The Island Of Us

Poem by John Donne

By Jay Ayer

“No man is an island entire of itself.”

John Donne wrote those words as an opening to his poem ‘No Man is an Island.’ The poem serves as a representation of both our empathy for one another as humans and the one fate we all share: death. I mention the death and loss of people not to make people sad, but to remind everyone that we are all connected because that is what both of those concepts inherently do.  The loss and accompanying fear of losing a person are the ultimate reminders of how close we are as people on this planet. One prevailing theme of Donne’s poem is that, as humans, we all share the same problems and the same experiences. I’m writing this article because the last year and a half has reminded me of Donne’s poem and, subsequently, reminded me of the importance of us as people. I have begun to notice the problems of those around me more than I notice the problems in my life, and, through my observations and experiences, I have seen how applicable Donne’s words are.

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I said earlier that one of Donne’s points was that we share similar problems as humans. This point is the case because humans are empathetic creatures by nature, and when one person has a problem, we make his or her problem our problem. The past 18 months have shown me that this notion of empathy is true. In these months, I have seen people lose their loved ones and fear losing their loved ones. I am a human,  a creature empathetic by nature, so I have felt these people’s feelings along with them. In these past 18 months, I have lost one friend to leukemia, one to cancer, and one to depression. In these cases, I had not spoken to that person for years or only briefly before their passing, but I know people who spoke to those friends practically every day. So, when these friends passed, not only did I cry for them, but I cried for the people around them. I cried for my loved ones who felt a loss greater than mine. I cried because each of those events reminded me of how one day I will lose someone close to me, and I was  reminded of the importance of every human life. This importance is a concept that Donne addresses in his poem, as he implies that we are one continent as mankind. If any part of the continent disappears, then we are all affected. Just as the ocean eventually weathers away parts of a coastline, time takes its toll on mankind.  As time ticks away, we must hold close what is important to us.

Now, as I said, my point here is not to sadden people but to remind everyone that we are all connected and all exist under the name of mankind. One person’s suffering relates to everyone because everyone endures some kind of suffering in their lives. John Donne wanted to remind us that we all suffer, and we all have problems. He wanted to emphasize that we are not just individuals but a species connected through emotional hardship. I want everyone to realize that the people in their lives are important because our time here is so brief, and the most important aspects of our lives are the connections we make with other people. I write this article now for reasons similar to Donne’s reasons for writing his poem. I want people to realize and value what they have now,  but before what or who they have has disappeared forever.

The Definition of You

Quote and illustrations by Dr. Seuss

By Joseph Cox

Definitions are endlessly interesting to me because so few of us seem to examine what they really are. In modern society, we love to have opinions on any concept we can begin to grasp. Politics, the news, science, religion, abortion, drugs, welfare, and student loans are all things being debated everyday by people with minimal education to people with doctoral degrees, yet we pay such little attention to articulating our definitions before we bother to debate. We take such stupendous amounts of information for granted that we often wind up accepting terms that we never agreed to, being swooned by people we trusted, and agreeing with statements we have never fully grasped. I hope to elaborate more on the philosophical and political implications of our society’s specificity problem, but for now, in the spirit of finals week, I’ll focus on just one application of definition: what defines you?

As a college student, I’ve been hit with that rusty train on numerous occasions. I refer to the defining task as rusty because that’s what the question feels like when it’s asked, and what the advice sounds like when it’s given. Being asked to define myself is like a rusted pile of metal painfully screeching its way through my brain in a pattern I’ve seen a thousand times before. I’m always just waiting for the train to pass. Biding my time before I finally explode to explain all the reasons bothering to define myself is a worthless endeavor for two reasons. One, the definition should have relevance to only me, and secondly, the act of defining isn’t permanent. The definitions of people, as with the definitions of words, are flexible objects that change with the flow of life. Well, here’s the explosion of my reasoning.

