The Incremental Life

I find that a foundational problem in the vast majority of the population is the error of leading an incremental life. It has become a trite triviality (the duality of concepts taken together is intended; ‘trite’, because it is a common banality; trivial, because it is next to insignificant; together, to convey the idea that it is both widespread and unimportant) to note that the young live for the here and now; that there is no longer a sense of having to pay one’s dues; that as youth is idolized, so the young must be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor here and now (without, as it turns out, much effort needed to be expended on the ‘labor’ side of the equation) – (as you can see, I am attempting to define such trite triviality by circling back and utilizing trite and trivial concepts to define itself); and that as youth is defined by and as the ‘beautiful people’, and physical attractiveness is the penultimate value of life, the telos from birth, the eudaimonia of this century — so it must be lived within an incremental life, or not at all.

The incremental life is a life of episodic living. It is a life which is described by Heidegger in Being and Time – where the avoidance of an ontological encounter is accomplished through our projects; the encounter with nothingness, which is the direct route to encountering Being, is avoided by immersion into distracting projects – of work, of leisure activities, and even of drunks and degenerate pleasures. But the complex over time always gets reduced to the common denominator of the lowest quotient; the remainder, in its bare essence, is nothing more than human failure; and that is why we end up with a society overwhelmed by divorce (the final realization that the incremental life was never intended), suicide (the meaninglessness of physical attractiveness as a foundation of one’s life), and failure (not necessarily lack of financial success; rather, the goal of excellence in anything attempted, is simply never reached).

A man and his family sits in a Bob Evans Restaurant; he is surrounded by his beautiful family — an ensemble of boisterous daughters ranging from ages 3 – 13 – with his wife across and adjacent from his two eggs over-easy, three strips of bacon and hash browns, the one egg slightly broken with the yellow having seeped from its levy. His wife of 12 years (the incongruity requiring explanation is prayed never to be asked, and in those rare moments of terror, the world of morality is shaken and the sudden trembling of the world, tantamount to Atlas shrugging, by the innocent question which, in the company of delicate sensibilities, asked by the oldest child, whether with mischievous candor or ignorant naiveté, Mom, I was rummaging around in some of your papers, and how come your marriage certificate shows that I was born only 3 months after you were married? – resulting in a terror-stricken moment of silent looks askance as to intent, motive, truth, falsehood, cover-ups and flippant lies, or all of the above bundled into a shrug and a, Oh, you must have misread it, and a cold, harsh stare of daring to that first child you had brought into the world with such hope and love and expansive dreams, where the universe was a titillating challenge of eternal optimism, until one day you wake up with the angst of realizing that death and the unexpected vicissitudes of life require planning beyond the mere pleasures of a newborn gurgling of delightful and toothless smiles and shrieks of joy) sits with an outwardly calm demeanor to those who do not know her; but the husband/father/man with the seeping yellow plate of eggs does know her, and recognizes the subtle seethe beneath the exterior, that somehow dawn and the peace of morning quietude were no longer meant for her; that the life of daily drudgery meant that Heidegger was irrelevant, or always was; for who cared for a dead Philosopher who devoted his life to making complex the obvious; a Nazi sympathizer who violated his own code of academic categorical imperatives by compromising in order to ‘survive’, when in fact his moment of confronting the nothingness could have been met head on, with courage and principle, in order to attain the very spice of Being that he preached. Yes, the children – born of her flesh, the bond of mother to children, of all 6 daughters; but joy comes in moments of reflection; and to have the time to reflect upon one’s joy; for without that time, joy is but an episodic emotion, a feeling which bypasses fleetingly, and it is only when it is conjoined with reflection and time to reflect does it rise to the stature of joy.

And one day, while sitting at breakfast – with Jasmine barely acknowledging them; Karen sitting self-consciously; Lisa gorging herself; Maria shrieking; Nancy holding up her syrup-sticky hands up to the ceiling for inspection; and Olivia shrieking because that is the nature of a 3-year old; befuddled, the father asks himself, How did I arrive at this point? For it began with the episodic state of love; and when he had asked her father – his now father in-law, for permission to have her hand in marriage, her father had said to him: What are your future plans? At that moment, he had not stopped to reflect; instead, he blurted out a quick answer to satisfy the old man in order to fulfill his episodic state of love. “I plan to marry her and take care of her!” he declared boldly. The old man had smiled – almost a smirk – and shook his head slowly and deliberatively. “Yes, of course,” he had said quietly, “yes, of course.” And with a pause, the old man gave his blessing, but before that blessing, he had asked a peculiar question: “For what end?”

