a time when a smaller, younger me walked these streets, a time when I called this place home. This small world had gone on without me as if I’d never existed.

After getting back into my car, I headed west and, with a stroke of luck, located Ralphs. How quaint it looked; even the serif font of the signs marking each aisle were of an earlier generation. There wasn’t much to see; in not a few ways it was practically indistinguishable from the Ralphs I shopped at now. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I bought some sweets before heading back to the parking lot.

Being here was refreshing in a way; I almost felt like I’d traveled back in time, back to simpler, more carefree days when my greatest fear was incurring the wrath of my parents by getting poor grades, when my greatest pleasures were playing video games, drawing, and reading Calvin and Hobbes under the covers.

I sat in the car for a while, observing the nonstop activity outside. Cars and trucks rolling by, people going on with their lives. I looked around, trying to see if I could remember any of the stores and restaurants lined up before my eyes. With maybe three exceptions at the most, none of them rung a bell. How many of them had been replaced since I’d moved? That Lutheran church to my left, was that there when I was still attending the Catholic school down south?

What is home? If it’s simply a roof over one’s head, well, then it’s simple: it’s where one lives. But is there such a thing as a perennial home, a dwelling that is for keeps, a place where one belongs…forever?

My visit to my old neighborhood may have well erased any lingering doubt that the answer is no.

Clearly, houses, apartments, and the like fail to qualify as such. When it comes down to it, they are simply buildings that change hands after a certain period of time, because ownership is predicated not on intrinsic birthright but man-made legal concepts.

The room I presently live in, for example, is full of memories that were here long before I was born. Though it is my possessions and furniture that occupy this room, other people once carried on their daily existence in this exact location, this very space. I’ll never know what events these four walls were witness to, though I can imagine: good times with friends, frenzied quarrels over finances and relationships, mornings of admiring the rising sun, nights of gentle lovemaking in the moonlight, lonely evenings spent in contemplative solitude. The room doesn’t belong to me; I’m merely borrowing it.

There’s no place in this world, in this universe where one could have a permanent sense of belonging. Countries grow larger or smaller or disappear altogether, populations are altered or replaced, the face of the Earth itself changing with each passing generation.

Even the most sedentary individuals are travelers, for they, like everyone else, are always journeying through time. We’re not residents in this world, but merely guests. To be homesick is to pine for a place that doesn’t exist any longer—or never existed to begin with.

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

—Jim Morrison, “Riders on the Storm”

Celebrating Death Day

By Jin-yeong Yi

Theodor Kittelsen - The Pauper

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

—Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

“Death is not our enemy—I think St. Paul was dead wrong. Death is our friend, death is our shadow, death is what gives life its meaning. You walk with death every day of your life, and ultimately you put your hand in the hand of death and you depart this world. And somehow, we don’t seem to have that relationship correct.”

—John Shelby Spong

“Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”

—Corliss Lamont, Freedom of Choice Affirmed

“Only death is real…”

—Hellhammer, “Messiah” (Apocalyptic Raids)

You might die today.

No matter how strong and healthy you are right now, God can throw you a lethal curveball at any time without warning, whether in the form of a devastating earthquake, a sociopathic burglar, a drunk driver, or a 1,000 foot sinkhole.

Whether we are young or old, it is never too early to think about death, because death can come at any time.

We might die within the next hour, for all we know. Maybe not. Either way, we’re running out of time, because we were born terminally ill. Every day is another 24 hours closer to the grave. Every day people die. Every day is Death Day.

The question isn’t whether we will die, because our deaths are all but a given, an inevitability. The question is how we will die. All of us will have to step down from the stage of life eventually, but what kind of exit will each of us make when we do? And in the interim, what will we do with the time we have left?

“We are all racing towards death. No matter how many great, intellectual conclusions we draw during our lives, we know that they’re all only man-made, like God. I begin to wonder where it all leads. What can you do, except do what you can do as best you know how.”

—John Hurt

“We cannot fix death, perhaps, but we can make life so good that death is paltry.”

—Spinoza Ray Prozak, “The Internet People”

“Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead.”

—Tim O’Brien

Some light listening for Death Day:

Entombed – “Carnal Leftovers” (Left Hand Path)

Carcass – “Reek of Putrefaction” (Symphonies of Sickness)

Asphyx – “Embrace the Death” (Embrace the Death)

Hellhammer – “Triumph of Death” (Apocalyptic Raids)

Nihilist – “When Life Has Ceased” (Nihilist [1987-1989])

Cryptopsy – “Graves of the Fathers” (None So Vile)

Deicide – “Dead by Dawn” (Deicide)

Celtic Frost – “Necromantical Screams” (To Mega Therion)

Demigod – “Towards the Shrouded Infinity” (Slumber of Sullen Eyes)

Demilich – “And You’ll Remain… (In Pieces of Nothingness)” (Nespithe)

Morpheus Descends – “Ritual of Infinity” (Ritual of Infinity)

Gorguts – “Sweet Silence” (Obscura)

How Does One Overcome Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

By Jin-yeong Yi

From my notebooks (c. 2010):

What does it mean to overcome OCD? Basically, it means to overcome the chronic paralysis that is induced by the tormenting thoughts and the futile, repetitive behaviors that they encourage. Performing a compulsion is the opposite of living in the moment, that is to say, using the present to accomplish things and grow as a human being, as an individual. A person who takes full advantage of the present is likely to have a long list of activities and accomplishments by the end of his life. Though this is not unattainable for a person with OCD, it is clear that his condition, if not overcome, will rob him of a great deal of his potential and will do much to keep him from living a fulfilling life.

