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Evacuation: an Existential Exercise October 23, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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Sometimes Heidegger’s notion of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) seems more useful than at other times (although he saw it as a permanent existential condition of relating to the world, and not as an exceptional situation)–or perhaps it is just a very useful metaphor: Here we are, in San Diego, in the midst of the Firestorm 2007, with fires burning to the north, and fires burning to the south, waiting to see if we will have to evacuate. It is a reality that is thrust upon us, or we are “thrown” into it, we have to react in some way or other, and all we can do is choose how to relate to it. We have neighbors who choose to ignore it, taking a chance that postponing to deal with evacuation issues will pay off, if there is no mandatory evacuation—but then they are gambling with the risk of total loss. Are they fatalists, or just oblivious? Does it give them peace of mind, or is it a prime example of bad faith? All over Southern California people have made such choices over the past 48+ hours. Some chose to ignore the peril; others packed up well ahead of time. Some of them can now return to undamaged homes, and others have nothing to return to. I’m not saying that one choice is necessarily wiser than the other, at all times—the anguish of packing up may be disproportionate to the actual danger level. Four years ago we were evacuated under similar circumstances; our house was saved by fire fighters, and we only had to spend 36 hours away from home. So it looked, and felt, like a happy ending story—but it left us changed forever. Because in the five hours before we were evacuated, we had been packing up, filling two cars with as much as we could of the things that meant the most to us—which was about a fifth of everything in the house we cared about. So we had to make some choices, about our priorities. What do you bring, if you’re a family with pets, and two cars, other than  each other and the absolute necessities? We, the scholars, gaze in panic at our library, collected over 30, 40, maybe 50 years, annotated books, dog-eared old friends—which books do we bring, and which do we leave behind? Some of us have music collections, CDs, LPs, maybe even 78s, each one acquired with pride, or inherited. We all have family photos, and they are heavy and take up a lot of space. Maybe we have family keepsakes, worth nothing on eBay, but a world of value to us. Old Uncle Ed’s wonderful painting of a horse in a meadow, Grandma’s high school diploma, Great Grandma’s quilt, the kids’ boxes of artwork…and some of us are true collectors, holding pieces of culture from another time in trust for the future. The mantra is these days, “Don’t worry about your house and possessions, they can all be replaced!” And indeed, some people’s possessions are replaceable, every one of them—the flat screen TV, the faux suede couch, the newly remodeled kitchen. But not everything can be replaced; some things are, objectively, the last ones or the only ones of their kind,. Some things contain the essence of who we are, things that reflect our shifting self-images as we have grown and changed. Preparing for evacuation becomes an existential exercise: Who are you really? What, among these stacks and piles of things accumulated over the years epitomizes you more than anything else? What might—if the two carloads end up being everything you own on this planet—you later reproach yourself for having forgotten, or deselected? Things that can be turned into cash? Things you love? Things that are unique? Things that meant something to loved ones who are no longer alive? Because as much as we’d like to think that we’re exclusively cerebral, it just ain’t so. We’re physical beings in a physical world, and we like stuff…

            And yet, this agonizing existential exercise is certainly preferable to the scenario where you don’t have time to make any choices at all: the 5-minute warning of the mandatory evacuation, the “Nothing but the clothes on their backs” kind of situation. And being able to keep two carloads of stuff plus loved ones and pets is by far preferable to losing everything. Yes, we can agree on that. And people around town this evening aren’t just philosophizing about this, they are living their losses and their choices. But as a human experience, the “thrownness” (in a loose sense) of the evacuation situation brings certain things into relief: The choices that we make, if fortunate enough to have a few hours of warning, can perhaps give us a brief glimpse into a deeper self—the part of us we choose to carry into our future.

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Comments»

1. amelo14 - October 24, 2007

I enjoyed reading this post of yours. I specially found the last line extremely powerful. It somehow brings up the question of our temporality, though I would ask how we could come up with “the few hours of warning”. I myself think that it is Classical Political Philosophy, which was not really dealt with by Heidegger, which provides some clues as to this possibility. It would be great if you could relate “thrownness” to the crucial “being-towards-death” as well.

Great post!

Andrés

2. Huan - October 24, 2007

Existential exercise indeed. I personally think that too much of our personal identity is built upon these materialized memories, and perhaps that simply reflects further into our current states of existence within the current society. A state of seeking for comfort, seeking assurance for who we are. To achieve that we use these photos and sentimental items, keeping ourselves in a state of security. However these things tend to hold us back from seeking growth, seeking improvement. Keeping comfort with what we believe to be our identities naturally hinders our strive for further growth, and in a cynical perspective we are simply waiting in comfort to die.

Sorry for the gloom and doom 🙂 🙂

3. Nina Rosenstand - October 25, 2007

Andrés,
You are absolutely right, the next step is to relate “thrownness” to “Sein-zum-Tode.” Because the “5-minute warning” as well as the “few hours” end up being metaphors for any decision process that is forced upon us, and most of the time we don’t even have 5 minutes–we have to rely on who we are, the character we have developed, and our attitude toward our finality.
Huan,
I appreciate your idealism! Where would we be without somebody pointing out where the High Ground is? I just don’t think it is realistic. You can make people think it is the right thing to focus on a spiritual existence free of material ties to their past, but you can’t make them like it. The Hindu tradition recommends spending the last stage of one’s life without any possessions at all, other than a rice bowl and one’s clothes. But we can go in another direction, and seek advice from another philosopher: Aristotle and his Golden Mean. There is most definitely a “too much” involved in the material focus of our time, but we have to acknowledge the psychological hunger of “too little.” Not sure why having a grip on where you’ve been should necessarily prevent you from growing–and not sure if “growing” is always an ideal to strive for. We’re not sharks who have to swim, or else we die. And, in the end I’m not sure that waiting in comfort to die is such a bad thing, provided that we occupy ourselves with meaningful activities in the interim…
But here are some words from my Danish background about losses and memories that may be of interest:
“The only things that are eternally yours, are those which you have lost.”

4. Huan - October 25, 2007

I don’t propose that materials are to be completely abandoned, I just think that the current culture focuses too much on materials to provide personal identities. Regarding whether waiting in comfort to die is a bad thing is a complicated question indeed. I think waiting in comfort to die takes the significance out of life, it seems that one’s reason to live becomes passing time, which is quite meaningless to me. I also believe the seeking of a comfortable death is a huge factor that fuels the capitalistic system and its various injustices, which only adds to its negatives. I guess in the end it comes down to how life is by nature empty, and we either create a meaningful passionate life to fill the void, ignore the void with comfortable distractions. Are these two one and the same? I’d like to think I can see a distinct difference, because the latter tends to fit into the capitalistic system a lot easier, and I believe that’s working horribly.


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