Posts Tagged ‘Existentialism’

old-and-new-year-cover-table-calendar-for-1905.jpg!BlogIt is customary for bloggers of all shapes and sizes to reflect about – in this curious interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s Eve – something vaguely along the lines of “That was the Year that was”.

There is an almost universal urge, driven no doubt by a general sense that the timing is somehow significant, to review what went right, what went wrong, and what just didn’t really go anywhere at all.

In reality, of course, the end of one year and the beginning of another is of no real significance at all. It is merely a human construct, signifying very little, except, perhaps, the pressing need to get one’s tax affairs in better order.

aztec_calendarCalendars are a fascinating human invention, and as you can see from this ancient Aztec version, once they were imbued with fine detail like days, weeks and months (as opposed to Man merely splitting the year into “cold/hot, wet/dry, winter/summer” and so on) they basically allowed us to organise two things: religious celebrations, and commerce.

The first need was born of a widespread conviction that if we didn’t appease the Gods on a given day, all hell would break loose. And that belief continues to this day, where, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church, there are still “Days of Obligation” – days that are so important to be observed that it is a venial sin to miss going to mass on them. The dates themselves have no historical significance whatsoever, of course – Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th – they are merely of symbolic significance. Of this, more in a moment.



The second need for detail was born of a very practical understanding that if you don’t know whether it’s Monday or Tuesday, it becomes increasingly difficult to guess whether one is supposed to be buying, selling, receiving, building, delivering or resting on any given day.

Thus, in a very real sense, calendars marked our change from subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers to beings who lived or died by the efficacy of their trade arrangements, and as such, they are a much more significant historical marker than they are generally given credit for.

So when you bump blindly into one of those displays of dubious photographic ephemera clogging up the aisles in your local shopping centre, think “Ascent of Man”, and marvel at our forebear’s innovative spirit.

Now: back to all hell breaking loose.

The process by which human beings ascribe relevance to random or irrelevant events or images is called apophenia.

It is one of the more fascinating human urges. Essentially, we are disturbed by the concept of randomness, and thus seek to give meaning to events that may be significant but are actually entirely accidental, or which may be entirely unimportant, such as an unusual date on a calendar, but which we nevertheless need to bring within some sort of human control, through acknowledgement, ritual, or some other action.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago we experienced a curious moment when the time and date could be written 9:10 11.12.13. (Well, it could everywhere in the English speaking world except America.) That’s “9.10 am on the 11th of December, 2013” by the way.

Acres of forests were destroyed so the popular media could speculate on the likelihood of fireballs from Heaven, whether or not it was a good moment to buy a lottery ticket, and should you pop the question to your intended, or, indeed, arrange a marriage (as many did). Result? No fireballs, still didn’t win the lottery, and as for the effect of the date on the marital outcomes for numerous superstitious Asian couples getting hitched at a furious rate in the parks and gardens of downtown Melbourne, well, only time will tell, but we strongly suspect: nothing.

Apophenia - the same impulse that leads us to see significance in certain dates is why we see Christ or the Virgin Mary in toast.

Apophenia – the same impulse that leads us to see significance in certain dates is why we see Christ or Greta Garbo in pieces of toast.

Apophenia. Just as it meant nothing hundreds or thousands of years ago when a tree toppled onto the chief’s hut or wig-wam on the Umpteenth of Zog, so that henceforth and forever on the Umpteenth of Zog the tribe had to hold a tree-pacifying ceremony lest the tragedy happen again, so the need to review the year to find meaning, solace or importance in our individual lives, or, indeed, in the collective life of our community, is entirely fallacious. The year is an artificial construct. New Year’s Day, which is two days away as I write, is no more significant than any other day, except for those killed or injured in drunken car wrecks, or for those falling over and banging their bonce, for whom it will be very significant indeed. Resolutions could just as easily be made today, or in three day’s time. The old is not new again, it is merely old. The new is not new, it is merely now.

That such way-stations on the calendar give us pause to reflect, however fallacious the link between a given date or ceremony and the process of internal reflection, is nevertheless surely a helpful phenomenon. Apophenia has its uses. Non-religious people are nevertheless nicer to each other at Christmas-time than at other times of the year. A welling up of social awareness, which translates into practical charitable effort, is very obvious. The same is true during the key ceremonies of other religions. The cultural imperative “Just because it’s Christmas” has a benign outcome that needs no deep analysis: we can just welcome it gratefully, perhaps sadly pondering what it would be like if it was “Christmas all year round.” And no, we do not mean the shopping and over-eating.

Equally assuredly, in direct proportion to the richness of the fare consumed around the family dinner-table, millions of diets will be started on January 1st and just as certainly abandoned in a few days, but that momentary focus on living a healthier life cannot be a bad thing. The urge to create a better world starting on date ‘n‘ cannot be gainsaid, either. One might only wish that people felt so moved more often, or on any other given date.

