Keeping it Real — [Autobiographical,

Keeping it Real — [Autobiographical, free-associative, overwrought prose alert!] It’s hard coming to grips with one’s own deviance. No, I’ve no special interest in pre-owned panties, or spurs, but I have a self-conception that makes a fetish of getting at the truth about ourselves. But surely this is healthy; examined life and all that. Well, no. Most people keep truth in its place, looking for it only when they really need it, generally content with the consolations of self-deception and delusion. I have a hard time with this, and as a consequence, I have a hard time relating at more-than-superficial level with most people. I don’t like this. I’m a very affable, and awfully sensitive, and so it stings when I’m more or less accused of inhumanity for claiming to know, for instance, that there is no gemlike flame of divinity flickering within our breasts; or that we are continuous with the lesser beasts; or that the multimedia, technicolor riot of consciousness is what it is because of the principles of electricity and chemistry played out in that blob of firm grey pudding between the ears; or that there is no cosmic plan for us, and no planner.

I went to church today, and not for a wedding. I went to church twice a week from birth to 17 or so. It’s a form of life with which I am intimate, and sometimes I miss it very much, as an isolated expatriate might miss his mother tongue. I am not always happy with myself. I often fail to be what I hope, or fail to give people their due. Sometimes I am very lonely. Today, among alien Episcopalians, I choked back tears as we collectively announced our sinfulness, and petitioned for redemption. My voice wavered and broke as together we sang of our salvation, and the comfort of our constant companion. These stories and songs are in my bones, and sometimes I need to hear them. I hope the Episcopalians will not mind if I was so deeply moved by what is to me a metaphor, or that I had no choice, after the fact, to think of my rush of religious feeling in terms of the sudden activation of well-developed, but lately starved, sets of of neural networks. Consolation is consolation. Neurotransmitters are neurotransmitters.

Who knows? Walk into enough bars and you might end up a drunk.

It’s a trick to maintain this tension. You should avoid it. Don’t listen to me! We are glorious machines of meat, our remembered lives (that first kiss, say) registered as mere chains of proteins, which come and go, come and go, each iteration losing something, adding something, increasing the distance from truth with time. (How warm were her lips, really? What color was the sky?) The experience of choosing is a flattering report of decisions made; the feeling of openness an illusion of our ignorance. We are transient, patterned agglomerations of matter, and my matter and your matter will someday soon lose coherence and commingle dumbly with the huge mute universe. Yet the structured electrochemical tangle that make us us is not prepared to accept this.

We demand a sense of our permanence, a sense that our selves are solid, and that solid is not, as physics tells, mostly empty space. We need to believe in the purpose of the whole, and the transcendent import of the little miracle that is each free choice. And we are being watched, and we must be in good terms with the watchers, from whom all things flow. This we are prepared to accept. And rejecting it is a lot like walking everywhere on your hands: it’s unnatural, uncomfortable, and people will look at you funny.

Taking the road less travelled makes all the difference not because it’s less travelled but because you went one way rather than the other, and going one way rather than the other always makes all the difference. There’s no way to calculate the opportunity costs, and to conclude that, yes, this was a profitable difference, really the best road. But it remains that there may be nothing better than to walk on one’s hands the whole way, despite the stupefied stares, and despite all the kisses one is destined to miss when one’s head is the wrong way ’round. Or . . .

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center