Saturday, April 16, 2016

Chuck and "One man can only know a drop in the ocean of knowledge"

It was a typical early summer night in Alaska. The sun was stubborn in its descent and a dull light lingered in the sky for a little too long. The just awakening land reeked of fresh pine and dirt and beer and the hum of mosquitoes, which, with their piercing whines, let us know of our value as pieces of meat.


We had gathered around a campfire, an eclectic mix on construction workers, foreign resort workers and hippies and stragglers. Though not entirely true for the developed area we lived in, Alaska was in many respects still a last frontier. Certainly, with regard to perception it was one; people still flocked to it to find solace from demons back in the lower 48. 

Not that I'm trying to make the place seem wild... Nevertheless, there were the usual suspects there: those low-level criminals with one too many warrants back home; or those with families filled with the troubles of drugs or fists; or others just trying to earn enough for a dream-life—or rather to stay afloat in a nightmare-life.

There was some initial honeymoon moment, at the fire, when everyone seemed to be getting along; the construction workers allowed a few resort workers to drive their 4-wheelers and the talk was jovial and laced with laughter. Then the construction workers seemed to grow angry with everyone—especially the hippies. 

I just stood back and observed, trying to limit my drinking, as I felt the presence of the nearby mountains and the roaring Nenana river. Melancholy was, and is, my vice, though I suppose it has matured into a more palatable drink these days. Almost something I can enjoy, now. Then, however, it meant corralling thoughts then wondering what to do with them.

It was at this point that one of the construction workers came up to talk to me. I'm not sure why, as their segregation from the rest of us was nearly complete and the others were, for reasons unknown to me, acting fairly scared of them.

He introduced himself as Chuck. He was the most introspective of the lot, so I was more than willing to partake in a conversation with him. I'm not sure what exactly we talked about in all that time, or what points the conversation grew out into tangents, as such conversations normally tend to do, but at some point the conversation did swing to the merits of traveling and the people that one met. 

Chuck, as it were, was a poet. No, I doubt that he penned much, though if he did it must have been in secrecy from his fellow construction workers. No, he spoke as one. He said that we were all like streams, traveling through this life, and that each time we get to know someone, even briefly, we take something from them, and them from us, and that changes the composition and direction of both streams. 

Beautiful, I thought then. Not that I don't think it's beautiful now, just that one can grow weary of such easy models of the world. I think of that visualization of streams racing through the air, and it still resonates with me.

Of course, now older, I have met too many people to think there is much of a change when one meets others. This doesn't render Chuck's model wrong, it just makes me more of an asshole than I previously thought. 

That's not the point, though. The point is back then I had no philosophy for myself or model for the world, so I'd take pieces of advice, comments about the world from my parents, relatives, teachers, books  and various news sources [1]

Thus anything that presented itself with a modicum of sagacity was absorbed with great enthusiasm by me. I thought it wise to cast a wide net. I think I told myself something about multiple data points over a large range, and set forth in gathering that. I also believed myself to be truly free of all tribal ties [2] and thus I believed myself a clear conduit for all these ideas. 

I suppose this would be better called "youth", but I believed it and took advice from all concerned [3], never once taking much effort to evaluate my own station—at a solidly middle class estate in the middle of an Empire—and the viewpoints that this station would allow. [4]

Now, however, the internets having thoroughly destroyed all previous walls of any pretension against the idea that we were truly in a post-modern world (and a tribal one at that), I wonder what to make of my youthful desire to hear all opinions in shaping my world. I wonder, too, whether my world has been shaped, if I have a model for it and finally if I have even a philosophy for myself or for the post-modern human being in the that world model of mine. 

And even though the strains of tribalism and postmodernism are now very apparent everywhere in the world, it wasn't true then (even if I knew it existed, sensed it and only decided to accept the status quo answers after much deliberation). Now, I still find myself floundering for full answers and full models of the world. Few others seem to have the answers and so it's up to me, I suppose. 

But even there I see a weakness.

For example, back then I thought that merely basing one's life on all the scientific evidence available  and disregarding all tribal (and religious) pulls was paramount to being a modern civilized human. [5] Now, however, I see how silly that was. Never mind the little bits of evidence I did accumulate. I was still enthralled to tribal allegiances, I just didn't know it. And even if it was wrapped in a flag, that makes me a dupe. 

And now? Still gathering evidence, still making my house on supposed rock, but I know why people choose tribal or religious allegiances over "higher" ones. It is a matter of power and helplessness. And so I work to inform, to compare, hoping to come up with an answer, for I don't see any around.

And yet here I struggle on with my philosophy: base it on evidence and love of your fellow human (i.e. the proper building of such relations) and a utilization of maximum happiness. 

Seems simple, maybe even cute, but not so easy to do in a world full of chopped heads and mangled or liquified corpses. Oh, I know the answers to that: to forget what power does in our name and to remember to make something good haven for ourselves alone. But I refuse that and wish to do more than that. 

Foolish?

Probably. Perhaps, then, I should include fate in my philosophical world model. A far cry from that moment by the Nenana river.

As for Chuck, I wonder what he's up to and if he held on to so beautiful a vision of the world. 


[1] I thought myself oh so much better than my peers for having read the Economist for more than a decade at that point (to give you the idea of my hubris)

[2] Though I sense that I was still of the nationalist mainframe, whatever that may mean to you... I can get into the details of what that meant to me later. I suppose it was mixed in with some sense of being cosmopolitan as well. 

[3] Not to say that there was no filter

[4] I know now that I dug in too deeply, but was too easily willing to take the weak answers in favor of the status quo as authoritative on the matter. Convenient for me, of course. 

[5] Again, with love of country and all that. I was aware then of the constraints that the nation-state placed on humanism.

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