08 February 2014

Musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything

I just got through watching "Star Trek: First Contact". It's interesting how things can effect me differently at different times in my life: the first time (or two) I watched it, it was just a movie. Yes, some good Moby Dick references, but nothing special there.

On the other hand, consider "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". Yes, more Moby Dick references, but Khan "spoke" to me on several levels. Kirk deals with growing older, Spock sacrifices himself (that's not a spoiler, the movie's been out for decades!), and Kirk has to deal with an estranged son. I've watched that movie pretty much every birthday since I was a teenager, which means I've watched it about 20 times. Every year, I "renewed" some feelings and reconsidered how I approach life as a whole.

It's hard to examine ourselves. There's no good mental or emotional mirror available. We catch only glimpses, like looking at the reflection of your own car in the chrome bumper on the truck in front of you -- you might notice that your headlight is burned out, but it's hard to tell how exactly many bugs are splattered on your paint.

One way I can look at myself, a little, is disconnecting myself from my reality for a short time -- like watching a movie. I can take a little breather from my own life and when I come back, notice a few things about myself that maybe I didn't notice before. It's like going outside to take the trash out, and when you come back in the house, you realize it smells like the last meal in there. You didn't notice it before, because you were smelling it all the time and became desensitized. You have to step out of it and come back in to see what you were missing.

Today, watching First Contact, I had a little more empathy for Captain Picard / Captain Ahab. I wondered if I had a white whale of my own. The words "And he piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it" struck something of a chord with me this time.

Picard and Ahab each had something taken from them. Picard had his humanity taken. Ahab had his leg taken. I've had things taken from me. These losses hurt. They wound deeply. They cannot be ignored, nor forgotten. Nor, I think, should they. We should not be doormats. We deserve better than that.

But there's the question of how to react to loss. Melville seems to be saying Ahab should have just left well enough alone and led a happy, albeit legless, life. If we are to "learn Ahab's lesson", and treat every big problem like a soul-swallowing white whale, we as individuals and humanity as a whole would never accomplish anything though! What if the Founding Fathers figured fighting for independence was their white whale, and just gave up and led quiet lives as obedient subjects? What if Britain figured Hitler was their white whale, and just let the Nazis roll in?

The heros of our world are people that fought against overwhelming odds -- Gandhi, Mandela, Luther (both the white one and the black one). So what separates them from Ahab... the fact that they were successful, and Ahab was not? Or is there more to it?

This is the question that "troubles" me now. I don't know if "trouble" is the right word. I'm chewing on it, experimentally, like I chew on the first bite of a steak. I've had a lot of bad steak in my life, but every once in a while I get a really good one. Thus, it's mostly trepidation... tinged with a little bit of hope.

So: how does one separate the worthy goals from the white whales? Chew, chew. Hmm.

I think it may have something to do with emotion. Ahab let his anger fill him; there was no room for anything else. His world shrunk until it contained only him, and the white whale -- his ship and his crew be damned.

I don't want to live in a small world. There are too many good things out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Anger and other blind emotions shrink my world, and I resent that. Sometimes my world shrinks pretty small before I realize what's happening, though I think perhaps I'm getting better at recognizing it (at least, I hope). Making my world larger again is more difficult, but I'm working on it.

And yet, the things taken from me still hurt. And, I don't want that cursed white whale to go on hurting others. How to choose whether to go whale hunting, or stay on shore?

There's a problem with the human brain; we all see the world around us through our own lens, but the vexing thing is we can't turn that lens upon ourselves. What's worse, and what has become so painfully brought to my attention now, is that most people don't realize they have a lens at all. (At least I didn't.) They assume that what they see is reality (at least, I did). But sometimes, reality is something else entirely.

I think my new birthday movie will be The Matrix. Neo thought he lived in the real world, just as I once thought I did. We were both forced to have our eyes opened, and not of our own choosing. But, eventually we were both grateful for it. For me, it (painfully) called attention to the fact that I have lens. And as we learned from Frank Herber's Dune, "the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence".

In First Contact, Picard is brought back from the brink of insanity by Lily. Lily was not afraid to tell Picard exactly what she thought. She had the guts to hold a mirror up to Picard, and he didn't like what he saw in that mirror. Picard needed someone, or something, outside of himself to get a new perspective on his own actions. Perhaps we all need a Lily to hold the mirror up to ourselves -- we might not like what we see, at first. And that mirror may itself be distorted and untrustworthy. But I think it is folly to refuse to look in any mirrors.

Perhaps that's where Ahab went wrong -- he dismissed out of hand the pleas of his officers and crew. But by the same token, we also can't be pushed around by the other people in our lives. We should not abdicate (and I use that word advisedly -- we are each masters of our own destiny) our own free will. So I'm still at square one: how to decide if I have before me a worthy foe to defeat, or a bloody white whale.

I think it's part of growing up. We learn to speak, but then we mature and learn when to be silent. We learn to make the right choices, but then we mature and realize that we also have to chose what is right. Not only does black and white give way to shades of gray, but then we find there's color too!

I guess I'm gray man feeling a little lost in a color world. I'm glad for the color though; I didn't realize what I was missing. I may not find the right color; there may not be a right color. But I know I don't want to go back.

So. It may take me a long time to distinguish white whales from stepping stones. I may never figure it out. How do you keep your eye on the prize without getting tunnel vision?

These questions are tough, just like a lot of steaks. I'll keep chewing on them.

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