A New Chapter 1

I think it's time to write another chapter of, something. Essay, story, poem, memoir; not only are the genres confusing, but this, whatever it is, is about not knowing, about being uncertain, and about doing things anyway. I was thinking this morning about Zhuangzi, and in a way this book or however it get defined is a refraction of my exposure to this ancient text/poems/parable-series/prose-cartoon-scenes.

When I reflect on my intellectual development, something that my intellectual development has led me to do frequently, I see something like Plato's cave in the early times but without the fire. I don't remember a sense that there was a greater insight or set of better ways to see things out there. I absorbed information, showed up to take tests, and it went fine. Partly, this seems to be the result of having a safe, uncomplicated childhood (outside of the early house fire and a few moves between states). And then I started to work.

Corporate life presented contradictions and most of the people around were unconcerned with my existence and contributions, contrary to teachers and professors. Another reflection of a sheltered, supportive path through the education system. As I suffered through the still-genial challenges of a young professional, struggles initiated a path toward a reckoning: my privileges had isolated me from the realities faced by other people, the environment, and other sentient life and I had no idea what it meant to be good, productive, or happy in the century, country, and identities I inhabit(ed).

Like Rousseau's Emile, I was trained to believe that contradictions and hypocrisy were abhorrent. And yet, as I turned over the stones of history, power, wealth, and discrimination in books and conversations, it seemed abhorrently ignorant to have any sort of faith in an aligned world at present (and history's arc toward progress, decadence, improvement, or decay was clearly an unsolved problem too). Thus, hope and change? Cynicism and retreat? Incremental localism? Skepticism and activity? What posture might a thoughtful life take?

I sought a strategy for living and tactics to operationalize if not measure (though I have always been skeptical of an over-reliance on numbers). A well-run business or country might be the model for my life. And yet, it seemed that "well-run" might be antithetical to many of the things more complicated than a tic-tac-toe simulation. What about intuition? What about the emergent properties of brains/bodies/nature? What about unknowable unknowns? I became a what-about-ist broken record inside my own head, searching for evidence that certain knowledge was destitute and fraught. Of course, I found many confirmations.

I am not special in my search for meaning, for things to make sense. Children ask why until their parents turn red in the face, not to mention the possibly less-wise but certainly more disciplined philosophers. The desire to wake up in the morning and inhabit a concise "I" throughout the day, complete with compound interest, while clearly contributing to a series of "we's", with compounding respect, is hot on my mind, itching at my days that lately might include writing poetry, cooking, taking care of the dog, and conversing with my partner. Am I not insufficiently employed in immediately supportive work for other people? In activist struggles against structural issues? In defining and propagating a personal narrative that will make for a scintillating obituary and maybe a MacArthur genius grant?

I'm not sure. Zhuangzi's parables about rejecting the empire's prime ministership in favor of staying in the mud like the turtle and cautionary tales about mucking around in transformation rather than being integrally and inseparably part of the tides of the world are compelling heuristic fodder (perhaps similar to Nietzsche's aphorisms for my 25ish self). Even as more reading and reflection lead me to harden my stances about work, wealth, government, ownership, and other issues, I feel like a seasick first-day-on-the-job sailor looking at a pile of rigging and rope. On difficult days, not knowing where to start leads me to believe that I'm way before nowhere. But on stronger, brighter days, I feel the accumulated learning, contributions, and listening as a real accomplishment, and that whatever the narrative unfolds next, I have been and will be an appropriate kind of useful and a good enough person.

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