Chasing the invisible

I am lost in the expanse of a city, unsure where I am exactly. There are people everywhere, whizzing randomly at various paces to various places. It is an urban setting, with towering buildings that pierce into the firmament and blot out the blue sky; with cars and busses trudging slowly through the contours of streets, and alleyways; and with the sweet smell of smog subtly in the air like an aroma at a bakery. There are pigeons, too, some flying in the same mayhem motions as the people below, and more numerous others that bounce along the ground where they entertain the children that chase them.

The noise of the city: vehicles, pigeons, people, and all, is like a steady, constant rumble with predictable fluctuations and continuous uproar. There are people sitting on the benches, some reading, some talking, some watching, silently. There are restaurants, cafes, and shops at the foundations of every tower, and each is defended by wide sidewalks bustling with strangers. In this confusion, I stand.

I spin about hoping for some coherency, only to find none. It appears that everyone else knows exactly what they are doing and where they are going, but I don’t truly know that – I assume it as I focus on myself. I am seeking, that I know, and I am moving, always. As creatures and machines jostle in every direction, I zero in on one. Through the aimlessness, I move.

I am hunting for something invisible, – I think It exists – but I have an idea of Its looks. I see It, sometimes, but only fuzzy parts of It that I can barely grasp or understand. This amorphous being that eludes me has a very distinct feeling to It, such that I can sense Its nearing presence and pick out the way. I sniff for the preternatural aura like a werewolf its prey. Amid the chaos, I search.

As I steadily approach the Phantom that has been the envy of my existence, I wonder continually what It is like. I know that as I get closer, I will see It more clearly, and that once I arrive, It will be visible in whole. But until then I am left muddled and lost, knowing only vaguely where to go. But I crave this Ghost, this Entity that I pray is not imaginary, and I hunger for It as a rabid dog its bone. Its physicality becomes clearer and clearer as Its outline nearly distinguishes. I was moving cautiously, but now, I run.

The Figure does not speed as I sprint, but travels as It had. It navigates through streets and alleyways, buildings and towers, vehicles, pigeons, people, and all, but I follow with fervor till I am directly behind It. I can now discriminate this Shade from the shadows of the surrounding buildings, and at once I know positively that It is real. Preparing for the ultimate revelation and the final fulfillment, I bend my knees and assume arms in position. Ready to pounce, I breathe.

Knees bent, arms in position, and deep breath taken, I second guess myself as a glimmer of doubt touches my mind. And in my hesitance, the Thing escapes. My plan is foiled. I detect Its trace and resume my trek, lamenting another opportunity lost. In the hope that dreams do come true, I continue.

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The Mountain Trek of Life: an analogy

Imagine a mountain. You are on this mountain, and you know you are on the mountain. Side by side with you is the rest of the people on the Earth. For the purpose of this, there’s five of you, and not the rest of humanity. Looking up, you and your buddies can make out that there’s a peek above the clouds- you can’t really see it, but you know there’s a peak there.

For whatever reason, you are trying to get to the top of the mountain. Something is up there that you want, and you don’t know what, why, or how, but you want to get there. You are going to trek.

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When it is said to them: “Come to what Allah hath revealed; come to the Messenger”:
They say: “Enough for us are the ways we found our fathers following.” what!
even though their fathers were void of knowledge and guidance? Al Qur’an 5:104

You’ve got a few buddies next to you. You talk to your buddy, Lucas:

You: “Say, Lucas, what do you think is up on that mountain?”

Lucas: “Well, my parents told me that our god is up there. It’s a legend that’s been passed down my families for ages, and I actually had a great great grandparent that made it to the top and talked to him.”

You: “A god or the God? That doesn’t make any sense at all anyways. Why should there be? And you know, legends are usually not true at all. What do you think, Max?”

Max: “Up where? I don’t see a peak. You guys are talking crazy, we don’t know if this mountain peaks at the top, or just rounds up like a hill. The clouds make it too difficult to determine, so stop speculating and just live.”

