I want to delve a little deeper into a concept that’s been stewing in my brain for a while now. I mentioned briefing in a previous post that the gun control debate, like so many other debates, is really more about an individual’s willingness to take their own lives into their hands then it is about the guns themselves. In fact, I’ve begun to think that the relationship between authoritarianism and libertarianism, and the broad spectrum between them, is the manifestation of each person’s internal struggle to make sense of their own position in the universe. In particular – and I hope I’m not coming off as too philosophical here, because this is a very practical issue – the real problem is how much we are willing and able to exert our will against an indifferent universe.
Conservatives like to say that all we need to do is work hard and we’ll succeed. Progressives like to point out concepts like “white privilege” (which is really socioeconomic privilege, having little or nothing to do with race in itself – but more on that later) as evidence that not everyone has a fair shot, and not everyone gets equal results. In a sense, I think that both perspectives are accurate – depending on how you choose to address the reality.
What is the reality? The reality is that, by and large, the universe is a cold, indifferent place, and whether you live or die will not affect the ancient cosmos one bit. The reality is that, over the course of the last century alone, hundreds of millions of people have died violently, before their time, and their names are not recorded or remembered.
This reality, familiar enough to anyone acquainted with the mundanity of human suffering, was brought home to me this past week in a particular way. In 2015, my younger brother hung himself. Since his burial, I have been going to his grave once or twice a month to clean his headstone and see that the site was in proper order, and I had noticed that the groundskeepers had not yet set the stone into the earth. Even two years later, it was still placed on the top of the ground, exactly where it was when we buried him.
At first, this annoyed me. It seemed to me that the groundskeepers ought to do more to preserve his resting place. Over the months I had noticed other graves in the area, dejected, their headstones dirty and obscured. I had taken to cleaning these stones as well.
Last week, as my family prepared to come into town to pay their respects, I got a shovel and I set the stone myself. As I did so, I was reminded – surrounded by the forgotten dead – that nobody in the entire world besides his family members and a few friends actually cared that he had lived, or died. This is true both for my brother, and for every other person marked by a stone in that cemetary.
Knowing that our lives are transitory, and understanding our own insignificance, is difficult. Most of us find a way to ignore that reality, and to focus on the good things in life while we have them. There’s nothing wrong with this, in itself. It does, however, make each moment of one’s life significant, if only to oneself.
I think that a person is largely defined by the choices they make in the face of the reality around us. Some cannot face mortality. They seek anything they can to make the world seem less frightening, even if that is only an illusion. Others, myself included, understand that we all must die, and that the universe is not concerned. As Stephen Crane wrote,
A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
How does this relate to the political divide? Simply put, I think that those of us who tend to want the universe to be a different way – more caring, less frightening, and our environment having the illusion of security – tend to vote accordingly. These people embrace gun control because they cannot process death itself. They embrace universal health care because they are so fearful of their own mortality that they are driven to ensure that they and everyone else have whatever resources are available, no matter the cost, no matter the sustainability. These are the people who, after any tragedy, demand that the government do more, do anything, to prevent such a disaster from happening again. They are driven by the false hope that somehow we could change reality – that somehow, we could make everything better.
In doing so, they abdicate their own self-determination. They relegate their radical freedom and choice to a narrow list of social rights – these days, revolving around the issue of where a person should be allowed to defecate, and whether or not hoop earrings are offensive to persons of color.
The one who wishes the universe was different and less scary is prone to vote in such a way that gives them the illusion – for after all, such a person has no desire to engage with reality – of security, the illusion of moral superiority, the illusion of significance. They are desperately crying out to be special, not only to other humans but to the cosmos itself. In doing so, they give up the one thing we truly have – the radical freedom to choose in the face of dangerous uncertainty.
There are those, however, who see the world differently. I think that those of us who tend to accept the universe in all of its impassivity recognize the grimness of our position, and choose, instead of fleeing to illusion, to engage the universe. We cherish the right to bear arms because it is in itself the right to self-determination, in the most visceral way possible. We insist on the right to free speech, and reject “politically correct” word policing, because to do otherwise is to be carried on a current of thought. We recognize, if only in shadow, that we, and we alone, are concerned for our futures. The government is not – if we die, they do not weep, unless to do so is to enhance their own power. And we are no better than them. How many of you have wept for the unidentified woman found floating in the Muskingum River this past week? Nor should you – only God Himself has the capacity to weep for all of us.
Reality is harsh. From the beginning of our lives to the moment we die, we are in turmoil. We are never more than a few seconds away from death. To embrace that reality, when we can bear it, is to live authentically. Those that do – those that really do, that take their lives into their own hands – I believe, tend to vote accordingly.
To do otherwise is to abdicate one’s terrifying power to choose. It is, as Jean-Paul Sartre described it, mauvaise foi, or bad faith, living simply according to the safe, unthinking default. For my part, I choose authenticity – terrifying, dangerous, and potentially deadly. I choose for me and for my children to live in a nation that affirms the right to pursue happiness and potentially fail, because to have my happiness provided to me is to have happiness cheapened.