I am occasionally reminded that I truly am my father’s son.
My dad was a complex amalgam of a lot of influences and a lot of labels. We acquire these things as we go through life. Sometimes they define us. Sometimes we let them limit us. Stick a pin in that idea, because we’ll be back to it.
My dad was, among all else, a philosopher. It was what he got his undergraduate degree in. He was, more specifically, an existentialist with a strong interest in Sartre. I can feel your eyes glazing over, but don’t worry. This is a means to an end. This is just a way to discuss perspective.
In a nutshell (and a grossly oversimplified one at that) existentialism says that the individual is solely responsible for giving their life meaning. It is largely about freedom, and being able to find your own truth to live your life passionately and sincerely. I fully expect a philosophical beat-down over that definition, so I encourage you to go to your library (i.e. Wikipedia) to learn more at your leisure.
So here we are. The responsibility of the individual to figure their own shit out. Why is that important? Take something as simple as a tree growing in a park. Two people, standing side by side looking at the tree will not see it in the same way. In essence, they are looking at two different trees. This is because of perspective–both external and internal.
The external one is the easiest to explain. From even a slightly different angle, the light, the shadow, the line of sight, will vary from person to person. Both will see it as a tree, of course. This isn’t a magic show we’re doing here. But this is about more than a tree. This is about your life, so let’s look deeper.
There we find the internal perspective. This is where we go back to that pin we placed earlier. An old man may see the tree as something that grew from a sapling he planted, while a father in his middle years might see it as something he’ll have to rake up after come fall, and a child will see it as a thing to climb. Same tree, but at the same time, very different. I have a very different reaction seeing a maple tree blaze red in the autumn (as evidenced by my photo up top) because we didn’t have those where I grew up. To me, they remind me of my new life here in Seattle, while someone who grew up in Vermont might think of home in the same way an Aspen tree makes me think of home.
Now it isn’t a tree we’re looking at any more. It’s our entire life. It’s the meaning to our entire life. No one has the same perspective on it as you do. So why should you let them define it?
So why is any of this important? Two thoughts, and both a matter of perspective.
One is a lesson. We are bombarded by news constantly in this culture. A good friend who’s opinion I value, had a different perspective on the recent incident at UC Davis. While we were both angered at what happened, we were of two minds on the matter of the responsibilities of the witnesses. Neither of us was Right in an empirical sense of the word. Neither were we Wrong. Because Right and Wrong are ultimately labels, human constructs, moral judgments built on a shifting terrain. (As an aside, being ten and having an argument with your father about Good and Evil and being told that the words don’t actually mean anything will ultimately fuck a kid up in the long run. Case in point.)
What is right is a matter of perspective, filtered through our upbringing and our own life experiences. The take away from this is that it’s real goddamned easy to take the stance of “I’m right and you’re an idiot” without considering that the other person might have a very good reason for disagreeing with you that you never considered because, at the end of the day, he isn’t you. So try and avoid a dogmatic stand if you can. Be open to being wrong, and listening to other people rather than drawing a line in the sand.
Secondly, it’s late where I am. I’m tired. It’s raining heavily, with big fat drops spattering against the window less than three feet from me. And it makes me introspective.
I recognize that who I am, where I am in my life, and what that all means is entirely a matter of perspective. Some people think I really have my shit together, and I don’t know where they get that impression from. Some might think I have a lonely, hermit lifestyle, while others might think I’m a carefree social butterfly. By some people’s standards I’m a failure in a lot of areas, but on some metrics, that’s the exact opposite.
Here is what I know. I am solely responsible for giving my life meaning. For me, at least right now, that means writing, publishing, and helping the people close to me realize their own life’s meaning. It isn’t all there is to life, and I know that, but for right now it makes me happy. I just need to remind myself of that. When I am in the Now, I am at peace.
And that’s a great place to be…
…whether you believe in existentialism or not.