Ultimate Concerns

Ultimate Concerns
January 6, 2018

It continues to frustrate me how, when faced with something that is clearly impressive, inspiring, innovative, far-reaching, thought-provoking, etc., the tendency on the part of many is: 1) to deliberately not understand it, its perspective, the goal toward which it strives and how this goal catalyzes all the elements in the construction; and then 2) with a willed myopia, to divert our attention away from any novel elements (the goal and desire behind the construction, the unthought it hides, its capacity for development, etc.) toward those elements which can already be understood within already-given coordinates and meanings and thus readily dismissed. The diversion works to tamp down the fire of novelty which risks consuming us in the unprecedented, focuses ‘critical’ attention on some generalized objection, sifts through for minor mistakes, or worse, makes it all personal and launches a character attack. Once enough of this goes on, it’s no surprise that the novel element can no longer be seen; it is covered over by petty worries, pink slips, nit-picks, ‘gotcha’ moments.

The negative consequences of this tendency are multiple and I can only name a few. It functions in effect like the police and has all the features of accusation, tribunal, defense, verdict and punishment. Also similar to the legal system, it slows everything to a blindingly boring pace. Instead of running fast ahead with the novel element, thought grinds to a halt in evidentiary hearings and grand juries. This is elevated as criticism or deconstruction, but in the end it waves the banner of non-creativity and resentment. In another way, it tries to cast a spell of doubt and aspersion over whoever was behind the novel creation: to paint them as a charlatan, a deceiver, a fake, derivative. My suspicion is that this obsession with the other’s strategy always contains something perverse. Why is so much critical effort exerted to pass judgments on others? Often these judgments are flung out into the void in a pathetic fashion, almost like pleas for help. And to anyone who has dealt with the novel elements, or at least understood in a fairer way where they’re coming from, such judgments are simply wrong and cannot but appear vindictive or jealous.

But what is most frustrating is how much time and energy it wastes. We all have a singular voice, a singular thought to think, just as we have a singular life to live. We would agree that a life spent thinking constantly about the mistakes or virtues of others would be a wasted life. But then why attend to such thoughts at all? Why do we not choose, instead, to do what we can with what we encounter, ‘take it or leave it’ according to the measure that it can be incorporated into the truth-procedure we are undergoing with our lives? Granted, this makes our output less ‘matchable’ to the current given coordinates of situations. And it opens us to the risk of being misunderstood and judged poorly. But what of that? At the end of the day, it is we who must render accounts for our thoughts, words and deeds; we might as well save ourselves the burden of obsessing with evaluations of the thoughts, words and deeds of others. The intentions of the other remain impenetrable to us anyhow. No one has a magic ball through which the other’s life’s worth of emotions, desires, hopes and dreams could be seen transparently and judged―and what hubris to think we could.

One could easy accuse me of not doing enough to evaluate the ‘claims’ that people make, not paying close enough attention to the ins-and-outs of argumentation, not doing enough to interpret and so on. I do not deny these activities―obviously not, since this is a part of thinking. But the ‘truth’ by which I measure my own thought ultimately is not dependent upon the truth claims others make. Truth is much too intimate of an endeavor to let anyone else invade its ordeal with some concern that is not of ultimate concern. Years and decades can be spent dealing with smaller points that are of some concern, general concern, critical concern, and so on. But behind each of those moments, I fear, an ultimate concern was ignored. If we could see the scales more clearly, perhaps we would be terrified at how much time we squandered needlessly on secondary concerns. A similar terror is at stake in Nietzsche’s thought experiment about the eternal return: if you had to live every single moment of your life over again and again, in exactly the same way, for all of eternity, would this terrify you or bring you joy? In other words, did you honor, in each moment, your ultimate concern?

The “impressive, inspiring, innovative, far-reaching, thought-provoking” things I brought up at the beginning can only themselves be by-products of a subject’s ultimate concern. Ideally, when I engage something I should always exert myself to discern just this, the ultimate concern at stake. That element is undeconstructible; it cannot be criticized or judged. Why? Because it remains a secret in some fashion, like the truth of a soul. At the same time, I know I probably have most in common with the undeconstructible or indestructible element I find there, to which I am exposed to through my engagement. What I should look for is the ultimate concern I share, making no compromise and recognizing it at stake in everything I engage. Then I will be sure to never overlook or usurp the novel element, for I will know that I myself am implicated in its existence, its coming-to-be. I am called upon for it to exist. For who on earth could ever guarantee me that someone else had also seen what was of ultimate concern? I may find encouraging signs, people with whom I can share important matters, but in the end even that does not save me from one bit of my own responsibility or the solitude of the task.

I can never know for certain if what is of ultimate concern will matter―unless I make it matter, put it in play in every judgment I make. That is what is my concern, which for better or worse is unknowable to anyone else, and often even quite secret to me.

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