Monday, December 5, 2011

My Choices, My Projects, My Life

“I start out on a hike with friends.”[i]  This is how the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, begins a particularly intriguing example.  After several hours of walking together, his fatigue builds and, after resisting it initially, he throws down his knapsack by the side of the road and plops down beside it, letting the others know that he has given up. 

    Someone will reproach me for my act and will mean
    thereby that I was free—that is, not only was my act not 
    determined by any thing or person, but also I could have
    succeeded in resisting my fatigue longer.  I could have
    done as my companions did and reached the resting place
    before relaxing.  I shall defend myself by saying that I was
    too tired.  Who is right?

Now of course he could have acted differently and gone on with his hiking companions, but Sartre contends, this does not get to the heart of the issue.  Instead, he asks whether he could have acted differently without changing the network of fundamental projects which make up his being-in-the-world.  I’ll explain.

Consider Sartre and his friends hiking together.  At some point Sartre gives in and quits because of his fatigue.  Now, assuming that they are all roughly in the same shape and feeling a similar amount of fatigue, what accounts for the difference between his actions and those of his friends?  Why do his friends want to go on?  The fatigue cannot be a reason in and of itself, because he and his friends are feeling many things as they journey along, and fatigue is only one background element in their awareness as their bodies interact with the surroundings.  There are other elements and different motivations which each hiker carries, and these affect how they will respond to their fatigue.  As Sartre asks, “How does it happen therefore that they suffer their fatigue differently?”  Their choice to go on seems to be part of a larger perspective which they have embraced. 

Imagine, Sartre continues, that one of his companions explains why he wants to go on.  He readily admits fatigue, but emphasizes that he loves to give himself over to it, to feel it as part of the way he encounters and discovers the world around him, to know the reality of rocky paths and steep slopes, of sun on the back of his neck and strength in his legs.  His fatigue is part of his passion for a larger project he has chosen and is now motivated by.  It is a way of engaging the world more fully and giving himself over to it with a kind of trusting abandon.  “It is only in and through this project that the fatigue will be able to be understood and that it will have meaning for him.”

So the difference between Sartre and his hiking companions is between the kinds of projects they have chosen for their lives and the motivations connected with them.  Sartre did not want to go on because he experienced his fatigue in relation to a different set of chosen projects, ones not associated with pushing himself on a hike.   

Now I don’t want to pursue it further in detail here, but Sartre goes on to emphasize that all our projects are part of a fundamental way we choose to live in the world, and that we have some measure of freedom to make such choices in the face of the contingencies which inevitably surround us.

What I am interested in is thinking about our lives in terms of projects, which are always a mixture of what we embrace or find ourselves in or feel confidence toward.  Some of these may be relatively small and temporary, while others are profound and sustaining.  But all of them form the basis of our living, our ethical choices and our identities.  Bernard Williams, for example, writes that our projects involve:

    The obvious kind of desire for things for oneself, one’s
    family, one’s friends, including basic necessities of life,
    and in more relaxed circumstances, objects of taste.  Or
    there may be pursuits or interests of an intellectual,
    cultural or creative character. . . . Beyond these, someone
    may have projects connected with his support of some
    cause. . . .  Or there may be projects which flow from
    some more general disposition towards human conduct
    and character.[ii]

Such projects are primary in accounting for our lives, because there are no other “deeper” reasons for what we do.  My projects and the commitments associated with them have a primacy because they shape my character, comprise my sense of self, and give me reasons to live.

    Quite simply, if perhaps somewhat melodramatically,
    projects confer meaning, or at least represent a necessary
    condition for the possibility of a meaningful life: no
    projects, no meaning.[iii]

Now, all of this philosophical description is a long entrance into the place where I find myself these days.  I have some stable projects in my life, to be sure, especially around family and friendships, but my sense of work and vocation, my fundamental projects about the kind of work I do, is now up in the air.  For twelve years, I have engaged in a project called “pastor of Twinbrook Baptist Church.”  A lot of my choices and motivations over this time were associated with this fundamental project.  Even more, for most of my adult years before that, I engaged in projects which have constituted my sense of religious calling and training.  Now that my recent twelve year project is over, and I’m feeling uncertain about the resilience of my earlier projects, I am struggling with the affects and changes.  All the usual motivations and choices (whether or not to go on with the hike) are getting reshuffled.  It makes for uneven days and uneasy feelings. 

