Few joys match the peaceful feeling of laying back and watching languid clouds drift across a summer sky. Science and intrigue are even then a possibility, however. If you have a kiddie pool or a lake or a pond on hand just notice how the sky’s reflection refracts onto the water’s surface and reflects an image of that same placid sky. As above, so below—literally! We know that what we’re seeing on the water’s surface is derivative of the sky’s natural visage, but why are we so sure that we know what we know? Faith in our senses underlies the wisdom of our existence; the origins of our AU motivations may be equally murky.
Origins are as tricky as a hall of mirrors; even if a first image exists, its viewing depends upon perspective. The blueness of the sky and the clouds drifting by depend upon our particular optic physiology as humans. What’s more, enjoyment of sights and sounds depends on our instinctive tendency to drift into daydreams on, for instance, a hot summer day. In a sense, we hunt for pleasure with our cave-person essence; after all, 97% of human evolution occurred in gatherer and hunter settings with a lot of unstructured foraging (https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-sapiens)
So to look back at our human selves in a cosmic sense is a bit like asking whether we know, really know, why we’ve arrived here at AU. We were all born yesterday in terms of deep time, and it’s easy to lose the perspective our past selves held on our motivations as they recede over our memory horizon. Perhaps looking back into ourselves is a lot like looking out into space; the view depends upon the angle we take. As one guest on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks noted about gazing out into the atmosphere, “the farther you look, the hazier things will get”.
Study Caves and Starry Skies
To enjoy inquiry thus can include allowing our minds to drift back into the cave-like recesses of our being. Resistance is implied, to be sure. Factions of our inner self might feign to complain about our supposed sloth and indolence as we wile away a summer afternoon. We might wonder if we ought to be getting back to our AU studies, yet I’d argue that it’s precisely these sultry moments of pondering that allow us to delve into key questions about our mature student motivations. We probably have a clear idea about why we’re an AU student and what our goals are and yet it’s possible that our conscious intentions hide deeper unconscious motivations.
But, But …
The desire to relax and enjoy appears to flow naturally from a summer’s day. Yet something brought us to this place of repose and calm just as our inner drives led us to embark on distance education in the first place. As thinking beings, we sometimes strive so much toward our goals that we don’t investigate what set us in motion and how that impetus has evolved. Blaise Pascal famously noted that the “heart has its reasons that reason cannot know” Chief among our noble drives for success is the need to improve ourselves. But improvement is a broad category, and one that elides the fact that all thought and all action can appear to be an attempt to bring order and meaning to our world.
How do we talk about the pleasures of life, and is our enjoyment (hopefully) of AU reducible to our stated life goals? The truth is in there, somewhere, right? Even the phrase “the clouds are lovely today” encloses meaning within a Hallmark-y scene of sublime enjoyment. Witness how calm pleasure can degenerate, or expand delightfully depending upon social context, into mere conversation about something (thus at a distance) rather than verbal illustrations that embody our sense of being in the moment. It’s as though the purpose of meaning as a desire for absolution from ambiguity comes to derail our original impetus to enjoy and benefit from our environment.
Friedrich Nietzsche stated that “we do not yet know whence the drive to truth stems … the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd in a style binding for all” (Nietzsche, l). It seems that we bipeds can’t help but interpret and seek understanding, even as that same drive precludes a true openness to the boundlessness of existence. To forget what brought us to our current state of mind is perhaps to risk losing our primal motivation as thinking, creating, devouring (mentally, that is) beings. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her inimitably expository way, provides a delightful aphorism: “the joyous affirmative act of forgetfulness is also a deliberate repression” (Spivak., li). As we unspool our thoughts we actively forget their pre-symbolic origins. Likewise, as our AU career unfolds we may slowly erase knowledge of our original drive for learning that brought us back to school as adults.
Learning and Understanding as Essential Humanization
Maybe the desire to understand ourselves is the essence of what being human entails. Nietzsche must have stroked his moustache in consternation even as he revelled in this quandary: “what indeed does man know about himself?…Nature threw away the keys and woe to the fateful curiosity which might be able for a moment to look out and down through a crevice in the chamber of consciousness, and discover that man indifferent to his own ignorance, is resting on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous, and, as it were, hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger. Whence, in the wide world, with this constellation, arises the drive of truth”? (Nietzsche., xvli)
Meaning, in evolutionary terms, that meaning is basically the desire for sustenance (to update in paraphrase the famous Jesus quote: “woman nor man can live on bread alone”). To achieve a sense of a meaningful life is part of our AU journey; if meaning were simply about money many of us would become accountants or pipe-fitters (both noble professions in their own ways, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius would surely say were he here today). For Nietzsche, however, the creation of meaning is not only about pure discovery, the sort of culinary enterprise a young Fly on the Wall experienced at Vancouver’s Science World in 1987 when he tasted ‘astronaut ice cream’. No, meaning for Nietzsche is essentially a classificatory and repressive enterprise. He wrote that “the so-called drive to knowledge can be traced back to a drive to appropriate and conquer…’Thinking’ in primitive conditions is the pushing through of forms as in crystals. In our thought, the essential is to classify new material into old schemas, making equal what is new”. (Nietzsche, xli) In other words, we tame all but the meanings we seek and thus, often, to ask a question is to always-already have tautologically answered it.
Can we live without the finality provided by meaning-making and would meaningful thought without a desire for a conclusion, like being a lifelong learner, be permissible within our minds? Of course! That’s what childhood was like, remember? Life includes capacities for joyous play and delightful whimsy free of absolute timelines and the rigours of a helicopter-self schedule. We are our own models of excellence thanks to AU’s flexibility, and a summer’s dalliance on a checkered blanket under the clouds or stars is just the moment to remember who we are. Friedrich Nietzsche asked “whether existence without interpretation, without ‘sense’, does not become ‘nonsense’; whether, on the other hand, all existence is not essentially an interpreting existence” (Nietzsche, xlvii). In the end, though, “we cannot look around our own corner”, and yet it’s precisely the pleasure of looking out into the great beyond of a blue sky that provides a window into the depths of our own thinking souls (Nietzsche, xlvii). Sometimes to just ponder a summer sky is to ask and answer questions that have neither beginning nor end. It’s also that foundational essence, our glorious inner curiosity, that makes AU worthwhile throughout the year.