You: “Max, I’m pretty sure I can make out a peak. The rest of us can, too.”

Nolan: “Well, I’ve been reading a bit lately, and Max, you’re being silly – all mountains have peaks, even if I haven’t seen the top of this one. I also read that apparently the higher you get the colder the temperature tends to be. So I don’t know what’s up there, but it’s sure to be cold!”

You: “That’s all you know? There’s so many unknowns, how do you live with it?! Me, I’m making an educated guess. I swear, with these binoculars, I can make out a tree up there. Have a look.”

Max: “I don’t see it. Too cloudy.”

You: “Well, David, what do you think?”

David: “Why bother looking? If there’s a peak, who says its worth checking out? If there isn’t, so what?”

On this mountain of life, you have five friends looking up trying to decide what’s at the peak. We can call the summit Absolute Truth – whatever that may mean. Now, you four buddies decide to go up and see who’s right.To Lucas, that’s what his forefather have been telling him (faith?). To Max, there’s no way to be sure there’s a peak, and thus there’s no Absolute Truth (relativism). To David, there’s no way to be sure and there’s no reason to care (“indifferent” relativism). To Nolan, he knows some things, but he’s not too sure about the rest, except it has to be something following the rules of what’s down in the valley (science-only materialism). For you, it’s a bit ambiguous,  but you are making educated speculation – guesstimation (via a mix of science, faith, intuition, etc).

Lucas takes the path his forefathers took – it’s dangerous, treacherous, and doesn’t look effective, but he’s banking on it anyway.

Nolan pulls out a compass and a notebook, figuring out what’s best, not seeing any immediacy to anything at all.

Max listens to the ideas, but doesn’t like any and takes a nice, convenient path – not sure if it or any path at all makes it anywhere.

David listens to the ideas, but doesn’t bother to get up either, watching everyone else approach the mountain in curiosity but not adventure.

You talk with Nolan bit, but find his assertions a bit dubious on the math, and aren’t too sure how to fix it. You attempt Lucas’s path, but keep Nolan’s ideas in mind. You don’t really consider Max, however, because you’re quite sure you see a peak up there.

Lucas ridicules the rest of you, not following the word of generations of intelligent human beings. Max ridicules the rest of you, relying on a conclusion that isn’t conclusive (is there a peak?). Nolan ridicules the rest of you, not using the laws of actual nature. David ridicules the rest of you, trying anything at all. And you ridicule the rest, being too rigid one way or the other.

Somehow, along the way, you all but David meet up again at a juncture by a river. At this point, neither of you is sure what to do. Lucas doesn’t know what path his forefathers took, Max doesn’t care too much, Nolan is out of ideas for calculation, and you have no methodologies from the others to use. For whatever reason or the other, some of you turn left and the others turn right. But you do not criticize each other, since no one really can justify the choice they made. They merely picked because they had to.

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I’ve always found the analogy extraordinary – here we have different philosophies and ways of life guiding people up the mountain of life, and a measure to how those of differing opinions should treat each other. At the departure, the different characters chose different directions because of their philosophical reasoning. At the junction, the different characters chose different directions from no legitimate reason besides the fact that they had to. From that lens, we can see when it is appropriate to criticize, and when it is appropriate to “agree to disagree”. 

An example (albeit poor) of the junction could be a chosen lifestyle: “to get married or not to get married, that is the question!”. Neither necessarily has a certain worldview attached to it, a certain idea of existence or morality. Meanwhile a question such as”to love or not to love, that is the question!” comes with a bundle of legitimate questions on life. More daring examples can fit one way or the other: homosexuality, suicide, nihilism, patriotism.

