Monday, August 27, 2012

The Idiodyssey

I am an idiot.

Now, now, I know what you're thinking. Well, actually I'm sure the responses vary from, "Never!" to "Yeah... yeah, ya are." So when I say, "I know what you're thinking," what I really mean to say is, "I don't have a clue what you're thinking." Why do I call myself an idiot? Well, the first and most obvious response to that question is because I am one. No, no, it's true. I admittedly have a long and sad history of self-loathing, but the above statement regarding my own idiocy is in no way motivated by the aforementioned self-loathing. In fact, over the last couple of years I've come to see myself as a rather good friend. I wouldn't go so far as to say I love myself, I'm just not ready to make such a committment, but I'm getting along with me okay these days. The point is, however, that the objective fact of the matter is that I am an idiot, and this life is my Idiodyssey.

Now, I know most people see the term "idiot" and think of it as a derogatory term for someone of low intelligence. Not so, dear reader! You see, the older I get the more and more I begin to understand that there's nothing so great about intelligence. Let me rephrase - there's nothing so great about intelligence for its own sake. True, it often annoys me that most people I see or hear in the media or even in real life possess what seem to be at best the IQs of very smart gorillas, but on the other hand I haven't seen much recent evidence to warrant idolizing the average intellectual either. In fact, most intellectuals, or rather those who see themselves as intellectuals, are actually just arrogant pricks with college degrees, which in my mind accounts for very little. (Yes, I too have a college degree. But I am, as you now know, an idiot. So clearly that piece of paper doesn't mean all that much).

One thing you learn in college, if you actually pay attention, is that academia is full of people who like to use pretty words to make themselves sound smart, while in actuality they are simply wasting thousands of letters on something that could likely have been said in a few hundred. Some things need to be expressed in great detail, there's no denying that, and when relevant data is compiled it is often a great challenge for the scholar to boil that information down to something that can be made into a succinct argument for a particular point of view, and it is an admirable task. However, a thought-provoking argument, and a Bible-length diatribe of redundancy and stylish repetition, are two very different things. In a way, this is a tool by which intellectuals can pat themselves on the back and assure themselves of their position on another level far removed from the average person.

Now, I'll agree, not all people were created equal. Some people are very intelligent. Some people are remarkably stupid. Most people are somewhere in between. But what really matters in my book is not how smart someone is, but how kind they are or at least how kind they try to be. It's always been a gut-feeling of mine that if someone is an asshole, then they're probably not nearly as smart as their IQ tests might lead one to initially believe. You may be able to recite Moby Dick from memory, but are you polite to waiters and clerks? You may be able to list every stage of human development from Australopithecus africanus to Homo sapiens sapiens, but do you say "thank you" when it's appreciated but not necessary? Those things may be worlds apart in your mind and you'd be right. They have not one thing to do with one another. But that is precisely my point. So what if you're intelligent? You can read a few books an argue a case, congratulations. Social intelligence is much more important to me than whether you're a high school dropout or a PhD.

Now, enter the idiot. I am not socially intelligent. In fact, I'm a social retard (and I use that word quite seriously). My social anxiety and extreme insecurities have often left me completely stiff and silent like a statue in the presence of people with whom I would otherwise like to converse. I like being sociable, and people who've worked with me and become friends with me know that I'm usually very easy to get along with, weird and awkwardly unfunny as I can be. But if I'm under one of my spells of anxiety, I'm not likely to do anything other than sit or stand there with a sour expression on my face. (My mother has told me numerous times, and there is photographic and video evidence to this effect, that the default expression of my face is a grumpy one and has been since I was able to make facial expressions denoting something other than hunger or a smelly diaper. In other words, I've been a curmudgeon since infancy). I've always wanted to be able to walk up to strangers and ask them sincere questions. Whenever I see a Sikh, I want to greet her or him with "Waheguru ji ka khalsa," the formal greeting of the faith, simply to let them know that not all gringos in America are ignorant xenophobes. Sometimes I'll see a woman whose beauty hits me like a punch in the chest from God, and without any thought of consequence or romantic inclination I simply want to tell her so. But I've not been able to bring myself to do any of these things without some kind of dramatic external initiator. So, owing to anxiety and my history of low self-esteem, I often come off as anti-social or rude when really I'm just fighting an internal war with my own anxieties. I bring this up merely to point out that some people, like me, don't intend to be rude but sometimes come off that way. So I suspend judgment as a general rule and attempt to treat each person on a case-by-case basis. Doing so, however, still leads one to the inevitable conclusion that some people are just jerks.

