Over the past January, I found myself in an unfamiliar position: as a dumbass. Now, some of you may argue that this is quite normal for me, that I am quite the dumbass quite often, but in terms of being one in a class at USD, it is for me rather different.
I took an intersession course in Logic, and quickly learned that I am far from logical. As an English major, being near twenty-four and an avid reader, in the classes in my major, I'm usually - to be honest - at or near the top of my class. I'm the kid who speaks up too often, tries to answer all the questions, and knows the professor on a first name basis.
In Logic, this is not the case.
I came into the class self-conscious to begin with, as I knew a girl I used to date would be in it. I walked in, loathing the moment, and sat in the very back, far from my usual front seat.
As the professor began to speak, he explained the class was essentially one of the study of argument. As most of you know, arguing is probably something I consider to be one of my things.
I took the first test, confidently, and enjoyed the professor's perspective in class. He's liberal, thoughtful, and believes in Obamacare as well as gun control. In other words, he's my kind of guy. Did I mention neither attendance nor homework is mandatory?
I felt awkward, seeing as I didn't know anybody, and I'm shy to begin with. Soon, the professor asked the class questions in the way of a survey after the first few days, and I figured I'd weigh in.
"Who here believes healthcare is a right?" Mine may have been the only hand raised. Perhaps, I thought, others were just demonstrating apathy.
Hands shot up, including the three gorgeous blondes who sat still surrounding me. I'd say "still" because no longer is this the case.
I began thinking about the effect this place - USD - has on kids like me, introverted, liberal, male, a place where the prettiest - objectively speaking, in terms of the status quo - girls had opinions anathema to mine, including the belief that gays shouldn't be allowed to marry. Is there no justice? That same day, the professor quoted Voltaire, saying "life is a comedy too tragic for any of us to laugh." I've been trying to remember this.
After the first test, I felt even more like an outsider. I got a C+, far from what I expected, and now in addition to being stridently different, I was also, relatively, fairly idiotic. Many of the class got Bs and As.
My self-consciousness got worse. One of the pretty blondes in the class that had been sitting in front of me directly now had moved an additional desk forward, perhaps fearing me contagious. To be fair, she wears glasses. I shouldn't take these things so personally. Regardless, I found myself one day having squandered nearly an hour or so getting ready for class, indecisive as to what to wear, frustrated by my bowl-ish hair and clothes ten or twenty years beyond my age, may of which with my new found weight don't fit. I was self-conscious.
For me, it begged the question: how does one configure their worth, their self-esteem? I got a haircut, this helped, but my appearance's value was still contingent upon the reception of other's whose opinions I can hardly control. Usually, this isn't as much as a problem. Usually, at least, I'm one of the smartest in the class.
Here, this was not the case. Without the ego of my intellect or confidence upon my looks, either of which I can at least at times comfortably rely, I found myself floundering.
How then am I to define myself? How then do I define my worth?
I've thought about this before, and only once in my life been able to live comfortably, able to define myself beyond the contingency of others: when I was briefly a Christian. When I was living with the ethic of WWJD, when all I had to do was know that I ought to act as if a benevolent god was watching, it was simple: be selfless, absolutely. No matter what, someone knew, He was watching. If I error'd in the spirit of this ethic, I could not be unfavorably judged. Or so I thought.
Instead, as I read other things and came to really question the ethic of absolute selflessness, the ease with which I acted fell apart. Some here might say something about the beauty of ignorant bliss.
I've long known the problem of defining yourself in the mirror - it's the burden of Facebook. It's the problem of seeing yourself through the eyes of the other. But I'd always been able to fall back on my smarts, or my taste.
However, looks, smarts and taste are all still contingent: your value - and their value - depend, and upon your company.
The question then is "How can you define yourself non-contingently, without resorting to an ethic of absolute love?"
For Hemingway, this meant defining oneself based upon a moral code of one's own definition: Be a man, which means x, y and z, and judge yourself accordingly, regardless. This helps, and I think he's on to something, but it's also fairly narcissistic and does not provide an ethic, only moral positions. Perhaps, looking outside contingency and then writing off a personal moral code is hypocritical, or silly. But it doesn't really allow for judgement, unless you hold everyone to your own code, which, I've learned, is foolish, and very Christian, the terms not necessarily exclusive.
For Nietzsche, it amounts to being strong, in spite of it all: judgement, adversity, suffering. This is probably the best I've found, but doesn't allow for community, in terms of a collective will. In other words, while it allows for an ethic of individuality, it does not take into account other people, which Nietzsche would admit joyously and readily. I, however, have in me some Marxist blood, and I tend to side with liberation theology: to the extent to which my brother or sister suffers, and I can help, I am obligated. Nietzsche, I think, doesn't touch this. Also, problematically, it involves Platonic idealism, to an extent, and a healthy heaping dose of guilt, pity and shame, which Nietzsche's position allows us to escape.
What it seems I'm looking for then, is some kind of Nietzschean communitarianism, which seems clearly a contradiction of terms. Thus, my dilemma.
I think the answer lies in trusting my gut, my intuition, and checking it with my reason. If I was Kant, I'd put reason first, but this is sexist, and I think I've proved that before here: Monkeys, Lions and Taylor Swift: Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Idols"
I think we have to be brave enough to be different, and willing to think and feel what's best for us and the group, something akin to Nash's Equilibrium. Finding that in life, in the moment, is difficult and troubling, but probably only because of the diversity of moralities and ethics dancing in our heads: those of capitalism, of Christianity, of egoism, of Buddhism... the list goes on.
