French Philosophers, Frodo, and 50/50

Recently, I’ve been pretty anxious about my future. And why shouldn’t I be? I’ve selected a career that is often, at best, incomprehensible to the majority of society and, at worst, considered to be nothing more than bull shitting in an arm chair. Of course, the result of the obscurity of and/or contempt for philosophy is that the job market is awful. Add to these two observations, the fact that I am about to bury myself under a mountain of debt, and you can see why I’m a bit freaked out.

Oh, I almost forget the best part. Why am I doing this if I recognize that it looks kind of irrational. Well, one reason, of course, is that I really dig philosophy. But, that’s not reason enough choose a career path, not when I’m interesting in walking the Path set before me. Yep, that’s right. I’m doing this because of a semi-burning-bush type moment in which I felt like God was saying, “Hey, I want you to study this nonsense and become a professor.”

I really dig the Divine and following It’s dictates, but on some days, this all just sounds ridiculous. Of course, I think most of the stories that can found within the Christian narrative are crazy. Resurrection is an important story for us christian folk, but think about it: resurrection is about men coming back from the dead. Seriously? This is 2011. The time for believing such nonsense has come and gone.

And so, I’m presented with a conflict: On the one hand, I am a Christian, a sucker for the beauty of the Impossible. On the other hand, I am a realist or a pessimist or a rational person who makes this unsettling observation: it sure seems like faithful people sometimes do faithful things and those same people get squashed by life.

“Just have faith.” That’s the initial response that pops into my head. But what does that even mean? Have faith that what, exactly? Have faith that everything will work out? Well, aside from the fact that that is precisely the thing that is in question, there doesn’t really seem to be much in the way of evidence (from our Christian narratives) to support the proposition that (1) everything will work out just fine. Case in point: all of the faithful disciples of Christ were tortured and/or killed for their faithfulness. That doesn’t sound like rainbows and butterflies to me.

Of course, there’s a qualifier we could put into (1).  We could say that (2) in the end, everything will work out just fine. That answer probably should be sufficient. If I was an theologically normal person, I could probably just try to must up some hope and accept (2). (This is actually what I wound up doing for a bit. And maybe this is what I should continue to do.) The problem is that I’m a heretic, and depending on the day of the week, I just lack the theologico-conceptual framework to think that (2) is true. After all, there are many days when I wonder whether there is such a thing as “the afterlife” or whether God is really into the whole omnipotence thing.

(Some parenthetical points: Its weird that I doubt the afterlife. Its not like I have any evidence to think that heaven doesn’t exist. In other words, its not like I’ve died and came back and said, “Yep. There’s nothing ‘down there.'” On an entirely separate note, I just realized that I needn’t necessarily think that God is omnipotent or think that there is an afterlife for “everything to work out ok in the end.” I guess all I would need to think is that God is powerful enough to “make everything work out in the end” and I would need to get over my fear of dying. The upshot of this second point, then, is that the following theological exploration has less to do with my heresy qua heresy and more to do with my theological curiosity.)

While all of this conceptual nonsense and ontic anxiety was in the back of my mind, I encountered this text that I was reading for a class,

…Not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place…Existentialism alone gives – like religions – a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which makes its judgments so gloomy. Men do not like to feel themselves in danger. Yet, it is because there are real dangers, real failures and real earthly damnation that words like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.

This passage blew me away. It immediately struck me as a beautiful idea. If its true, however, then the response to my anxiety about my future career plans isn’t to muster up some hope. Rather, it is to accept the fact that it is possible that this philosophy thing might be the worst decision I ever make in my life. Eww…that’s not fun to type out. “Men do not like to feel themselves in danger.” Amen to that, Beauvoir.

But why think that Beauvior’s suggestion is true? Shortly after reading this text, I thought about the stories that move us. (By the way, I think that this analysis of axiology through narrative isn’t as crappy of a theologico-philosophical method as I initially thought, given the fact that I believe the Divine is the kind of deity that digs a good story.) One of the best stories ever, in my humble opinion, is Lord of the Rings.

Remember this scene?

What an intense moment! (Actually, its seems a little corny to me now, but that’s probably because I’m older now…and lamer.) But can’t we see from this that what Beauvoir is saying has some truth to it? Its because of moments like these, that the ending of the film is so powerful. Its because of the possibility and the appearance of death and destruction and failure, that the triumph of Frodo has meaning and significance.

Remember this? (Spoiler alert!)

Maybe nerdy fantasy films aren’t your cup of tea, and thus, those clips might be bad examples to illustrate Beauvoir point. Either way, I wasn’t 100% sold on the above lord-of-the-rings-points I was making in my head either. Later that week after reading this text, however, I experienced some more corroborating evidence of what Beauvoir was talking about: I saw the movie 50/50. The entire movie is premised on the possibility of a young man’s tragic death.

I won’t ruin the ending, but I think its clear that the film would be considerably less interesting if it was called “100/0,” and it was about a 27 year old dude who knew he was going to live and faced no dangers or obstacles during the remaining 60 years of his life.

(Another parenthetical aside: There’s actually some interesting questions about how we could go about proving that Beauvoir is right. If we really wanted to rigorously test this hypothesis, we would need to construct a narrative in which the possibility of the protagonist failing to surmount the obstacles she encountered was eliminated from the outset. A second narrative in which this condition was not present would also need to be constructed. Then, we’d need to include other elements in the narrative that we might think are necessary for the meaning and/or power of the victory of the protagonist – e.g., emotional attachment to characters. Thus, my James Bond example isn’t really solid proof that Beauvoir is right.)

So, maybe (and I’m italicizing this “maybe” because its a big maybe) I should just quit being an existential pansy and deal with the possibility that maybe everything won’t be ok. Maybe I should do more than that. Maybe I should be thankful for the possibility of failure. Maybe I should recognize that the possibility of failure is a gift from God, a gift that makes all of the other gifts worth having. Maybe seeing this possibility as a gift and being thankful for it will lead me to better love the Divine and maybe loving God better will allow me to say something like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did, just as they were facing their fear of the flames of death,

“O Nebuchadnezzar…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.[d]18But if [He does] not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

My burning furnace, my potential future social exile and financial ruin, will not deter me from loving Love by obeying Its dictates. And even if I am not delivered from the flames, I will not bow down to fear. I will not worship the idols of economic/emotional security and social acceptance because I want to be the kind of person that loves God that much, and that love-of-God might be that much easier when I come to see the flames as a gift rather than a curse.

Maybe…either way, my prayer is the same: may I grow in my love for Love. May I respond appropriately to the anxiety which I have come to feel.

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