Vulnerability, Ultimate Realism?

Realism is another fraught word. Let’s imagine for a moment that it meant having a perspective on the world that was the best possible match for the conditions we face. To paraphrase John Lennon, “It might be easy if we try.”

If we did have such a viewpoint it just struck me that the most realistic judgement of our selves would have to be a profound sensibility of our vulnerability. As soft-bodied creatures inhabiting a sharp-edged world, we are physically vulnerable to all those “mortal shocks that plague” us. As emotional/mental creatures we pit a little over a thousand cc’s of gelatinous mass backed up by a plumbing of glands and their interacting secretions against a world of pain, confusion, and potential despair. We are vulnerable. To know this, and to abide it, must be the most “realistic” attitude we could take.

Add to this the understanding of how we forge and maintain the connections with others that make life possible, we come back to the currency of vulnerability that mediates these relationships. If kindness, its expression, and its acceptance when pointed our way, is one of our deepest motivations; this economy cannot function without a mutual recognition of our vulnerability. Sacrifice, any form of commitment, receives its value on the basis that those who exercise it are not indestructible, but overwhelmingly vulnerable.

Just as we value courage and sacrifice, we are shamed by cowardice and greed. These judgements are made possible by our relationship to our vulnerability. Whether there is any “higher” drive than self-preservation we don’t have to go any farther to see how we would disapprove of ways of being that attempt to hide our vulnerability behind the products of fear or the profits of greed. We cannot survive if we long suffer these attitudes to be predominant. We know that, hence our shame and the defensiveness that so easily turns offensive whenever we find ourselves trapped in their binds.

How would we behave if we took this “to heart?”

I wish I knew.

I say this fully aware that I’ve spent thousands of words putting down our easy confusion between wishing and hope. I mean wish.

This, an expression of vulnerability? I mean if I know that wishing is immature and counterproductive, my admission to this wish for something I’ve laid out as being of great importance is an admission of vulnerability. No?

My last post began to break into what may be new ground, at least for me, a realization that my own attempts either to awaken the “sleepers” around me, or at least warn us off the dangers of following the “haters,” has left me in a profound sense no less captured within a cycle of denial and the repetition of failed strategies than those I’ve derided. If they are stuck in “self-preservation hijacked by delusion” then so am I. If I continue doing the same things expecting a different result, I am no more “sane” than they are. If I prefer to wish they could be convinced by my arguments or wowed by my eloquence, then I am as delusional as anyone.

You see they have a point. Actually they have three points that cannot be ignored, no matter how dysfunctional the “answers” they insist on applying. We need cohesion, we need security, we need sufficiency.  I disagree with them when they see their particular responsibility as a trump, over-riding any other value. I think that without a sense of enough, of adequacy, of the acceptance of hard and intractable limits to our desires, even our most noble ambitions and beliefs, we cannot achieve any sort of lasting accommodation with our world. Still, pretending they have no justification, or discounting their efforts as simply misguided or even monstrous, will not create a climate in which any of our predicaments can be faced.

We come back to the centrality of Dissensus. Unless we can find a dynamic interaction between realms with seemingly incompatible differences of outlook and expression then we have failed one of the deepest manifestations of the evolutionary process. If dissensus of viewpoints and between disparate ways of life cannot interact, then we leave out the social and mental equivalent to genetic variability within our social and mental evolution.

Let’s be clear, evolution simply means reacting to conditions with a certain flexibility that allows some accommodation between what is possible for an organism to achieve and what it requires to maintain itself. Conditions are in continuous flux punctuated by quick state changes when certain emergent qualities conspire to upend an historic balance. Organisms have a variety of strategies to adapt opportunistically to these developments. If at any point they cannot find a bridge to accommodate to change that overwhelms their capacity to survive these changes in their surroundings, internal or external, they die. If enough of their “kind” die, the entire population reaches extinction. This is not a progressive or conservative process, simply a foment to provide some chance for continued existence to the elements of the project called life. There are times of radiation, of a fine-tuning of traits that could be called a peak – if we let ourselves be trapped by the desire to see this as anything other than a challenge to keep up with continual foment – and times of contraction and collapse. None of these are “higher” than others, they simply are. If in a certain set of circumstances a population does not have the capacities required to prosper in those conditions then it will fail. There are no Fantasy-Teams of All-Stars. Every organism, every population, is tied inextricably to the conditions it can tolerate. The web of particulars that mark each situation: a set of conditions expressed in a moment of time; is unique as are the organisms that can thrive in those particular conditions at that particular time.