All of which is the longest and most rambling introduction to a blog ever. Because what I really want to write about this morning, Dear Reader, is that your Loyal Correspondent lately found himself sitting out the back of Chez Wellthisiswhatithink, contemplating, if not one’s navel, then at least the blank page calling out “write on me”, lazing in the shade admiring the sunshine and looking quietly around the yard, when suddenly one was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude.

For a brief instant, despite having a bag of worries and woes to carry around just like everyone else – better than some, and worse than some – I did not have a care in the world, and I found that I was profoundly, deeply, content.

It was actually quite shocking. Delightful, but shocking.

It is necessary to understand, at this juncture, that your Dutiful Scribe could not normally be described as the most patient nor the most contented of beings. For all of my life thus far, I have striven, clawed, fought, opined, scrabbled and argued in favour of the things that matter, and sometimes things that don’t, and through not inheriting any great wealth of note I have struggled and sought to make a decent living for oneself and one’s dependents.

It is also necessary for you to know, as regular readers will, that in the past the demons of both depression and OCD have visited me with irritating regularity, and one always senses that they are just the other side of the barricades that have been erected to keep them at bay, and that therefore to experience such a moment of transcendent contentment is a matter of some note. For me, at least.

It was a butterfly that set it off.


As I sat enjoying the mild breeze – it is truly, exquisitely beautiful here today – and admiring Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink’s vegetable patch, which is currently bounding into maturity at a great rate under the blissful southern Sun, a small white butterfly hove into view, daintily picking its way between the plants. It is in this photograph, though I doubt you can see it. Ten points to anyone who can spot it.

As I watched its progress, fluttering backwards and forwards vacuuming up the nectar from the flowers, I became slowly aware of other things.

Of the delicate daisies on the camomile. The intensely bright yellow flowers on the zucchini. Buds by the dozen on the passionfruit vine. Of the soothing balm of a wood dove coo-ing insistently from its nest nearby. The contented caw of a crow, somewhere, calling to its mate.

We have put a fair bit of work into the back of our home in the last couple of years – or rather, I should state for faithful accuracy, Mrs W has. It is only a tiny space, to be sure, but as I looked about I saw how her vision was coming incessantly and inexorably and magnificently into shape.

lemongrassA vast tub of lemongrass, growing like the crazy tropical invader that it is, enough to flavour a dozen curries and stir-fries. Lettuces of all kinds thrusting upwards in abundance. A promise of a tomato crop so egregiously large as to require the ritual making of chutney again this year, ensuring that the unctuous  wonder of the fruit lives on, magically enhanced by black peppercorns, vinegar, sugar and curry leaves, till it is transformed into that sour, sweet delight without which no crusty cob bread roll and hunk of cheddar cheese should ever be brought to the table.

Instead of rushing on to the next thing on the list (this article) I allowed myself the time to think. To look around.

I paused.

fig treeI noticed, as if I had never seen it before, the fabulous contrast of the fig tree in the corner against the azure, cloudless sky.

Not just any green, or any blue.

These breathtakingly new colours seemed twinned by a mutual passion, as if their whole existence seemed bound up in the other, as if without the blue the green would wane and wither into some ordinary thing, and that without the green the blue would simply be … blue. Unremarkable. But together, they were like a glorious song, a soaring soprano duet of crystal clarity. The branches reached up to the sky, and the sky leaned down to embrace them. Today I was seeing their marriage as if for the first time, with new eyes.

shoesI wandered around slowly, quite thrilled, willing the epiphanistic moment to last.

I came upon a small pair of muddied but washable runners, so tiny, so … delicate, almost … left conveniently by the back door so that she who works so quietly and determinedly to create little miracles can plod around in the mud tending her plants without ruining too many pairs of shoes.

Suddenly, I realised that instead of a just a pair of shoes I actually saw steadiness. Stickability. I saw that most admirable will – the will to both begin and finish a project.

I saw how joy in simple things – successfully coaxing an aubergine from our barren clay soil for the first time – can form a meaningful part of our daily round, and lift our spirits. And I was suddenly seized with gratitude that I share my life not with any person, but with this person, whose desires are so different from mine, and yet so complimentary. Not that there is only one person for any other given person – I do not, in all conscience, believe that – but that through lucky accident I have been given the privilege of sharing my life with one who is a natural counter-balance to me – a completion, a rock, an anchoring place. And how empty and less joyful my life would be without that muddied but treasured pair of shoes and what they represent.

washingI looked at the washing she had hung up. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a pile of washing on the line. It was yet another chore quietly completed, unseen, unremarked upon, to support the household. Patiently hung there to take advantage of the gorgeous natural sunlight rather than waste a few cents using the electric dryer, because “that’s what the sunlight’s for, and those few cents can be better used elsewhere, and anyway we don’t need to use the energy, haven’t you heard of global warming?”