What I define myself as, should I choose to apply such a strange limitation to myself, is relevant only to me. Applications, tests, and interviews are all designed to delve into some strange, falsely universal, method of uncovering who we are as people. Finals week presents no better time to point out the uselessness of tests in defining who someone is. Around me every day are future scientists, communicators, teachers, and parents of differing cultures, beliefs, religions, and experiences, yet I observe most us, myself included, worrying about things that we allow to define us. The effects of test scores have little practical implications in our lives beyond the powers we grant them. Say I’d like to be a scientist. What about failing all 5 of my exams would stop me from achieving that goal? Sure, it would be preferable that I succeed now, but my future success isn’t entirely dependent on the scores I receive currently. My point here is simple. In the scientist scenario, I’ve assigned a definition to myself: I’m a future scientist. Such a construction was, hopefully, created entirely by me for my own sake, yet here I’ve been all week worrying that someone might take that definition away from me. The fear of test scores does not come down to a mere fear of failure, but to a fear that something might strip away the definitions we’ve afforded ourselves. Though, the truth is much more frighteningly beautiful: the only thing that can strip away that definition is whatever assigned it. Test scores can’t touch your dreams, institutions have, at best, limited power over you, and the only person that defines anything in your life is you. Feeling stressed? Change your definition of success. Don’t want to change your standards for success? Better define the requirements you must meet to reach such success. Test scores have only the powers that you grant them, so define the scores however you so choose.

Furthermore, perhaps the most overlooked point of defining oneself, is that definitions of all kinds are infinitely flexible. Few people ever stop to consider how words themselves come to be defined. Take how the word ‘red’ came to be defined for example. How did that color come to be established? It’s not as if there was some objective concept of the word before humans came along. Sure, the color red may or may not exist independent of our perceptions, that’s a whole other debate, but the word ‘red’ certainly doesn’t exist beyond the human use of it. Red, therefore, was created because of a lexicographer, or the equivalent of one at the time, who decided that’s what the color should be called, and that’s how every definition has been created. Meaning assignment is an empirical science that fluctuates with changes in human society. Words change along with the human usage of them, as will the definition of one’s own self change with the continuation of time. In English, my argument against exam worries, as well as defining people in general, is simple: who cares?

The definitions of people are relative, meaning that they’ll change with the circumstances that surround them. Today, you may be defined by a couple of letters on a piece of paper accompanied by a percentile ranking. Tomorrow, you’ll be defined by how funny your pun was on snapchat, how dank your Instagram post was, how attractive your smile is, or by one of indefinitely many other variables. In ten years, you’ll be defined by whatever the heck it is you’re doing with your life. The point is simple: defining yourself is a task made for you and by you. Don’t let anyone or anything, especially an exam, take away that privilege. The test scores don’t define you; you define you if that’s what you wish to do.

Of Knowledge

Image result for socrates

By Joseph Cox

            We’ve built great walls, forged empires, decimated other species, built nations on the ashes of those that came before, and have written, pictured, or otherwise described a preposterous amount of information. We’re able to conceive of infinities, pin ourselves down in the depths of perspective, and alter the fabrics of time with spoken words, yet inside us all there lies the greatest trickster of them all. That trickster has caused the massacres, the enslavements, the wars, the joy, the art, and the beauty too. At the end of it all, the human mind is the greatest trickster of them all. Never has a species so advanced used their minds so mindlessly.

I do not aim to assert that humans are stupid, but I do wish to assert that we are wired to make sense of a senseless reality. Such little time is granted to the idea that we, as collectives or individuals, may be much closer to knowing nothing than we are to knowing everything. Here we stand, constantly at the cutting edge of technology and scientific advancements. Our phones talk to us, our bodies are fueled by genetically engineered foods, our cars are becoming electric, and our lives are becoming increasingly convenience based, but what do you know, truly, about the world around you? I don’t possess the faintest idea of how a phone works, how my text messages manage to zoom through space, how my food is crafted, or even how my car manages to propel itself onward using gasoline. Yet, here I am, preparing to tell you about why you may know nothing at all. Perhaps, at this moment, you’re feeling as though you know this article will do nothing to suede your perspective on the world, or perhaps you’re pondering whether or not this article is a waste of your time. You might even reach the conclusion that some wacky, philosophic, college kid hasn’t the slightest chance of blowing your mind. Deep down, you might even think that you know I could do nothing to alter your reality. At least, I can’t do it in the written word. Though, before you go, I do hope that you’ll consider the following question: how does knowledge feel?

