Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Being and Somethingness

I’m having a bit of an existential crisis. I attribute it to the fact that, at work, I am sitting next to a guy that got a Doctorate in 20th Century Philosophy. And we get to talking about all sorts of things. Sometimes, I think it is better to surround yourself with stupid people. Or maybe the problem is that I have surrounded myself with stupid people for too long.

See? Existential crisis.

But really, I blame Alex.

I was four years old when Alex was born. And he died young—at 31—from atherosclerosis. Sclerosis—as you might remember—means to scar. And those scars are no better in the heart than they are in the brain. Poor Alex.

Alex may well be remembered among the giants of existential philosophy, alongside Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Sartre. Which is most impressive when you consider that Alex is an African grey parrot, purchased at a pet store by psychologist Irene Pepperberg when he was only a year old.

And Dr. Pepperberg taught Alex (which is an acronym for Avian Language Experiment) to talk. Not just repeat words back to you, but to actually think and then communicate.

Alex could correctly identify 50 different objects, recognize quantities up to six, and categorize seven colors and five shapes. Alex could comprehend the concepts of bigger and smaller, same and different, over and under. Alex could communicate his emotions, such as surprise or frustration. He was able to tell his handlers when he was angry with them. Dr. Pepperberg has even speculated that Alex understood the concept of zero. During one session with Alex, Pepperberg asked him the difference between two identical objects. Alex answered, “None.”

That small grey bird had the intelligence of a human 5-year-old. He had the emotional level of a two-year-old human. So, right there he’s got my exes beat.

Alex knew more than 100 words. But the thing that made him special* was that he understood what he said. He could be shown an object, then tell you its shape, color, and function. And he would say “Wanna go back” when he had enough of humans and needed a nap in his cage. And if his handlers took him anywhere other than his cage, he would give them the silent treatment until they took him to where he wanted to go.

If his handlers became frustrated with him, he would say “I’m sorry.” For those keeping score at home, that makes Alex 2, exes 0.

But this is why Alex ranks among the most interesting philosophers of the modern age. One day, he asked:

“What color am I?”

Making him the first (and so far only) non-human animal to ask an existential question. Even the great apes who have been taught sign language have not asked questions about themselves. In fact, those apes have never asked a question about anything.

Existential philosophy wrestles with the conflicting human (except maybe not so exclusively human) concepts of existence versus essence. Meaning that the most fundamental knowledge of an individual is that she is just that: individual. That is, my existence can be attached to my self-awareness. My essence—the rolls and definitions assigned to me by my society—never can trump my very existence.

Aside: Don’t worry. As I am sure most of you have suspected, I am quite consumed with another Trump right now. But that is a blog post for another day.

Sartre calls the idea of existence versus essence one’s “true essence.” In other words, my actual life, in which I am making countless, daily decisions, is what makes me, well, me. I am not who I am because of what you see. I am not a woman, a mom, a patient, a writer because you choose to label me as those things. I am those things because I create my own values and determine my own definition of the meaning of life. My life.

Aside: One obstacle my brain has with this life philosophy is my very brain herself. I didn’t make choices that manifested into Multiple Sclerosis. Except, maybe I did. I smoked. I ate like shit. I put way too much processed food in my body. None of these things can be directly linked to my MS. But they cannot be eliminated as causes either. So there’s that.

We will now return you to my existential crisis, already in progress.

Learning about Alex has, naturally, got me thinking. What color am I?

Am I green?

I am a Slytherin. Enough said.

By the way, why the fuck is NO ONE surprised to learn that I am a Slytherin? I have kept my Parseltongue well under wraps. But not one person managed to even feign surprise.

Sartre writes a great deal about living in a way that is true to yourself. Living authentically honors the freedom to make choices that we are both blessed with and cursed with. We can choose to be a good, kind, wonderful person. And we can also chose to be a total shitheel. We get to choose how we act, what we do. That is what allows us to feel great when we do something well. It is also why we feel like we got a punch in the gut when we make a really bad choice. And I certainly have made some epic mistakes. Varsity-level bad choices. So, I guess in that respect, I am anything but green.

Mom and Polonius have been telling this to us for years. Just be yourself. It is the only way into happiness.

Am I blue?

OK. We are going to get a little dark here. Dark blue.

I think we have all read the story of Sisyphus at one point or another. From Greek mythology, Sisyphus is punished for his deceitfulness by having to push a large boulder to the top of a hill, to only have to watch it roll back down. And he is condemned to do this for eternity. We can see that metaphor all over art and literature. It is the story of futility.

Aside: I think it also functions as a happy thought when we imagine the people who have lied to us suffering the same fate. I might need to have a chat with Zeus…

The Myth of Sisyphus is an essay written by Camus, where he shares his philosophy of the absurd. He postulates that this world lacks any eternal truths or human values. This guy might need some balloons. Maybe a piƱata.

Camus tells us that we need to stop trying to find any meaning in life. He says that our goal is not to get the boulder to the top of the hill. The act of pushing that rock is enough to fulfill us. He writes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

That’s pretty bleak. From Camus, it isn’t a long walk to get to existential despair. A general loss of hope. But, to be fair, his essay was published in 1942 France. They weren’t exactly singing La Vie en Rose right then.

Am I pink?

In the crayon box of my head, pink is the color of a newborn baby. New life. Skin that has never seen the sun.

At the root of any philosophical idea, there must be a person. A person is very necessarily the starting point. In order for a philosophy to take hold, it needs a human subject that can not only think, but can feel. A philosophy requires a person to take action within it.

For an existentialist, the default is the feeling of disorientation and confusion from within a meaningless, absurd world. That world is no place for a newborn. But Kierkegaard has a better philosophy. Or at least one more suited to me. He says that each one of us is solely responsible to giving meaning to our life. Not society. Not religion. Not Fox News. He says we all must live authentically, passionately, and sincerely.

I like that one. A lot. Maybe I am a little pink. And maybe, just maybe, I am a tiny bit P!nk.

Am I black? (In the Sith kind of way, not the Rachel Dolezal kind of way)

Have you ever stood on the edge of a canyon next to someone and had the thought that you could easily push them over the edge? I have. With some people more than others…

Anyway, that feeling is existential angst. It the idea that nothing is really stopping you from doing something bad. We have that freedom. Of course, there are consequences to all of our actions. Because, while we do have freedom, we also have responsibility.

Like Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, with great power (or freedom, as the case may be) comes great responsibility. And the existentialists contend that is this very freedom that causes our angst. Every time we interact with the world—even in the minutest of ways—we experience the consequences of our action.

That would put anyone in a black mood.

So, what color am I? I don’t know. And I’m not sure it even matters.

*There is no evidence to indicate that Alex’s language and thinking abilities were unique to him. It is very probable that all parrots—and probably many more birds—can be taught to communicate from within a human framework.