Posted by: HAT | May 12, 2014

More on Possibility and Actuality

Image of my backyard showing the long grass, partially mowed, and the traces of the lawnmower

Landscape as a meditation on past and present


Hi, Gang!

I’ve kept on thinking about the question “Why isn’t what’s possible, actual?” at least off and on.

There are lots of places to take this question. I have noticed that I am tempted to take it into a territory where I find myself speculating about the past causes of present ills. That is: why hasn’t this or that good thing that could have happened already happened yet? Why didn’t this or that good thing ever befall me? Why is this or that imaginable condition not now an actual condition?

I admit I was particularly tempted to take it into this territory as I stood in the knee-high meadow grass that was our back yard late last week. Why did I let this get so long? Why didn’t I get out here sooner and mow it? It would have been entirely possible for this back yard to be a neatly mowed patch of God’s creation at this very moment. Or at least a patch of grass short enough to mow without overheating the mower engine. Why isn’t that possibility actual?

Of course, in this particular case, I know why that possibility isn’t actual. Or, paying due respect to the Unconscious and its mysterious contribution to human motivations, as if I really believed in all of that, I know in part why that possibility isn’t actual. Short answer, I didn’t mow it, that’s all. Longer answer, I didn’t mow it, because I was doing other things with the time I had during which I could have been mowing the lawn. Longer answer still, because I made choices, time after time, that whatever else I could be doing during the time I had available to me in the past when I could have been mowing the lawn was more important than or at least preferable to mowing the lawn, and either I did not contemplate the consequences of not mowing, or did not calculate them correctly, or did indeed do both of those things and in a fully conscious and informed manner decided that it was more important to do whatever than to mow the grass at a shorter length, or else it was preferable. To me. At that time. I took economics in college; I know how this line of reasoning works. Regrets are ridiculous, according to that logic. That is, they are irrational. Either they are irrational now, or they are the consequence of irrational choice in the past. They are irrational either way.

I am not sure I accept that logic, although I would have to do more work to say why I might not have to than I care to do. I would probably go mow the lawn first. But even if I don’t, I agree that regrets like that are pointless.

So if I take the question “Why isn’t what’s possible, actual?” into that territory, the territory of why I didn’t do something that I could have done in the past, it seems to me it is likely to stop being a transformative question. It is likely to get bogged down in the swamps of guilt, blame, resentment, and negativity, without really producing anything but griping and carping. That, in turn, becomes a way of avoiding the question’s implications in the present: why isn’t what’s possible, right now – like getting down to the business of mowing the impressively overgrown lawn with a modicum of good cheer and patience – actual?

If I take the question into different territory, not that of my own past choices, but of the past decisions of fate, or the gods, or God, things don’t get much better. Some people are rich, or beautiful, or brilliant. Those are human possibilities. But I’m not rich, or beautiful, or brilliant. So why aren’t those possibilities actual, for me?

And perhaps murkiest of all, there is the territory of other people’s choices and actions, individual or collective, immediate or long-term. Some people have kind, decent, loving parents who take good care of them. Some people grow up in countries that have enough food to eat, good schools, and are not fighting a war. Some people live their whole lives without being kidnapped or raped or human trafficked. All of that is possible. Why is any one of those possibilities ever not actual, for anyone?

I do not really believe that every possibility of human existence must eventually become actual. I really do believe that some possibilities need never be actualized, and that it would be better if they never were. Bearing the consequences of others’ decisions and actions is, for better or for worse, ineluctably particular. Of all the divisions of labor with which we are familiar, this one is the most appalling.

It might be that asking the question this way wouldn’t have to end in ressentiment, or only in that. Maybe asking the question this way can do some good. Maybe understanding how past decisions and actions led to present consequences helps us contemplate and calculate the future consequences of our own present decisions and actions more accurately. Maybe using our understanding of others’ lives, past and present, as well as of our own, to direct our choices is one of the possibilities that could be actual.

In the end, however, it seems that the question always has to bring the questioner back to the present, the moment of decision and action, to remain a transformative question.

I can’t always be mowing the lawn. But is there ever a time when I can’t possibly be kind?

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