As I make my way on life’s journey (wherever it is that it is heading), a favorite aphorism is one attributed to Lao-Tze and it goes:
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness;
Thus we are helped by what is not,
To use what is.
It’s a saying I usually point graduate students toward when they conjure up elaborate schemes for “proving” the reality of some complex macro-social “system” that only they seem to be able to apprehend. Sometimes the verse above helps clear their minds. Occasionally it assists them in spreading light in what was before an overly-cluttered, cloudy space. More often, sadly, it simply leaves them scratching their heads. (“I just exposed the obvious relationship between naming conventions in third generation populations and how that unequivocably demonstrates the effects of cultural globalization and he’s telling me about holes in walls. The guy is absolutely daft.”)
Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. As for me, my take is that these students—- the future philosophes, theorists, planners and teachers of our world—often suffer from a form of tunnel vision which Lao-Tze’s stripped down aphorism can help widen for them. Help them build a better mousetrap. Or . . . even a better tunnel!
Ah, the benefits of philosophy . . .
This notion of trying to eradicate tunnel vision is ironic, given what I will next present: which actually are tunnels. Holes cut into and through solid space; “is"s carved from “is not"s, which out of nothingness form a new somethingness.
As I drive my car wide and far, from here to thar, I generally end up entering and exiting tunnels; and when I do, I generally end up marvelling at more than their use value. Much as the Chinese philosopher observed, these holes pushed through craggy mountain block are tools for transforming something from nothing; for enabling now what was before impossible.
A very Macgyver-like tool to have at one’s command.
Metaphysics I tend not to mind. It is the prevailing realities that I have trouble with. In a word, tunnels can be confounding—at least for me.
When we get beyond the fact that they are simplifying devices for getting from Point A to Point B, we can recognize that they are cover for, bounding elements of, and attached to the road. And the road, of course, is what always does me in. It being metaphor for the whole nine yards, the entire enchilada, the Big Casino, the kit-n-kaboodle that also goes by the name of “my life”. Well, not just mine. After all, the road has always been the most obvious, the most readily available of metaphors for just about every penny-ante pop-cult lesson-spinner. And tunnels—accoutrement as they are to that road—easily segue into that line of pop-cult associationalizing. Almost by default.
As metaphor, the road has proven fertile, well-traversed ground. Wide-open, full of possibility, people, activity, in/sights, messages, morals, and opportunities for growth and change. For this reason, it has been installed as a central element in iconic works that have influenced generations. Thinking only of The United States, which I know best, the definitive travelogue—possibly the most read and likely the most politically influential over the past 180 years—has been Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In the cultural realm, The Catcher in the Rye and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” come immediately to mind as resonant with 50s and 60s youth. The journey even finds its way into a segment of 70s favorite Animal House (Quick: can anyone say “Road Trip!”). Other movies, such as Harry and Tonto, Five Easy Pieces and Little Miss Sunshine get much mileage (so to speak) out of trans-border crossings. Road trips of discovery were the raison d’etre for John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and metaphoric stage for Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant examination of America’s collective journey into the abyss, Apocalypse Now. The road formed the core of Simon and Garfunkel’s voyage of post-adolescent discovery: “America”; Simon revisits the notion (in the form of Baby Boomer search for meaning) in “Graceland”; and the Beatles manage to weave border crossing into their political slap in the face: “Back in the U.S.S.R”.
Well, one could play this game virtually forever. But one point about the observations above: most of these works are less about self-discovery than place- and people-gazing. The journey outside as a channel into self forms a shorter list, but gets strong representation in Cat Stevens’s “On the Road to Find Out”. And, as we all later discovered, Cat really was. Great for him; not always as easy for the rest of us.
As for me, though, my journeys of discovery are often just like entering dark holes cut through cold, hard space. Occasionally, there is the straight and narrow.
However, more often the vectors are curves. The messages they deliver hazy, blurry . . . their contours fuzzy, the implications uncertain. What my brain captures is as if the data has passed through a defective filter, captured by hands unstable, a central processor imperfect and unsure . . .
Yes there are moments that the colors of my journey are warm oranges; but these are offset by the moments of murky grey. And though there are times when the goal seems near, oh so within reach, so are there moments when it seems far; out of sight, well beyond my grasp.
And just as there are times that I am allowed to hit the throttle and gooooooooooooooooo . . . (though never, it seems, enough!) . . .
. . . there are moments that serve as counterweight; where all I can feel is the choking restraint of “punch that brake. Watch out—oh, noooooooooooooooo!”
Another obstacle in my path, along the way.
“The Way,” (by the way), Lao-Tze reminds, that:
“. . . is a limitless vessel;
Used by the self, it is not filled by the world;
It cannot be cut, knotted, dimmed or stilled;
Its depths are hidden, ubiquitous and eternal. . . “
A truth that I try to remind myself each time I step out of my door, and enter the vehicle that will place me once again on the road.
Bearing the philosophy that I carry into each next step of my peripatetic journey.
Wherever that may lead.