Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Makes a Life Significant

An excerpt from a lecture by William James entitled "What Makes Life Significant"

A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake.  The moment one treads that sacred enclosure, one feels one's self in an atmosphere of success.  Sobriety and industry, intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness, pervade the air.  It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale.  Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained, and equipped with means for satisfying all the neccessary lower and most of the superflous higher wants of man.  You have a first-class college in full blast.  You have magnificent music - a chorus of seven hundred voices, with possibly the most perfect open-air auditorium in the world.  You have every swimming, bicycling, to the ball-field and the more artificial doings which the gymnasium affords.  You have kindergartends and model secondary schools.  You have general religious services and special clubhouses for the several sects.  You have perpetually running soda-water fountains, and daily popular lectures by distinguished men.  You have the best of company, and yet no effort.  You have no zymotic diseases, no poverty, no drunkeness, no crime, no police.  You have culture, you have kindness, you have cheapness, you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has fought and bled and striven for under the name of civilization for centuries.  You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and no dark corners.

I went in curiosity for a day.  I stayed for a week, held spell-bound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.

And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying:  "Ouf! what a relief!  Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again.  This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring.  This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things, - I cannot abide with them.  Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings.  There are the heights and depths, the precipices and the steep ideals, the gleams of teh awful and the infinite; and there is more hope and help a thousand times than in this dead level and quintessence of every mediocrity.

Such was the sudden right-about-face performed for me by my lawless fancy!  There had been spread before me the realization - on a small, sample scale of course - of all the ideals for which our civilization has been striving:  security, intelligence, humanity, and order; and here was the instinctive hostile reaction, not of the natural man, but of a so-called cultivated man upon such a Utopia.  There seemed thus to be a self-contradiction and paradox somewhere, which I , as a professor drawing a full salary, was in duty bound to unravel and explain, if I could.

So I meditated.  And, first of all, I asked myself what the thing was that was so lacking in this Sabbatical city, and the lack of which kept one forever falling short of the higher sort of contentment.  And I soon recognized that it was the element that gives to the wicked outer world all its moral style, expressiveness, and picturesqueness, - the element of precipitousness, so to call it, of strength and strenuousness, intensity and danger.  What excites and interests the looker-on at life, what the romances and the statues celebrate and the grim civic monuments remind us of, is the everlasting battle of teh power of light with those of darkness; with heroism, reduced to its bare chance, yet ever and anon snatching victory from the jaws of death.  But in this unspeakable Chautauqua there was no potentiality of death in sight anywhere, and no point of the compass visible from which danger might possibly appear.  The ideal was so completely victorious already that no sign of any previous battle remained, the place just resting on its oars.  

But what our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on.  The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble.  Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still - this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us, and the reality of which it seems to be the function of all the higher forms of literature and fine art to bring home to us and suggest.  At Chautauqua there were no racks, even in the place's historical museum; and no sweat, except possibly the gentle moisture on the brow of some lecturer, or on the sides of some player in the ball-field.  

Such absence of human nature in extremis anywhere seemed, then, a sufficient explanation for Chautauqua's flatness and lack of zest.

But was not this a paradox well calculated to fill one with dismay?  It looks indeed, thought I, as if the romantic idealists with their pessimism about our civilization were, after all, quite right.  An irremediable flatness is coming over the world.  Bourgeoisie and mediocrity, church sociables and teachers' conventions, are taking the place of the old heights and depths and romantic chiaroscuro.  And, to get human life in its wild intensity, we must in future turn more and more away from the actual, and forget it, if we can, in the romancer's or the poet's pages.  The whole world, delightful and sinful as it may still appear for a moment to one just escaped from the Chautauquan enclosure, is nevertheless obeying more and more just those ideals that are sure to make of it in the end a mere Chatauqua Assembly on an enormous scale.  Was im Gesang soll leben muss im Leben untergehn.  Even now, in our own country, correctness, fairness, and compromise for every small advantage are crowding out all other qualities.  The higher heroisms and the old rare flavors are passing out of life.


 I've never seen a utopian society myself except maybe on the television and the way William James, one of the most learned man of his times, describes it sounds as if it lacked soul.  This speaks to why we are here struggling through each life.  If we wanted a cozy, divine life we would have never fallen.  It's that itch to choose whats behind door number two.  When someone tells you they have bad news, but they don't want to bring your day down, what do you do?  You insist that they tell you.  We get a morbid pleasure out of the darkness just as much as we bask in the joys of the light.

I'll sleep when I'm dead.  Heaven is a place of rest and relaxation where we can drink from chocolate rivers and eat candied ice sickles.  If you are here on this earth and unless you can call yourself the Son of God himself, you have work to do.  In time there will be a New Jerusalem on earth, that time has surely not arrived.  Look around you.  What do you see?  I see pseudo-savages who refuse to think.  I see mediocrity or worse.  I see planet of people who have become so afraid of the dark or death that light has ceased to shine nullifying the darkness along with it.  Everyone has ceased to move, they lie motionless on their deathbeds.  A purgatory preceding purgatory that never seems to end.  

A world lacking soul.  What does this imply?  A lack of connection.  Fear breeds disconnection.  Not only from oneself and the source but all other beings.  Walls built upon walls.  So afraid to open one's heart to let anyone else in.  You know not pain but most assuredly know no love no matter if you call it so.  You've already given up.  You tell yourself you are successful because you have a wife, family, job, and car - but are you really happy?  

Why did you come here?  You came here to know the light and the dark.  To climb the ladder and possibly soar like the eagle.  Maybe that is asking a little much, but now as you are, you're wings are clipped and you're left relegated to your cage.  A parrot who can talk for days and days about everything you know.  You have the world in your hand yet you know not yourself.  Your pride covers any weaknesses that might slip out.  Your pride is your prison.  Do you want to repeat this life over again?  Could you stand the monotony of it all again or would you even understand?

Amongst all the mediocrity beauty remains.  It's in struggle.  It's in the light just as its in the dark.  The dark pushing us forward into the light to create one.  To experience redemption you must first take the fall.  The cycle cannot be completed unless you experience both sides.  Love is the complete openess to experiencing all that this world has to offer.  Love is not just loving the good, but loving the good and the bad.  It is unbiased.

When you have seen all the darkness and light this world has to offer and perfected your soul then the Utopia will be what it is to the idealist.  Once you have obtained absoluteness as you have upon death to this world in heaven the Utopia or heaven on earth will suit your soul as you envision.  If you lack something in your self you will not resonate with the utopian society.  

My writing is pretty bad.  I'll try and stick to information and quoting people like James.  Just read him and you get a beautiful message about what life is. 

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