The Tryanny of Experience

17 03 2013

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We live in an age when a person’s best authority is herself. What a poor and impoverished replacement that is for what used to count for authority: inherited wisdom, otherwise known as the giants on whose shoulders we stood in order to see farther. But in our hubris, we’ve jumped off their shoulders and claim to be able to see farther and know better, all from our vaulted perspective 6 inches off the ground.

Sure, there have always been things about our past (our traditions and elders) that we’ve needed to repudiate: slavery, the subjugation of women, child labor, bear baiting… But we’ve taken their whole system, all of their assumptions about the world and each other, both good and bad, and tossed it aside. We’ve reinvented the wheel and called it an improvement to ride around on square blocks. That’s the problem with progress… we always assume it means progress; or rather, that progress is always a good thing. Is the hydrogen bomb really an improvement over dynamite? Well, yes, in a way…

By elevating our own experience as the ultimate authority in matters of life and death, we’ve placed ourselves at the middle of the universe and essentially sacralized our perspectives. There is no room here for humility in this new order of things — the order of I (or should I say “i”?), and as a result, we have no claim to final authority, since your experience is your experience, and mine is mine, and whose going to gainsay anyone’s experience?

Well, I am. I’m not only going to gainsay your experience, I’m going to gainsay mine as well. Why? Because I’ve been paying attention the last 48 years of living, and if I’ve learned anything about human nature, starting with myself, it’s this: that much of the time we’re right about things, but almost an equal amount of time, we’re wrong, which means that at best, it’s a 50/50 proposition to hold ourselves up as an authority over much of anything terribly important. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But here’s the zinger: those things that we stand the chance of being most wrong about are precisely those things that we hold most dear because they valorize our human proclivity for provincial thinking and denial, which is the second thing I’ve learned in my 48 years of paying attention: we live in denial much of the time in order to validate our own view of things, and we do all of this as a coping mechanism for the nihilism that we breathe in all round us.

And where does this leave us? That at the very places where we most need to have authorities outside of ourselves to give us perspective, we are least likely to avail ourselves of them. And so we take the wisdom of our ancestors and reform it to reflect our prejudices, and we fashion the religion and politics of our forefathers and mothers and mold them into our own biases and tastes. We change everything we believe to adjust to our experiences, never for a second thinking to ask ourselves whether our experiences themselves are open to other interpretations, or whether our experiences might actually be misleading. If this is the way I understand what’s happened to me, then by golly, that’s precisely what happened to me! Right?

Never was there a time so many of us trusted so unquestioningly our own personal view of things. Never was there a time our own personal view of things was so influenced by the deluded voices around us.

La la la la la la….

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