Meditation on Hope

We sit and pretend we are terminally ill. We breathe calmly. What is hope? What do we make of the bonmot that ‘hope dies last’ if we are lost in a desert without the prospect of water? And isn’t the human condition hopeless ‘in the end’, if we presuppose a rough understanding of hope as the desire that something that we identify as pleasurable will be the case in the future? Doesn’t the ultimate nihilism, if we buy into it, undermine all discourse of the temporary affair that is our hoping?

Without hope life would be maddening. We would lose our orientation and ambition, and society would fall apart. So from a pragmatic point of view there can be no doubt about the value of hope. What about the theoretical operation that discounts all hope because there is no ultimate hope, in much the same way as fanatical relativists discount all truths because they think there is no ultimate truth? I don’t think it is legitimate. In the beginning of this meditation we pretended we were terminally ill, but we did not lose hope.

What can we hope for? Comfort, status, security? What does it mean to hope something while you are fully aware that it is insignificant in the light of eternity? Doesn’t such hope require the courage of a madman? Doesn’t humanity, once it acquired a penchant for staring into its own abyss – require the courage of a madman?

Or would not even the most outspoken and acerbic atheists among us ultimately find solace in the idea that our ‘having been there’ is in some form the expression of a principle that will last for all eternity? That our lives (and, more depressingly, those of our children) have been ‘for nothing’, but that at least they share a celestial common ancestor with an unknown something, some sort of cosmic anthropic principle as established by the physicist David Deutsch?

We breathe slowly and listen to the buzzing of the fly of futility on our back. We smile at each other because we have once again realized that we need each other to swat the flies on our backs.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Hope was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Equality

We breathe the same air. That statement is already beginning to be problematic if you live in one of China’s heavily polluted cities and you can’t afford to escape to the relatively unspoilt countryside. You can’t afford to buy Canadian air in a bottle, shipped to you by a special company. Let’s breathe some air before we continue. Equality is a wonderfully artificial concept, but it is often understood in a rather idiosyncratic way.

Some right-wing populists distinguish equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. They argue that left-wing policies cancel out the differences caused by the hard work and perseverance of some, rather than the differences caused by the lack of opportunities or disability. More principally, they would argue that equality is not something that can be enforced.

For the religious right, equality is an abstract, absolute and ‘untouchable’ value. At life’s edges, this is turned into an intuitive moral argument by pro-life activists or people who oppose euthanasia. Perhaps precisely because equality is such a sacred and abstract value for them, they don’t feel good about ethical debates about redistribution that seem to quantify people’s value. If equality is something that can be manufactured, as the liberal mind believes, it becomes a mundane and fragile balance, rather than the equality ‘under god’ (who is the ultimate guarantor of justice, at Judgment Day).

We breathe and wonder once more about the complexity of this concept. We see it translated and dismissed as ‘sameness’, or embraced as the rationale of solidarity. We all agree that people should be treated the same by the law, more precisely, that the law should have already spelled out any differences before a trial, and further that such differences don’t pertain to things like race or sex, but could pertain to things like wealth or mental health (for example to determine the degree of punishment).

We feel compelled to come up with a technical, legalistic definition. We want to spell out our intuition of equality, but might lose sight of the actual practice of equality. We can for example write mathematically about representative democracy and ‘one person one vote’ while forgetting the messiness of the influences of moneyed interests on politics.

Equality, we should perhaps admit, doesn’t exist. It is an important article of secular faith. It is a transcendental condition of rational debate that prima facie, the value of your opinion is the same as the value of mine. I will need to give a reason to show the superiority of my opinion, authority won’t do. Perhaps rational debate is the best we have to celebrate the value of equality.

Meditation on Equality was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Time

Let’s take some five second breaths to begin. Maybe even a ten second breath. We will breathe a finite number of breaths in our lifetime and it is less than one billion. Being aware of this fact is supposed to make us value every single one. We understand the present moment as the nexus of past and future, time as a linear system of coordinates, a rather boring line that we experience as straight and endless, even if general relativity tells us it can bend in exotic ways if stretched.

We are all alive at the same time. We share this extraordinary intimacy without much wonder. Geographically, we are almost never together, yet temporally, our paths always coincide. We are ‘Zeitgenossen’ (contemporaries), but that never seems to generate the kind of solidarity we feel for people who live in (were born in, whose grandparents were born in…) the same country as we do. The reason is that there is nobody around who is not a contemporary.

This might be a compelling reason to read history books. The temporal distance to the Greek, the Romans, the Ming, the Aztecs, could make us feel united in our own historical place, ‘against’ the older peoples. It turns the coordinate system of time into something meaningful, a way to distinguish ourselves, a way to become aware of our unique moment.

Solidarity between contemporaries doesn’t seem to bear an intimate relation with the concept of time itself. Breathe calmly. This solidarity is the celebration of simultaneousness. We wonder why an infinite number of events can happen at the same time and be visible for each other. We think of a sort of spiritual gratitude for the fact that we are thrown together in the same moment. It is a relatively simple exercise for a human mind to find such gratitude. When reflecting on time, we want to reach this idea of gratitude. Breathe out calmly, we have the same seconds.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Time was originally published on Meandering home