The challenge, as I see it, is twofold:  to find a fundamental project which both resonates with me and which is doable in the present state of things.  It should resonate with me in the sense that it connects with my own inner sense of interest, motivation and values.  This is not about selfishness; it is about finding a place where I can give of myself and find some pleasure and satisfaction in doing so.  Yet it should also be doable in that I have to find a place of work in the limits of our present economy.  I cannot just pick out the terms of a project and slide into it.  I must see what’s out there, consider my options, allow myself to encounter the unexpected and go through a process of achieving a position.  These two conditions, self-interest and economic viability, will almost certainly be in tension with one another.  I may need to compromise in one or both areas.  But this felt need also connects to another fundamental project of mine, my family and its support.  So I will continue these days to roam through the shifting boundaries of my projects and choices.  As my projects go, so does my life.   

[i] Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Gramercy Books, 1956), 453.  Sartre’s example of fatigue and subsequent discussion can be found on pages 453-59.
[ii] Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), 110-11, as quoted by Mark P. Jenkins, Bernard Williams (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2006), 33.
[iii] Jenkins, 33.

Neither Here Nor There

The title and heading for this blog is taken from one of my favorite poems by the Nobel Prize winning poet from Ireland, Seamus Heaney.  I learned to appreciate his poetry, and especially this poem, while travelling through the mountains of Scotland.  It can be hard to find words for the kind of beautiful, transcendent, sublime moments when you encounter such places.  This poem, “Postscript,” is about an experience with a natural landscape in Ireland, and it evokes the feeling of what such moments of encounter can be like, particularly the last five lines or so.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

I really like the last few lines of this poem, because they give a sense of what it feels like to see and encounter places which overwhelm us with transcendent beauty and leave us speechless. Heaney says of the moment when driving upon a stirring scene of nature:  "Useless to think you'll park and capture it more thoroughly." In other words, there's no way to "capture" this experience, to stop and take it apart, to analyze it in order to distill some essence, to package it and take it home with you. It is what it is in that moment.  And in that moment, "you are neither here nor there."  Your sense of self gets lost or pushed aside as you try to take it all in.  You are no longer absorbed in your own self-preoccupations; you are drawn out into something large and wonderful.  The sense of self, which dominates too much of our thinking, gets marginalized, if only for a few moments.  We lose our self, to borrow a phrase from the gospels, and I think it is this kind of experience which gives us the capability to put ourselves aside in relational and ethical considerations as well.  

At any rate, something strange happens to the self in this experience.  It becomes something else.  What?  "A hurry through which known and strange things pass."  Isn't this poetic description amazing?  In that moment, we become "a hurry." Heaney uses a word here to describe us which is usually thought of as a verb, but in this case, it becomes a kind of noun.  In that moment of experience, we become a hurry, a commotion, a passageway, as things pass through us--sights, images, feelings, beauty.  In that moment, our self is no longer the center of the world around which everything else revolves. Instead, we are only a holding station through which all this is passing.  We don't make it happen. We can't create the experience directly.  It comes at us "sideways." We have been sideswiped by an experience, "buffeted" by an overwhelming moment, overtaken with a reality that will "catch the heart off guard and blow it open."  We try to take it all in even though it is too much for us and leaves us shaken with amazement.  Such experiences cannot be dictated or calculated or predicted in advance.  They can only be spoken about after the fact, a kind of "postscript."

Well, this unusual situation says something about us all as individuals which is more generally true.  We are never simply here or there, never simply one particular fixed thing.  Our sense of self is fluid, “a hurry through which known and strange things pass.”  I don’t want to be too programmatic about this blog at the beginning, setting a kind of agenda for where it will go.  Such a move would fly against the very point of this poem and blog entry.  I do, however, like the idea of exploring the fluid, ever-changing sense of self that we all carry, and of encountering our beautifully ordinary and meaningfully absurd world.

Here's a reading of this poem and some video of County Clare, Ireland.  Enjoy: