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A Certain Blindness

This is going to be a much more serious post than most; a serious topic calls for such.

I just learned that a good friend--someone who I deeply respect as a person and as a wonderfully skilled mind--has passed away. He was young and the nature of the news has left me thinking about how we see ourselves, the world, and how we conceive of our own significance.

When such a bitter wind as this upturns the covers and forces me into thought, I reach for William James, who so often provides, if not comfort, a cheaper form of it.

It is hard, and I try not to imagine the motives of great people who make decisions that I don't understand. On-lookers often grace such incommensurable events with words like "senseless," "bewildering," or "tragic." These sentiments seem to be attempts to salvage something helpful in the aftermath.

I won't approach any of these sentiments. Though they rightly express that of many, my thoughts steer elsewhere.

"When a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be."

Sometimes fortunately, sometimes not, we suffer a certain blindness to the inner exaltations and castigations of our fellow human beings.

I am reminded of Frank Warren's reflection that, "Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart." Even if we are honored with a person's inner-most secrets, we are still no closer to ridding ourselves of our unfortunate blindness: a blindness which prevents us from ever feeling another's inner life as our own.

We cannot but act on what we feel is significant. This feeling is something we can describe, but we can never share it. So, it is unwise to dwell on the inner lives of others. We may paste fleeting thoughts and memories into a collage, but a collage is no window into the soul.

"Life is always worth living, but we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys."

It is when we are removed from simplicity, by force or insidious nagging, that we come to see the monumental significance of our inner lives. It can be overwhelming. How do we interpret this significance, and what are we to do?

It is easy to get lost in memories, thoughts, and scenarios. If we take all of these together, we create a complexity so unintelligible, so confusing, that it is impossible to make sense out of things. But we must remember that such reflections are only reflections of ourselves.

Perhaps we are rendered hopeless, dazed, and confused by what we find of ourselves. Though this news concerns a wonderful person and a dear friend to many, we must remember this: our searching can ultimately only speak to our own inner lives.

"[The result of these considerations is that] it absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see interested in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us."

The friend of whom I speak was also a dear friend to many who will undoubtedly read this. The language of monumental significance is something that I believe describes our friend very well. He is monumentally significant to many people, and also, I believe, would have been so significant to a particular intellectual world. An intellectual world that sees the grand value in literature, gaming, and living philosophy.

Over the years, I spent countless hours in deep conversation with our good friend, and he opened my mind to an incredible array of perspectives that I would never have otherwise encountered. His passing is a great loss to the intellectual world, and to all those who would have benefited from his work yet to be undertaken.

[All excerpts are taken from William James' essay, "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings."]

Posted Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 7:21 PM

Reader Comments (1)

Dear Nathan,

I am sorry to hear of the loss of your friend. Thank you for sharing so poignantly your thoughts and feelings. May your memories and the stories you share with his other friends nourish you through your time of grief.


May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom McLaughlin

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