It is that time of year again when the change from one calendar year to the next, though wholly artificial, leads many of us to take stock. What has the year amounted to? What have our lives amounted to? Is there some way to make things better?
This always leads me to the thoughts F. Scott Fitzgerald identified as those dark demons of the mind that occur when we wake at 3 in the morning and all seems impossible, lost. How can one possibly get through? Does it matter?
Simone Weil once wrote: “It is our function in this world to give our consent to the existence of the universe.”
But does the universe even care about our consent? Perhaps, perhaps not. Without the old concept of a personal god, it hardly seems likely. Who would there be to care? And even if there were, would that translate into the critical question: does he/she/it care for me? For my family and friends? For my country? And if the answer is yes, then whence all this nastiness, as in the year just ended? Economic collapse. Afghanistan out of control. Rapacious banks and bankers still maintaining their death grip on our lives. What’s left of the health care bill laughable, a pathetic joke. And on Christmas day, yet another fanatic from the Middle East trying to blow up a plane full of innocents. Us.
It’s something most of us in the United States have great difficulty imagining: there are people in the world who actually hate us. US. The greatest nation ever to bestride the planet. We who saved Europe, saved civilization, and have no aspiration for anything but the welfare of others, to extend to the unwashed masses of the Third World a democracy like ours so that all will be able to enjoy the benefits we enjoy—liberty, free choice in the global supermarket, and the opportunity to be whatever our hearts desire.
And yet. There are these people. Malcontents. Fanatics. Willing to blow themselves up so they can blow a few of us up as well. Must there not be a way to prevent such things? And not just suicide bombers either. Prevent the Bernie Madoffs of the world from doing their dirty work. Prevent the right wing-nuts from torpedoing every meaningful reform. Prevent the corporations from exploiting the rest of the world so they’ll love us again? Because that’s really the underlying notion: we humans, and especially we Americans are geared to think that if we just get smart enough, farsighted enough, our military powerful enough, our scientists well-funded enough, our foundations generous enough, our nation integrated enough, we can avoid or outwit all the problems the universe can blow back at us and finally live the carefree life we have been promised: peace and liberty and justice for all.
But can we? Has there ever existed a nation or a world without problems? Without shit happening on a regular basis? Is not shit happening the very nature of the universe—that universe we are supposed to give our consent to? It seems. And yet, how hard it is to come to terms with that. How nearly impossible to assent to the real nature of things, which is change. Change in every cell of our bodies and all else in every second and nanosecond of our lives. On both the very large and the very small scale. The American moment is changing. The American empire is changing. The sun itself is changing. And so are we all, entropic every one. And it is almost impossible to assent to, almost impossible to give our consent to this aspect of the universe’s existence, of all existence. No, we want to preserve it, keep it from slipping from our grasp. One way being to record it. Manically, desperately.
How else explain the mind-bending proliferation of gadgets, even in this season of economic discontent? With more and more of us insisting on our ipods and ipod nanos and flips and cell phones and computers and digital cameras and HD screens to take in everything, grasp everything, record everything in the vain hope that our lives will be preserved and amount to something, our nations will be permanized and celebrated as having counted. For something. Nevermind Ozymandias. Nevermind "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." We matter. We must. Our way must matter, it must be “right.” For if not, if all our photos and films and recordings and constructions are nothing but matter for the growing trash heap of history, then all we have left are absurd, meaningless moments, arising, and fading. Things and events being born and dying. Endlessly. Like grass. Where is the good, where is the nobility, where is the crown of creation, the god-chosen centrality of our perfectly adorable species in that?
Sadly, there are no answers. Save perhaps the old notion we’ve been hearing for aeons: pay attention. Pay attention to as many moments as you can. Pay attention to dirt, to grass, to spiders, to rain, to scum, to shit, to the least of creatures. And pay attention to what animates the conceptions and prejudices we all carry: that “they” are nothing, that “we” are the chosen, that our way is the superior way, that my god is the one true god who gives me the right to not feel/see/hear/attend to you and all else if it means I and mine can thrive. Survive for even a bit longer.
Yes, pay attention. Pay attention even to paying attention. It is, inherently, consent.