‘I will fail,’ said Seldon.
‘Then we will be no worse off. Will you try?’
And against his will and not knowing why, Seldon heard himself say, ‘I will try.’ And the course of his life was set.
-Hari Seldon and Chetter Hummin, from the novel ‘Prelude to Foundation’
written by Isaac Asimov
A few weeks back while I was out driving some errands I happened to catch ‘Tapestry with Mary Hynes‘ on the CBC, the weekly radio show about religion, philosophy and the latest in pop-spirituality. Not usually one of my favourite CBC productions.
Nonetheless I found this episode to be quite interesting. It was entitled ‘Lamenting the Road Not Taken‘ and the first portion is an interview with author Adam Phillips.
For those interested (and I recommend it highly) here’s the podcast.
In particular one of the phrases Phillips used during the program was ‘marooned in the possible’ discussing the state of being unable to move from possible to actual.
The phrase has stuck with me, prompting me to re-listen several times.
The quote above is from a novel from my favourite science fiction series (written by my favourite author) and encapsulates a moment when possible goes to actual.
The hero of the series, Hari Seldon, in this moment makes a choice that will shape the rest of his life, even though he believes that he will fail. He is taking a leap here, without understanding why and with ramifications far beyond what he can imagine.
This passage very much encapsulates to me this idea of choosing one of the multitude of possibilities open and deciding to make it into something real in the character’s life.
From that moment forward the path for the character of Hari Seldon was set.
The Myth of Our Potential
According to Phillips we live in a culture that encourages to believe that we have infinite possibilities. The culture does this in spite of the fact (and without acknowledging) that the resources in this world are finite which places limitations on us.
Phillips contention is that many of us are suffering because we’re focused on what could have been instead of finding ways to take pleasure in our ordinary, un-special lives.
It sounds like it’s a big downer and depressing but somehow it really isn’t.
For one thing, Phillips speaks with such passion about the possibilities for happiness that may lie in these “ordinary un-special lives.”
It also has something else: the clarion call of truth.
We have been raised in cultures that have tried to impart the limitless potential of every person, perhaps with benign intentions but often just to feed consumerism.
Every human is unique and one of a kind, just like a snowflake. This is the ordinary condition of both human beings and snowflakes.
The Age of the Extraordinary Ordinary
Yet here is where I part ways with Phillips in at least one sense and that’s perhaps in just taking a different perspective. Phillips speaks very convincingly about the pleasures of these ordinary lives but in doing so he misses something important I feel.
Perhaps this comes from being raised on Star Trek then graduating to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov but I see our current world as an extraordinary place.
This is the age of everyday miracles.
We often forget that because we’re still caught up in all of the usual triumphs and struggles of being human or otherwise despairing over the state of the world.
That’s not to say that the world doesn’t have problems. It has huge ones.
Yet at the same time, human beings have accomplished amazing things, wiping out viruses or going to the moon. Or heck, even the fact we create more literature in a year now than we did in a century or even a millennia past.
For those of us fortunate enough to be living in the developed world and even in much of the so-called developing world, our ordinary lives are filled with things our ancestors could never have imagined.
Perhaps this is one of the pleasures of the ordinary life that Phillips was referring to, but if so, it’s a relatively recent one, being able to appreciate just how amazing our ‘ordinary’ is.
Puts the un-special life into perspective.
Recovering Potential and the Possibility of Painful Choices
Even if our possibilities are not infinite and endless we still all have a potential that we can possibly fulfill or not fulfill. However there are things that interfere, things that can be beyond our control, such as a major physical or mental illness.
Depending on the nature and severity of the illness this can ultimately take from us whatever remaining potential we may have in our lives.
But then for those of us fortunate enough to recover, we gain new potentials.
I think for many of us recovering from a major illness we experience this sensation of being marooned in the possible as our new potentials open up.
For a while I believed I was going to die. For a while I believed any future life I would have would be severely curtailed. For a while I believed that I would never be “normal” or functional again.
The idea that my future life might actually be better than my past was, and at times still is, overwhelming. Life for a long time has been exactly the opposite.
A long downward spiral, getting sicker and sicker.
Finally reaching a point in which it seems like the only possibility is that life will come to an end in the very near future and all that was possible is reduced to that one fate.
And then to come back from that and to have all those possibilities re-opened.
It’s easy to become lost in all the renewed possibilities, especially if it has been a very long time since all the possibilities of the world were open.
And perhaps this is where some of my recent troubles lay.
Being marooned in the possible is actually an enticing experience. You have, what feels like, all the choices in the world open to you. Why rush in making them? Especially when you’ve experienced the feeling of losing your possibilities.
Why rush to collapse down all these wonderful potentials, all these interesting directions down to a path that will be shaped by just one?
