Bob Dylan once sang that: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’. When I first heard this lyric – in university days in London – I thought it was so profound. Maybe a little arrogant, but also true. Being born is imagined here as a process rather than an event – something that by the time of our young adulthood we might actually take responsibility for ourselves. Who am I, what kind of life do I want to live, what kind of relationships do I want to have, who and what are worth me devoting my time to?
I saw the opposite too: People close to me who were just drifting, not really even living in the moment, but squandering their time; the potential that they might have had. I might even have placed myself in that category. I don’t mean to blame the person here though; there are a whole host of reasons – from the psychological to the structural – why a person might ‘fail to launch’, and I’ll come back to these in future blogs.
This existentialist take has its limitations. Isn’t it all too individualistic? Why is the focus all on ‘me me me’? I struggled with that question when I was younger – what is placed at the centre? During that period I remember someone telling me that the way she thought of this was that she was the playing the leading role in the story of her own life, and that the other characters were the supporting cast. Does that sound reasonable? Recognisable? If it sounds egoistic then what is the alternative? Why is it that we hold greater empathy and affinity for those who are closer to us, than those who are further away? Doesn’t that also point to the idea that we place ourselves at the centre?
There is an alternative to this ‘me me me’ take on existentialism, which is, as I’ve tried to convey, that we locate ourselves within certain lineages (whether biological or cultural) and its these that may be placed centrally. In the convergence of ideas that I’ve been trying to realise through this series of blogs, I think I spot a twist on that original Bob Dylan line. Something like:
‘They not busy being born may be busy giving rise’.
Putting it like this I think allows for the inevitability of our own ageing and decline. Perhaps the centrality shifts from self to lineage as we get older. Key life events, such as becoming a parent, or of discovering our responsibility for others through the work we do, may help to crystallise in our awareness the thought that ‘it’s not all about me anymore’.
In a more highly distilled form still, what I think my philosophy boils down to is of twin missions in this life:
‘To rise, and to give rise’.
This is at least what gets me out of bed in the morning: whether as a father, a counsellor, a teacher or indeed whatever hat I put on. In my heart of hearts, this is what I feel that life is about.
There are three somewhat more formal statements that might help to further explain what I mean.
1) All life is opportunistic: Life emerges in the harnessing of pre-existing currents of energy.
This is biology and ecology, it is also economics, sociology and psychology, it is also physics. As I considered in more detail in an earlier blog life always depends on a flow of energy and other necessary resources. From the very beginnings – without the continuous flow of solar energy onto the Earth, it is all but certain the Earth would just be another barren and lifeless planet. And everywhere we see life, we may also identify the flow of energy and other resources which enable that life – the former is not possible without the latter.
The way that the seagulls follow the fishing trawler (remember Eric Cantona?). The way that weeds grow through the cracks in old buildings. The green around the River Nile on the satellite photos. Birds and other wildlife proliferating where the gardener puts out seed. And then predatory creatures like hawks or foxes proliferating in turn (basic high school biology stuff).
All life is opportunistic. Whether microbial life, plant life, fish, mammals, or human beings; all life needs a flow of energy and other resources. Thought on in this way, then entropy in the universe – symbolised by all the stars radiating out their energy in all directions – might inevitably give way to life, through that innate opportunism. Free energy is there, flowing, available, and patterns of increasing complexity will take form along the flow.
How many people, when they find that life is treating them well, will say something along the lines of: “I was in the right place at the right time”.
But it isn’t just about self. More than this, I think it’s about courting nature:
Consider a pregnant woman when she goes into labour - a creative work takes over and the boundaries between what is her own free will (e.g. to roll with the contractions, to work with birthing partners, to breathe) and what is not, break down. She really wants to have the baby but to some extent is doesn’t matter what she wants anymore – the process is taking place.
Consider the way we tend to the sick. I’m thinking of the way years ago my cousin tended to a goat kid that had been rejected by her mother, and was dying. The kid’s grip on this life was leaving her and left to her own devices she would have died. But my cousin rescued her: kept her warm, fed her milk, so she was not alone, and her grace was brought out; her hold on this life returning. My cousin was able to introduce a heat lamp, and a clean and dry stable for the goat to lie in. Something about biorhythms – heat regulation, the need for fluid, the need for calories, and also for closeness to the mother substitute. The goat, like all of us, will have been scared, and needed to feel contained rather than cast out into the wilderness. My cousin became the provider of sanctuary but she was courting a nature far greater than her or the goat.
I think this courting of nature is the basis of life.
