11. “Reflections on 75, March, 2017

I recently received a thought/memory-provoking Christmas gift — a much-coveted “Cranbrook,” sweatshirt, (the prep school I attended — note, I did not say “from which I graduated” — in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.). I have looked for one in the campus store whenever I have been back to visit that beautiful campus, but with no luck. I live in a world of free sweatshirts. Why would I covet this one? Because it has Cranbrook’s motto emblazoned on its chest: “Aim High”.

I was actually enrolled in this place of learning due to the insight of my math and Latin teacher, Miss Rolfus, who somehow divined that my mediocre grades were due to the fact that I was not being properly “challenged” — a charitable diagnosis.

So off went this highly impressionable/naive/socially inept young man to play with the sons, (It was an all-male school at the time.), of “Big Three” auto executives. What could possibly go wrong?

There I was being indoctrinated into “Aim High” — at a time when “aim” itself had not occurred to me, let alone a direction.

Many of my classmates intuitively understood that admonition to mean medicine or law or corporate leadership. Having missed the introductory lecture, I took it to mean philosophy. Why? Truth be told, simply because I enjoyed it — and perhaps I had not read the clause in the fine print about poverty.

These were, of course, the musings of youth; the presumption that “Aim High” referred to career and not to self.

What does “Aim High” look like now as I celebrate 75 trips around our sun. What would I take “High” to mean today — after I have (as Agnes Gooch says) “lived”?

There is Plato’s classic sense of “high” as fully realizing the form or type. Hence “high” would lead us toward being most fully human. This is, of course, a crock — the ethic of the Penobscot Kennel Club and, more ominously, of Nazi Germany. It was never quite clear to me what it meant to be human, let alone to be fully so. We each decide for ourselves what it means to be human — invent ourselves as we go along. We do not come with operating instructions, blue prints or directions. I still remember being in the locker room with “the big kids” after a soccer game when one of them asked another what he was going to do that evening. “I have a date”, he responded, “with Susie Pickering.” His interrogator turned to me and said knowingly, “She is really good.” Now, I ask you, what functionality did he have in mind?

Plato and his pupil Aristotle took being “fully human” to mean being guided by reason — convenient if you happen to be a philosopher, less so if you are a married man.

In the middle ages aiming high meant reaching for union with god through devotion and selflessness. I could never quite get into that one.

I did, however like the Renaissance notion of full actualization of one’s talents/abilities. Exemplified in Italy’s Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, (1463–1494) who was a linguist, author of 900 theses that he offered any philosopher/cleric to come to Rome to debate, (all expenses paid), and who, so it is said, could with his feet together leap over the head of any man.

After the Renaissance philosophers more or less got caught up in their own arguments and generally gave little thought to how to be human. Topics like epistemology and linguistics moved to center stage. Sigh.

But then “my guys”, the existentialists entered from stage left — led by Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Theirs was a tradition focused on how to best be human, united by a belief that there was no pre-existent human essence and that we each had to build it for ourselves by way of our choices/actions. Of these, my favorite was/is Albert Camus the Algerian/French/journalist/resistance fighter. You might know him via The Stranger or The Plague, but you might have also been introduced to him through his Myth of Sisyphus which begins with the provocative claim that “The only serious question in life is whether to kill yourself or not.”

What Camus is really asking is, “If you know the truth — that there is no purpose to human existence, that there is no center in which to anchor right or wrong, that our sun will flicker out in a few billion more years and that human life is full of heartache and disappointment — if you knew that “going in” why would you chose to continue. The important thing to understand about Camus is that his Sisyphus is dedicated to the proposition that you ought to resist suicide. We ought to have no illusions about the abyss across which we skate every day, and yet ought to “lace up”.

Why? How? Not out of any illusion, not from any false hope, but out of (for lack of a better word) self-respect. It is possible to acknowledge the abyss and not be defeated by it, possible to know the truth and persevere nonetheless.

For Camus, the real meaning of “Aim High” is not to reach toward an imaginary heaven, not to hope for divine approval, but to affirm yourself in their absence.

In one of my favorite passages from “Resistance, Rebellion and Death” Camus wrote to a German friend who shared his atheism:

You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and that in the absence of any human or divine code the only values were those of the animal world — in other words, violence and cunning. Hence you concluded that man was negligible and that his soul could be killed, that in the maddest of histories the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his own morality, the realism of conquests. And, to tell the truth, I, believing I thought as you did, saw no valid argument to answer you except a fierce love of justice which, after all, seemed to me as unreasonable as the most sudden passion.

Where lay the difference? Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness. …

Now, closer to the end of my journey than to its beginning, when I think about “Aim High” I do not think so much about career or about my philosophic tutors as about being a whole person; being a good husband, father, friend. Finding a little filament of life’s struggle that I can tug on, that I can lift to a higher place or condition — something larger than myself to which I can devote my energies.

As with so much else, the challenge is not external, but internal; not advancing along a career path or mastering arcane texts, but rather learning to live a fuller, more open life.

How? First through travel, through opening yourself up to people who are different from you, listening to their songs and eating their food. By finding someone with whom to share life’s many pleasures/mysteries/challenges.

By listening and asking questions. And by surrounding yourself with beauty, both natural and man-made. This does not require travel or wealth, but rather an openness to the blue of the sky, the green of a leaf fluttering against it, the song of a nearby bird. Just take off the glasses of self and look around.

Also look inward. Find that voice that is uniquely your own, trust those deep instincts and your own native wisdom.

Practice gratitude. Even in the worst of human life, there is cause for giving thanks.

Keep learning. That is easy when you are young and learning is a way of life, when you are in school, when you are beginning a career, etc. It is harder (but just as important) as you grow older. [At the moment I am learning to square dance and starting this blog.]

Read real books, not “fluff”.

Stay engaged in the news.

Care about your country, but no so much that you can not see its faults and endeavor to improve it.

Finally, I would urge humility: the recognition that you may be wrong, that others may be right, that the world is complex with few if any simple truths. You and I do not have a privileged purchase on truth.

Perhaps my treasured sweat shirt should more modestly read not “Aim High”, but rather, “Aim Inward” — trusting Joseph Campbell’s wise advice:

“The privilege of a life time is being who you are.”

I am a retired academic, educated as a philosopher, who now lives at the end of a dirt road in Maine.