Inadequacy and the Problem of Misery
[Belated Preface-12/29/2012-: My original intention with sharing the below experience was to set a rather basic philosophic question in a rhetorical situation that might prove more resonant. This is about me, but it actually isn’t.
I am faced again and again with the question of what my existence means. But this one is quickly superseded by another more important one: how should I go on existing? Then there is the issue of massive scales of misery which persist in the world. Less persists in this age than in previous ones, but the responsibility to continue lessening it remains. Inevitably then, there is the contradiction between my own desires–my own sense of how to “actualize my self,” create meaning, and/or otherwise “find” my self, and be content with it–and my responsibility to people who are under siege by much more basic and real maladies. How can I do what I want when so many others can’t, and probably won’t ever get to do, at least in some small part, what they want?
To offer just one example of how I see this contradiction infesting most of our moral beliefs, let’s look at gun control. Fewer gun related deaths isn’t just better…it’s unmistakably good, and in so far as we can achieve it, necessary. Right? And even if we disagree about 1. the means to achieve that end, or 2. how to prioritize the relevant values, so that maybe some number of gun related deaths becomes part of a necessary trade-off, we still agree that there is a point above which we are morally required to do something about the phenomenon. Right?
At the very least, this is a conceivable train of thought, which is why the country is having a national debate about this right now. And yet every day we indulge in luxuries at the expense of other people’s basic needs. We have a national mission to find sources of cheap energy, renewable or otherwise, and yet there is no similar national mission, with as much attention or resources, to find a way of feeding everyone who is hungry, and preventing those diseases which are preventable. In so far as there are social and administrative obstacles to be overcome, let us work on overcoming them. But do we all agree that whereas our moral sentiments demand we do something to seek a lower number of gun related deaths, we do not see the basis for that responsibility also ultimately requiring that we invest vastly greater amounts of our time and capital to try to prevent the loss of other innocent lives?
This is why I was being stupid and needlessly wandering downtown at 3AM in the morning. But this is not ABOUT ME needlessly wandering the streets. Rather, it is about the lengths to which common notions of morality which are often trotted out in some circumstances, are helpfully bracketed when it comes causes which would require more sacrifice.]
It started with a discussion of Marvel’s Avengers and it ended quite badly. I was drunk…my friends perhaps less so. Though I cannot, despite my current clarity of mind, retrace exactly how we went from A to B, the fact is that we did, with the debate devolving from one regarding the merits of big action blockbusters and their budgets, to one consisting mostly of me shouting about how WRETCHED IT IS that *we* go around spending money to purchase tickets for them while *they* invest hundreds of millions in making them, all while millions of people starve, fall prey to diseases, and otherwise live lives of severe destitution.
I was so angry, so anxious, so frightened. And I cannot say why the reality of this took hold of me so powerfully in those moments, as it has in others, though I can say that the fact that I was apparently alone in my mini-existential crisis only pushed these emotions to their breaking points.
I departed at a reckless hour, leaving behind my two friends and their apartment, marching east toward Philadelphia’s center city. My uncomfortable pace and residual buzz swatted away the cold, but nothing stemmed the tide of angst that had overtaken me. Passing the Greenline Cafe at Locust and 45th I thought about death. Not the millions that occur every year, but the one that will eventually greet me.
I thought about Christmas Eve, when, lying awake in the bed at my parent’s house I struggled to make sense of not being, of eternity, of inevitability. I began contorting my body, breathing furiously and venomously, in an effort to distract my mind. The uselessness of this approach drove me to fix a drink instead, and wait until it took the edge off my meditations.
Walking toward Upen’s campus I darted through some shrubs on my right to find a place to piss. It was someone’s backyard and the lights were off but I felt tremendously vile and ashamed. Footsteps came close and I finished up right before another guy came through the same opening to replicate the transaction. He muttered something to me in a bid for kinship but I don’t remember it now.
Every day people die and many of us don’t do anything to help them. Basic needs go unmet, and most of us don’t do enough to try and see that they don’t. I am the first problem. I did a few service projects during college. I have donated money this year to, I have been told, some extremely effective organizations. But I have never set foot in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, volunteered on a regular basis or met the Peter Singer requirement for charitable giving.
I crossed one of Penn’s courtyards and then a pedestrian bridge before coming to one of the campus’ more attractive boulevards. Large buildings, some sophisticated, others simple and elegant, stalked me on either side. Did the university needs these to do its research and educate its students? What if some of them could be sold, or rented, and the proceeds donated, or invested in life saving endeavors?
The path east led me to an alley on the other side of which was a loading dock for the university just below Walnut Street. I climbed up the cement stairway toward the moonlight and pushed past Drexel and across the river. Bars were beginning to close on the outskirts of downtown, and drunk people started queuing up outside of late-night pizza parlors and 7/11s, like I have done so many times before. I hated myself for the $35 I’d spent on micro-brews and hipster bacon burgers earlier in the night. Hated my addictions and desires and my ineffectual awareness of them.
By the time I reached City Hall it was still barely 3 o’clock. My bus to head out for work at my job in the suburbs wouldn’t arrive until just after 5AM. I sat for a while on a bench and tried to read some of my book about Modernism. I’d gotten it for Christmas from my folks after putting it on a list per recommendations from the Millions or some place like it. Reading it by my parents’ fireplace the night prior I’d found it riveting. Now I could barely ignore the cold long enough to finish a passage. I felt foolish for trying to read it and selfish for spending time on such abstractions. What does it mean for an old man to write about literature, a university to pay him, and I to read it, when there are so many bad things we all must ignore to do so?
I decided to start circling the block. After doing this a few times I decided to expand the radius of my laps. This helped warm me up, even as my feet blistered in my dress shoes, and I was grateful. It struck my mind more than once to duck into one of the nooks of the buildings I passed to get out of the wind and to huddle on the pavement. But these spots were always already taken. So I kept walking in circles, looking at the same signs and parked police van, embarrassed by my intrusive tour.
I could have turned back and still reached my friends’ apartment with time for a few hours sleep, but I am stubborn, and was ashamed, and still existentially inconsolable. So I went back to the bench. It was now almost 4AM. I sat. I watched taxis drive nobody nowhere. I let the cold back in as my blood flow slowed down again.
I do not know what to do, and the irony of posting this experience online is not lost on me. I feel it very sharply. My response to misery is inadequate, and sentimental expressions are not a substitute. But my incapacitation has not changed on its own. Expression is an inadequate step, but perhaps it will not be the last one. Perhaps a simple expression is the necessary first one–an initial step toward solving the initial problem: me.