As one can quickly learn on websites like Facebook and OKCupid, a fair percentage of the people who seem to have pretty good intellects also tend to be more intolerant, and thus intolerable, than people who have simpler ways of viewing the world. The L.A. goth scene, to give you a shining example, is full of some of the most brilliant minds I've ever witnessed in one single subculture, and thus it is also party to some of the most elitist crybabies I've ever had the displeasure to meet. It's fair to the extent that when you have the ability to not only question established wisdom, but then re-question it, and then even question the question itself, and so on until the complexities of life have splayed themselves before you like a sun gone supernova, you may have a harder time enjoying life, and this makes it harder to be pleasant all the time (and studies have shown that people with higher IQs tend to suffer from more depression and higher drug-usage than others).

Well, no one can be pleasant all the time. Even Jesus was pretty curt with his friends on occasion, and he's generally regarded as one of the nicer fellas in history. But when one has taken up the task of presenting oneself as honestly and charismatically as possible so that potential mates (via dating sites) or "friends" (via networking sites) may become intrigued and still one has no hesitation in presenting oneself as a bitchy, arrogant, self-stylized intellectual with a bone to pick with God and Nature for endowing the human race with various levels of intelligence, most of which you believe to be beneath your own... well, it just makes me a little sad for humankind.

Here's the kicker though. Here's the gut-wrenchingly painful truth of it all. Inasmuch as a human born with a low IQ cannot in actuality do much to improve it, a human born with the personality of a jackass also cannot do much to improve it. Even if one is adopted and raised by a family of geniuses, if one's chromosomes come from a family of nimrods, one is more than likely going to grow up a nimrod. Geneticists are finding that both personality and IQ are basically inherited traits and that we are either blessed or cursed from conception by the genes of our parents. So why am I sitting here bemoaning the lack of nice people in this world the way an intellectual bemoans the lack of smart people in this world? Well, didn't I tell you I was an idiot?

In Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the character Slatibarfast tells the protagonist Arthur Dent that he'd much rather be happy than right any day (of course, he tells him afterwards, he is neither). It's a sentiment I think a lot of can relate to. In the movie "Harvey" based on the Mary Chase play of the same name, Elwood P. Dowd explains that, "Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, 'In this world, must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." And I certainly have quoted him. And I will again, and again, and perhaps once more over again, because even when I was the angry teenager who simply played the cab driver in his high school's adaptation of the play, that speech touched me in a way that few other things had at that age. Of course, my misery still rules me a good deal of the time, but I see no reason to try to bring down people who are happier than me simply because I resent the fact that they are happier than me. I was cursed by chromosomes that have destined me to fight depression perhaps all my life. But, as much as I may not be able to change my chromosomes, I can at least take a fair amount of my actions into my own hands and try my best to avoid taking my misery out on others (unless neuroscientist and famously outspoken atheist Sam Harris is correct and even my decision to attempt bettering myself is not actually a decision but merely one step in an infinite and inevitable chain or web of cause and effect. See: determinism).

Make no mistake. My self-proclaimed idiocy is not a case of "ignorance is bliss." Ignorance is certainly not bliss to people like myself who are cursed with the overwhelming desire to keep in the know even if we're more miserable for it. After all, ignorance is what makes conversation dull. Ignorance is what leads to teen, and heaven forbid preteen, pregnancies. So no, I'm not talking about ignorance. What I'm talking about is idiocy. What I'm talking about is pure, unadulterated, and stubborn foolhardiness. What I'm talking about is knowing better and doing it anyway. That, my friends, is true idiocy!

