All the Befores and Afters Lead to Now: Thinking about the Absurd

o-STRESS-TIPS-570When you are seventy, there is one helluva  lot of “afters.”  And historically speaking there are just as many “befores.” Futuristically speaking, there will always be a diminishing supply of both.  Inevitably such  considerations lead to the absurd, even ridiculous, which can be depressing or amusing — sufficiently so that one wonders why bother with such thoughts. Without caution and discipline a man can make of his Golden Years either a heaven or a hell.  Retirement can be either opportune or inopportune for discovering the absurd.

My dictionary of philosophy and religion does not define absurd which seems absurd in itself.  The term must not be considered philosophical or religious so let’s go with Wikipedia which says “absurdism” expresses the conflict between human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and human inability to find any. Oops, I changed the word,  Very well, I changed the word, but the idea is still with us.  Anyway, this is what I want to write about: absurdism.  So why, you ask, are you considering this at seventy?  The answer may be that I thought too much in the sixty-nine years before or I haven’t settled on a good story to explain life, yet I know I have.  I’ll get to this. Oh, I would add that the absurd must also be unreasonable and incongruous.

I have to admit that I have been obsessed with a need for inherent value and meaning in life.  And I haven’t been entirely satisfied in finding anything absolute either. Perhaps, meaning can only come through imagination. Oh, I can see meaning in being fruitful, multiplying and parenting, in being soldier or policeman, lawyer or pharmacist, in farming, teaching, in short in most any calling or decent human endeavor.

It has taken me a lifetime and perhaps to this very moment, to realize that all of these specific, relative and contingent callings give life its meaning and value.  Teaching a dog to play ball has its value. and inherent meaning.  A taste for the little in life is required.

We value the befores for the promise of accomplishment.  In the before we begin naively, perhaps romantically, and then in the after take reward in the triumph of experience and realism and that we survived from before to after.  The before is a place of mystery and illusion that gives way to truth and understanding.  The process is what makes regret absurd.

No, it is the pursuit of absolutes that makes life messy and us miserable; and desperate whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.  In the afters we learn children can be mean, priests sinful, parents ignorant, teachers wrong, soldiers savage, politicians lying and ourselves silly — so on it goes.

By seventy I have learned that logic and reason also fail. I shall always be incredulous regarding Immaculate Conception, Resurrection, Damnation, Beatification, Incarnation et cetera. As Spock would say, “They are not logical.”

” But Spock, the logical fails, too.”

After logic, reason and  the absolutes all fail, what remains is story,  narrative, gospel.  Nothing explains the afters and befores better than the story if it be a good story.  And only the story makes sense of Now.

David Milliken


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On the Absurd and Love

dreamstime_xs_17018906The absurd is always with us.  Millions moved by 17 deaths in Paris seemed oblivious in the same universe to the greater slaughter in Nigeria. Derisive wit and straight reportage require equal defense as free speech. Jihadist terror, the crowd said is unequivocally evil. There are countless reasons why World II was  part two of World War I, yet given the patent evil of Nazism, a necessary, justifiable war.  The Bomb, now that it’s here and as long as it doesn’t go off, may not be totally absurd.

There are many absurd reasons why some nations are slow to  evolve into democratic republics: Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, North Korea, Cuba etc.  To not perfect the United Nations in a world screaming for peace and justice — that is absurd. .  What happened or had to happen to Jesus was absurd, unless a loving God somewhere operates an alternate universe unknown to us ignorant humans.

It is absurd that human beings cannot at least reduce poverty when we can afford  sports tickets, travel and lodging to and from thirty-nine bowl games. Yet guilt over decent, fair pleasure is absurd. To be a spoil sport is absurd.

It is absurd that we let the globe warm despite scientific truth.  That we coddle some animals and neglect others is absurd.   To  scapegoat some political leaders for the follies of Man, that too, is absurd.  George Bush and Barack Obama are not the single cause of anything. That either socialism or capitalism has the answer is absurd.

To go on and on with this catalog of absurdity is absurd.  Because of absurdity we have religion, philosophy, poetry, drama, literature, music and the Grand Canyon — moments for peace, serenity unity and love. Only love is not absurd.

David Milliken


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Perseverance Quotes

He conquers who endures.  ~Persius

via Perseverance Quotes, Inspirational Sayings on Persistence and Determination.

So often, especially in these United States, we think about victory as winning: the next great job, the next game, the bigger house and soon it’s time for the playoffs and the championship game.  Americans are proud of our military might.  World War II remains our greatest feat in battle.  Yes, we endured, surely our soldiers and citizens back home endured.  In the end as Admiral Yamamoto said, it was our industrial might and our ability to focus it, sustain it, that won the day.  We did not do it without our allies.