The father had never paused to answer that question.

Then, the incremental family came into being – of a child, then another, then another; and each one, in and of herself, each moment of birth was a time of joy, of an overwhelming intervening event; but with no time for reflection upon the previous event, and no amount of reflection upon a future event, each event was a momentary frame of joy, or an event, one might say; for to be consistent, inasmuch as no time was set aside for reflection, it never rose to a level of joy; merely an episodic moment of emotional consummation.

Life in increments. Each increment, an opportunity for reflection, to pause and reflect into the future; to know God’s plan and purpose; that each life has a teleological framework, and it is our responsibility to meditate, discern, and grasp that framework. We as rational beings, placed for a purpose and a specific goal within the framework of God’s plan, cannot be like “everyone else”. We who are “partakers of the divine nature” cannot merely be “tossed to and fro” as if we were unaware of the very purpose of our existence. Now, the father in Bob Evans Restaurant — that is not to say that he was not following God’s plan; that he was fully partaking of the divine plan may well be so; but let us hope that at some point in his life, he had indeed asked and answered the question, “For what end”? For a man who partakes of the divine nature must by necessity know three things: Who am I? (One’s identity) Why am I here? (One’s certainty of Being), and Where am I going? (One’s purpose for being). One who partakes in the divine nature cannot wake up one morning and decide that the incremental life he had been living heretofore is no longer one that he desires; but that is what an incremental life has the potential danger to end in. To partake in the divine nature means that we must break out beyond the boundaries of our present lives; to have a vision of where we want to go, and for what end; to live an incremental life, as the world around us, is to disregard the divine part of our nature.

For what end? To fulfill God’s plan; to guide and mentor our children; to set a course for our family with the full confidence that the changing and fickle storms which toss others to and fro will not impact us. In these uncertain times, it is all the more important to take the time to reflect. Actively, partake of God’s divine nature.

Third Parable: Kitaro and the Blind Beggar Boy

Kitaro was a Monk of the Fifth Order; he was ranked by the Society of Elders to be “other-worldly”.  He had lived through the Purge of the Daiku Shogunate; he had survived through the Winter of Three Famines.  He was known throughout the Kinshu Province as The Wise One.  Wisdom was spoken without words; strength was displayed through a stare; Kitaro was visited by princes and royalties from the world over; he owned nothing – but a teapot and two teacups.

On this beautiful morning, with the sparrows chirping in the blossom of the radiant rock garden of Koishu Gardens, where the gravel had been carefully swept in symmetrical flowing waters around the moss-covered boulders, Kitaro was about to sit down for his morning tea.

The morning had seen many beggars wandering about, asking the Monastery for some rice.  One such beggar had been a child of ten who was blind from birth.  What irritated Kitaro – well, perhaps ‘irritated’ was too strong a word, for he had shown no such emotion – was that the boy was, in his opinion, slovenly as well as being blind.  A man can shut out the world with total darkness, Kitaro had thought to himself; but the world still sees such a man.

He prepared to sit down for a cup of tea; he could smell the sweet aroma of the boiling tea in the teapot; he stood just a foot away from the table upon which he sat each morning; and as he customarily did, he turned to the Koishu Gardens to survey the meditative serenity, so that when he would sit, he need not turn to the garden for further refreshment; his mind’s eye would already hold the butterfly’s dream, to enjoy along with the taste of his morning tea.

As he surveyed the beauty of the garden’s lack, he marveled at how beauty is not in the abundance, but in the un-ness; that life was not to be discovered in possessions, but rather in the joy of less-ness; and these life-lessons he had learned well, for he owned nothing – but for the teapot and the two cups, of course – and his joy was not found in material wealth, but rather the simple chirp of a sparrow landing upon the twig of a decaying tree, unbeknownst to the world, as decay is merely the lifespring of age, both of the soul, as well as of the body.

The material world had no hold upon Kitaro, and Kitaro had long ago renounced the materiality of the world around him.  By owning nothing – except for the teapot and the two cups – matter could not matter to him.  As he surveyed the vast desolation of the beauty of the Koishu Gardens, the right side of his lips curled ever so slightly, as if to scoff at the world around him; for the butterfly’s dream was the world he embraced; the material world had no hold upon him; the serenity of un-ness was the world he sat on top of; the rampant greed, and world of capitalism, the vulgarity of consumerism, and the unhappiness of the surrounding universe – he had conquered it all.