And behind the washing, the plum trees – a birthday gift from me to her – which had just yielded a crop so generous that they needed to be given away to all and sundry, yet despite the enthusiastic gathering in they still offered us the occasional purple globe swaying invitingly in the wind.

pathI walked a few paces. I realised, with a start, that when we had first moved in this would have been a dangerous decision.

The bluestone path beside the home had previously had no mortar between the stones, inviting a twisted ankle with every excursion, or worse. We used to hop from one to the other like stepping stones across a river.

I looked now at the cement we had brushed into the cracks, unable to afford a builder to do it properly, without any friends to advise us on technique, and without the faintest idea, in reality, what we were doing, and how, ten years later, the path was a rather ugly but enduring testament to that vital mantra of “trying something” rather than doing nothing.

Of how, stumbling and falling and getting up and carrying on and winning and losing, sometimes small things, and sometimes big things, this wonky path somehow symbolised our years together, and how I actually rather preferred that it wasn’t perfect, but that it was real, like us.

For a moment – a moment that has endured, astoundingly, throughout the two hours it has taken to me write this – almost as if, once created, the moment continues to expand until we forget it – I experienced the bliss of little things.

Today, then, is the 30th December, 2013. I could mark it, forever more, as the day I really learned, even momentarily, to truly be thankful for small matters, to give thanks for the inconseqentia of existence that gives, of course, true meaning to life. And how, in my surprise at this discovery, I felt very grown up, and wise, and above all, like I finally knew something important.

I have had a revelation, to be sure. I could declare it in ringing tones as International “Just Be” Day and insist it be carried on every calendar.

But in reality, it could of been yesterday, or tomorrow, or next week. The only difference with today was that today, by happy circumstance, I decided to genuinely listen.

So I will not be giving this date any special significance. Instead, I will pay it deep respect, by remembering today, and making space for more days like it.

"Everything I have learned about life I can sum up in three words. It. Goes. On." Robert Frost

“Everything I have learned about life I can sum up in three words. It goes on.” Robert Frost

And all the other stuff? What of that? What of all the writing and the politics and social justice and business and social interaction and love – Love! – and families and loss and international relations and society and this and that – oh, Lord, all the years of this and that – well, yes, they were important. Are important. They were and are the woven canes of my life, holding it up, precariously, like a tent. But compared to just sitting still and being, it is all, one profoundly suspects, very often a great deal of stuff and nonsense. As Macbeth dolefully noted, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

butterflyToday is the day. Listen: listen hard. Listen before it’s too late. Is that the beat of a butterfly’s wings? Be still, I pray you, and look around you.

Life. Life going on. Life is its own meaning. It has its own cadence.

You know the irony? Occasionally we exhort ourselves to stop and smell the roses, but succeed only in stressing ourselves that we are not stopping to smell the roses.

So just sit. Just look. Just wait.

Just be.

Something wonderful might happen. In fact, maybe it’s happening right now.

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

                                           Robert Frost, The Lesson for Today

Yesterday, I started reading Viktor Frankl‘s book “Man’s Search for Meaning“, written following his experiences as an inmate of various Nazi concentration camps.

One of the most remarkable thinkers of the 20th Century, Frankl argued that there is meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones such as incarceration in a prison camp, and thus a reason to continue living. He was one of the pioneers of existential therapy, referring to the problems of the inevitability of death, freedom and its attendant responsibility, existential isolation (referring to Phenomenology), and finally meaninglessness, which built on the philosophical explorations of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and others.

Frankl’s book is, above all, optimistic. It argues that meaning is discoverable, even in the tiniest things, and, indeed, that it is the heart of both survival and contentment.

This thought can be especially helpful during periods of grief.

Dogs are the ultimate existentialists, I suppose. Unable to control their world, they simply accept it, and work to make it as enjoyable as it can be.

When Zach – seen (top left) on the day he was purchased, to the day he died, (bottom left), today – was especially content, he would lie on my feet. And if my feet weren’t available, the nearest pair of feet. He was endlessly accepting. Patient. Ineffably good natured.

And funny, too: sometimes, you know, it almost seemed he knew that he was funny, and played up to it, but such anthropomorphism is probably unwarranted. Then again, who really knows? If we were miserable, or angry, he would stare at us, as if willing us to cheer up. And he would wink. One eye. Both eyes. It always seemed as if it was perfectly timed to puncture either pomposity or sadness.

He would push our front door open with his nose if we weren’t fast enough bringing the shopping in. He wouldn’t walk through the door unless invited – he knew that wasn’t allowed – so as the heavy door swang back he would just nudge it with his nose again. And again. And again. Until we were inside.

He must have been in discomfort for some time, yet never complained. His inevitable reaction to a word, or a pat, or even a glance, was simply utter adoration. Even on his last day, he would take the slightest opportunity to lie on his back, legs waving in the air, inviting the inevitable belly scratch.

For him, to be near us and alive was reason enough for existence.

Everything else he took in his stride, including the sudden and inoperable cancer, and today’s last goodbye.

We can learn a lot from dogs.