Philip Martin’s January 1 Column

Welcome to the everlasting now
By Philip Martin

This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette 1/1/17 at 1:50 a.m.

It’s an arbitrary line we’ve just crossed, from one year to the next. The wind doesn’t know it’s a new year. Calendars are artificial as hash marks on AstroTurf, just another way human beings keep track. Another way we can pretend our rituals and mythologies matter, that the stack we’ve piled up that’s maybe bigger than our neighbors’ means something. But it’s just an odometer; it rolls over and sometimes the numbers line up in ways we find interesting or significant.

I get why some people have no interest in participating. What use will all our trophies be in the cool and coming night?

But I also get why some of us are waking up with aching heads this morning. I try to watch myself these days, but I might even be one of those sorehead romantics. Engagement, at least for now, seems more interesting than the alternative. I understand that it’s all just dragon chasing, but the desperation with which we poor humans can play is touching; the wanting is always more important than the getting.

I realize that’s a dangerous sentiment, that it wanders through the neighborhood of Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand. But I don’t think greed is good, or that the mindless pursuit of self-interest is somehow noble or natural. I only think a lot of people like to hear things like that because it provides them with cover for doing what they want to do, for leveraging every small advantage they can find. I think it’s all right to give a sucker an even break, to share your cookie with the dirty kid in the Toughskins dungarees. And I don’t worry if that makes me a Christian or a Communist because I know I’m doing it for my own selfish reasons, so I might sleep a little better.

At this point waking up in paradise would be a nice lagniappe.

Not that I have to worry too much about that; I pass up opportunities to be a better person all the time. There are homeless folks I don’t give money to, there are stricken and sad people to whom I don’t provide comforting words. When I donate something, I ask for a receipt. Mostly I try not to make anything worse for anyone if I can help it.

Anyway, it’s no longer the year in which David Bowie and Carrie Fisher and millions of other people I never met died; it’s a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter. And as such it’s terrifying. For like they say, the future is unwritten, but look at all the hands grasping pens, looking to scrawl their names big in the book. That sort of ambition ought to scare those of us cognizant of history and the limitations of our arts and sciences, but it’s the way the world has always worked. We’ve never been led by our wisest or most humane, we’ve mostly been led by charismatic monomaniacs who had the foresight to be born in fortunate circumstances.

Some of them we make heroes because there is a part of us that requires heroes, just as we require an apparently ordered universe. (Just as we require a repeating calendar, and the very concept of time. We need ideas that we can sink into our minds to tether us to the reality we’ve agreed to observe.) We imbue the people who capture the attention of the cameras and the sycophants with magic. We imagine that they might know things we don’t–that we can’t–and that they might, by force of personality or magic, deliver us into a world that’s different from the one we’ve always known.

Yet while our gimmicks and toys have become more elaborate and efficient, human nature is the gravity that drags us back into the mire. We can expect to live longer than people used to, to hang around the bar for a few more auld lang synes than our great-grandparents did. But these imagined gains are undercut by the fact we can kill each other deader now, at a faster rate, from a greater distance.

We’ve traded our libraries for a cybernetic consciousness that’s proving no more reliable or disciplined than our individual brains. We’ve traded our books for touchscreens, our rituals for affection for apps. You can argue the advantages of the old over the new or vice-versa; you can be nostalgic for the glowing warm distortion of the analog or unsentimental about the inevitable triumph of the digital, it’s all part of the same drive for diversion.

Whatever the stakes, we will find ways of preoccupying and forgetting ourselves. That’s why some people care so much for football. Why some people care so much for politics. It’s not because they really think the outcomes of the contests will have a major effect on their lives, but because they know they won’t. Most people are too concerned with those problems that are particular and immediate to them–they worry about their jobs, their kids, their marriages, whether they’ll be able to ever retire–to put much effort into finding out about and analyzing arcane policy proposals. Mostly we just vote for people we think we’d like were we to meet them. Or for people we think we’d like to be.

It’s really that simple. You like the way someone looks, you feel assured by their persona, you’ll find a way to justify your feelings, even if you’re not stirred enough to actually vote for them. That’s why candidates are sold like other products. An appeal to the buyer’s aspiration beats an appeal to reason, but the most effective method is to activate one’s fear.

And as important as newspapers and other newsgathering organizations pretend it is, it isn’t as important as one’s private life. People like to use high-minded words like “liberty” and “freedom” but the truth is most of us would trade those in for a guaranteed level of personal and economic security. There are no guarantees. No one can keep you safe. No one can ensure your prosperity in a complex world where things so erratic as the phobias and foibles of men influence the market.

All we can do is stay alert–“woke,” as the kids say–and understand that the future belongs to those who seize it. And that, in the long run, there is no long run. It’s the moment, the everlasting now, that matters.

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

http://www.blooddirtangels.com

Editorial on 01/01/2017

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