Being a philosopher doesn’t mean having all the answers – quite the opposite. It means being full of questions. Understanding is the process of getting those questions answered. Inevitably, there are questions that go wanting. Often the most important questions are the most difficult to answer – if they have answers at all.
For instance, what are the limits of tolerance? There is a point at which the right of one group to practice their beliefs begins to encroach on the rights of those around them. Should one group be able to silence other groups because it finds their speech offensive? At what point does respect for parental authority collide with the responsibility of a society to protect its children? Is spanking abuse? Is it harmful to a child to refuse to educate her in any way that conflicts with her family’s religious belief? At what point ought society to intervene?
If the government of a sovereign nation has decided to put Sharia Law into effect, with what we believe are draconian punishments for minor offenses and radically oppressive treatment of women, have we a moral obligation to oppose that government? And if so, how far does that moral obligation go? Rhetoric? Embargoes? Subversion? A declaration of war? And on the subject of war, when can we justify its suffering and destruction? Why, if I kill a man on the street it is murder, but if I do it in uniform in another country it is patriotism? There are those who refuse to kill even in self-defense. Are they heroes or fools?
We don’t often get called upon in our daily lives to make these kinds of decisions. We can debate the hypotheticals, and berate our leaders and lawmakers when they answer these questions in what we think is the wrong way. These are the sorts of issues you argue about over dinner with your friends (or, folly of follies, on Facebook). Other questions cut deeper, close and personal, and their debate takes place in anguished solitude.
We all suffer traumas. People we love die or abandon us. People we trust betray us. We are wounded, crushed, battered. Sometimes it is our own fault; sometimes it is no one’s fault. We are told we must deal with it and move on. What does this mean?
I have wrestled with it lying awake in the small hours. I have taken long walks and chewed on it. I’ve thought it through the best that I can, and it doesn’t haunt me anymore. I go through my days cheerful, never giving it another thought. Am I done now? If it is conjured up again, if I am forced to look into that box of snakes once more and I find myself twisted with emotion, does that mean that I’m not done yet and there’s something else I’m supposed to do? If so, what?
Vague terms like “finding closure” and “working through it” are not terribly helpful. There isn’t always a definable ending, like the firm click of a door closing, to let you know that it is finished. Somewhere along the continuum from “It torments me constantly” to “It doesn’t affect me at all” there is a point where one can live with a past trauma and it is no longer crippling. For many of us, I expect that’s the best we can hope for. Opening the box will never cease to make us shudder.
We are brought up with heroic stories of brave souls who persevered beyond all logic to achieve their dream, to reach a goal, to fight an enemy, to resist defeat. Because they refused to admit failure, they ultimately triumphed. Never give up, we are told. Never stop believing in yourself.
Life is seldom so accommodating. Sometimes we simply have to cut our losses and change course or Reality takes us out like the Sioux took out Custer at Little Big Horn. Don Quixote was a magnificent character, but not one we’d necessarily want to emulate. So, how does one know when it is time to quit? How does one tell the difference between wisdom and wimping out, between the courage of conviction, and mere delusion? If those around you say you need to be fixed, but you don’t feel broken, how do you decide who’s right?
As I said in the title, these are all things I haven’t quite figured out yet. It could be this way, but then, it’s possible to see how it could be that. The open mind is tugged constantly between enlightenment and doubt. Most of the time I have to default to the simple, three word answer: I don’t know. If forced to pick a direction, I can take a guess, close my eyes and jump, hoping for the best. An awful lot of life is like that; we just don’t know. We take our best shot and muddle through; maybe we did the right thing and maybe not.
Step by step, day by day, and wherever you are, there you are. This much I have worked out. I can’t change yesterday, I can’t be certain of tomorrow, all I have to work with is right now. As long as I’m breathing, there’s the hope some good will come of it. And maybe, a bit more understanding.