Perhaps the best place to start a post titled “musings” is to muse about musing itself. Musing is something inspired by the muses, all nine of them, who were represented as a Black gospel choir in Disney’s “Hercules,” perhaps subtly referencing the “Black Athena” theory about the racial influences on ancient Greek culture. But muses are everywhere, or so it would seem, with their music whose charms soothe the savage breast, and musak whose insipidness aggravates if not riles that same breast into greater savagery; and in their houses (“museums”), where they have traditionally been more dead than alive, but always beautifully so.
Musings are underrated, and underpracticed. Less and less time is spent by more and more people staring into space and letting minds drift. Less and less time is spent by more and more people writing about doing so. More and more people consider that a coup, while I consider it a rout, a rout of the human spirit.
I spent so much of my childhood and youth inside my own head, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes in loneliness, but always fruitfully. There is a balance to be struck, and forming healthy bonds with our fellow human beings is both precious and critical to our mental and social health, but with cell phones keeping us ever-connected to those we love and like (and work for or with or employ), and the rest of our information technologies keeping us ever connected with the echo-chambers of our preference, the balance is generally lost in favor of too much constant connection and distracting noise protecting us from the challenge posed by confronting ourselves and all that the solitude of our own minds is a portal onto.
We increasingly amuse ourselves all too literally, if we take the prefix “a-” to mean the negation of what follows. For our amusements all too often silent our inner muses more than give them voice, drown them out with the noise of mindless entertainments rather than allow them to whisper to us from the depths of our consciousness. It’s time to learn to re-muse ourselves, to pro-muse ourselves, to discover the music of shared stories and quiet contemplations.
“The Iron Cage of Rationality” that (early 20th century German Sociologist) Max Weber once talked of has become a digital cage stupification. And, just as in the original formulation, it is not that these information technologies are not a set of wonderful tools capable of contributing mightily to the liberation of the human spirit, but rather that too many of us too often fail to use them for that purpose, and instead simply surrender to their own logic as it articulates itself with our own thanatos.
My friend Doctor Mark Foster likes to talk about the history of anti-psychotic medications, how they were initially considered to be “chemical lobotomies,” less brutal and more civilized than surgical lobotomies, but for essentially the same purpose. He, too, identifies the way in which the relentless juggernauts of scientism and capitalism have been the engine for this blind tumble into reduced humanity motivated by the desire for reduced chaos. It is not that these tools can not be put to good and judicious use, but rather that that requires more consciousness, more musing, on our part. The trick is to use our tools in service to our spirit, rather than to lose our spirit in servitude to our tools.
As is often said, there is a thin line between insanity and genius, and, in the same vein, there is a thin line between mental unhealth and the creativity of our individuality. Max Weber, who I mentioned above, suffered from debilitating depression all his life, and yet produced the most wonderful works of intellectual exploration. Mozart drove himself to an early grave with his obsessive commitment to perfect what turned out to be his final composition. If we completely tame the beast of our varying degrees of insanity, chemically lobotomizing those who suffer its ravages, we also kill some part of our individual and collective genius, to our collective detriment.
Part of what drives us to tame that beast is an intolerance of individuality. Despite our ideological declarations to the contrary, Americans (ironically, particularly those who are most ideologically individualistic) have not truly mastered the art of tolerance. We continue to demand conformity, in multiple ways and in multiple venues. “Professionalism,” for instance, has come to mean not saying or doing anything that makes you appear too unique and human in ways that are not perfectly compatible with the generic image that has become the ideal of that profession. The consequence is that those who succeed most, who rise to the positions of most prominence and influence, do so more by conforming than by challenging our assumptions. And yet, it is only by challenging our assumptions that we grow wiser, both as individuals and as a society.
This is not an either/or argument: There is some need to rein in human individualism so that we each are articulating with others in an ever-evolving collective enterprise. But the creativity and robustness of that enterprise benefits from maximizing and encouraging individuality to the extent that it does not actually interfere with our ability to work together effectively. In other words, there is a balance to be struck, and there will always be debate concerning what the optimal balance is.
One of the ways to serve our continuing search for that optimal balance, of balancing the personal and socially damaging effects of what falls along some spectrum of what we identify as personality defects and social ineptitudes and mental illnesses, against their potential benefits to both society and the individual when more easily accepted and more affirmatively incorporated into the recognized range of variation of who and what we are, is to continue to muse.
So let’s put down our cell phones from time to time, and look beyond the gossip of the day, and even the urgent personal and political struggles that we find ourselves in. Let’s remember to find time to muse about this wonderful world of ours, this vibrant social reality so full of potential, this gorgeous living planet which gave it birth, allowing our minds to wander and contemplate and discover and grow. Let’s muse our way to greater wisdom, to greater tolerance, to greater compassion, to greater mental health accompanied by greater acceptance of individuality. Let us recover our primordial recognition of what a truly amusing world this is, and how much more so it can continue to become for so many more people, if we allow our minds to wonder to places they might not have been before, and then follow them there with our actions and efforts.