Jay's Head
Learning about the Meaning of Life at Kinko's, p. 2

This is not a new problem, this little subheading under the 'meaning of life.' For my part, I first learned it in a college lit class, in conjunction with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and I think of it to this day as the Our Town problem. In that play, depending on how the role of the Stage Manager is played, the travails of the residents of Grover’s Corners are either worthy of notice or of detached bemusement. In some productions, the Stage Manager is omniscient, wisely contemplating the scurryings-about of the characters in the play like a scientist watching an anthill. In so doing, I was taught, the Stage Manager is little different from the dead people in the last part of the play, who see all of the actions of the living as does Kohelet, the preacher in Ecclesiastes: vanity, futility, emptiness. But, I also learned, the Stage Manager can be read a different way: as actively engaged with the townspeople, genuinely surprised by what happens to them, interested in the results. The Stage Manager has a perspective that the townspeople lack, and that perspective allows him a wider understanding than they possess. But a nuanced portrayal of the Stage Manager role leaves detachment to the dead and omniscience to God.

In short, neither total absorption nor total alienation seems to get it right. The ideal Stage Manager is not the Kinko’s employee but is he or she who can authentically care about what goes on inside the walls of the stage, and yet who can also extract himself from that drama and gain a deeper understanding of it. ‘Complex seeing’ is what Brecht called this ability to simultaneously care and critique. Too much bathos in a play (or in a perspective on daily life) and our capacity for sympathy blots out our capacity for rational understanding. Too much rationalization and we lose our humanity. The solution for Brecht, and for Wilder, is not some illusory ‘golden mean’ which supposedly splits the difference. It’s more difficult. It’s both feeling and thinking, shifting in and out of desire, from Kinko’s to Buddha, and back.

Is this tenable in the long term? I’m not sure it even works in the day to day -- desire is the root of suffering, but sucking the marrow out of life is what we are here on Earth to do. Caring too much, sweating the small stuff, it leads to ulcers and early death -- but who wants to be alive a few more years but living fewer? Meditating on a mountaintop versus riding the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with leaving the mountains and living in the city. Once again, a ‘golden mean’ is a copout. If you only care a little about chasing your dreams, you’ll chase them on evening and weekends, and never too dangerously, and you will have made a decision without deciding that, before you know it, is irreversible. That new Jaguar won’t bring back your twenties. And if you only meditate when the spirit moves you, or when you’re on an inspiring retreat in the wilderness, you’re a dilettante. Maybe it’s possible to care about the words on the page and also recognize them to just be part of another performative document -- maybe, but I’m not sure exactly how it works yet.

One of humanity’s great strengths and weaknesses is our ability to forget and later remember. We know that we shouldn’t eat so much, but we forget -- really forget, not just fool ourselves into forgetting -- and so we have the cheesecake and get the extra beer. We regret it later, perhaps, but that same forgetting gives us permission to live in contradiction, to care about what we know we shouldn’t care about, to indulge. We can lose ourselves in the moment, forget for an hour that rock and roll is for kids, and dance; or, conversely, forget that we don’t believe in what the Bible tells us, and listen to the divinity in the wind. This capacity to forget is dangerous -- just as easily, we can forget our moral commitments and ‘indulge’ our primal fantasies of territorialism, ethnocentrism, and conquest. But maybe some selective contradiction, Walt Whitman style, is a path to having it both ways -- to care about Emily and George, or more importantly to feel the love that they feel when we can be one lover or the other, and yet also, to know in some deep recess of the soul that this love is part of the cycle of desire, and suffering is inevitable, and the river flows to the sea, and change is the essence of the Tao. This ‘complex seeing’ is not embracing the path of the Bodhisattva, and it is not seizing every moment. Maybe it, too, is a copout. But it seems that through creative contradiction we might learn from Kinko’s that our words both matter and do not matter. The small, cosmically insignificant sandcastles we build around ourselves are small and cosmically insignificant, yes, but they are also all we have between ourselves and the tides.

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