“There is something missing in my life, and it has to do with my need to understand what I must do, not what I must know–except, of course, that a certain amount of knowledge is presupposed in every action. I need to understand my purpose in life, to see what God wants me to do, and this means that I must find a truth which is true for me, that I must find that Idea for which I can live and die.
“…The Idea was what I lacked in order to live a complete human life and not merely knowledge. So I could not base the development of my philosophy of life–yes, on something one calls ‘objective’–on something not my own, but upon something which reaches to the deepest roots of my existence and wherein I am connected into the divine and held fast to it, even though the whole world falls apart. Yes, this is what I lack and this is what I am striving for.” —Soren Kierkegaard, journal entry, August 1, 1835.
Where am I? The void is absolute in its dimensions. An infinite number of potential things and paths of growth. Where is my thread now?
Earth. North America. Chicago. A one-bedroom apartment on the tenth floor of a small tower overlooking Lake Michigan and north Chicago. This flesh, reclined in a chair, fingers ponderously moving over a keyboard. A mind, searching, small, fragmented, grasping for memories, grasping for self-understanding. He sees himself as a river, or tree, and he stands in one phase, having grown from the upstream current, having flowed through valleys and forests, and what is to come is unknown. Projected. He strives for the waters to be pure and strong, but he has the habit of allowing pollutions into himself.
Where am I? Trapped here in this growth for 34 years. Watching relationships close, others open. Truth and stimulation is all he craves, all he has ever craved. He is determined to find it again, but not sure how. He has plunged into himself, into his memories, to see what he will see.
A memory: half a lifetime ago, sixteen years old, Eagan, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Friend’s house. Friends present. No parents. They are joking, goofing off. He is quiet, out of place. Trying to joke, but it feels fake. He doesn’t belong here. All life was unsatisfying. Classes were going poorly. Homework was frustrating. The classes occasionally had interesting lessons, skills and stories. The dream of knowledge, as something that can penetrate the depths of ignorance, was exciting. But the work required was something else. No curiosity was helpful here.
A conversation breaks out. It is about right and wrong and the nature of God. He, or I, makes some pronouncement, something apparently heretical, for his friends only entertain his questioning for a few precious moments before condemnations begin. The memory of exactly what the subject was has eroded, but the room, the faces, and the feeling is clear. Those precious moments of stimulated conversation were the most valuable sorts of things he enjoyed. The movement and dancing of the mind around ideas. He went from tired and disengaged to joyful, awake, and thrilled. Adrenaline, from an argument. Then his friends said something like, “That’s just the way it is. God made it that way.” “How do you know that,” he said. “Because the Bible tells me so.” The dance was over. He became detached again. These were his friends, or people like these, for his entire life: no one who could satisfy him.
The promise of knowledge was appealing, but nothing could tempt his mind.
His grades plummeted. His friendships suffered. He was poor around girls, who he didn’t know how to speak to. Alone, failing, he did not know where to go.
All that thrilled him were games. Tabletop war games with two or three friends. The rules and purpose settled his mind. The challenge made him arise. The painting of the models gave him solace, time to think, and something for his hands to excel at. Attempts to do homework generally gave way to picking up a game rule book.
On the battlefield, his soldiers marched forward with discipline, purpose, and an ethical code. Something about that turned his heart.
Another side: his friends believed that Christianity was true, the only truth, and that America was the greatest nation. But they did little for the sake of America, and in their arrogance, taunting, obsession with frivolous things like pop music, cars, fashion, they seemed like they understood little about the good of Christianity, which struck him as a profound, peaceful, and humble religion devoted to truth and meaning. They had running water, nice homes, video game machines, and they took it all for granted, like it was owed them.
But he had been to Iran: he was from Iran. And he saw his family with relatively few luxuries. A house with hardened clay walls. Water that was sufficiently polluted that it must always be boiled. No telephone: one would need to walk into the town’s phone center to make a call. A toilet outhouse that was always infested with cockroaches, where one must squat over a hole in the ground. Schools that were restrictive, police that walked down the street and arrested people if they were dressed inappropriately: a woman without a scarf on her head, or bearing anything above her wrists, or bearing anything at all of her legs: a man, with long hair, with shorts, with American-looking clothes. And yet, these Iranian cousins were every bit as happy as his American friends, if not more so.
He saw how his Iranian cousins were treated, and he knew that he was lucky for being brought up in America, to receive the bounty that America had given him. The schools, the roads, the water, the electricity, the phones, the cars, the plentiful food, the immense freedom. These, he realized, were not free. One cannot take these for granted. These do not come automatically.
America had done something to provide this. He owed something to America.
Another side: a side he has been ashamed of for a long time, and only now, perhaps out of the need to finally be free, can he admit this, though he knows that many other people have had the courage to admit this at much earlier ages. For all his life, he had heard boys taunting boys about not having balls when they acted like a coward. That having two big testicles was critical to being valued, critical for being a full man. But he was born with only one, and he came to believe this counted against his manhood. That he was somehow less.
So he had something to prove: he had to prove he was a man, and more of a man than even those that taunted him.
Two things followed.
He came to believe that he should serve his country, than he needed purpose and discipline, that he needed to remake himself, that he needed to prove himself to himself. Of the few solutions that occurred to his small mind, enlisting in the military was easily the best choice. He went to the Navy recruiter, who talked about life aboard a ship, which intrigued him. Eight week boot camp, that wasn’t hard. Technical skills would be his reward. Then the Army recruiter, which promised him diversity of opportunity, though, the recruiter confessed, a harder boot camp than the Navy. But he made all sorts of promises about the benefits he would acquire. It wouldn’t be hard, the recruiter said. Then the Air Force recruiter, who could not stop talking about how easy the Air Force was, how many benefits, and how nice the life would be. Our boy walked out annoyed. Then he walked into the Marine Corps office, where the recruiter gave him a nasty look and said, “what do you want?” The boy saw a poster that read, “We won’t promise you a rose garden.” The recruiter made no promises about an easy life or incentive packages. No promises about technical skills. All the recruiter promised was that the Marine Corps would kick the shit out of him for twelve hard weeks until I was a Marine or until I failed. And then the next four years would still be hard. A Marine has duty. A Marine has an ethical code. A Marine is not simply going to a job. A Marine was something special: his soul was turned into something else. Once a Marine, always a Marine. This filled all his needs. He signed the papers, and requested to be an infantryman, because being an accountant simply wouldn’t do the job. He needed to sleep in mud, carry a machine gun, dig trenches, get rained on, and go on long hard marches. And perhaps fight. Nothing else would redeem him.
Shortly before leaving for boot camp, he had one last set of classes to take, one last choice for an elective. “Introduction to Philosophy.” Plato, Aristotle, Confucius. He knew nothing of these names. He opened Plato’s Republic, and Socrates asked, “what is justice?” And when Socrates’ friends gave him answers, Socrates did not merely accept or reject. He inquired, explored, with nothing but his own mind. With the power of thought and inquiry, he wrung as much truth as he could, with a question. No resources, no research, no appeal to God, tradition, or family. Just thought. And our boy fell in love.
A few weeks later, he graduated high school. Three days after graduation, he was never so excited to board a plane to San Diego with the ten other Minnesota recruits, and he was never quite the same.
Seven billion homo sapiens lives at the present, more than at any other time. Perhaps Ten billion existed before that, since the time of the first homo sapiens. And hundreds of billions will likely exist in our future. This does not take into consideration the untold trillions of lives in the forms of animals and plants: on Earth. And this Earth is just a pinpoint, the smallest most ephemeral place. Of all the lives this could have had, it happened to be this one. That is where I find myself. So this is what I will seek to understand.