How does it feel to know that I can’t change your mind, or how does it feel to know that I might? Even better, when you turn on a burner, how does it feel to know that it’s hot? I’d imagine there’s at least some sense of certainty to these various thoughts, or a comforting sense of undoubtedness about the world around you. I typically consider my knowledge of burners to be secure. I seem to know that if I touched the burner, I’d be burned. Surely, such a fundamental aspect of human life could not possibly be doubted. When we get hit by buses, we should feel pain. When we drop a pen, it should fall to the earth, for gravity should cause it to do so. It’s almost ludicrous to imagine that any one of these basic facts about human nature would be false, even if it were just for one real occurrence. Certainly, one could imagine a bus striking a man only to find that the bus was crushed at the man’s might. A folded metal tube lying pathetically at a confused man’s feet certainly isn’t an impossible thought, but we should know that such an occurrence could never take place in reality. There should be a certainty about such ludicrous ideas, for we should know that they will never occur. Buses should always hurt people, burners should always burn, and pens should always fall. Shouldn’t they?

Now, here’s the kicker, all three of the conclusions I just named aren’t reasonable. You can’t know that a bus will hurt when it hits a human, that a burner will burn a human, or that a pen will fall to the earth the next time it is dropped. You can’t know any such conclusions, should knowledge require certainty, because each conclusion is based on inductive reasoning.

How does one know that a pen will fall when dropped? Well, in all my prior experiences of a pen being released from my hand, the pen has fallen. Thus, the next time I drop a pen, it should fall. Gravity should always cause the pen to fall, but what does gravity look like? Can we experience gravity? Can we be certain of its existence? When I see a pen fall, I do not experience the gravity that causes it to do so. Rather, I see the pen being released from a hand, and I see the pen hitting the earth. I do not see, nor do I experience, the gravitational force that pulls the pen down. As a human, I am not under constant duress from the force of gravity. I do not feel bogged down by gravitational force, nor can I see, taste, smell, or hear it. One might assert that I’m experiencing gravity by not floating away into the distance, but there’s no experiential reason to assert that gravity keeps me grounded. Subatomic fairy princesses could be keeping me grounded, and that conclusion, if we trust our experiences alone, would be no less plausible than the gravity explanation. I cannot experience the subatomic fairies, nor can I experience gravity. One explanation merely appears more plausible than the other, but why? I assume that gravity exists, because it’s the best explanation as to why things fall when they’re dropped. There’s no sensation based justification of gravity. Rather, gravity is merely the best explanation for all of my previous experiences of pens falling, planes crashing, and planets orbiting.

Better yet, how can I know of any causal power? How can I know that the burner will be hot when it is turned on? Even more radical, how can I know that heat will always be hot? Heat is nothing more than the accelerated movement of particles, but I cannot see heat itself when I watch particles move quickly. I may be able to feel the heat radiated by the movement of the particles, but there’s no guarantee that the feeling will always remain the same. Nothing about the fast movement of particles dictates that they must cause me to feel a burning sensation, and nothing about a burner dictates that it must always burn the person that touches it next. If we can’t experience causal powers, like heat and gravity, then we can’t be certain that pens will always fall and burners will always burn. The only knowledge we have of such occurrences are formed through habituation. A potentially indefinite number of burners have been touched only to be followed by painful misery, but that does not mean the next burner touched will have the same effect. At any given moment, a pen could take off from a desk, a burner could freeze a human hand, or a bus could hit a human only to cause the human to morph into molten lava. If knowledge must be certain, then we may know nearly nothing.

Philosophers refers to this phenomenon as, “the Problem of Induction,” and it remains an unsolved riddle to this day. In all our wonderful endeavors to better ourselves and the world around us, it would be horrifying to think that the guiding entity of all our actions could so blasphemously assert its own rationality. How crazy, or how wonderful, it is to think that the mind may be the most mischievous entity of all. The thing you are meant to trust beyond all else may be the thing that deceives you most. Interesting, eh?

Welcome to the realm of philosophy.


Question (2)

By Joseph Cox

It was in the moments of grim contemplation that a pit plummeted itself in the depths of my stomach. The black hole spawned from the recesses of my thoughts and burrowed its way inside with nothing to halt its insatiable progress. But in due time, I had no desire to stop the consumption of my heart, for it was within its depths that I began to feel free. I felt the power of nothing as it spawned from nothingness.