But when I think of endurance, I think of Britain who persevered and sacrificed, holding the fort until we got up to speed.  Britain had a very close call.  Endurance implies the ability to keep on, keeping on out of seemingly endless oppression and  suffering.  I think of Jesus toting his cross up the slope of Golgotha.  Somehow, one can’t romanticize endurance like you can the “glory” of a cavalry charge.  Poland endured. Czechoslovakia endured.  Latvia endured.  There are thousands of Syrians enduring.  The Jews endure. Sodbusters endured.  Endurance is struggling with no sign of help and relief. For a time endurance was Valley Forge.  Endurance is the mind game Sisyphus must play to continue his unending rolling of the boulder up a hill, down and up, down and up. Endurance operates when hope remains the barest dream, if that.  Endurance has no vision of trophies and laurels.  It sees no golden retirement.

So what is it that endurance conquers?  I think it is despair.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise

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The Ticket-Buying Public Needs Hope

I’m not sure who the pundit was who punned on these lyrics from the musical “Anything Goes.” When it occurred, I was stripping the carcass of our turkey and listening to MSNBC’s palaver show with Chris Matthews et al. Anyway, I think that was the show. Perhaps I heard the reference between the umpteenth plug for Mr. Matthews new book and the umpteenth reminder that Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist.  One tends to loose new information with the interference of monotonous, narcissistic litany of celebrities.  For sure it was somebody on the tube and I thought it rather clever.  In the musical the word is “hoke.”

Additionally while  I can’t recall the pundit’s name or the association he/she was making, I can fairly assume  the reference might have been to something from the tower of campaign babble which is mostly hokum.  (My wife can’t recall it either.  She was trying to coax the terrier in from the cold.  Our terriers are not hokum.  They are precious.)  All of this lends an opportunity for me to commit my own, more humble bit of shameless  self-promotion.

The last ticket I bought was for the movie “My Afternoons with Margueritte” with Gérard Depardieu and Gesèle Casadesus.  The film was filled with hope in the precious power of human caring and love.  Since then a few of my lesser hopes have been dashed when I watched the annual Ohio State – Michigan battle, but I am content.  Ohio State has had a nice run.  I was glad I did not have to buy a ticket in frigid Ann Arbor to see my hopes ended. Nothing about the Gator Bowl  gives me hope, even if I bought a ticket and flew to whatever stadium it occupies. My hopes in and for President Obama have also been dashed.  I don’t know whether or not or even in what way I may yet pay for that ticket.  No one has yet offered me a better prospect, so I won’t complain until after we elect one of the Republican bozos. I would at least buy a ticket to hear Jon Huntsman.

But there’s one thing of which I am certain.  Americans deserve some decent Hope and Hope is not hoke:

If the hero’s flustered Hit him with a custard

You gotta give the people hoke.

Do your best tour jeté From a classic ballet

And they’ll rush to the lobby and smoke

Add a tiny pratfall

And you’ll be running that ball

You gotta give the people hoke

Now the critics may say it’s trash

But trash or not, it’s a smash We’ve done it again

And the crowds are standing in line

— from “Anything Goes” according to Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor.


Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

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Troy Davis, A Pause for an Execution

I confess that living in a metro area has made me a little calloused.  When I watch the nightly murder report, I see the weeping victims and the dutiful police.  Beyond my pity and thankfulness for good fortune in my own life,  I feel helpless and if I say a little prayer for all concerned there’s never an indication of prayer’s result.  I’m sorry, it all seems so deja vu.  In the case of Troy Davis in the mix of my pre-occupations and personal interests, I was vaguely aware that there was a controversy going on.  Where this time?  St. Louis, Los Angeles, Newark — where this time?  Someplace in Georgia.

As on every evening, I was seated at the kitchen counter having a beer, playing solitaire and half-listening to Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell as my wife prepared our dinner.  We were feeling grateful that our elder dog had returned happily from the vet.   All the networks were focused on eleventh-hour countdown.  Would a stay of execution be handed down from the Supreme Court?  I was tempted to watch the re-play of the Royals-Tigers game, but I didn’t.  An inexplicable guilt lay upon me.  Eventually the Media worked its hypnosis and I was drawn into the drama, the vigil outside some prison somewhere in Georgia.

I heard about the case that was twenty-two years old.  The convict had been in jail all those years, half of my working career. We  checked out one of the new sitcom debuts  and pronounced it not worth further consideration.  We had dinner and watched “Two Broke Girls” which made us laugh and seemed promising.  We finished our dinner and I went to another room and clicked on the ball game.

