May 18, 2011

Near and Far — An Essay That's Neither Here nor There

Since 420, I’ve been thinking a lot but writing very little. Stir in equal parts ending my junior year and the all-but-complete abandonment of my journal, throw in a dash of international travel, and you’ll have a thick bowl of excuses stew. (Be careful: it’s not good for your heart.)

But, as I said, I have been thinking a lot. So, there’s that.

Before I left for London, I watched two parts of Alan Alda’s three-part, PBS documentary on what it means to be human entitled, appropriately, The Human Spark (It’s well worth the three hours, or two in my case, if you’re at all interested in philosophy or anthropology.)

His conclusion? “Imagination and insight. That’s the human spark.” Essentially, we’re at our most human when we’re just doing nothing. Even when we’re idling, our brains continue to function and work on problems we’re not even aware of. In other words, daydreaming is completely unique to humans. So, too, is the ability to adopt different perspectives, be they interpersonal or temporal. Combine these two abilities, Alda argues, and you have our humanity.

My friend Alex is studying to be a neuroscientist. He thinks that’s reductionist, and he’s probably right. But Alex didn’t star for eleven series in M*A*S*H.  251 episodes spent in that U.S. Army hospital in Korea qualifies Alda to make definitive statements about our fundamental humanity. I’ll analyze what he has to say, anyway.

I think Alda’s “imagination and insight” is one side of a dichotomy in our consciousnesses. There’s present-mindedness, and there’s daydreaming — near and far. I leave it to Grover to illustrate this dichotomy.

Thankfully, we won’t need to suffer cardiac arrests ourselves to rectify this dichotomy. I realize this is probably a false dichotomy, but I think analyzing extremes informs how we can best blend those extremes. But which focus, near or far, better enriches our lives? I contend the “far” roots the sprout of the “near.”

First off, is "far" even a focus? It would seem that those who focus most on the past or future rarely focus at all. Next to hypocrisy, one of the biggest objections people have to Christianity, and Calvinism specifically, is that it keeps people thinking about Heaven to the exclusion of life here on earth. That’s problematic. How can Christians love their neighbors as themselves if they’re only concerned with what carat of gold will cover the streets in the sky? My other, future-financier friend, Adam — Yeah! I have two friends! — really hates it when fellow Christians say things like, “Oh well, it’ll all be worked out in Heaven.” In this instance, it’s as if Christians are absolving themselves of their present responsibility to enact their faith by appealing to the distant future. That can’t be the right way to rectify near and far, let alone to live.

In fact, everyone is guilty of forsaking near for far. Most technologies produced since the Industrial Revolution have been geared toward transcending space and time. Transportation innovations meant we could only move bodily: the railroad, the car, the airplane, the space shuttle. But other inventions meant we could go elsewhere in our minds: the telegraph, the phone, radio, TV, the Internet, cell phones. (Granted, books had been around for some time, even though few could read. But as Ray Bradbury demonstrated in Fahrenheit 451, a book cannot compete for sensory immersion in the same room as a TV.)

Even Angry Birds allows people to escape from their present circumstances. In one sense, this is good. All these technologies free people to choose the circumstances that best suit them. After all, only children and paranoid schizophrenics think the food in the fridge disappears when the door shuts. Everyone else believes firmly enough in object permanence to feel comfortable leaving things behind for a little while to drift elsewhere in mind or body.

The issue arises when people cease to be grounded at all. You know that guy. He only stops texting to Skype his friends back home. He scours Facebook for photos of friends from yesteryear and watches inordinate amounts of TV to escape from having to think about his present situation. This is not a firm belief in object permanence. This is obsessing about the food in the fridge when you have many other things to do.

But, as Hawkeye Pierce contends, our ability to be somewhere else in our minds is what makes us human. So, does "near" reduce our humanity?

Eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism love the concept of mindfulness — i.e., living fully in the present. Indeed, Eastern enthusiast Aldous Huxley included parrots in his utopia, depicted in Island, that constantly squawked to the island’s inhabitants: “Here and now, boys.”

Zen-like focus could be broadly seen as the logical conclusion of division of labor and specialization. Those best suited to do the most specific jobs will be those who can focus calmly, and entirely, from 9-5. Wired even argued awhile back that autistic savants would soon become the most desirable employees. What employer wouldn't want someone abnormally focused on their job to work for them?

Yet, attempts to enact the ideal presently have resulted in the most prolific bloodbaths in history. The Crusades, The French Revolution, the Taiping Rebellion, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia collectively killed tens of millions of people. Were these instances of “near” going too far? Or of “far” corrupting the “near”? Would John and Yoko have had to kill a few dissidents to make “Imagine” a reality, too?

I don’t know. But I do know that Grover was right. Near and far are two different places, even mentally. And if “far” roots the sprout of the “near,” then we have to have both. That’s not a cop out because, actually, the only way to enjoy your fruit or veg is to pick it. Even potatoes and carrots must be dug up and brought near to eat.

So, in other words, you can’t neglect your roots, but you can’t enjoy them underground either. Live only in the present and you’ll have no direction. Live only elsewhen and you’ll have no life at all. We must trust our imagination and insight to inform our present, but we must act presently. Just make sure not to attempt to enact unrealistic ideals. Historically, that’s killed a lot of people. It’ll hurt you, too.