Each person’s life can be envisioned as a kind of trajectory or arc, and it’s customary at this time of year for each of us to attempt through introspection to fix where we are on life’s arc as well as where we’re going and how fast we’re getting there. Because it is both difficult and – for most of us – humbling to rigorously conduct that sort of self-scrutiny it’s tempting to apply Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in this – that you can know a particle’s position or velocity with great precision, but that the more you know about the one, the less you can know about the other. But that really only applies to matter at the sub-atomic level and is little more than a convenient dodge to deflect away the necessary analytic tasks.
Does that mean that we are subject to classical Euclidean geometry? I don’t think so, and in any case I reject all notions of mechanistic determinism in the human sphere. I will freely concede that much of what we call “fate” is only a deeply human inability to grasp the entirety of the variable influences one is subject to, but even given that, free will endures: I chose to write this blog post, you chose to read it. Neither choice will affect anything in the sweep and span of time, but the decision to do so – or not – illustrates the limitless power of free choice, especially when applied to significant nodes of possibility.
Freedom and free will, wrote Sartre – and no, neither am I an existentialist, but I agree with him on this – are intrinsic and fundamental to our humanity, they in fact define us as human, even if the physical world steadfastly refuses to conform itself to our choices, indeed our very existence. That refusal on the part of enduring physical reality induces the sensation Sartre described as “nausee,” or nausea. With nausea goes vertigo, which he illustrates as the fear embracing a man has who stands at at the edge of a great precipice: He does not fear that he might fall – he fears that he might jump.
When I stop to think about it, I see the world like this: In every conscious moment we are surrounded by a near infinite series of overlapping possibilities, dimly lit tunnels of expanding radia, each of them subject to our smallest choice and most of them quite trivial. We choose one course – today I will write a blog post and I enter that tunnel, while the alternate binary possibility – I will not write a blog post – grows smaller and eventually collapses with each act towards completion I take, really, with the first stroke of the key.
But this is surely meaningless, the reader may object, and who would I be to disagree? But suppose that having once entered into that tunnel, and being faced now with new, overlapping and expanding possibilities radiating out in every direction that exclude only the choice not taken, I further decide that, having hit “publish,” I will go on a long bike ride. It may be that choice will lead me into a fatal interaction with a distracted person talking into a cell phone while speeding down a lovely country lane in their SUV – this is a non-trivial possibility in North County Coastal – an event that would not have occurred if I went on the bike ride before posting to my blog, or hadn’t decided to go on a bike ride at all. And what, gentle reader, could be more significant than that?
But to engage in this kind of thinking is to drown in causality – the alternate may very well be as true – and as a method of shaping our choices in an uncertain world could result only in disastrous immobility. We must choose and we must act. Of course there will be consequences.
Picture this: Nearly 30 years ago, a socially awkward young man, not quite 17 years old, is sitting in his car, suiting up for a soccer game – he is in fact tying up the laces on his cleats. CCR’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” is playing on the car radio, a song that is upbeat and makes him smile. At that very moment a fetching young lass walks by, and hearing the music looks within the car and is greeted by a smile. She smiles in turn and encouraged, the young man opens up his glove box and displays a bumper sticker that he keeps meaning to put on the back of his car, but which he has not yet earned: “Virginia is for lovers.”
Do you feel the tunnel opening before them? Can you sense the others closing behind? Each choice shapes what follows after, and now the two, having become one, have created between them – with God’s blessing – three more separate and distinct windows on the universe, each looking out into a near infinite series of overlapping possibilities, and all of them linked and intertwined. Because he laced his cleats in the car instead of on the bench? Because John Fogerty of CCR wrote an upbeat song? Because the disk jockey chose that moment to play CCR? Because the radio was turned on? Because she chanced by?
Yes, yes, yes – because of all those things. Choices.
It is also customary at this time of year to take stock of last year’s resolutions, and compare our track made good in life against the course we had shaped for ourselves. But this kind of restrospection is perhaps less useful to me now than ever before, even given the natural suspicion I hold against New Year’s resolutions in general: Last year ended in a blur, I was in a bit of a funk and made no real resolutions apart from a dedication to live with a fuller comprehension of the tissue-thinness of the veil that separates “life” from “not-life,” as well as a vague idea that it would be useful to lose some weight. But the first resolution leads to the kind of “live every day as though it were your last” philosophy that sounds attactive in theory, but if followed to its natural conclusion is a damned good way to end up living on handouts in your old age, should you make it that far. As for the second resolution, well, suffice to say that will have to be a carry-over from last year to the next. But professionally and to a degree personally it has been a year of marking time. Which is to say it has been a lost year because “time runs on, cried she.”
Oh, things aren’t as bald as all that: I had hoped that certain of the sinusoidal tribulations attendant to the raising of teenaged daughters in Southern California would dampen out a bit, and if that hasn’t been entirely true, then at least things have gotten no worse, which I’ll take as a kind of victory. And if I didn’t get to play but two rounds of golf this year – life being so very full in every other direction – then at least I know I’ll have no negative swing thoughts the next time I take to the links. The weather is fine and the scenery lovely and there still is joy in family and friendships, even if these too come with appurtenant trials. And I have progressed an unlikely further year down track on my master’s degree, with only six months left of academics and a thesis to write. Only.
With retirement beckoning – this time next year I will be sending out resumes for the first time in my life – I live with the sense of one set of possibilities winding down now, and another whose outline I cannot fully grasp looming in the middle distance. That being true, I feel as ill at ease making resolutions as ever I have before. Still, we must observe the forms.
So, be it hereby resolved: I’m going to get that fricken’ thesis written, and lose a pound or two per month.
You know me: Keep it simple.