Bernie Jay Harding was, and hopefully still is, a talented jazz pianist I met when I was just a young college student. I heard him play at a Holiday Inn lounge, was immediately impressed, and was then soon surprised to see him in the hallowed halls of higher learning, well Miami-Dade Community College anyway, where he was a professor. I asked him to teach me to play as he did, and the very next semester I was enrolled in Piano – Instruction with Bernie Jay. I still play the songs I learned under Bernie’s tutelage–although I am currently without a piano, I do hope to own one again in the future–and I play them basically the way he taught me to. If you know anything about jazz, and I know very little, you know that it’s improvisational by nature. It is theoretically possible to never play the same song the same way twice. I don’t have that level of skill, but Bernie certainly did.
I recall one particular lesson well, even though it was some 30 years ago. Bernie was demonstrating a small piece of improv that one could play over the basic chord structure of Satin Doll and I stopped him: “That was awesome! Play that again.” It wasn’t particularly intricate or complex, and Bernie told me as much, but I loved it the moment I heard it and insisted he teach it to me precisely, even though that flies in the face of improvisational performance art. He did teach it to me, and then told me something I’ve never forgotten. “That bit I just played, it’s not the best solo I’ve played or the most interesting, but it resonated with you. That means it was yours all along, you just needed to hear it one time.”
Research into the mind is in its infancy, and we know preciously little about how our brains work. But it does appear that we are hardwired from birth with certain responses to stimuli, with our personality traits already formed or forming, and even the levels of emotion of which we are capable already programmed. The highs and lows, whether we frighten easily, have heightened levels of joy or sorrow all predetermined as our brains developed in utero.
I knew nothing of the philosophies of pessimism or absurdism until very recently. I only thought of those words by the common meaning associated with them, yet as I read about the extensive history of these philosophies I am again struck with the same sensation as when I heard Bernie Jay play that particular little run in D Major. It was mine all along, I just needed to hear it one time.
I’ve always been somewhat rebellious and contrarian, and not for any particular reason. It just seemed to be the way I reacted to authority or the mainstream mode of thinking. I’ve often joked that I’m a rebel without a clue; a self-deprecating spin on the James Dean film title. Imagine how I felt today as I read the Wiki entries on Philosophical Pessimism and Absurdism to find a reference to Albert Camus’s book “The Rebel.” I downloaded the free sample from the iBooks store to see if it would ring true for me and even just the introduction was exhilarating.
I have had frequent existential crises over the years, and I remember when I first discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and how it relieved so much of my anxiety to know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that everything really is about nothing. I mean of course it is. We struggle with inner turmoil and invent mythology to resolve our dissonance. A world filled with injustice, suffering and calamity at every level, from individual misery to catastrophic disasters that destroy hundreds of thousands of lives in a single event, there must be a reason for it all… But there isn’t. It’s quite simple actually, requiring only acceptance of the obvious. Life happened on this rocky planet 93 million miles from a medium-sized star because everything lined up right for it to occur. It took a billion years or so to get started, and another 3.5 billion or so before we showed up, but in cosmological terms, that’s not all that long. The reason we can’t square the circle and make sense of it all is because there are no square circles.
Very few people I’ve encountered in my lifetime understand me. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that all I really want is to be understood. I don’t expect to be liked, and I feel humbled and honored to be loved, but dammit I get tired of trying to explain myself. I once told my father I was very happy, in fact, almost completely happy, and he thought I was joking. He’s joked about it at my expense on several occasions as my family thinks me dour and anything but happy. But I actually am quite happy. It’s perfectly possible to be happy without being giddy, to be satisfied and rewarded by life’s experiences without being goofy. I feel privileged to be alive and to be able to do the few things I enjoy doing. I’m especially and particularly exuberant about the emancipation of my mind from the moorings and anchors of superstition and dogma, and the appreciation for science and critical thinking that I’ve been nurturing relatively late in life.
Yes, I’m a pessimist and an absurdist, although I dislike and distrust labels of all kinds, but I feel comfortable to be in the company of great thinkers who have boldly stated what so many perhaps fear to speak aloud, and only think about late at night when unable to sleep. That ultimately, there is no meaning to Life, the Universe and Everything and that it is cruel and capricious at every level, with mankind being the most reprehensible of the millions of species spawned through countless generations of genetic mutation and natural selection. We are murderous, treasonous, malicious beasts, yet capable of truly astounding feats of ingenuity and creativity. There is honor among thieves and some Homo sapiens are capable of great and noble deeds, but in the end it matters very little. Our remarkably evolved brains, the same ones that cause the crises of which I’ve been writing, have peered into the future and we know our fate. Not just our individual fate, which is the inescapable date with the Grim Reaper, but the fate of all life on planet Earth. 99% of all life that has ever existed here is extinct, including all of our cousins in the Homo genus, so the odds are most certainly not in our favor. But even if Homo sapiens manage to avoid extinction, even if somehow our species isn’t altered by natural selection to such an extent we wouldn’t recognize our future selves, whoever is standing on the shores of future time will witness the death of our Sun, and the total annihilation of the entire planet. The Universe won’t even notice.