Practical Philosophy

Seeing Through Nouns

Nouns are a part of speech most people understand, and they’re common across all human languages. And yet we know of very fews nouns that aren’t simply an aggregate of a number of other nouns. Further, those aggregates of other nouns are, by the very nature of their compound-ness, temporary.

Recently someone presented an idea that blew my mind a bit: in reality, there are no nouns. There are bits of energy assembled and masquerading as nouns for periods of time. For some things — as fruits of a tree — this illusion is very short. The period of time during which an unharvested apple or plum remains an apple or plum is no more than a few months. So while we see the atoms of an apple taking that form for a while, we’re also well aware that it’ll form a brown sludge on the ground where it fell if left untouched.

Most bugs are living, flying things for a mere matter of days. All the parts of a fly — the eyes, the legs, the body, the wings — are combinations of atoms that will be a living corporeal creature for a few weeks. After that, they may stay together — unworking — for a few months. But eventually they’ll get processed through the digestive system of a frog, or decompose, or something else, and all those atoms will become other things.

Some things last for much much longer. Our sun has had the form we call by that name for about 4.5 billion years. But before we would have identified it as a star or our sun, all the atoms in it existed. They just hadn’t joined together into the unit that we recognize. We’d think of them as free hydrogen atoms floating near each other; the accretion of them into a cluster of mass sufficient to be recognized as a star, and to give off the energy of a star, and have the physical processes of a star, took time. But the atoms were there before. The sun, as all things, is a process that we identify much more than the concrete entity we can mistake it for.

Literally nothing that we know of in this world is permanent. Flowers, people, rocks, and planets: all of them will, in some period of time, cease to be those things we recognize them as today. There is nothing so certain as change, and the fact that things aren’t what we mistake them for.

Realizing that nouns are really just temporary assemblages that came together and are currently in the process of “verbing” that noun is a clarifying new lens through which to see the inherent ephemerality of the material world we inhabit. Nouns are comforting and useful — try to communicate effectively without them… — but when we forget that they’re not real, we set ourselves up for heartache.

Most people understand that nothing lasts. But we also forget it. A lot. And that’s why remembering the non-existence of nouns is useful. It brings us back to the reality that there are no nouns. The material world is really built out of very slow verbs.


To Live is To Be Uncertain

When everything is going your way, it’s easy to feel good. To feel like you’re in control, right where you want to be, completely satisfied with your life. To feel able to help others, to feel able to help yourself, to feel comfortable and certain about things. And so it’s really attractive for us to think that the solution to eternal happiness and well-being lies in continually and eternally having things go our way.

And to the extent you can do that, do. It’d be foolish to be able to make things go as you’d like them to and intentionally choose against that. To intentionally choose the less-certain, less-clear, less-happy path. It’d be almost masochistic, a form of intentional self-harm.

But there is another thing: sometimes you don’t really get a choice. Sometimes the wills of others, or forces completely beyond human control, will overwhelm you. Sometimes a hurricane will be bearing down on the city you’ve called home for 40 years. Sometimes a militia will have gathered size and force outside your village with clear intent to do you and your village harm. Sometimes an out-of-control vehicle will crash into you or the people you love. Sometimes you’ll just get sick. Or laid off. Or see your parents die from old age.

That is all to say: sometimes things will change on you. Unexpectedly. Sometimes things will be different than you want them to be. And you can no more change that than cheat death.  The real measure of your outlook is how it changes when things turn against you. Does a cloud arriving in a previously cloudless sky ruin your day? Week? Life?

It’s not easy to get comfortable with uncertainty. I wouldn’t claim to be. It’s unnerving to know that things may break against you. To know that you’re less secure in your world than you used to be. But it is the ultimate goal. The highest development. To be a mature adult is to be comfortable and patient with uncertainty. To accept the many shades of grey, and to keep working despite them. To remain in control when things seems to have gone a bit out of control.

It’s really the ultimate measure of life. How do we deal with the fact that it can never be perfect? Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods”, saying it better than I feel able to, ends:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.


Life, Uncertainty, Courage

One of the harder-to-deny truths about life is that it’ll always contain uncertainty. We can, seeking solace from this fact, strive to minimize the number of things we don’t know. In doing so, we hope it allows us to act with greater confidence about the kind of outcomes we can expect. And indeed, the more you know about the path you’re going to take the likelier you are to be able to move confidently and quickly while you progress down it.

But spend too much time studying the possible ways in which your journey can possibly unfold and you’ll forget to start it. Quite simply, if you strive too hard to minimize your uncertainties you’ll never do anything. But, indeed, start with too much haste — jaunting out with absolutely no knowledge — and you can quick-step to disaster.

So we’re mostly stuck in this large grey area. We can neither fully know the way the future will unfold as we move into it, nor stop time from progressing and moving us into that future, prepared or not. This grey area is where we live.

Life itself consists of this simple process: moving forward with uncertainty. Maybe your choice will lead to an unassailable legacy and the masses of the future seeing you as the smartest person who ever lived. And maybe it’ll lead you to a mess that you’ll spend the next ten years digging yourself out of, never to recover completely. It can be maddening if your realize this possibility. Debilitating even.

But there’s no changing it. Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or as heroes. We can’t change its direction, no matter how much we’d like to. Time will continue the steady march of its unfolding, dragging us all along at the same steady pace, none of us really knowing what’ll come next.

When I get deep down this thought path, I recall a quote I put on this site some six years ago:

“What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.”

Simply put, this is some of the best advice that you could hope to get about how to deal with uncertainty. And yet it’s also incredibly banal. It’s so obvious and known and non-actionable that it can be extremely frustrating if you let it.

One of the few things I’m certain of is that we cannot remove uncertainty from life. We can’t make the future by thousands of thoughts about the past we’ve come from or the future it would be great to go to. We must take some actions, out here in this big scary world, if we are to influence the future as it unfolds.

This means moving forward in the face of uncertainty. Doing your best to do what is best is courage. It’s strength. It’s that thing we admire so much in those that inspire us by their achievements. And they faced the same uncertain future that we do.

It is their courage, despite their uncertainty, that we admire. Courage makes us sit up and think that someone was doing it right. It is courage, more than nearly anything else, that is remembered. A confident and wise choice pursued doggedly is the thing history most greedily records.