When I was young, I’d pray to God every night to ensure the protection of the loved ones I believed to be with him because the comfort of eternal life felt blissful to me. The ones I had lost weren’t rotting in the ground, for they had become angels to guard me up above. The people I held most dear had relinquished their life with me to bless the souls of those they would come to interact with, and in that selfless attitude I always found comfort. It was this selfless nature that fueled my recovery from the first major blow of grief in my life: when I lost my grandfather. I knew that wherever my grandfather was, smiles were sure to follow. I had wished I could be the one smiling, but this selfishness was easily vanquished. Something was made happier by my loss, so everything became sensible.

The protective veil of eternity encased my life for quite some time, but skepticism crept its way under my covers. I’ve watched the pain a car accident can bring, heard the words of those caught in the abyss of depression, felt final touches, talked to dying children, felt the blade of self-harm, and I wondered how any God could watch its creations writhe. Philosophers refer to the sentiments I just expressed as the Problem of Evil, and to a believer, such problems are easily explained away. The suffering is merely a test. Passing the test brings no shortage of reward, so endurance must be shown throughout one’s life. Perhaps even more controversial is the notion that such sufferings are merely a part of the plan. In God’s plans, the good always outweighs the bad, so one must merely stick around to watch the rainbow after the hurricanes. I felt safe as a part of a plan, safe with every action a means to an end, safe under the covers with my prayers every night, but safety would be fulfilling only for so long.

I write to you now as an atheist that has found more comfort in the idea of nothingness than in the grace of whatever Gods may be because an endless story is a boring one. The problem with the idea of eternal life is that it doesn’t allow for much life at all. Everything becomes so helplessly trivial when perpetual happiness is guaranteed, so long as one remains a decent human. Problems become mute, fear is useless, happiness is monotonous, hope is worthless, and nearly all other emotions become a morphed blob of uninteresting worthlessness. There’s no sense in fussing around with the seemingly minuscule problems of everyday life when one day I’ll be waltzing around an endless wonderland, nor is there a reason to fear anything when the worst thing that can happen to me is happiness. Though, the blade that slashes the negative emotions of life cuts deep into the joy of our existence as well. Happiness during our time on Earth must pale in comparison to what heaven can provide, so it would be irrational to savor the moments of happiness we felt. Hope is useless, because there’s nothing to hope for that’s better than an eternal paradise which has already been promised to each of us. I was raised to believe that eternity is what would give my life its meaning, but instead I felt as though I was being sapped of what makes me alive. The beauty of life is not to be found in perpetuity, but in its finality.

Nothingness is utterly terrifying, and that’s what makes it eerily wonderful. Every nuance of life is to be savored because each minuscule piece is only temporary. Experiences, no matter how grim or how magnificent, come to be enjoyed due to the nature of their occurrence. Even the depths of misery become bearable because at least there’s something to feel. Nothingness is a bitter, indifferent, and fantastic motivator. It pushes everything it presides over to yearn for more because more is exactly what we can never have. Every second becomes something worth acknowledging, because that second might be your last. The fear is what makes me feel alive, and an eternity could never match the thrill of the temporary.

As for those that have already been lost, the permanence of their non-existence is a horrible pain to endure, but an endless life would do little to dampen such agony. Whether elsewhere or gone forever, those we have lost are felt most in their effects. The stories we share, the lessons we take, and the inspiration we absorb from the deaths of those we hold dear are what give them life beyond their ends. As a child, I had not realized that my grandfather had done all he needed to do to bring smiles into the present day because the stories I share with him are some of the best I tell. Though the dead may not receive eternal paradise, nothingness need not be some evil counterpart to eternity, for nothingness is merely the absence of something. No pain, no suffering, and no ills exist in nothingness just as the eternal paradise promises. Nothingness is just more direct in asserting that no good can come from it either. Though, as I’ve asserted earlier, an eternity anywhere doesn’t seem to bring much good either.

You and I are going to die one day, and that’s an uncomfortable thought. Would you want to learn to cope with the cruel indifference of a godless world by witnessing the hidden beauty that it holds? Or maybe live in the pursuit of the love of a God? A goal that, in some circumstances, can be quite noble, or perhaps you may wish to take your own route too, and find meaning in your own path. Whatever you choose, I hope that you come to savor each second as it passes you buy, live each moment as if your only responsibility were to enjoy it, and come to find that, at the end of it all, nothingness sounds like a much-needed rest from a life well lived.