2) What is better - what is higher - is what is more adaptive.
It’s a Darwinian concept to be sure. But I believe it is as true of moral philosophy, or of art, as it is of war, economics, or engineering.
How are we to determine quality – how one way of relating is better than another way, how one piece of art is superior to another, or one mode of technology is advantageous over another?
The thing has to be contextualised: it has to be located within a wider ecology where natural selection will take place. Natural selection – just as Darwin envisaged it. Typically we’re imagining the birds on the Galapagos with the specialised hook beaks meaning they get more food and therefore are more likely to pass on their genes; or the black moths which survive predation in the industrial revolution because they’re camouflaged in the soot. But we might also imagine the selection of certain players for the football team, or of musicians for an orchestra, or the selection of applicants for a job. We may also consider which poems are selected for publication in a specialist journal. Engineering innovations such as the batteries in electric cars are more likely to be selected in a climate where humanity is trying to move away from fossil fuels.
When I talk about a ‘lightness of being’ – I mean our capacity to ride high within a certain ecology or climate. We feel buoyant, both psychologically and also almost literally; a physical lightness.
But I mean more than this. I mean that as human beings we are in a state of discovery about the best ways for us to live. There are, for instance, a plurality of forms of government: from empire, dictatorship and monarchy, to libertarian capitalist arrangements, from socialism and social democracy, to technocracies and bureaucracies. We are ever feeling round for – still excavating in a form of reverse archaeology – the most effective forms of government. These become predictive not really for the utopian view that human beings will always choose the best - the political events of recent times demonstrate ample evidence to the contrary. But rather, that in a Darwinian sense, more adaptive ways of living are more likely to be proliferated in the future, whilst cruder structures will die out.
Thus almost in a Calvinistic sense, from today’s plurality, the ideal types are almost ‘predestined’ to make it into the future: ideal forms of architecture, technology, and knowledge; but also of systems of government, social relationships, and individual wellbeing.
3) Because each generation tends to acquire greater knowledge and human capacity, we may consider ourselves generally to soar higher than our ancestors, and can only dream of the ways in which our descendants will soar higher than us.
Every generation did some pretty amazing stuff right? And different generations peaked in different ways. Our hunter gatherer ancestors could surely make fire or shoot a target with bow and arrow with infinitely more adeptness than even our most outdoorsy contemporaries could. Likewise I remember reading about the Polynesians who navigated from island to island across huge distances through their knowledge of the stars and special charts they created – every single star in every single constellation was known for the time and position of its rising and setting in the horizon. Sure, we understand these systems now but they had a genius for this form of celestial navigation that is almost superhuman.
And yet, we should step back and gaze at the capabilities in our hands. Observe the incredible opportunities gifted to us: through technology, through material wealth, through our knowledge of medicine, our knowledge of the physical world, and through a heritage of existential awareness that expands our the horizons of what it means to be human. We are living in times that our ancestors could only dream of. We can pick up a mobile phone and have a conversation with a person stood on the other side of Planet Earth, or summon information on any topic that we choose to search for. A portal and an oracle. The stuff of fable. And these capacities extend before us almost exponentially.
The general trajectory of humanity is in the direction of seeing further and feeling deeper. It’s like a telescope which sees further with every generation. A lens which gets cleaner and clearer. As the lens become cleaner, sharper, more details come into view – we can peer deeper into the present reality. The present becomes more anchored in time and memory. By standing on the shoulders of giants and their own conscious moments, we see further and we see more detail.
We wish for the next generation that their opportunities are greater and their horizons are broader than even our own.
But in dreaming bigger, we should also dream wider. One of my dreams for the future is a greater inclusivity. It’s so important for me in with my university lecturer hat on that we’re creating opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. I’m so proud to work for an institution that does this well and makes it a priority.
I see this as a kind of temporal axis that we’re all located on. We’re intimately connected with both our ancestors and our descendants through this axis. We live vicariously throughout the timeline; through our connection.
To think of life in this way offers an alternative to the existential horror (and pointlessness) of our individualism and finiteness. It’s not as brutish as the self-centric view that ‘when you’re dead, you’re dead’ but neither is it a solution to the dread of death that might have been offered through promises of an afterlife, or reincarnation. Rather it is a reframing. Perhaps even a relocation.
We are, typically, time blind – we think in three dimensions rather than four. Opening up an awareness of the fourth dimension doesn’t resolve our existential anxieties, but may reconfigure them. A tilt away from egoism and towards the transpersonal. To rise and to give rise.