Kitaro embraced the serenity of the moment; the moment was as a grain of sand, its quiet beauty as uncomplicated as his own soul; the smallness as significant, as relevant, as existential importance, as man himself.  Kitaro felt no emotion; felt only oneness with the grain of sand, with the peace of the Koishu Gardens.

Suddenly, the serenity of the Koishu Gardens was shattered by a loud crash.  Kitaro turned.  Before him, just a foot away, was the stupid blind beggar boy.  Beside the stupid blind beggar boy were the remnants of what used to be Kitaro’s teapot and two cups, the sole possession of the Monk of the Fifth Order.  “Bakka!” Kitaro shouted, his face turning a crimson radiance.  “Bakka!”  The Koishu Gardens, with their serenity of un-ness, remained unmoved.  The upheaval of the world around never witnessed this episode.  The sudden heaving; the blind fury directed at the beggar boy who was blind from birth, but who committed the unforgivable sin of being stupid, and showing that stupidity by shattering the sole material possession of the Monk of the Fifth Order, revealing how such a small matter, indeed, mattered to Kitaro.

In a Small Town, Part IV: Questions (You may want to read Parts I, II & III before you read this)

What is a life worth living? What life is worthwhile? What life is one which is well-lived? What is a well-lived life? What is a life of value? A cursory inquiry into such questions may result in an immediate dismissal of such questions as being redundant; insufficiently dissimilar to provoke claims of conceptual differentiation between each; or merely useless philosophical exercises with pretensions of profundities. How do we make such judgments and value-laden conclusions, without a defined criteria by which to apply? Can one make a preliminary determination, or can the question only be answered in the twilight of one’s life?

So, one must consider the Judys of this world; are there saints; is she a saint; is the concept of ‘goodness’ at all meaningful within a world where God no longer maintains a relevant presence? What does it mean to be “good” anymore? And, even if there is a consensus that a person is “good”, is such a characterization meaningful? Without a Platonic Form, or a transcendent conceptualization of the “Good”, it becomes mere trite; to be “good” is a relative term of meaninglessness without a contextual absolute to render it some meaning. Is Judy a faithful servant, such that at the end of her life, one would say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” or is she a failure by society’s standards?

Colleen loved her sister. It was an uncomplicated love; there are human beings placed into the world for specific reasons; or, perhaps one may generalize and say that all human beings are placed into the world for a reason; but the problem with this latter statement is that it trivializes the teleological uniqueness of the specificity of reasons, by applying to all, thereby diminishing the special sense of the individual.

From a very early age, Colleen was subjected to a battery of psychological tests. Her worth and humanity were questioned, evaluated, interpreted, and ultimately condemned by esoteric assignations of medical terms which pigeonholed her for life. She would never reach a level of intellectual functionality greater than the first grade – 2nd grade, at best. Her worth in society thereby determined, she nonetheless remained happy, oblivious to the professional condemnation which she had received; sentenced to a label which minimized her humanity; she was forever “less than”, “she won’t be able to”, “she is capable of only that which…”, rather than the natural focus which should have been upon her limitless potentiality; for that is what we do: God forms man with inherent talents which make up the essence of man; man in the modern age designates labels; and so Colleen’s mother and father, who brought her into this world with dreams and hopes and projections of limitless potentiality, were resigned to accept the dehumanization of their first-born; to give up their greatest joy: of dreaming. For who were they but simple people in the face of such credentialed and learned labels? How could they not accept the condemnatory sentences by such eminent scholars of this school called ‘psychology’?

Joy is a peculiar human emotion. One would think that there would be a proportional correlation between quantitative accumulation of wealth – of knowledge, of money, of fame, of __ (the Reader may fill in the blank with multiple and divergent nouns), and qualitative state of joy. But of course the human experience we encounter daily defies such a correlation; but Colleen was truly a person of joy. Now, let us not be condescending about Colleen by trying to argue and state that she, being intellectually disabled, was “pure joy to be around”. No – she could be difficult, and to try and attempt to paint a picture that Colleen was an angel would be a disservice.