How, then, can a person with OCD overcome his illness? There is no trick here: the only way to overcome OCD is to live in the present, and the only way to live in the present is to just do it. Live in the present, and don’t take your eyes off of it. Focus on the things you have to do or want to do, and do them, constantly moving from one activity to the next, taking short breaks in between if necessary. Work. Complete your tasks and finish your chores. Exercise. Eat and drink. Read, watch a movie, or listen to some music. Study. Learn. Practice a musical instrument. Think. Create. Write essays or stories, compose music or draw. Do these things, and do them with gusto. At any given moment, you have a choice between a million actions that are meaningful (productive activities) and a million that are meaningless (compulsions and other diversions). Take your pick.

When the inevitable obsessions surface, respond by immediately refocusing on what you are doing at the moment. Sometimes doing this can be extremely painful, as all too often does it feel as if your entire future depends on whether or not you can resolve the “issues” that the obsessions bring forth. However, if you are living in the moment, you can always take consolation in the fact that you are not powerless, that you have control over yourself, that you are not a slave to fear, that you are getting something done, and that you are moving forward, regardless of how distressing the obsessions are, and this gives you a reason to smile and be hopeful for the future. Remember, you have two options: be free and suffer, or be a slave and suffer. Though the suffering will never go away, you can choose to not be a slave to it. The important thing is to keep moving.

Time is always flowing, regardless of whether we are moving or standing still. We can choose to flow with time or just stand by and watch it flow past us. If we choose to just stand still, we will descend into inertia and paralysis and eventually be more dead than alive. Only by flowing with time can we ascend to greater heights of achievement and growth.

Destiny in a Meaningless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“All philosophies, while disagreeing about all else, agree on one thing—they all recognize the reality of death, its inevitability, even when recognizing, as some do, nothing real in the world. The most skeptical systems, doubting even doubt itself, bow down before the fact of the reality of death.”

—Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov

“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)

“There is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe.”

—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Last month, there was a death in my extended family. The deceased was one of my cousins, who was an attorney and apparently very much looked up to by our nephews. I didn’t know him very well at all, but when I heard the eulogies, which described how he would always be there for the people in his life, I felt I understood why he was so beloved.

As far as I can remember, it was actually the first wake I’d ever attended. It was also the first time I’d seen a corpse in real life. Carefully prepared though he was, how cold and lifeless he still looked! My relatives and my mother were weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably, as if the world had come to an end. It all felt quite surreal, as if I were in a movie.

Afterwards, my family gathered at a large buffet where we had dinner in honor of the departed. I got a rare opportunity to chat with kin that I only saw about once a year, if not less.

When I left, I gave one of my late cousin’s brothers a small hug before heading to the parking lot. He was shattered; he looked like an abandoned child, homeless and lost in the cold of winter. Now that the celebration had ended and everyone was going their separate ways, there was going to be nothing left to distract them from their grief.

While I was in college I realized that living in this world was as futile as building sandcastles on the seashore. Now I see just how thoroughly succinct the metaphor is. We are living on borrowed time. Unless humankind finds a way to reverse the laws of thermodynamics, as Nikolai Fyodorov hoped, the day will eventually come when the race will go the way of the dinosaurs. Everything that this ambitious species will have built will eventually crumble to dust. Civilization, culture, art, learning, everything. Even the gold-gilded pages of history, which have given a number of people a sort of life beyond death, will disappear, and there will be no one to read them anyway. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the things that humans have found worth striving for and living for will fade away into nothingness along with the fruits of their efforts. The abyss will spare nothing and no one.

“Why, then,” one might ask, “should I care about any of this?”  As an atheist and a nihilist, I can offer very little in the way of comfort, unlike the preacher who confidently promises that every tear will eventually be wiped away by the hand of God. I certainly can’t offer “objective” reasons for caring about the future. Indeed, indifference is not invalid. It’s not wrong; it’s not even unreasonable. We don’t have to care. But by the same token, neither do we have to be apathetic. The choice is ours. And I choose to care.

Even if we don’t have all eternity, we do have the moment, the here and now. And we can choose to throw it away or make the most of it.

The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes advises:

“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou taketh under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave wither thou goest.”[1]

Life is a lost battle from the very beginning, but for my part, I reject a hedonistic lifestyle simply because I find that excess leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied. What appeals to me personally is the idea of having goals, of having ends to work toward. With the right goals, not only the accomplishment of goals but also the process leading to accomplishment can make life feel worth living, with the hope of achievement giving meaning to the future, and the efforts toward achievement giving meaning to the present.

As easy as it is for me to take my time for granted and go by a vague assumption that tomorrow will always be there for me, I see wisdom in living each day as if it were my last, because for all I know, each day could be my last. As Corliss Lamont observed, “Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”[2]

I believe in actively pursuing knowledge and acquiring new skills, in bettering myself, even if I won’t last forever. I believe in helping others, even if they won’t last forever. I believe in having dreams and never giving them up, even with the yawning abyss of nothingness before me. I see wisdom in living prayerfully, reverently, setting my goals for the day and striving to accomplish them. To work hard so that, when it is time to sleep, I will be able to tell myself that I’ve spent the day well enough to deserve another–even if it’s not in the stars for me.

If there is one thing that can tip the scale between apathy and interest, it is love. Love for others, love for learning, love for everything one regards as noble and beautiful, even love for oneself. In other words, love for life.

I will let Shelly Kagan have the last word:

“The fact that billions and billions of years from now it’s all going to be the same doesn’t mean it’s all the same now.”

Notes

[1] The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 (King James Version)

[2] Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont

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.

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.

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.