Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Philosophy, Politics, Social Progress and Webcomics!

Posted in politics by allisonkilkenny on April 11, 2008

I am a die hard fan of the online comic strip xkcd. Though it quite accurately touts itself as “A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math, and Language,” its whimsy occasionally winds into something delightfully compelling. A case in point is the dialogue from this comic:

“You know how some people consider ‘May you have an interesting life’ to be a curse?”

“Yeah …”

“Fuck those people. Wanna have an adventure?”

Similarly motivational was this comic from the same strip. (Read it! It’s great!)

And yet another “anti-going-through-the-motions” cartoon can be found here, this one an audio recording by Alan Watts set to animation by the South Park boys. (Who knew they’d make such inspiring collaborators?!)

I adore this spirited embrace of adventure, particularly since I don’t interpret the cartoonist’s enthusiasm as one for simple thrill-seeking. Temporary excitement that gets to the heart of no matter is … of no matter. Far more adventuresome is to purposefully violate our own comfort zones; to undermine the egos we spent lifetimes carefully building; to risk a life lived with authenticity, honesty, and understanding; to challenge our own habit-oriented prejudices with provocative action. We’re constantly surrounded by archetypes, paradigms, and agendas; so many loud voices tell us how to think, how to live, and (most importantly … to some) what to buy. But living authentically means breaking free from all that nonsense. It means coming face to face with the living consequences of our behaviors whenever we have the opportunity. It means immersing ourselves in personal investigation, challenging experiences, and full-hearted/full-headed debate. THAT’s the adventure! Knowing who you are by daring to test yourself, putting your own ego at risk in an experiment to understand life better, to entrench yourself in reality more deeply, to engage with life in a way that can’t be faked. That IS life. That’s how we can make life better, even as it seems much scarier.

Using oneself as a test subject for social investigation has a long history, as does fashioning the pursuit of understanding out of the pursuit of freedom, love and truth (Buddha, Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. come most readily to my mind). When I think of the great experimenters of history, I lament how pitifully distant I am from their ideals; yet, I crave to live more authentically than I do, to know myself better, to know the world better, and to affect more of “the good” through this process of self-discovery. So, what am I sitting here whining for? What better work could I be doing with my time? What high-minded adventure deserves my passionate devotion?

What’s prompting this introspection? Something like pondering why idealism and realism are often positioned as opposites, especially in politics. I don’t find this genuine at all. Practicality is always a consideration, of course, but is there anything worth working towards except our ideals? The status quo requires no challenge or personal inquiry, none of the real work that shapes a life. Why is it that in politics, individuals ostensibly united for the purpose of building a free and safe society, idealism is most quickly dismissed if not outright mocked? All the corruption that Washington can muster can’t morph grander ends into unworthy goals. Waxing cynical is too easy a relief; it means you don’t have to work, not to better oneself and not to better society. I’m appalled by easy self-defeatism. Jadedness that hasn’t been earned is gross laziness in disguise, and few things nettle my spirit more sharply than that.

I admire practical and persistent idealists, people who work hard to make every change for the better that they can, be that change small or large in its impact. People who dare to work, to hope, and to constantly challenge themselves are the ones who earn my awe. It’s for them, and for my own hope, that I ask:

What motivates our collective rest in the cradle of conformity? How can we crawl out of it without splattering ourselves?

And now, a few less familiar quotations from some of history’s greatest experimenters:

“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.” — Buddha, Kalama Sutta

“Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient. Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood … are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But … If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for.” — Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle

“I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him. I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest. Even if the sacrifice demanded be my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it. But as long as I have not realized this Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it. That relative truth must, meanwhile, be my beacon, my shield and buckler. Though this path is strait and narrow and sharp as the razor’s edge, for me it has been the quickest and easiest.” — Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”

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