What would the world be without idiocy? What would the world be without the souls who were willing to play the fool for the sake of beauty? The first and only authentic relationship I've shared with a woman was quite simply a bad idea from the git-go. I started dating a woman who was recently separated, had even yet to file her divorce papers, who had a 4-year old son, and who liked going to clubs and drinking, neither of which I did at all. What an idiot. Yet here I am, years after the fact looking back on it and shaking my head at what a nincompoop I had been but not for one second regretting it. And to a fair degree, I sometimes wish that the present me had the gumption to perhaps make another stupid move like that. Later I might look back on the next stupid move with even less regret! But it's not just bold moves and fleeting romantic fancies that lead me to laud idiocy, for even intelligent people understand that risks must be taken to obtain that which we desire, however calculated some of those risks may be to the intellectual (and the more common pseudo-intellectual). No, those bold and foolhardy moves alone wouldn't be true idiocy to the fullest extent either.

My foolhardiness extends across this whole plane of reality and out into the realm of the gods. Literally. After having studied religion in one way or another for around two-thirds of my life, I've come to the intellectual conclusion that there is no correct religion, philosophy, or system of belief at all. However, there are no incorrect ones either. Such a conclusion is borderline cliche for a middle class American of European ancestry born and raised in a blue state near a major metropolitan area in the late 20th century. I'm truly an idiot of my time. However, there must, in my idiotic opinion, be an Absolute in existence, or perhaps existence itself is the Absolute (like the Hindus' sat-chit-ananda), but humans will never be able to comprehend it. They will not comprehend it through philosophical discourse, they will not comprehend it through religious revelation, and they will certainly not comprehend it through scientific empiricism. Even the greatest of mystics who have experienced that great ineffability that Eliade called mysterium tremendum et fascinans almost inevitably and invariably frame their experiences within the confines of the established worldview into which they were raised or came to belong i.e. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. Either way, whatever this thing may be, which I call "God," is beyond the comprehension of the intellect, and therefore is certainly not something worthy of intellectual debate. Don't get me wrong, God is most certainly worth all the time and energy with which He's graced me, but trying to intellectually, logically, or rationally convince a nonbeliever that "God" exists is about as useful as trying to convince a plant that I exist (the plant knows in a sense that I exist because I sustain it by giving it water, but it is of course incapable of consciously comprehending anything of the kind). All of this arguing, fighting, and proselytizing between belief systems and individuals just gives me a frightful headache and leads me to the conclusion that humans must truly be the most horrifically bored animals on Earth.

Nevertheless, despite what I might mistakenly call the knowledge that the Absolute is certainly not the "God of my ancestors," so to speak, the God of the Tanakh, the New Testament, the Qur'an, the Vedas, or the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, I myself yet choose to relate to God as if He (or She, or It) did indeed fall into one of those caricatures we humans have created for Him (or She, or It, or... you get the point). Why? Why, you ask, would I do something so silly? Isn't it better to be open-minded and allow God to be all possibilities, you ask? Doesn't that free your mind? Actually, I reply, yes. Yes, it does. Too much, as a matter of fact. You see, I'm a person who needs definition. I crave boundaries, because without them I go a little crazy (you can probably tell this from the excessive amount of time I've clearly spent pondering the nature of God). Without definitions, without boundaries, I feel ungrounded and quite frankly unsafe. It is with my own sanity, morality, and functionality in mind that I restrict myself in certain ways. You see, it is perfectly sound for me to intellectualize God as the great impersonal, unknowable Absolute. But when I feel the urge to emotionally connect with something greater than myself, a something that gives me a sense of safety in an infinitely unsafe world... well, a great impersonal Absolute is pretty useless. It's like writing in a diary as opposed to talking to a friend of flesh and blood. Both the diary and the friend have their respective places, but if my only companion was a pen and paper, I think I should truly go mad. And I'm rather quite mad enough as it is. Now, of course there are those who can take comfort in the idea of an impersonal Absolute such as the Dao, the Logos, or Brahman, and to an extent I do as well. But the point remains that regardless of whether one personalizes the Absolute or not, to theorize about it at all requires a certain degree of faith, so it's not at its core all that different from the childish needs of an emotional cripple like myself.