I watched half an inning of the recorded event.  I knew the Royals had lost.  I switched over to MSNBC where the Ed Show was running.  I passed the evening switching back and forth between the Troy Davis vigil and the ball game.  Gradually the time I spent on MSNBC increased.  I was tempted to try FOX to get another view, but, being the fair-minded creature I am, I decided I already knew their slant. Finally, in about the eighth inning I stayed on MSNBC.

Forty-five minutes and counting.  I couldn’t understand why there had to be a long wait for execution after the Court declined to intervene.  It seemed to me that ten minutes max ought to have been sufficient to inject and kill the man — mercifully at least.  As I waited I was pulled into the suspense that only the Media can create. I tried to imagine what it would be  like to be Troy Davis.  Was he in an adjoining room?  Was he in the death chamber strapped already to a gurney?  Had they loosened the straps a little for the interminable wait?  Had he taken last rites?  Had he eaten?  And what if he was truly innocent? What did he think about?  And this was no sitcom or sports event.  This was reality.

There have been certain perpetrators whose guilt could not possibly have been doubted — men who forced their victims into oral sex before the beating and killing.  These guys,  it seemed to me, deserved the injection.  Drawing and quartering doesn’t seem inappropriate either.  But the news commentators in their incessant drone had certainly convinced me of reasonable doubt, but then it was years ago.  Seven witnesses recanted and appeals from all over the world had been made, including from the Holy See.

I know there was nothing Holy about what happened last night. I could not rationalize the process in any way.  I also know that society cannot be blamed forever for the conditions that may or may not cause a man to kill another.  And while I sympathized with the victim’s family, I could not imagine a pure expiation coming from our justice system.  A loved one had been brutally killed and because I have never experienced such an act, I could not judge the family for wanting closure.

Except, except . . . what if the man was innocent?  Or did we once again, feed a monstrous beast last night?

Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

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Camus, a Romance: Review of Elizabeth Hawes’ Memoir-Biograhy

Hawes concludes her work by saying that through the nine years she passed researching the life of Albert Camus, she felt she had become the friend of a man she never met.  I make no such claim because my knowledge of Camus is minute compared to that of Hawes.  And unlike Hawes, I have not haunted his paths in Paris and Algeria. I have not drunk where he drank nor sat where he surveyed the sea; let alone met his son and daughter. I have not sat in the gravel near his grave. Yet I have felt a peculiar affinity to Camus.  He simply comes to me frequently as an acquaintance whom I would make my friend, too. I have re-read The Stranger several times since I was alone at Meursault’s  age myself.

When I learn from Hawes that Camus drew upon his experience of Melville, again a writer whom I have enjoyed,  I begin to feel a certain circle of influence pressing on me.  The circle widens when I read that Camus had sensitivities for Keats, but then what reader with a heartbeat does not.  In the questions for discussion of Hawes book the editors suggest thinking about Keats’ concept of Negative Capability and again I feel more and more among friends.  Of course, Camus, a fellow tubercular would have been a reader of Keats. In his way Camus is a Romantic, too.

What is harder for me personally to understand is how I, a son of Appalachia and basically the product of upper middle- class, Midwestern influences have been influenced by, I must say it, “existentialist” literature. On the other hand, questions of existence were around long before the bohemian fad.  Camus himself rejected this term and “absurd” as well; therefore I will, too.  I am content with Keats’ preference for a literature that simple does not seek “irritable reaching after fact and fiction” or philosophical labels. That absolves me also from my own attraction to things French.  I have no mitigation nor apology for my respect for la civilisation française.

I suspect that my Francophilia also contributes to my enjoyment of Camus, a Romance (Grove Press, 2009). Hawes is an extraordinary Francophile whose love affair with Camus began as a coed when she pinned a poster of him on her wall in college.  She admits to being a “fan,” but her dedication to and discipline in the biographer’s art impresses me immensely.  Sustaining a professional point of view was paramount and she succeeded. Indeed, her sharing of the memoirist and biographic process makes the book even more interesting.  I passed weeks savoring it as I also tried to empathize with Albert Camus who had never been much more to me than “the stranger.”  And yet, even at the end of his life, he was still a stranger in the world — especially among Parisian intellectuals.  Sartre and others broke his heart over their criticism of The Rebel .  The controversy became virulently personal.  Camus mended, of course, but the scar remained.  Camus condemned capital punishment, terrorism and violence.  His cause for a French Algeria died, as one might say an Algeria died, too.

