'Tis the time of year for listing the best/worst of anything. Clemson philosophy prof Todd May wonders if Edward Snowden, the bête noire of the National Security Agency, will ever have another year like 2013. And Professor May wonders whether NFL players will even be able to recall the best six years of their lives while struggling with dementia. So, through the magic of hypertext, Ol' Blue Eyes will provide musical background for a consideration of the peaks and valleys of life.
[x YouTube/Mukke67 Channel]
"It Was A Very Good Year"
By Frank Sinatra (with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra)
If this is (fair & balanced) rumination, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
The Weight Of The Past
By Todd May
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
This column is about Edward Snowden. And the National Football League. And, I suspect, most of the rest of us.
Although it’s about Snowden, it’s not about the National Security Administration, surveillance or privacy. And although it’s about the N.F.L., it’s not about concussions. Instead, it’s about the unbalanced trajectory of human life.
Snowden’s actions, regardless of whether one supports them or not, have had a prodigious impact on the debate about privacy in the United States and will likely continue to do so. They have had roughly the impact that Snowden wanted them to have. That is, they have altered how many of us think about our relation to the government and to our own technology, and because of this, they infuse this period of his life with a luminescence that will always be with him. He will not forget it, nor will others.
There is an assumption I would like to make here, one that I can’t verify but I think is uncontroversial. It is very unlikely that Edward Snowden will ever do anything nearly as significant again. Nothing he does for the remainder of his life will have the resonance that his recent actions have had. The powers that be will ensure it. And undoubtedly he knows this. His life will go on, and it may not be as tortured as some people think. But in an important sense his life will have peaked at age 29 or 30.
This is not to say that Snowden’s days will not have their pleasures or their meaningfulness. Rather, those pleasures and that meaningfulness will likely always have lurking in the background the momentous period in the spring of 2013.
Players in the N.F.L. have an average career of six years. For many of them, those years — typically along with their college years — are the most exciting of their lives. They represent the cities they play for, enjoy the adulation of fans and receive higher salaries than they are ever likely to again. Many develop deep bonds with their teammates. They get to experience in reality what many male children dream about. And then it is over. If concussions don’t take their toll, they can expect to live another 45 or 50 years while not playing football.
For many people — not just activists like Snowden or professional athletes — life crests early. But it doesn’t end there. It goes on, burdened by a summit that can never be reached again, which one can gaze upon only by turning back. This is not to say that good and worthwhile things will not happen to them, and for a fortunate few there will be other, higher summits. For many, however, those earlier moments will be a quiet haunting, a reminder of what has been and cannot be again.
We might think of these kinds of lives, lives whose trajectories have early peaks and then fall off, as exceptional. In a way they are. But in another way they are not. There is something precisely in the extremity of these lives that brings out a phenomenon that appears more subtly for the rest of us. It appears in different times and different places and under different guises, but it is there for us nevertheless.
After I finished college, I spent time in a small company as a messenger. One day, a manager called me into his office. He told me to close the door. The first thing he said was that he made more money than I ever would. (How did he know this?) Then he said, “Take your time.” He told me that he was caught in a life that he could not walk away from: his wife and kids were used to living well, and he just didn’t have the courage or selfishness or whatever it was to walk away from them. He could see his years rolling out ahead of him like a Kansas plain.
Currently I live in a town that is centered on its college football team. Game days bring in alumni from all over South Carolina and beyond. Many of my students have had the experience of alumni pulling them aside to offer the age-old advice: enjoy your college years, because they are the best years of your life. This advice, if true, is at once sad and frightening. Is it really, a student once asked me, all downhill from here?
We need not think of peaks as occurring early in life. Not all lives are structured with a steep rise to an early summit and then a gradual — or not so gradual — falling off. Consider the parent, usually a mother, who has made the raising of her children central to her life. She dedicated decades to their enrichment. One day, the last of those children goes off to college. And yet she must continue on, bereft of her central project. Will there be more to her life? Clearly. With luck, she will see her kids thrive and perhaps have grandchildren to enjoy. What is less clear is whether any of this will engage her in the way she was engaged when she fed her children, or nursed them when they were ill, or read to them at bedtime, or taught them how to ride a bike.
I could list many examples like these. So could you. A certain period in the arc of one’s life yields a meaning that illuminates it, makes it burn more brightly than perhaps one might have thought or had the right to expect, and then is over. One continues to live, but something has gone missing, it has gotten lost. And what is lost, what is missing, remains nevertheless, tugging at one’s world with its absence.
