Ricky Gervais: So a holocaust survivor eventually dies of old age and goes to heaven. And he meets God. And he tells God a holocaust joke. And God goes, "That's not funny." And he says, "I guess you had to be there."
Jerry Seinfeld: [Laughs.]
Ricky Gervais: Isn't that amazing?
Jerry Seinfeld: What is that?
Ricky Gervais: I don't know.
Jerry Seinfeld: Is that yours?
Ricky Gervais: No, not mine, no.
Jerry Seinfeld: Where'd you hear that?
Ricky Gervais: I don't... I don't know where it is. I don't...
Jerry Seinfeld: You heard that though?
Ricky Gervais: Yeah, yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: Wow.
Ricky Gervais: Because... it's so layered and philosophical.
Jerry Seinfeld: So layered.
Ricky Gervais: He wasn't there. And if you believe he was, he didn't do anything.
Jerry Seinfeld: Right. Oh my god... That's a novel in a joke.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, S11:E4
A moment ago I was overcome with a sense of being present in two different times/places at once. I was doing the conversion I do regularly from my desk here in the north of Thailand, where I live twelve to fourteen hours ahead of most of the English-speaking people I know. It's a kind of dyslexia I sometimes experience. I'll be converting from night to morning or vice versa, and for a flash I'll find myself in the wrong one. Considering the fraction-of-a-second duration of the occurrence, and the inverse time zones at hand, it would in sense, albeit an elastic one, be accurate to call this a flashback. Though I'm not determined here to make that claim or any case for it. The truth is I don't know what those flashes are, other than what they feel like to me in those splices of seconds when I drift inside them, when I am met by their brief but pulsing reminders that, even in the bloated depths of this inflated display-age, great mysteries still abound, and the proverbial rug can still be pulled out from under us, if only for a flash.
Earlier today I read something that made me think of a movie I'd seen some years ago. As I was reading, I began to imagine several of us beautifully outmatched humans, walking zombie-like through some vague darkness, guided unknowingly by these glimmering forces emerging from our chests. Spirits, maybe. Ghosts or angels things otherwise alien to us. The scattered photons of God itself, perhaps, or of what George Saunders has called "subGod"s. Maybe there are many of them, and maybe they aren't very good at their jobs. Maybe they are graceless and forgetful and prone to error, lowly interns and entry-level associates who are all nearly, if not totally, as inept as us, and who keep fucking up all Creation while God's away.
Whatever the force I imagined might be, I don't think it's purely imaginary. I do think we are led by something similar to those protruding lights, through much darkness and sunlight, and through the many passing contents of our lives (and they through us). I also think that we are moved more wholly on occasion, with an acute strength and precision, into the various points of impact that alter and remake us. Those indelible things that prove themselves to be so resident in us that even we, us upright fools, can't deny the extent to which they shape us and move us all about. Those glimmering things guiding us might just be our pasts, which are themselves only the particular notches scored in, and propelled by, the sum total of all things past. In any event, we're not, I don't think, entirely at the helm.
At first, I couldn't remember which movie I'd seen something like the chest lights I'd imagined in. But then I remembered it was Donnie Darko. In the movie, these "chest spears," as Google tells me they're sometimes called amongst fans, look more like liquid metal apparitions than the glowing light-shapes I saw. But the idea that our movements through life might be, to some degree, preordained by forces greater and more mysterious than the choices we think we're making, is the same.
Personally, I've no relationship to or use for the various religions. And I don't think they have a healthy place in this century. The things of value that they hold can be found in abundance elsewhere and without them (e.g. already inside us). But I do think a more humble understanding of our extraordinarily limited intellect, and a respect for how little we know and are probably capable of knowing, is paramount to our growth as both individuals and groups. We are remarkably flawed, fallible, beautiful creatures; idiotic poems bouncing around on cartoon legs of hope and wonder. We are made of great mysteries and uncertainties, and we should cherish them. We should celebrate them. If we're going to worship anything, we should worship them, take considerable care not to damage them, pray daily to them, cede control to the strange and delicate particle-dust presiding over them. Because we are that stuff. And that stuff is us.
What more we're to do with these minds and bodies of ours I do not know. However these magical sparks of consciousness came to be in us, I don't think they brought with them any purpose or meaning. I don't think they care even a little about what we do or don't do or how this all ends. That's our job. To show decency. To give a damn. To find new ways as we age to keep showing decency and giving a damn. To find our own meaning. By going out and looking for it, yes. But also just by being present for it. By just being there when it arrives, having the clarity to notice it and coax it inside.
Maybe those subGods, or chest spears or lights, or whatever else, are just us in death, promoted to something like angels, allowed psychic entry into those we once loved, but still hopelessly fallible. Still fated for fucking up all Creation, establishing all human voids, filling them clumsily with all sadness and trauma and personal failings and deficits. And maybe this serves our resilience and humanity well. Maybe this is at the center of our errant inner cores, and our desires to transcend them, to deliver to one another the kinds of comfort and compassion that only wounds incurred can bring.
Maybe. And maybe. And maybe. But I don't know. And I don't know. And I don't know. And praise be to this stuff of our uncertainty. Amen.
Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots, is merely a subGod. Maybe there's a God above this subGod, who's busy for a few Godminutes with something else, and will be right back, and when he gets back will take the subGod by the ear and say, "Now look. Look at that fat man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn't he humble enough? Didn't he endure enough abuse for a thousand men? Weren't the simplest tasks hard? Didn't you see him craving affection? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?" And maybe as the subGod slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying: My sincere apologies, a mistake has been made. Accept a new birth, as token of my esteem.
And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother, a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.
George Saunders, "The 400-pound CEO"