Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family. This has me reckoning time in new and poignant ways; I feel history bearing down upon me, surging through me, with vengeance. What’s struck me more than anything else is how little changes despite great passages of time and what should be life altering events. I am the youngest of three siblings and I’m 43 — which is to say, we are all adults. And yet we play out the same dynamics we’ve been playing out for, well, in my case 43 years.
We are living in tracks laid decades ago. The momentum of history is fierce. It is bigger than any one of us. I may or may not have changed but the dynamics — the terms of exchange or, to sound like a pretentious douchebag, the discourse of our family — have not changed. It is times like these that I feel the futility of individuality; I am beholden to forces that exceed me. I can feel and be and think and say what I want but I can’t control how my words are taken, how others feel, what they think, how they go. And this, in turn, inflects how I think and feel.
This is an all too familiar reality for anyone trying to better a romantic, or for that matter, platonic relationship. The terms are so well set that they become exceedingly difficult to change, even if both parties have the best intentions. You say something you think supportive to your gal — Have fun! — and she thinks you’re being passive aggressive because you used to be. We are not as much individuals as we are elements within complex systems that are worked out together, visible and invisibly, on the fly. And that system works us as much, and usually more, than we work it.
I am tempted to say we repeat ourselves, that we play the same record over and over again. But that is not repetition at all. We are, in fact, playing out the past, what’s already happened. We’re not repeating. In some sense, we’re recalling, living through the past, living by history’s given strictures rather than making history ourselves. When I talk to my parents, as a 43 year old man, the six year old boy speaks, too, sometimes too loudly and it’s humiliating.
Sure, some things change. Injuries and sickness slow some down. But resounding change to individuals and to systems is hard to come by. While it’s comforting to imagine that face to face with one’s mortality, one would change — you shed your bullshit, live more joyfully — the reality is often in the face of such sudden, radical change, one longs for the normalcy of what was before, for the comfort of familiar bourgeois anxiety. I don’t want to fear death! I want the stress over a cranky child, the stress I know!
In the face of extreme injury and sickness, little changes. A death sentence or a maiming does not automatically evacuate one’s life of its neuroses, its idiocies, its toxicity. Families don’t suddenly put aside their well worn dynamics to love and support unconditionally. Tragedy throws a wrench into the existing system but it does not fix it and does not reset it. Change, it seems, is more terrifying than death. And certainly harder to come by.
I’ve always secretly been envious of the reborn, that phrase and domain carved out by Christian evangelicals. What a treat! For most of us, we’re shot out of the womb and onto tracks that guide us, steer us, determine us for the rest of our lives. How fantastic to say, I’ve had enough of this life! I want a new one! I want to be born again! And then, even better: I am going to be born again!
Jews have no language of being reborn (that I know of, at least). On the contrary, we take a peculiar pride in perpetuating our misery, our neuroses, our angst. It always felt like a jip to me. I dreamed of being submerged in water and emerging miraculously anew. To have all my bullshit washed away, to be cleansed of the horrors and miseries of my history, of the self I’d forged to that point.
Kierkegaard claims that the ancients lived through the past, through recollection. How do we know anything? asks Socrates. We recollect, he answers. For Kierkegaard, Christianity — well, Jesus — offers a radical new approach to knowing and being: repetition rather than recollection. Living forward rather than backwards. Socrates claimed to be a mid-wife, helping birth what is already inside you; the teacher’s job is to act as a mnemonic. Jesus is not a mid-wife; he doesn’t help you birth anything. He makes you anew so that you rebirth yourself. (See Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a small but potent book.)
Repetition, though, is not something that happens of its own accord. It is something you must do, you must will. You have to pick yourself up and hurl yourself into a future that’s unknown and, indeed, unknowable. It is living as a creator of of one’s own history rather than a follower of history. The oddity, of course, is that once you’ve hurled yourself into the future, you are a new you.
How do you repeat? Honestly, fuck if I know. Presumably for Kierkegaard, I have to confront the absurdity of Jesus, a man who is God, a temporal creature who is eternal, a finite body that is infinite. This skinny hebe stands before me and I can either say You’re full of shit or I can say Yes, I believe. For Kierkegaard, there are no other options. Proving that Jesus is really God is insane. No, for Kierkegaard, faith begins where thinking ends. It demands a leap, not a series of reasoned steps.
O, to take that leap! To hop from one mode of being into another! To be born again!
One of Nietzsche’s great figures is the übermensch — the overman, sometimes oddly translated as superman. This overman overcomes himself, sheds his humanity, his guilt and ego and morality. And he does it over and over again, a relentless repeating. For Nietzsche, this doesn’t happen in one great hop; there’s very little jumping involved. To repeat is more of a dance, a constant moving that sloughs inherited beliefs like so much skin.
Which all demands enormous, unspeakable, self-discipline. It demands a kind of self-cruelty that is not masochistic but joyful: the joy not of saying No to oneself but saying Yes to a new self. There is no monumental baptism, in fire or anything. There’s only will and work, relentless and demanding.
People say they don’t like some psychedelics because they last too long. There is a desire to play, then be done. Me, I liked how acid lingered for days, even weeks, sometimes months. When I first tripped at 16 during a New York Fall, the trees shed of their leaves literally impressed me, impressed upon me, in me, of me. I could see and hear the hyper articulation of the world for months afterwards. One night and everything was different. I was born again! But, eventually, it became harder and harder to hear what I’d heard and then the world fell silent again and I was back to my old self.
Sometimes, I just want to scream, stop the train and reorient the terrain, lay down different tracks — or get rid of the tracks all together. Bullshit Hollywood movies have people changing all the time, usually in a day. Either something happens or they have a revelation and, voilà, they’re acting and being differenlty.Now he’s a good dad! A better husband! A moral man (eeesh!)! If only that were the way of change.