Middle Rage

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a huge fan of the East Coast punk band Ed Gein’s Car. I especially loved their song Middle Rage, a tune that chronicles the aggravation of growing older while having to contend with the noise, garbage and derelicts that populate an urban landscape. “Middle age, middle rage, middle-income, middle age!” screeches lead singer, Scott Weiss, his voice almost swallowed up by a blazing roar of guitars and the beat of a drum kit about to be pounded into splinters. This song made me gleeful when I was young. I still love it, but ironically I identify less with its sentiments now that I really am middle-aged.

As middle age has crept up, I have undergone changes that are, in retrospect, unlike anything I’ve experienced since my transition out of adolescence. Only by looking back do I see how profoundly I’ve changed over the years. This transformation was recently brought to my attention when a long-time friend of mine confessed in all earnestness, “I like you a lot better now than when we were twenty.” The truth is, if the middle-aged me was to meet the twenty-year-old me, I don’t think they would like each other at all!

When I was younger, things seemed much more urgent and serious. If someone did not agree with me, it was imperative that I proved that I was right and that they were wrong. I was very angry at a world that felt out of my control, and so every little annoyance was proof to me of how unjust the universe was. Everything was shit, nothing was the way it should be, and everyone was an idiot; except for me, of course. I knew what was wrong and why things were so messed up, but no one would listen. My rage was omnidirectional, and thus impotent since it was so unfocused.

I’ve been a nihilist for as long as I can remember, but as I’ve grown older, the character and expression of my nihilism has changed. I’ve developed an increasingly easy going type of nihilism that has, by degrees, become less like a calculated philosophy and more like a comfortable part of my life-being. When I get up in the morning, eat my breakfast and go to work, nothing seems very important or really matters all that much to me. When I was younger, this same condition was accompanied by a sense of angry urgency, but as I’ve made my way into my late 40’s, a different feeling has taken over. Now I’m more apt to feel resigned and almost content with the idea that the world, and my life in it, is absurd. I now routinely experience the weird conviction that since nothing really matters, I might as well grind on with my meaningless, middle-aged routine because the alternative would be just as silly and absurd as what I’m doing right now. There is nothing that I could do that would be any more, or any less, meaningful than what I’ve chosen to do at this very moment. In any case, I am just living my life and hurtling inevitably toward death. And so I continue to carry out all of the everyday routines that have developed into my familiar rituals, routines and habits, empty as they are.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not what Nietzsche, in his book The Will To Power, calls a passive nihilist, which is a person who withdraws from life. Rather, I am more like Nietzsche’s active nihilist for whom, “previous goals have become incommensurate” (Book One: 23). I feel like I have surpassed the previous projects and ambitions that I once believed would bring purpose and significance to my life. Step by step I have set goals, and one by one I have accomplished them. At each step of the way I have found myself thinking, “Is that all there is to it?” Each goal that I have reached inevitably lost its luster once I had it in my grasp, and so I now find myself wondering what was so alluring in the first place. Ultimately, it seems that being active and involved is its own reward, and I’ve developed the conviction that my nihilistic attitude toward the whole affair actually functions as a safeguard against self importance and arrogance. Yes, I have some interesting accomplishments, but really, when considered in the grand scheme of things, so what?

When I was in my teens, I had a list of things that I wanted to do before I died. This was my “bucket list,” and I thought that if I was able to accomplish the goals on this list, I would feel confident, fulfilled and successful. As middle age has arrived, and as I have checked more and more of the items off of this list, I have come to realize that I feel no more confident, fulfilled or successful than I did as a teenager. It has begun to dawn on me that success is not related to the number of things that you complete in life. In fact, nothing that can be put on a list can possibly be all that important if you think about it.

But then what is the alternative? A person has to do something while he or she is alive. A person can’t just live life in general. You have to do particular things. You have to work at some particular job or pursue some particular project. Even if you choose to do nothing, you still have to chose what “doing nothing” consists of for you. I might have chosen a different path, but would it really have made any difference? No, I don’t think it would. Anything that I could have done would at some point strike me as being just as silly, just as absurd, as my present life situation seems right now. The same worries and questions, the same doubts and emptiness would have surfaced regardless of the path I followed. And there is something strangely comforting about that to me now. As a middle-aged man, I finally understand that there is no right or wrong way to live life. People get married, buy houses, go on vacations, choose careers, and it is all quite silly; but you have to do something, even if it is nothing.

