Jun 06, 2024, 06:24AM

Jules Ruminates

Learning to live with the existential reality of the human condition.

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Jules reclined in a padded chair on the back deck. An hour ago, the breeze was pleasant. The early evening sun was shining down on him, dramatically beaming through the branches above. As the late-February sun left the sky, a chill infused the air. Jules zipped up his fleece jacket and sipped his ginger tea. He gazed out at the western edge of sky beyond the hillside. A marmalade and lavender sunset was partially obscured by the other houses, Ponderosa pines and sycamores. Jules sipped again and acknowledged the feeling of loneliness that often came to him in these moments, the liminal hour between day and night.

As the people he’d known throughout his life died, Jules kept ruminating on the desire for connection. Over time, he’d learned this was dangerous. Jules learned the more he needed connection, the more unfulfilled he often felt. And yet, without connections, Jules saw a bleak reality of closed-off, self-reliant soldiers people allowed themselves to become. Over the years, Jules had concluded—without other people, individuals are merely isolated incidents of humanity. Without the search for connection, empathy dissolved, irritation moved down from the brain and took over the whole body, inside of which our hearts stopped functioning. Even our eyes narrowed.

Jules thought the urge to reach out was always within us, but sometimes he thought the desire was unrecognizable to so many people in their own lives. When what so many seemed to need was company, they’d learned instead to reach for the remote, the beverage and the snack. The distractions were overwhelming. The internet convinced most of us to remove our own thoughts, deny the delay of gratification, and sublimate ourselves to the suggestions of the algorithms.

Jules understood it wasn’t just our phones that did this, but he thought phones had ruined the ability to focus. He’d seen the scientific evidence of our shrunken attention spans and how these new tools were manipulating our need for validation and the attention of others. Becca sent him the articles. She was fighting the good fight—the fight for our own minds. The next generation were experimented upon in the name of social media growth. Insecurity had never been so present and ubiquitous. The safety of our information online and the safety of our sense of self-worth, so vulnerable in 12-14-year-old girls. Becca wanted to save them, but, as Jules knew too well, she studied this terrible phenomenon to save herself, too.

Jules considered the questions of trust. How did we learn to develop trust? Babies and their mothers. Being soothed with gentle nurturing or finding our open mouths aggressively stuffed with a pacifier. Held patiently or plopped into a stroller and walked around the block or tucked into a car seat and driven in circles until the motions lulled us into a restful, dozing state.

How did we learn to stop trusting? He used to give most people an exaggerated benefit of the doubt. Jules never fully trusted himself. Over time, and through agonizing phases of his life, Jules learned to do this—to trust himself fully –and also, to accept instability, and the inevitability of uncertainty. By the time he’d hit his 50s, Jules understood this was a life skill people could learn, to do more than merely function. Once he accepted that fundamental level of uncertainty, Jules learned he could live with the existential reality of the human condition, without fear of it leading to paralysis or madness.

Jules had known high school and college friends who’d attempted to rely solely on themselves as their careers took off and they individuated from their families.

Some had bought into the myth of meritocracy and self-identified as society’s victors, only to see some aspect of their personal lives disintegrate and, eventually, their working lives stop fulfilling them. To work relentlessly and then hit a plateau or even see their careers nose-dive. Those classmates and old acquaintances that thought of themselves as lone wolves in the dog-eat-dog world of late-20th century and early-21st century capitalism, they too needed support. After another promotion, or long-awaited vacation, or after their child’s graduation or wedding, the void always returned.

For Jules, conversations with fellow travelers kept the emptiness at bay. Listening to music, reading the books and seeing the films, the internal monologues and fictional dialogues of others, the words of artists and searchers and human examiners. All of these kept the emptiness from rising up. A single-minded focus, an obsessive pull towards a tangible goal, temporarily kept it away. But at some point, that focus became automatic—a distraction from the real thing. The pull toward work subsided and the knot came loose.

Jules recalled that Reva wrote an essay about this desire to escape the emptiness. It filled him with pride to see her words published in a well-known magazine. Reva, who’d never viewed herself as a writer or critic, whose energy was always focused on others, on schools, on the students and staff inside them, had submitted the essay to a few publications.

As the sky darkened, Jules heard two hillside owls hooting. The mystery of their hoots settled over him. His stomach growled. Jules shuffled back inside to make dinner. First, he wanted to find that magazine article. Jules searched around among the boxes that lined the guest room. Finally, he found it, dusted it off, and sat down to read it again. He checked the cover. August, 2015. 

We watch our shows and glimpse the scripted truths of fictional lives. The personal revolution of Walter White in Breaking Bad becomes our impersonal, vicarious revolution. The delusions of Don Draper in Mad Men resonate with our own delusions. The overwhelmed yet reflective young voice of Hannah Horvath in Girls feeds our own narcissistic tendencies and echoes across the privileged of the next generation. The confusion and paralysis of Louis C.K. in Louis becomes a window into our own absurd existence. The endless struggle for sanity in our over-policed and under-resourced cities illuminate the reality of our own cities in The Wire. And on and on. The Marc Maron WTF interviews that seek to find the seeds of vulnerability and trauma underneath the humor. The anxiety, dread, fear, or combination of the three, that often dominate of our own psyches.

We’re restored through sleep, food, laughter and love, but when we’re quiet there are moments of static revealing the underlying, subterranean truths. We’re infinitesimal and insignificant and yet we take these pictures and share these posts in order to inscribe our names in the bark of some timeless tree. Documents and the act of documenting become a fascination and threaten the spontaneity of absorbing life in its splendor. The artist never stops documenting, never stops twisting and turning.


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