I was looking for signs of happiness in a so-called “philosopher of despair.”  Hawes found it in his devotion to his sense of responsibility, the most important thing to know about Camus,  she says; and after that his sense for fun.  Hawes chronicles the latter in the man’s love for his women, dogs, friends, Citroëns, the sun and the beach.   Catherine Camus, his daughter, trying to express the intangible in her father,  said of him, “It’s that one feels solidarity in a situation of happiness.” This would account for his passion for the theatre.  And Camus himself said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

His Nobel Prize actually became a burden that required nearly two years of adjustment.  At the end of it, not long before the fatal car accident, he said, “Absence, painful frustration.  But my heart is alive,  my heart is finally alive.  So it was not true that indifference had overcome everything.” In Hawes’ words Camus believed ” it was a duty to be happy [and] not to give in to inevitability, whatever face it took.  Sisyphus speaks here: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

I will let a photo gallery speak. And you can also visit “Albert Camus Quotations” to your right and down on the Blogroll.

For me,  having read Hawes’ biography, Camus stands even bigger in life.  He was a devout humanist above all.  As for what he does for me, Camus epitomizes what he thought Europe has to offer America — “a useful sense of disquiet.”  In our current relapse into dysfunctional adolescence in the world, American behavior is absurd and a dose of Camus’ conviction taken to heart could do us much good.  He has never been more relevant.

David Milliken

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Did Jesus Find Life Absurd?

In an instance or two, how could he not? Jesus was after all a man and if I cannot empathize with the man in Jesus, then indeed there is no hope.  I have trouble identifying with gods, so I have to start with the man. In a recent blog I  suggested that Jesus might not have been a stranger to the absurd and I cited that moment on the Cross when he  cried to  God, “Why has thou forsaken me.?”   No doubt the cry came from Jesus, not the Christ.

Because humankind has at the very least felt pain, we can imagine what those penetrating nails might have felt like.   In smaller ways, both as agent and object, we known betrayal. I have never been spat upon, but even here I can imagine the humiliation.  If the Christ had to “become as a man,” then that would have included knowing absurdity.  To love the woman at the well required empathy so Jesus must have suffered with her.  That would mean that Jesus was well on the way to empathizing with man before he was crucified. But could even Jesus have imagined how horrible his sacrifice would become?

In the mythical world before the Fall there was no sense of the absurd. The Fall is all about being plummeted into the absurd.  As for the unholy despair of Existentialism, with the exception of Native Americans, Blacks and some other select groups — decidedly not white, middle-class and fortunate — I don’t believe a majority of us in our history have known what living under Nazism was like.  I also don’t think we sense the anguish of all the Europeans who “capitulated.”  That was the absurd at its finest.  Those years in Europe only reinforced a far more tragic view of life than we Americans have. The British, an insular people like Americans, take a more optimistic view.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise


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In the Beginning Was the Word

Today I concluded it’s okay to be a tortoise. It’s okay to lie here in the shade of this poplar tree.  The day is sunny, enhanced by scattered, billowing, white cumulus clouds.  A chilly wind blows.  I am resting my head and chin on an exposed tree root.  The  yard is fenced and if some danger approaches, the yappy terriers will alert me.  The terriers don’t scare me.  They think I’m a rock of peculiar odor.

It’s okay to be slow of movement and ponderous of mind; and yet,  knowing that about myself, I must be extremely careful of  how much I take on and I’ve learned to limit myself.  You see, not only am I lugubrious, but I am easily carried off on tangents, so I can scatter my attention very easily. For example,  I have resolved to spend less time tracking Jim Tressel’s trials.  He and The Ohio State Buckeyes will have to get on with my empathy, not my full attention.  It’s a sad day for old Carmen Ohio. The Bucks will endure and the crisis will pass. And as for Washington the current political carnival will either destroy our government or not.  We have had better people in Congress and I lack empathy and sympathy for the whole lot of them. In any case crazies have the spotlight at the moment.  What amazes me is that so many of them are Republicans. In any case a  tortoise cannot fix that.

Instead, I adamantly pursue an old quest recently renewed.  What exactly is meant by “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.”  Surely this matter ranks as high as the future of big time collegiate football or the rise and fall of the Tea Party.

It all started yesterday as I was applying plastic, electrical tape to the damaged cover of my old KJV, Confirmation Bible.  It fell open to the Book of Genesis and I was reminded of my dropped search. And so I began reading.  Then I turned to John’s gospel and looked up “The Word” in Wikipedia — not the most scholarly or erudite source, but serviceable, especially if I reveal my scholarly laziness right off. It’s too handy not to use.  But to get on, I learned that logos cannot be understood in human terms because the meaning rests in God.  Then I ran into pneuma which relates to breath and breathing which relates to something I don’t know yet — but will. I assume it relates to the breath of life or Spirit, but I hold that conclusion in abeyance. When I read that Augustine of Hippo believed that these two entities became personified, I concluded that I was in the realm of Jesus, the Incarnation and Christ.  I don’t know whether this insight came to Augustine as epiphany or as a scholarly thought — perhaps even derived from some other sequestered student.