We need to define ourselves to the extent to which we are "good" people, but good luck finding any agreement on defining that term.
Perhaps we ought to agree to disagree. And perhaps I need to get the hell out of the University of San Diego. Which, begs the question: to what extent would a change of scenery help, as well as to what extent do the places we inhabit affect us as individuals? Especially when we are so much different than the herd? How does one maintain one's difference in the face of the will to community, the will to conform?
I've long fantasized semi-facetiously about how my life would be if I did conform. What would this mean?
- having joined a frat freshman year.
- wearing the surf clothes of other men my age.
- would have picked a major where I'd make the most money, most easily.
- I'd go after hook ups instead of relationships.
- I'd stop being ruthlessly genuine, practice being fake, not wear my heart on my sleeve.
- Vote Republican, say fuck gun control, welfare and affirmative action.
- Not believe in the rights of gays, include "faggot" or gay as lame in my vernacular.
- Believe in the absolute truth of my beliefs, including that America is always right and exceptional.
- Believe in God, Christian morality.
- Listen to country.
- Find racial stereotypes hilarious.
- complain about rather than befriend my teachers in class.
In other words, I'd have to be other than I am. I'd have to George Costanza this shit: whatever I'd normally do or be, the opposite.
I think then, the temptation would be, to define oneself in opposition then to the anti-Nick caricature I've created, or, in other words, to rebel in definition against the so-called "herd." But there is a problem: Enter the Hipster.
I am not a hipster. I say this even though some would say saying this means I am one, but I truly believe it is not the case. Browse my music collection, and you'll quickly see I am not cool. Also, I don't ever try and be cool, nor do I ever feel cool.
Defining oneself against that which you despise is a bit like hating your ex: it still shows you care, it's still dependent upon the ex, the other. Being the opposite of something is still a reflection of that something you hate. Apathy, then, seems the higher value. (But only if its real, not intentional. Is this possible?)
Here is where Nietzche's appreciation of the Buddhist ethic is interesting, for it amounts to an appreciation of, for lack of better words, "going with the flow." Nietzsche's problem with Buddhism, I think, is like Tyler Durden's demand that his alter ego played by Edward Norton not go to his "happy place" and abstract from the pain of the chemical burn given to him. It's a problem of asceticism.
But what Nietzsche does appreciate is the ability to live in the moment, to dance to music that is ever changing. He criticized Beethoven for his music "sweating," that is, for too much effort. It lacks what the Italians call spezzatura, or "effortless style."
Sports are useful with which to think here, so I will use them: Phil Jackson, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and John Wooden all advocate the same method: don't give a shit about winning or losing, about consequences. Just do your job, the best that you can. Saban calls it "The Process." It means not looking at the scoreboard, and living play to play.
On a slightly different end of the spectrum lies Pete Carrol: his mantra is to act as if you are always being watched, and to compete always, the best you can. Here, I think, we can see how the role of an imagined gaze - like God - can be useful. It means living life as spectacle.
As much as I love Pete, his Seahawks are very Christian, and I, for many reasons, am not that way. I think then, the approach of Saban and others works, amounting essentially to Hemingway's code: define what it is you do, do it, hold yourself accountable against this, no one else's scoreboard. Relax, play, try not to think - at least while the play is happening. Coaches like these don't' care about their opponent as much - especially John Wooden - so it's more about "you doing you" regardless of what you're facing.
It involves a lot of trust: in yourself, in the process. Nietzsche would like this. He hates guilt. He doesn't believe in free will in the Christian sense. He believes in us as products of our nature. Be your nature, then. Unless, of course, you find yourself after the fact, that it leads to distasteful consequences. Everything has a price, especially, at times, you being you, or me being me.
But being an individual shouldn't be easy. Non-conformity by its nature means appreciation certain consequences.
And here, I suppose, is where we must fuck in the bed that we make. If we are by nature different, so be it. But if we do so self-consciously, with effort, it's pretty cheap. Being yourself should not necessarily require effort, though it may in the face of adversity. But let us not sweat, then. Let us be ourselves effortlessly. Let us be aware of who it is that opposes us. And if it's the douche frat bro who voted for Romney? fuck it. Even if they get the Alpha Phis, I'll take it. Integrity has its price.
For even in the divesting of one's purpose into another through love - the great selfless act - definition of self, and one's esteem are still contingent. In other words, defining yourself and self worth through love puts you at the mercy of another's control, whim or fancy. This, one can argue, is the whole point, its beauty; it is not, however, a trusty source of confidence. Love is perhaps by its very nature fickle, and moving beyond contingency in esteem is the goal.
I mean, I understand the temptation. I myself am, unfortunately, a wholly different person when I'm in love or doing well with members of the opposite sex than I am when heartbroken or on the lonely side of single, of course. Even recently, after a short lived something that seemed promising, I promised myself I still would appreciate the beauty of the bay while tossing the football with my bros, as the winter sun falls behind light leafed trees and the shadows rain in slanted slivers over our gridiron. But, try as I might, i had a pit in my stomach not even a perfect spiral could lift. Women are more powerful than even football, at times
Without love, or God, or Agape, or simple egoism, a morality of self-interest, as Ayn Rand offered... shit is complicated. How do we define who we are? By our innate, unchangeable characteristics? Do those exist? And how many are there of those, if so? Are we always to be defined by what we do? Is action the defining thing? Am I any longer making sense? Am I lost? Is it that obvious?