The Challenges of Teaching Philosophy

Conducting a philosophy class is an exercise in balancing order and chaos; and inevitably there are times when things slide too far in either direction. When Apollonian order predominates in the classroom, things are organized, orderly and structured. However, if this condition prevails at the expense of Dionysian vitality, things become stale and static. Sacrifice Apollo to Dionysus, on the other hand, and things become disordered, frantic and chaotic. Maintaining the delicate equilibrium between these two forces is, I think, an important part of a philosophy teacher’s job, but it is also something that one can never get perfectly right. There is a constant and ongoing negotiation that must occur throughout the academic semester as an instructor attempts to zero in on that “golden mean” making a class both energizing and orderly in equal parts. At any given moment in time there is room for improvement, but hopefully as the semester comes to an end, a class, on the whole, achieves a state roughly in the middle of these extremes.

I have taught many philosophy classes that have operated on the outer boundaries of this continuum. The chaotic classes were always more memorable than the overly organized classes; no doubt because energy and vitality are always more entertaining than their polar opposites.

There was one class in particular that still stands out in my mind as an example of how quickly the energy and excitement of philosophical discussion can descend into pandemonium. It was a course on the “philosophy of life” that I taught years ago at a college on the east coast. The class was held in an amphitheater that seated around 50 students, all of whom were very involved and interested in the subject matter. The session that is still burned into my memory was a day we were focused on arguments for God’s existence. This is always a touchy subject, and as the class period began, the energy in the classroom was definitely high. This was a day when the students were especially eager to speak out and voice their views. Arguments and counterarguments were hurled back and forth concerning the validity and the soundness of the positions that we had been studying until the entire room fractured into small groups of individuals, arguing among themselves. There were students standing up and waving their arms in the back rows. There were students in the front rows turned around in their seats, passionately debating with those who sat behind them. I stood by the blackboard, virtually ignored as I impotently called for order. The students were so absorbed in their own disputes that they became oblivious to their teacher’s presence. At one point I stopped saying anything and just watched the strange drama in front of me, thinking that this was exactly how you might see a philosophy class depicted in some “B” movie. Everything was passion and argument. Order was lost. Dionysus had won.

A chaotic class session like this one is at least memorable and exciting. Those classes in which the spirit of Apollo prevails, on the other hand, usually become dim memories that take their place among the forgotten routines of the past. These are the class sessions during which I find myself lecturing unchallenged, and the only questions students ask concern how correctly to spell a particular philosopher’s name. In these sessions, I remain the focus of attention, the facts get voiced, the structure of arguments are understood, and the issues are laid out one by one, but no one seems to become very fiery or excited. This sort of class is just another day at school and I’m just another teacher who will be grading just another set of tests.

Of course the best sorts of classes are those in which both structure and passion – Apollo and Dionysus – are present, guiding conversation in exciting, unanticipated and yet structured ways. These are the sessions in which the students and I seem to be truly resonating with one another and cooperatively searching for the Truth. I know that this may sound like an overly romantic and starry-eyed aspiration to some of my teaching colleagues, but there are times when this is truly what happens in a philosophy classroom. We forget about testing and grades; we forget about what is proper and improper to say. Instead, we become so absorbed by the flow of argument and discussion that we are swept along by the topic at hand, excited, eager and curious about where it will all lead without feeling as if it has to lead in any particular direction. These are the times when the distinction between teacher and student collapses and members of the class become fellow philosophical explorers. These are the classes that don’t end on the hour, but continue as groups of us walk across campus still debating, arguing and disagreeing about what life means, whether God exists, and what makes an action moral or immoral. I wish every day could be like this, because this is really what philosophy is supposed to be about: self-regulating conversation unencumbered by authority. It is a good kind of anarchy.