26 May 2011

On Helplessness

I think one of the most unpleasant feelings that I experience is that of helplessness. Oh, I am competent at a great many things: I can change every light bulb in my house with great facility, and there were moments when I knew how to change the oil in my automobile. I own several screwdrivers of different sizes ands styles, and a cordless power drill. I have published six books, unjustly unread, and have taughtwith some competence, I thinkthousands of students. I maintain an active intellectual and ethically sound life, keep this blog and a venture out occasionally into the social world with some success. I continue to learn things, some of them quite useful! As Ishmael says, “I try all things: I achieve what I can.” 
But unlike Ishmael, I am uncomfortable when I experience my helplessness: an acknowledgement that though I desire to effect some change, I have not at all the power to do so. I have much power, but there are some things over which I have none.  So as long as I’ve begun to refer to Moby Dick, I think I should continue to do so. In certain respects, I am more like Ahab: I want the world to be compliant to my wishes, and too often I respond respond with ferocious anger and defiance when it does not conform to my desire. My helplessness leaves me helpless, though my response to it might look like action. 
But I have not the hubris of Ahab, and I have about me none of the heroic that characterizes this captain of the PequodI would not strike the sun if it defied me for fear of sunburn or skin cancerand I am not prepared to gather the world about me to command it to pursue my desires. Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to kill the white whale, to rid the world of all that is inscrutable may be a noble quest, but it is also, and without doubt, a mad one. 
On the third day of the chase for the white whale, Ahab rails against the wind that blows against a naked man but will not stand still to fight. Unlike Jacob, there is no corporeal agent against which to wrestle. Ahab complains: “Would now the wind but had a body; but all things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents.” Ahab is helpless before the wind though it does blow him about. What most angers and disturbs him is that the wind is powerful but without physical substance, cannot be resisted. Hence, Ahab he has placed all his animus on the white whale and assigns to its physicality an agency against which he can fight. Ahab can strike at Moby Dick and not feel helpless. 
Ahab’s response to his sense of powerlessness is defiance, and this stance leads to the death of all aboard the Pequod but Ishmael, and yet Ahab will not succeed in destroying the white whale. His response to his helplessness is futile action. Ahab has suppressed his awareness that those things that exasperate and outrage us are bodiless because they exist in our minds and not in fact. We are helpless before them. Is the white whale malevolent? He is for Ahab, but for Stubb and Starbuck he is a senseless brute. Oh, I believe that there are very real evils in the world, and against those we can and should fight. And though in these struggles we may in the end be defeated, we need not suffer exasperation or outrage because we have done something. As Dylan says, “I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won.” But true helplessness means that any action is impossible because there is no opponent. It is only me. “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from, ” Dylan sings. We rail against Fate, and yet  . . . and yet, though there is nothing to be done, we must keep on keeping on. I think that how we persist with the knowledge of our helplessness defines us; there are so many things in the day over which I have absolutely no control. Sometimes, like Ahab, I strike out at the worldshoot my arrow in the air and alas, hurt my brother and myself. And sometimes, I subject myself to these winds over which I have control and allow them to move me on despite the complex and baser currents here below, on the ground. Sometimes the winds are kind. And sometimes, I accept my helplessness and treat myself and others with some sympathy and even grace.


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