It’s one of the most comfortable traps a person could be in.
For me, someone who has often looked to the future, it’s been overwhelming. I’ve enjoyed the feeling that almost anything could happen now.
And why shouldn’t I after what I’ve been through?
But now it’s become a feeling of aimlessness, of drifting. Where am I going? What am I doing? How do I start moving forward again?
My 2013 Plan has been in large part in response to this and to the need to set a direction, at least for my immediate future. My first reports on this project I’m going to start posting next week, with generally good outcomes.
As my plan has brought more of my immediate life into focus, now I need to start thinking about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.
Today is the one year anniversary of my blogging here on Beyond Depression. One year ago today, I published my first post, ‘Letter to a Friend Who’s Not Here,’ a letter to my friend Terry. My blog started out through these letters
Since then it’s grown quite a bit and become about much more than just a plaintive cry for a friend I missed. It’s become an important instrument in my healing.
So it seems appropriate that I would be reaching this turning point now.
A Very Nice Paradigm
To help bring this post to a close, I’d like to share with you (thanks in part, to the miracle of Google, since my copy of this book is currently MIA) this passage.
It’s from the novel ‘Leaping to the Stars’ by David Gerrold, noted author and most famous for writing the classic Star Trek episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles.’ Leaping to the Stars is the third novel of a trilogy.
In this passage, Charles “Chigger” Dingillian, the thirteen year old protagonist of the series is having a discussion with HARLIE, an AI lodged in a robotic monkey.
HARLIE said: “What is different or unique about you, Charles? What is it that you represent that no one else does? Work this through-“
“Okay-I’m not the stuff that I know. Because anybody can learn what I know. So I’m not that. I might be the unique combination of all the stuff I know and all the stuff that I’ve experienced-but that’s still stuff, isn’t it? That’s all stuff….that happened in the past.” I felt a sudden rush of energy. “I just got something, HARLIE. I’m not the story that I tell about myself, am I? That’s what all that stuff is. It’s just storytelling.”
“You’ve figured this out already, haven’t you-?”
“Keep going, Charles.”
Suddenly, everything seemed to be fitting together-Douglas, J’mee, Whitlaw,even HARLIE. I started working it out aloud. “So, okay_so my history is part of me, but it’s not me. It’s just more of the stuff that….I used to get my bearings. This is about telling right from wrong. I need my history and my stuff and all the other context as a way to tell which way I’m facing. So that stuff is useful. But it’s still stuff. And if I’m looking in the past-’cause that’s where all that stuff is found-then I’m looking in the wrong place because that’s like looking in the rear view mirror….instead of out the front window.
“So I’m not in the past, and the now is always happening too fast- so the only place to change things….is in the future!” My brain was starting to hurt. “Because-” I almost had it now. “It’s all in the plans you make.”
“Very nice paradigm,” said HARLIE. “So who you are is what you’re planning….?”
“I guess,” I said carefully. “It’s what I’m committed to, isn’t it? Who I am is my commitment.”
from the novel ‘Leaping to the Stars’ written by David Gerrold
First Book in the Series
The Starsiders Trilogy, as it’s known, is actually a youth oriented book that took off with adult fans as well, similar to Harry Potter although on a vastly smaller scale.
The series is about the highly dysfunctional Dingillian Family trying to escape an Earth that is about to experience a drastic economic and social collapse. It’s an excellent family drama set in a very plausible future of unrest and chaos.
But aside from its literary merits, the series imparts many interesting philosophical nuggets, such as the above’s forward-looking way of seeking identity.
We are what we commit to.
And every commitment begins by making a choice, by taking one of the possibilities and then making it an actuality.
And then sticking with that choice, even when it’s uncomfortable and difficult.
I don’t know whether my potentials and possibilities and choices are leading me towards an ordinary life or an un-ordinary life.
So far, my life until now has a decidedly un-ordinary feel and I would like to keep that.
But I do know that in order for me to have a life where I can enjoy the good and happy things I will need to start choosing some possibilities. Make some commitments.
Everyone’s inevitable fate is still out there, we will all face a time when all that once was possible in our life will come down to its inevitable conclusion. But between now and then, our choices are what will determine what goes from the possible to the actual.
For additional information about some of the materials used in writing this post follow the posted links:
David Gerrold’s Homepage
Asimov Online (Be Warned, Dates from the Early Web)
In Lieu of a Webpage (He doesn’t seem to have one) a Review of Adam Phillips
And for everything else you do for me too Charlotte (not her real name, but she knows who she is!).
First time on beyonddepresion.ca? Or been here since the start? Comments are always welcome. Let me know what you like, what you didn’t like and what you thought was just plain crazy!
Looking forward to hearing from you.