Many will balk, reasonably so, at the characterization I have just given. After all, who is to say that a life has crested? How do we know, except perhaps in unique cases like Snowden or many N.F.L. players, that there aren’t higher peaks in our future? Who is able to confidently say they have already lived the best year of their life?
That consideration, I think, only adds to the difficulty. We don’t know. We cannot know whether the future will bring new experience that will light the fire again or will instead be a slowly dying ember. And the puzzle then becomes, how to respond to this ignorance? Do we seek to introduce more peaks, watching in distress if they do not arise? And how would we introduce those peaks? After all, the arc of our lives is determined not simply by us but also our circumstances. Alternatively, do we go on about our days hoping for the best? Or do we instead, as many people do, lead what Thoreau called lives of quiet desperation?
This is not to say that nostalgia is our inescapable fate. The lesson I am trying to draw from reflecting on the examples of Snowden and the N.F.L. is not that the thrill ends early. Rather, in their extremity these examples bring out something else. For most of us, as our lives unfold we simply do not, we cannot, know whether we have peaked in an area of our lives — or in our lives themselves — in ways that are most important to us. The past weighs upon us, not because it must cancel the future, but because it is of uncertain heft.
In fact it is the arc of my own life that prompts these reflections, a life that did not peak early. I have been fortunate in family and career. My writing and teaching have had modest success. I have always had a restless streak, seeking to get wide of myself in my activities and even in my writing. In this, I am like many others. But I am getting older now. My knees will not allow me to engage in competitive running, or to explore some of the places I have had the good fortune to visit over the past couple of decades. I have written on many of the questions that have brought me into philosophy, and have written on others I have discovered since arriving. Will there be more questions that will captivate me in the same way? Will there be more places to discover that make me feel whole in the way my treks in the Sahara and the Arctic did? Will my relationship with my children as they move away from home have the same intensity or depth as they had while they were growing? If I am honest with myself, the answer to these questions is: I don’t know.
Others will object to these reflections from another angle. There are, I will be reminded, riches in many lives that do not constitute a peak or a summit — friendships, love relationships, meaningful careers. In their stability, these seem more nearly immune to the ravages of a trajectory of early peaks followed by endless valleys. This is certainly true, but it neglects an important element of those quieter riches: they are not themselves steady. Love has its own peaks and valleys, and once past a certain peak one cannot know whether there will be another one. Friendships do as well. We understand this because we all have friends with whom memories are the central point of contact. These are defunct friendships, pointed toward a time that, once vibrant, no longer exists. The same can be said of careers. Even the most meaningful careers leave one wondering, after the exhaustion of a project or the reward of recognition, will it ever be this good again?
I am tempted to say that it seems to be part of the structure of a human life to be like this. After all, it is the product of the convergence of three elements common to almost all of us: our lives have trajectories, some moments in those trajectories are of great significance, and one cannot read one’s own future. But it is probably too much to say that it is part of the human condition. There are certainly lives that are lived with fewer peaks or with greater equanimity. (Isn’t that what Buddhism seeks to instill?) And there are other lives, far too many of them, consumed by the task of survival more than that of meaning. But for many of us, and especially those with the resources to be able to read this column, while it may not be the human condition it is certainly our condition.
I would have liked to conclude with a bit of philosophical wisdom that would allow us all to navigate through this condition. I have written here before on how to think about the trajectory of our lives in ways that reveal meaningfulness, arguing that there are narrative themes — steadfastness, intensity, curiosity — that can lend lives meaning. This difficulty is different, though. And I have no answer for it. It concerns the contingency of life, the fact that most of us will, at some point or another, reach a crest that we cannot know whether we will achieve again. We are not all Edward Snowdens in this regard — although who is to be sure? — but we are, sooner or later, stalked by a past that looms over an uncertain future.
Sometimes philosophy offers answers to questions that may have been haunting us. Then it acts as a balm. Sometimes, however, it can do no more at a given moment than bring those worries out in the open. Thinking about Edward Snowden, and reading about the lives of N.F.L. players — at least some of whom, perhaps, the N.F.L. has done the dubious favor of shielding from the fact that they might not even remember their peak experience — has raised this concern for me with an urgency it had not before possessed. However, if philosophy cannot always provide the right answers at a given moment, perhaps it can at least raise some of the right questions.
And among those questions, that of how to carry the burden of one’s summits is undoubtedly one. Ω
[Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University, and the author of, most recently, Friendship in the Age of Economics. May received a BA from Brown University, an MA from Duquesne University, and a PhD from the Pennsylvania State University.]
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