Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Meaning of Now

When I wrote yesterday about judging one's life, I was coming at the whole question from a teleological perspective: that is, I was evaluating a whole life from the perspective of where you end up. It's the final end, or teleos, that matters, and everything else is judged by how it gets you there. From a traditional Christian perspective, that approach makes perfect sense: we are preparing for a final Judgement Day, and how things play out on that last day is supposed to have eternal consequences.

That is not, however, the only way to go about thinking about meaning. You could start evaluating meaning at the other end of time: the present moment. A rich tradition of mystics across ancient and modern traditions would assert that past and future are only projections of the mind, and that only the present moment has reality. In the context of that theology, the question of the meaning of one's life becomes very different. Instead of saying, "What's the goal? Where I'm I going?" the question changes to: "This is it. All I have and all I ever will have is right now. So . . . how do I feel about right now? Is this the life that I want? Am I the kind of person I want to be?" And, if you feel like your life ought to be different, you change it . . . right now.

This flip in meaning evaluation -- from "The End" to "The Present" -- was brilliantly captured in my very favorite episodes of Angel ("Reprise" and "Epiphany", Season Two). Angel, the vampire cursed with a soul, struggled for centuries to enough good to redeem himself of all the evil his vampire-self has caused. A sense of redemption continually eludes him, though. When a "senior partner" from the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart visits from the "home office," Angel seizes the opportunity to go through the demon's portal. Clearly he wants to make a suicide run at the source of all evil, to use himself up completely in his fight against wickedness. But when he arrives at the "home office," he finds that he's . . . back home in Los Angeles. Evil, it turns out, is in the hearts of humanity, and no permanent victory is possible. In describing his "epiphany," Angel later says, in effect, "If there is no final victory, no end, then all that matters is the good that you do right now. And that good, no matter how small, is the most important thing in the universe."

Whether you accept the non-teleological theology or not, focusing on the present moment has a lot going for it. Rather than making grand speculations about the end of life and the end of time, the present moment has an existential simplicity that cuts through endless rationalization. You don't have to posit the meaning of capital-L Life to be able to discern what's better or worse in the present moment. Richard Rose called it "backing away from untruth" -- rather than presuming to know what the truth will ultimately look like and setting out to find it, we start where we're at and reject the less-true in favor of the more-true. Even if you believe in ultimate truth and ultimate ends, the best way to get there might be to pay attention to what's right in front of you.


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