In Sunday school I  heard about these,  but no one had ever really told me much beyond the fact that God made the Word real in the Christ.  And then came the admonishment to take it all on faith and believe.  Here is another of  those mysteries little children are supposed to swallow unsolved and move on.  Nope, never could. Grown ups should know better.

As a schooled adult I suspect that some well-intended Sunday school teacher either didn’t know or didn’t want kids to know that this was an idea of  Saint Augustine and others  who had been reading their Plotinus and thinking about Jesus. Perhaps the Pope didn’t want the unwashed poking around in Church history and ancient philosophy.   Of course not, ten-year-olds aren’t ready for Plotinus.  Besides, the elders of my church weren’t thinking about Plotinus either, let alone some Catholic saint.  As for me I’d pretty much concluded that for God, the Word was like “Schazam!” or “Open Sesame!” — some magic-charged imperative that just made stuff appear like “Let there be night, day, the beasts of the field, et cetera.”  I suspect that was good enough for the  elders, too.  And for a long time, the stories worked — especially at Christmas.  And when I grew up I thoroughly enjoyed reliving the sentiment of Christmas celebration.

During  what my stepmother called my religious phase, I answered an altar call.  This didn’t occur at my church which was conservative and fundamental, but not pentecostal.  It happened at another church.   Anyway, as soon as I knelt at the altar, I didn’t feel much except embarrassment over being so conspicuous.  All I wanted to do was get back to my pew and hide in the safety of the congregation.  A friend walked forward with me, but wouldn’t talk about his feelings.

I’m challenged in becoming as a child again — probably because I’m an adult and a little jaded. But I am okay with the idea that a college of smart, scholarly religious men got together and struggled to reconcile ancient Greek and Roman philosophy with the advent of Christianity and the Good News.  In fact it helps.  It doesn’t bother me that they were establishing a Church and that Rome needed a Church. And if the old pagan stuff could be reconciled with the new Christian stuff,  the Church would have a better foundation. I can handle it. I find it interesting that the Gospel of John may have been written between 70 and 100 A.D.  Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 400.  I figure John somehow had a mind for Plotinus and lot of ancient Hebrews, too.   I’ll have to look into this and check the dates.  I do not want to start seeing Kierkegaard symbols in the New Testament when it worked the other way.  Maybe I’ll even get to Kierkegaard later on.  I must.

But today  I am reading that St. Augustine said the divine is the eternal Lord which took on flesh in Christ in whom the Logos existed as in no other man.  The Logos is the principle of mediation and handles the interrelationship of Soul, Spirit and the One.  So that’s about where I am at this point.

What I’m trying to do here is important.  I’m the sort of cautions creature who needs to reduce through knowledge and reason, the gap between reason and faith.  If I can narrow that gap a little, a leap of faith will be a little easier and as I say, I have trouble just becoming as a child again.  I believe that the smaller the gap, the better a man’s belief will be.  Thing is, I don’t have forever.

Our situation here on earth seems so absurd in so many ways.  We don’t know why we’re here.  We don’t know why we have to leave this world with so much left undone.  Fundamentally we know that a sixteen-bedroom mansion with a Rolls parked at the old carriage entrance has nothing to do with real happiness.  The screaming wealthy are often as unsatisfied as anyone else.  And we have reason and logic which promises so much and fails in the end.  It’s absurd.

Then there’s  Albert Camus whom I discovered in the Fifties.  For some reason Camus is special to me.  Camus never liked it that Americans saw Existentialism as dark despair.  (Although what else could have come out of the Holocaust and the Occupation, I don’t know.  Despair seems like a pretty reasonable assessment for 1945 Europe). In fact, though, Camus preferred being called an absurdist. Camus believed passionately in the value of human life and creating one’s own meaning in the face of absurdity.  I have read that if the man had not been killed in an auto crash, his next work would have been on love.  If it’s possible, Camus was a devout absurdist.  And didn’t Jesus have just the slightest perception of absurdity when he cried, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Truthfully I’m not a very good absurdist, because I went to Sunday school.

In any case that’s what I discovered in school today, Mom. I’m as excited about my new quest as anyone could be excited about March Madness, really I am!  I’ve got a lot more to check out.  I’ll have to resume my quest tomorrow.  Ill keep you posted.  For now I lay me down to sleep and ask the Lord my soul to keep — just as you asked me to do, Mom.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise







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