Worthiness to be

Can one become unworthy of being? It is palpable that one approaches a monstrosity here.

These words come toward the end of Hans Blumenberg’s recently translated “Care Crosses the River.” In his short section entitled “Concern for the Worthiness of Being,” Blumenberg recounts how Max Scheler introduced this idea (that we can be unworthy of being), which would lead to Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein. It underpins the distinction between “everydayness” and “authenticity,” the prime value-judgement at work in Heidegger’s work. For both of these men, and especially with the idea of being-towards-death, the basic idea is that we have lost sight of the “luminous idea of death” and have let the motivation of infinite progress, business, working, acquiring, gossiping, and so on, overrun our ability to clearly perceive our existential condition: the inevitably of death. This leads to “inauthenticity,” where we don’t match up to the question always-already posed to us by Being. Without that sense of being that senses the “possibility of my own impossibility,” my own death, we haven’t yet penetrated into the deepest mystery or meaning of being. The implication, of course, is that insight into “death’s inevitability” “augments life’s intensity.” On this account, we are led one of two ways, or a mixture of both: lament the loss of religious or spiritual knowledge of our death-condition, and/or call for renewed death dances and philosophical treatises on the possibility of being’s non-being.

Let me say that upon reading this passage, quite a few fireworks went off in my head. If there is one unfounded assumption that has guided much of my written work, it is that this consciousness of death truly does pave the way for a more intense life, if not a more poetic existence as such. Why? Because “consciousness of death” is a figure of the impossible.  As Blumenberg points out, death is not the figure of something that has power over life. Rather, death is “a figure of an incomparably greater uncertainty” [than life]. But this means that to dwell on this uncertainty is “for the most part nothing other than a calculation.”  To strive toward it is not to get any closer to it. In the end, there is no striving toward it. And insofar as “death” arouses our deepest aversions, it really only suggests that life isn’t transformed into its negative without resistance. Death is not a category or even a reality, but the name we give to an interminable conundrum. As Blumenberg asks, countering the idea that our modern “consciousness of death” has suffered from the wane of religion and the rise of TV screens, “When would there have been less consolation, when would one have demanded it less?” Seeing as there will be no death-knowledge, it seems reasonable to loosen the pathos surrounding its acquisition. For if death is the crucible for authentic existence, both death and authenticity in existing is impossible. The trouble and the beauty with this way of thinking is clear.

But I’d like to shift back to the question, “Who is worthy to be?” Phrased this way, how can we not answer without hesitation, “Everyone”? This is why I find this question to be so stellar: because to answer it negatively is so atrocious. And yet, everyday, thousands of people deal with the idea that they are not worthy to be. Think of anxiety disorders, where it feels like an elephant is sitting on one’s voice box, that one shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling because someone else (presumably) thinks they ought to feel otherwise. Think of depressive moments, where that little bit of existence I do still sense in myself seems like it shouldn’t be there, where every mistake and misstep in my life assumes monolithic heights and convinces me I have failed at being. Think of many common attitudes toward the homeless and the poor, where they are labeled as drug-addicts, lazy, stupid, or incapable, and thus legitimately placed in the lower spheres, being unworthy of rising in the meritocratic orders of Being. But even think of the timeless diatribes against “mediocrity,” the vehemence that says to the bored, “do something with yourself!”, the very hatred of “everydayness” and “banality” itself. Even in that timeless philosophical injunction — “learn how to die” — there is a sense that if I don’t learn how to die, somehow I am unworthy of living. In all of these modes and more, the target of criticism, one way or another, is presumed to be unworthy of being in the form they’re currently in, that they are responsible for this unworthiness, and that therefore something drastic must change.  In all these, it is as if an opportunity to “worthily be” was missed.

As a quick example, I was recently involved in an interesting back-and-forth on Facebook. Briefly, someone who had moved away from my hometown, Cedar Rapids, was expressing his disappointment with the “rut” that one of his friends back home seemed to be in. He said how moving away and changing his attitude made him realize how many people were stuck there, and that maybe Cedar Rapids contributed to the ugly cycle. At one point he admits, “All my ranting just comes from a personal frustration over people I knew/know in the area that are just complete wastes of time, space, friendship, or even existence.” We can see the difficulty here: his attack comes from a place of concern for the worthiness of being, not just his own, but all others. His frustration comes from a place of care, which says to those stuck in the rut of everydayness, “why don’t you figure it out and assume a more authentic mode of existence?” We sense that Heidegger’s analysis (Dasein is care) — the beauty and the trouble with it — is not far off. But above all, we sense the callousness in those accusative words, “You are a waste of space.”

It seems that if there is any moral imperative for us today, it is to affirm that everyone deserves to be welcomed, that everyone deserves a place in this world, and that no one is a so-called “waste of space.” It will come as no surprise that our Facebook antagonist went on to ridicule and insult everyone who came in defense of my town, i.e., that his bitterness was total. Only the harsh, utilitarian mindset that looks to put being to use — “stop being mediocre!” — can dare to say such a thing. I’m reminded of Blumenberg’s comment that

If the world displays the superfluous, then the world’s meaning corresponds to taking the paths of the superfluous: detouring all the way through it.

To appreciate the existence of a flower does not mean that we judge its worthiness to be; and the florist does not “employ” flowers any more than the ground or the vase does. At most, she arranges them according to a long-acquired aesthetic eye and manual skill. The ground acts with perfect equanimity in its acceptance of plant matter, both alive and dead. Only a death-camp is a waste of space. But even there, existence attests to the impossible: life’s resistance against death.

To jump abruptly to the conclusion: no one can give you the rubric for distinguishing between everydayness and authenticity. Furthermore, it is most likely that you will find your authenticity in your ownmost everydayness. No one can tell you what is good for you and what is not good for you, even if you are guided and informed by countless exterior sources. Ultimately, there are no pre-given rubrics that will reliably differentiate between “fake” and “real.” In my eyes, this does not mean that all value judgments ought to be excused, that the questions of better or worse, right or wrong are to be discarded. Perhaps there are wise and unwise ways to engage with kitsch in all its forms. It is of utmost importance to ask oneself these questions — how am I engaged with all this? how does it match up to the standards of my soul? — and to not back down from them. And most importantly: to take the steps necessary to respond to these questions and to act on what you learn about yourself in a vigilant way. To say it this way is abstract, “removed” from particulars. It says something about my attitudes, and perhaps nothing more than that. The transmission of any model demands mutations. While I do believe we have common aspirations, there is no common design capable of leading these common aspirations to a state of completion, for the “human experiment” did not start yesterday, and it won’t end tomorrow. And yet I believe that we are each called to terribly singular “tasks” that only we know how to pursue. In short, I do think that it is helpful to ask  the question of authenticity and worthiness, not in the form “Am I worthy to be?” (which is inevitably misleading, since you are), but in the form: “Is what I’m doing really worthy of my being?”

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