What I think about when I try to think about things
I often find myself compelled to try and reach conclusions, to state what I think clearly and concisely. I’ve never been very good at that, and I usually end up going round and round the matter, raising more questions than answers until I’m riddled with insecurities and anxieties.
I read in an essay by Teju Cole that a good book should raise more questions than answers. I don’t consider myself to be a good book but the thought does at least offer me some comfort.
A book opens you up to another way of seeing things. It’s as if you’re trying to find out what questions other people find salient rather than finding conclusions for your own questions; as if you’re peeping through a little window into someone else’s perspective and seeing that their subjective experience is just as uncertain as your own, but framed in a different way.
I like to think that’s why I enjoy reading so much. It makes me feel less stupid when I’m asked a question and I have to glibly shrug my shoulders and say “erm, I don’t know”. I can pretend to be on a mission from God, bravely refusing to see the world in absolute terms and always listening to what other people find important.
In my world view, conclusions are definite places, a glimmering light of certainty and absolutes at the end of the tunnel of logic.
I’ve never liked being forced down tunnels, and the tunnel of logic is no exception. Tunnels send you in one direction and in your dogged determination to reach the light at the end they blinker you to anything else going on around you.
And in trying to answer life’s questions with logic and conclusions, we believe that the destination at which we have arrived is sacred, as if the fact that there is a beautiful tunnel leading there is proof of its sanctity. But we forget that the tunnel that leads us there is of our making, and we could have made it to take us anywhere. There is nothing special about the place we end up at, other than the effort we’ve put into ending up there.
A photographer I like once said “the more I observe, the more I experience and the more I understand, but the less I can conclude.” I took them to mean that the understanding we get from our own experience of the world necessarily humbles us, or at least it's supposed to.
In that humility, we begin to see that our conclusions, and the logic that goes into proving them, as mere ways of seeing things among a plethora of other possibilities and perspectives, none of them laying any more claim to truth than the next.
In the Big Short, Christian Bale’s character says something like “this business kills the part of life that is essential, the part that has nothing to do with business”, and I feel the same could be said about logic and conclusions.
This essential part of life is detached from any logic or conclusion, it's a perfect ambiguity of experience that playfully reminds us that we don’t know anything.
Camus understood this when he talked about the absurd. For him, the absurd is born in those moments when we’re caught between the meaning we try to construct and the universe’s apparent lack of meaning.
Camus is talking about those moments at the end of a long day at work in a job that we don’t love, but that we have convinced ourselves is important and necessary. We might be standing at the bus stop and in an instant we hear a voice asking “is it as necessary and as important as we have led ourselves to believe? Do things have to be this way?”
Of course, we need to make money to pay the rent and feed ourselves, but we can’t help entertaining the idea that it does not have to be so, that the conclusions we have come to (namely the necessity and importance of the job) are not the only conclusions we could have reached, and that another application of logic would lead us to a different but equally plausible conclusion.
But instead we go to bed, and get up in the morning to do the same thing again the next day, despite being perfectly aware that there are other possibilities and other opportunities available to us.
But what makes it absurd are the two contradictory conclusions we reach, one saying that our job is necessary and important and the other saying that it isn’t. But we rarely feel stupid, in fact we feel quite content, and that’s because the world we live in is the world of experience and not one of competing conclusions where the person with sounder logic reigns supreme.
Sisyphus is a man condemned to spend eternity on a hillside, pushing a boulder towards the summit, only for it to roll down to the bottom every single time he reaches the top. Despite this minor set back, Alice Oswald imagines him as happy at the moment the rock has slipped and he turns to retrieve it. The sun is setting, lighting the sky ablaze in a fiery orange. The birds sing as a cool evening breeze dries the sweat upon his skin and mile after mile he sees nothing but perfect stillness.
And in that moment, what need has Sisyphus for logic and conclusions?
Photo Credit: German Expressionist, Franz von Stuck