I need a God with a face. The face of God that I grew up with was the face Jesus, so it is only natural that that very same face is the one to bring me the most comfort now. And being that I wasn't raised with wrist-slapping nuns, misogynistic communes, or ideologically oppressive parents, I was left with good feelings toward religion. Do I think that all the doctrine and dogma of one or more of the various forms of Christianity across the globe contain the fullness of truth? Of course not. (And I'm certainly not about to enter into the fray and join asinine inter-denominational arguments such as how many fingers one should use whilst making the sign of the cross. God spare me. In my imagination such arguments over minute details of Church policy or even larger ones regarding officially sanctioned theology make Jesus perform the most cosmic of "face-palms," or "head-desks," as it were). Yet I take comfort in the music, the rituals, the art, and, well, the sheer beauty of many of the forms of worship. They give me something that nothing and no one else can. And if I ever have children, I'd like to give them a framework in which to be raised without of course regimenting their beliefs as such. I don't want my children growing up thinking anyone is a bloody heathen. But an organized religion (that great and wicked taboo in the minds of so many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment individualists) is a wonderful tool to help provide some kind of a framework with which to work, if one is careful not to idolize the faith instead of the God with whom it is attempting to connect us.

But why? Why would I chose to take part in such silliness? Religious organizations who bicker and moan and criticize each other to the point of ridicule, isn't it all just so archaic and idiotic? Indeed it is. And it's no secret that I've always been sickened by the in-figthing and hypocrisy so common amongst the various sects of any given faith. Fortunately though, I'm an idiot, and I can endure a lot of things that a man who thinks himself wise cannot. Whatever the IQ of my intellect, the IQ of my heart is that of a child, and although my brain will keep a close watch for signs of danger to myself or those I love, my heart is going to go dreamily where it will and I'm perfectly content with that. The Fool steps willingly and willfully off of the cliff, regardless of what may be beneath him. It's not that he doesn't know there's danger. It's just that he has the faith it takes to roll those dice. 

So there you are. It takes a true idiot to be such an unapologetic hypocrite as myself. It's one of the great things about being an idiot. And then there are the famous idiots. There's Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," and the idiot who tells Shakespeare's tale "full of sound and fury" for which this blog is named. This is not really a good reason to be proud of being an idiot of course, it's just one way I justify to myself that being an idiot is somehow rooted in greatness, however aware I am that the very idea is completely absurd. But lastly, and perhaps more importantly, knowing that I am an idiot is my equalizer. It brings down the self-acclaimed giants to my level, and it throttles me against the rocks if I start getting too cocky. Every time I get to feeling too high and mighty because of how barbaric my fellow humans behave, I remember that circumstance and chromosomes were heavily involved in what has led me to be who I am, and that I often hypocritically make exceptions to my own rules when I feel the urge to do something stupid and refuse to be thwarted.

But, as I said before, quite often some of those remarkably stupid things I've done inevitably created memories which I look back on with a sigh of contentment, even if a subtle hint of shame lingers. I wouldn't change that for the world. Well, I might, but that all depends on which world we're talking about here. I don't break my rules for just anyone. And lest there should reamin a shadow of doubt in anyone's mind about just how big of an idiot I am, think on this: I posted this publicly. Anyone can read it. I confess things that could lead friends to lose respect and enemies to gain weapons. But that's what I do. That's the life and work of an idiot. That is The Idiodyssey.

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