Sunday, July 3, 2011

Random Corks, Random Bottles, Random Seas

We were having a little discussion about individuals trapped up in large-scale natural, political, cultural, economic processes, a meditation spurred in part by Albert Brooks' disturbing little novel, 2030. It occurred to me that there are at least two distinct ways to view your own interaction with large forces during the course of a very short lifetime. You can see yourself as a corked bottle being tossed about in random fashion in a large ocean. What appears to be free will might send the bottle in a deliberate if minuscule direction from time to time, but that free will might be indistinguishable from Brownian motion. The point is not to deny all existence of free will, but to remind us that the ocean is pretty friggin' big.

Alternatively, you could think of yourself as a target with a large bullseye on your chest. The large forces might be warriors with taut bows, ready to shoot arrows directly at you that say, "Big Uncaring Government", "Earthquakes and Tsunamis", "Intelligence Agencies", "Impact of Gay Culture", "Modernization and its Discontents", and on and on, you get the idea. Each force is all about you, and the impact of a large flow is considered solely on the basis of what it means to your life, and whether you should feel guilty because its impact is the result of some mortal or heavenly will.

Now, I'm not trying to deny any role for works or grace here, but it seems to me that the latter view incorporates an extreme narcissism, and leads inevitably to paranoia and to a fear of the external world. I keep thinking of Nicole Kidman participating in a grief support group in the movie Rabbit Hole. She is confronted by a couple who take solace in thinking that everything happens for a reason, because God wills it. She calls that the worst kind of hypocrisy, since many random events happen for no reason whatsoever. That may feel kind of harsh when trying to deal with the death of a child, but if we allow for divine intervention, we are left with the conclusion that God must be cruel in intent. We are left joining Pat Robertson in thinking that Katrina happened because God wanted to punish New Orleans.

It could be that people adopt this extreme narcissism, and sometimes paranoia, because they harbor a greater fear that many events happen in their lives simply because shit happens. If you were a Roman citizen living a dull patrician existence in 460 AD, your house might have been pillaged by an Ostrogoth, not because you were bad, not because you were singled out, not because there were hostile Ostrogoth forces targeting you directly, but simply because you were living in Rome in the fifth century CE.

The random bob can represent an important survival strategy for living in a time of generalized collapse like the 21st century. The younger people in Brooks' novel wanted to target older people for being the source of insanely large budget deficits and health-care costs, leading to a Soylent Green-style scenario. Now certainly we can place blame on human agency in recognition of real evil in the world. The Hitlers and Stalins must answer for real crimes. But it is also important to remember, particularly as far as divine will is concerned, that some of us simply live in a time of world war, of Holocaust, of economic collapse, and we are random victims of large historical processes. Maybe our chances will be better in the next turn of the wheel. The true agents of others' sorrow must be held to account for the wrongs they have done. But the more you play the blame game, the more you are letting your narcissism get the better of you. Most of what goes on around you is a random bob in the ocean.


Ruth said...

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you for articulating just what I feel.

I remember a great cartoon of a football game, and a player was kneeling on the field, praying, and obviously praying for his team to win. God was a huge figure at the end of the field, behind the goalpost. I don't even remember the caption (!), but it represents this same point of view, that God is not on 'our side.' There are no sides, and we happen to get caught in the crossfire of a lot of s**t. But a lot of s**t has come down, far worse in previous centuries. I consciously think often of how grateful I am for not being born at certain times. Just for health care alone!

OK, rambling . . .

Loring Wirbel said...

Regarding health care alone, you really do want to read that Albert Brooks novel - it's light summer reading, not serious literature, but everything is plausible on how we stumble our way through an utterly collapsed economy...