Colleen, frozen at an intellectual level of a 6 year old, could also act as a 6 year old; throwing tantrums; crying with great emotional instability; stubbornly refusing to listen by placing her hands over her ears and shaking her head, screaming, “No! No! No!” Nevertheless, joy was the defining qualitative essence of her character. She smiled more often than not (how many people does the Reader know, who we can describe in that manner?) And, perhaps because she was looked upon as the big sister to Judy, and Judy had a memory of a kind, loving, and protective big sister prior to being labeled as somehow deficient, that for Judy, Colleen was the sister who, on summer nights when the crickets played their violins in concert with the brief relief of the morning dew, a giggle would suddenly befall the quiet dark, and would gain momentum, and infect the room with such overwhelming joy that the first gurgles of involuntary giggles would scratch the back of Judy’s throat, until within minutes, the room would explode with a string of giggles; and suddenly the violin of crickets would stop; for they knew that they could not compete with the bonded sisters in this time of love. Yes, Judy and Colleen were sisters who cared for each other; they were brought into the world as sisters; they were brought into the world in succession, the older in years followed by the younger; then the older to become younger than the little sister, as the latter quickly surpassed her in intellect, but never in progression of their linear historicity.

Judy was to Colleen the world of consistency, security, and familiarity – all qualities of boundaries and constraint which provided for her joy of life. It was not that Judy was never mean or short with Colleen, for of course she could be; but Colleen never remembered anything about her sister, but that she was always there; always there to take care of her; to provide for her; to tell her that she loved her. The younger sister, who became the older sister, who lived – according to the labeled assignation of professionals who are supposed to know such things – with limited and restrictive human apparatus to survive in this Darwinian world; would remember only that her sister Judy was there, in her presence, in her memory, in her limited intellect; Judy would always be there for Colleen. For to Colleen, in the universe of her humanity, the very essence and structure of her world were constituted by the presence of her sister Judy. Her joy and happiness; her very self-identity, was created and maintained by being with Judy. When Judy was gone to work at the ‘pancake place’, Colleen waited patiently, following the strict routine and rules set down by her sister. If Colleen wandered from that routine – and Judy always seemed to find out and admonish her with an alarm in her voice – an alarm which said to Colleen, My sister is unhappy with me; but always with love, with that human emotion of love; no, it is not merely human; it is of God. And when Judy returned, Oh,
but with what bubbling joy would overwhelm Colleen; for it meant that her universe had the consistency of the one presence which provided the structure of her limited universe. And that structure was her sister Judy. For Judy was her world; she was her universe; she was her joy.

Judy would give up all of her dreams. Early on, her teachers described her as “exceptionally talented”; she would go far; she possessed “vast, limitless potential”; and then the assignation of labels was performed; now, to be fair, mother and father never expected Judy to give up her dreams. For, would that not be a crime? The humanity of one sister was minimized; would the humanity of the other also be diminished by the burden of one sister upon another? Would that not be unfair? Better to allow for that vast, limitless potential to succeed, to have the opportunities to have actualized, than to burden it with the care of one who would never reach the heights of worth which society determined. Yet, it was Judy who determined to take care of Colleen; to embrace the unspoken “family obligation”; to take the “burden of her sister”; to “bear the cross” that life had given to her. And when mom and dad suddenly died, it was not as if the burden became heavier; as contrary to what one might think, it was as if the burden became lighter; but of course Judy was greatly saddened by their deaths; she was crushed beyond understanding. For Colleen, there was sadness, too; but that sadness was interdependent with and upon Judy’s sadness; for as the Reader has already seen, the universe of Colleen was intimately connected with the humanity of Judy; and if Judy was sad, then Colleen was sad. But sadness, though it may consume some, must be set aside in deliberative fashion when necessity dictates such will to survive; and for Judy, the threat upon Colleen’s universe required that she dismantle the structure of her present sadness, and focus upon re-structuring and securing the joy of her sister’s life: Colleen was not a burden; Colleen was the purpose for which to sacrifice one’s life, in order to gain another. Her life was not in any way diminished. Yes, others would shake their heads and say, “Isn’t it sad that…” or “The two of ’em wouldn’t have amounted to much, nohow.”

So Judy gave up her dreams; she gave up her potential careers; she gave up the quantitative worth of her humanity.

But what of the qualitative worth?

And so we shall endeavor to answer each of the questions posed at the beginning of this story:

What is a life worth living? It is a life measured by the vastness of a sacrifice.

What life is worthwhile? It is a life defined by the essence of love.

What life is one which is well-lived? It is a life which is lived without fame, but which impacts the world, whether the concept of ‘world’ be limited by the cognitive world of a single individual, or of the greater world of vast populations.

What is a well-lived life? It is a life which brings joy to another.

What is a life of value? A life of value is a life of sacrifice.

For, is that not the life as lived by Jesus Christ?