This weekend, and for the coming week, I’ve succeeded in escaping from my familiar environment to a place which is as far from civilization as what you can drive a car to within Europe. I got lost a bit on the way here, and in the first day in the basic cabin at my disposal here the pipes froze up. But overall the serious risks involved in this adventure are pretty limited. I’m in a place where some little conveniences are a little less convenient, but only to the extent that is necessary to achieve the isolation I’ve been craving.
The “roughness” of the experience is just barely enough to remind me of my limited experience with scouting. Here too it’s about learning about myself and my companion(s) through confronting very controlled risks together. It’s about “being prepared” in some very basic ways, and at the same time being ready to face situations which are entirely different than what one is prepared for. It’s about improvising for the fun of it, but doing so in a relatively safe and dependable sort of way.
It’s sort of strange, actually: there’s electricity, hot and cold running water (most days), and as good a cellular network Internet connection here as there is back in the city. There’s a larger television here than I have at home, more room to play… but then I have to walk a couple of meters through the snow to use the toilet. So does this really count as “primitive conditions”?
Besides basic escapism, part of the point of this trip is to evaluate the risk factors involved in the further major changes in life that I’m contemplating; trying to put a bunch of things into perspective. Part of that involves considering what I have in life which is really of value to me: what if anything I stand to lose in making such major changes. Then part of it involves carefully considering what the chances are of losing everything, and what the chances are of coming out ahead in the whole deal.
Many people forget that it was Kris Kristofferson, not Janis Joplin, who deserves credit for the famous lyrics, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Such “nothings,” however, are relative. We all have reputations, relationships, health conditions and physical items that we think of as our own, that somehow come together to set limits on what we are ready to allow ourselves to do. But in the end, the risks of losing those things, and their importance should we actually end up without them, might be just as trivial as the “hardships” I’ve taken on in cabin life for the week.
Perhaps the immigrant experience is the best illustration of relevant considerations here. In the late nineteenth century, when my ancestors left the poverty and limited opportunities they faced in the Netherlands to face the inevitable loss of any established position, and the risk of hardship and disease within the United States, they did so with an awareness that once this trip was started there would be no turning back. They never would (and never did) see their land of birth again. For my great-great-grandfather, these risks were put into perspective by the fact that his parents had died of disease when he was a child, and his sisters had both emigrated ahead of him; but the isolation of living in a country where he would always stick out as a foreigner, and the fact that most of his children died there before reaching adulthood, must have made him wonder about the choice he made.
For me as an immigrant from the US back to Europe, the sufferings and risks were not at all in the same league. My health, and that of my children, was relatively safely cared for on either side. I was somewhat isolated as a foreigner; but mass-media, letters, telephone, and later Internet and e-mail made it possible to maintain contact with my extended family and the land of my birth in almost convenient ways. And the possibility of going back has always been open to me, including the chance to return and visit family every few years or so. My forefathers could never have dreamed of such an easy immigrant experience.
Now of course for many others in the world today immigration, and the life of poverty and degradation they face in the lands of their birth, are still very serious matters; just as serious as what my own ancestors faced. So if I consider my own situation in that light, it feels rather trivial either to feel sorry for myself in present, or to be particularly worried about my chances in the future. All things being relative, in most ways I will continue to have things pretty good regardless.
So then if my basic physical needs and wants aren’t really to be worried about in any case, why should I bother changing anything? Should major changes be something only done out of desperation of one sort or another? That’s part of what I’m sitting up here in “primitive conditions” weighing out for myself.
The important factor really isn’t about the day-to-day aspect of a basic struggle for survival, but about a purpose that goes beyond that. As I was implying somewhat last week, human biological life is rather short, and what lies beyond that really cannot be proven. Many of us hope for heaven afterwards, or something to that effect, without being entirely able to prove that such hopes are justified. Beyond that, we hope that our time in these bodies, on this planet, really does have some value beyond its own basic struggle for self-preservation. And many times, in others at least, we can see that it does –– that their lives have had such extended value. And then each of us asks ourselves, “Will my life have that sort of meaning?”
As troubling as the premise can be, it seems quite clear that the meaning my life can have within this world depends, to a great extent, on the ways in which what I have to offer is received by those around me. Thus in order to be truly “important” in human terms, one needs to find ways of surrounding oneself with people who appreciate what one has to offer. That’s always a risky proposition. For any given individual today, the odds of finding that sort of appreciation are if anything worse than they were for a poor person of my great-great-grandfather’s generation to enable all of his children to reach adulthood.
Having a value that survives my own lifetime would indeed be a rare form of success for me to achieve, but that’s what I’m shooting for. What can I do and where can I go then to best increase my odds of finding such success? As near as I can tell there are three things which could best improve my chances of being remembered for leaving the world better than I find it: First I rather need to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Being just another routine operator, capable of getting certain necessary but easily forgettable tasks done, is unlikely to make me the object of lasting appreciation. Secondly, I need to be involved in a process of mutual respect with other people in general. I cannot be valued by others unless I am capable of seeing their value as well. Thus if I try to stand out in the crowd by shooting down others who might outshine me, as a strategy for importance––for true greatness anyway––this will inevitably end up being counter-productive. This is where I particularly agree with the spirit of the African proverb I was referring to last time. And then lastly, beyond that, I need to find individuals who I can care about enough to have a personal impact on. To have lasting importance my life needs to have an impact not first of all on masses, but on individuals, in their one-at-a-time lives. And for that to happen I need to care about particular individuals as important individuals––as being as important to me as I am to myself even. In short, I need to dare to love.
So what sorts of risks am I willing to take in order to find a place where what I have to offer is somehow uniquely valuable? How can I deal with the challenge of building mutual respect with people in general, many of whom I may naturally find to be obnoxious? And how can I decide who I should dare to love, intensely and selflessly even? Even with all of our material needs being pretty much taken care of, and our basic dignity assured, these can be intimidating questions.
It might or might not be easier to seek personal value in non-human terms: believing that we need not worry about satisfying other people; that we can trust that God recognizes our true goodness, and nothing else matters. On the one hand there’s an element of purer honor and more secure purpose in such thinking. On the other hand, if God has a purpose for each of our lives, it will inevitably involve showing His purpose and compassion to other human beings. So using religion to escape from the vulnerability that dealing with other humans can cause doesn’t really work in the long run––just ask any prophet!
And that brings me back to the troublesome question of deciding (perhaps with God’s help) which people are worth my working with, and how. It is inevitably going to be a risky matter, but then again, in the big scheme of things, maybe those risks aren’t really worth spending too much time worrying about.
Post Script: having thought a few days about whether or not to post this, I’ve decided, why not? I’m really not willing to make any more specific public statements as to the particular personal existential questions I’m wrestling with, and this makes my public ramblings here both rather abstract and perhaps ungeneralizeable. This is thinking aloud again without any particularly clear conclusions, either in personal or general philosophical terms, but perhaps these ideas will give someone a starting point for picking up and figuring out which of his or her own dreams and purposes are worth pursuing. It inevitably involves balancing courage and cautious responsibility in a very individual way. I hope each of us finds that proper balance.