It would be nice to be able to fly like I do in my dreams, but gravity doesn’t allow it. The same holds true for these “Laws.”

In our case, does the capacity to understand and give these Laws credence give certain members of our population an “advantage?” Maybe, but just as possibly not. Awareness, my personal guiding star, is adaptive at certain times and in certain conditions, but there are plenty of adaptive examples of organisms that show scant awareness beyond what is right in front of them. At times of contraction and collapse the more “high-strung” and exquisitely “complex” creatures and the shimmering and convoluted environments they need to support them are usually replaced by the robust and simple economies of higher entropy and crude and simple inter-relationships. If this didn’t happen, the entire lineage might be wiped out and even deeper collapse would result. We see this in marine environments where the awesome abundance of an estuarine system is replaced by a stew of muck and Sulfur Dioxide inhabited by a much reduced variety and quantity of jelly-fish and suffocating mats of algae and bacteria. We’ve achieved our own over-reach on the remains of just such collapse regimes in the past when stores of hydro-carbons capturing the energy of sunlight were sequestered into sediments instead of given the multitude of niches and opportunities to express themselves in a myriad of abundance and diversity.

Dissensus requires some of us – not all of us, that would be a negation of the entire premise! – to recognize its importance. How we deal with that recognition is not clear. In fact it cannot be clear, since such clarity would only be another manifestation of the wish for certainty, of an ability to predict and even control outcomes. Our uncertainty is built in. It’s not just a liability, or even a neutral condition, it is our only opportunity to affect the outcome. It maintains in us a poise and a receptivity to changing conditions that makes it possible for us to come up with new concepts, new expressions of variability, that might not occur to those others who have differing strengths, brews of qualities, and depths of focus.

Our role then might not be to “convince.” We may simply be here to “invent.”

Our inventions may be quite modest. In almost all cases they won’t be anything new, so much as slight, but hopefully telling shifts in the way we look at the old. This isn’t a call to fall onto the “innovation” bandwagon that props our our egos as we simply feed the maw of consumerism. It requires a greater sensitivity than that.

I may not be calling for that big a shift in what we do so much as a shift in how we perceive it and its field of play. The call for humility has so often been the excuse for just a different form of overweening pride. Perhaps vulnerability, its acceptance, its embrace, can again come to the rescue. It gives humility a reason and a scale of measure. Whatever takes us away from a profound understanding and a deep acceptance of our vulnerability is removing us from our useful approach to reality. Whatever we do that spreads its truth may work to strengthen bonds and dissolve, not differences, but our maladaptive attitudes towards those differences.

The hardest part of any complex task is coming to an acceptance of the difficulty and finding an accommodation with the range of options it allows. The difference between “having a chance” to “work something out” and collapsing in confusion and despair is often just a fine adjustment in that perception. That’s what I’m asking us to do with these thoughts on vulnerability. This elemental condition may be a “handle” on our predicament. It would join trust, truth, kindness and humility in a laudable constellation of traits that just might return us to adaptability. Even if that is no longer possible due to changes beyond our control, these traits, and the galaxy of others that surround and support them, would allow us to go out, expressing our essence instead of collapsing beneath our failures to see that all moments are finite and no expression is eternal.

There is so much more to explore here. So much that’s been barely touched, or only vaguely implied without the necessary distinctions being made to clarify and focus what this whole enterprise might mean. This is a sign that the process of scanning for horizons of significance is ongoing. This is our condition, so long as we have breath, and sight, and the ability to communicate; we will continue to make this recurring scan, uncovering what our movement has brought into focus and adjusting our course to accommodate what we find there.

Here’s to accepting, adopting, and accommodating to the reality of vulnerability as the backbone of this process!


8 thoughts on “Vulnerability, Ultimate Realism?

  1. Two books come to mind: The Faith to Doubt (Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty) by Stephen Batchelor, and The Quest for Certainty by John Dewey.

    Unconditional openness, a feature of unconditional Love, is unconditional vulnerability. To want to know the Truth, whatever it may bring is a deep surrender to Reality. Krishnamurti speaks of choice-less awareness. The inner witness state receives whatever is without preferences or judgement, desire or avoidance. The emptying of the mind resulting from meditative practise takes one (eventually) beyond the filters and defenses of the ordinary mind, into a space where the extraordinary can be experienced.

    Too far out? Too bad, the only way out is in…

    The defended mind is like the King imprisoned in his castle of elaborate defenses, invulnerable, but uncreative, unfree, unloved and unloving.

    1. mike k,

      Thank you. There is a wealth of insight and practice related to this in Buddhist thought and practice. As you say, the only way out is in!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s