Likewise, this addresses the question of empathy. Nolan may have found a complex trigonometric reasoning for a certain path up the mountain, but you may not be good at math. Nolan doesn’t bother explaining, then, and gives you the ultimatum to blindly follow or reject. Doing either can make sense: if you relent that Nolan is exceptional at math or if you refuse to disobey your own reasoning. And both choices are understandable from Nolan’s perspective. Likewise, one can see where another comes from on a question such as, “who’s the good guy in the Iraq war?

Another use for the analogy is looking at intellectual arrogance. There are some who would insist that they have reached the peak of the mountain, that they look down on the others and try to guide them up. Those who say so, or act like so, see themselves at the Absolute Truth already. But I feel uncomfortable with those who assert or act so, as if they hold some

And what is this common purpose? What is this Absolute Truth? Depending on the context, the truth is God, the best answer, the Prime Mover, the ultimate reality, the ubermensch, the eternal abode. It is a perfect morality, a grand scheme of things, the equation that makes everything work. It is the secret of life, the universe, and everything. secret access (ski lift) to the top that no one else has, that they can present themselves as above the rest for the enlightenment they hold. We are trekkers up the mountain, but none of us are there. And in realizing that, we must see that our perception of Truth, our method to Truth, our pondering of the existence of a Truth, is really just an educated guess, or a leap of faith, or a surrender to ignorance. In the end, it is speculation after speculation, working in tangent or against, all for a common purpose.

And in that light, perhaps we can see the dangers of cultural imperialism, of rigid absolutism, of religious dogmatism. We cannot claim the top of the mountain, nor that we have the answers for every juncture. By no stretch of the imagination can we thump around our Bibles or our latest Krauss book declaring knowledge to something so distant and so cloudy. What we can say is that we are searching, and that we are looking, and that we are speculating and leaning on one idea or the other. In that light, we can see a new humanity of humility, of shared values, of similar goals. The atheist and the terrorist, the psychopath and the Pope are all looking for the same answers and for the same objective: that peak. The peak of the mountain trek, the secret of life, the universe, and everything, is common to almost all of us…but only if we choose to trek together.

NOTES:

  • Mountain trek analogy can be for many things besides life.
  • None of this applies to a true, ambivalent, indifferent relativist 
  • I adapted this analogy from Tariq Ramadan from one of his books, except that I don’t know which and I can’t find it either on Google or in anything I have.

“The past is a …

“The past is a puzzle, like a broken mirror. As you piece it together, you cut yourself, your image keeps shifting. And you change with it. It could destroy you, drive you mad. It could set you free.” — Max Payne

From his movie

Quote introduced to me by a friend.

Cloud Atlas (Part 1): Our Legacy!

Cloud Atlas

I recently saw the movie Cloud Atlas and I was truly astonished and inspired by it. And I highly recommend it. It made me think about my actions, how I have the power to influence the future, and how I have been influenced by the past. Every action I do is so small. Anytime I spend time with my friends and family, I become a part of the lives of only a small fraction of our world of seven billion. Only about 0.0000004% of the world has been influenced by me in some significant way. I imagine this number will increase to about 0.0000012% in the next few years, but only time will tell. I want to do something, I want to be part of something greater than myself, and I want to leave a legacy. But after countless hours of thought, I think it is sadly unlikely that I will be known to my generation; however just like Son-mi 451, I have the potential to be remembered in the future. I have the potential to leave a legacy that will change and inspire future generations. I hope one day to have children, to write a book, and to do something with my life. Every single one of these actions that we commit ourselves to is one that will have an impact on the future. Every small thing we do adds up. My children may never remember my name, but they may read my book. My children may never know of my existence, but their existence and their lives will be my legacy. And that, I think, will be enough.

I would like to ask two things of you: Appreciate the past, and every human being that came before you. Without your past you would not be here today. And imagine how their lives, which were so long ago, have led to yours, and yours, which is right now, will lead to so much more.

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future” (Cloud Atlas Book).

Stay tuned for part two and thanks for reading! Please post any comments you may have on my thoughts, my writing style, or anything relevant!

Nero Lucifero