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Big Idea: The Hell of Pure Possibility

Here’s a thought of the novelist Walker Percy’s searching character Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman:

For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But after this morning’s incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.

Here’s Percy’s thought:  Sartre was wrong to say that hell is other people.  Hell is the experience of “pure possibility.”  It’s the experience of not knowing who you are or what you’re supposed to do. It’s to have no order or direction to your life except what you might quite arbitrarily choose for yourself.  If you might be everyone or might do anything, you don’t have what it takes to turn your life in any “particular direction.” You’re unlucky enough not to have what it takes to live—meaning live well.

According to David Brooks in his most recent column:  “At some point over the past generation, people around the world entered what you might call the age of possibility. They became intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options.“

But without some such closure—without knowing somehow that you’re “not destined to do everything but only one or two things”—you never get around to living.  And unless the transhumanists are really, really right, death will close off your “personal options” soon enough.  So too will ordinary aging:  As I’ve read on BIG THINK, if you don’t close off lots of options in your twenties, there are all sorts of things that are between difficult and impossible to choose later.

All great physicists and almost all of the great composers have made an existential commitment  for science or music at the exclusion of all kinds of other possibilities by their twenties or earlier.  By thirty, they’ve sometimes completed the work they were destined to do.

Having a big family—which surely some of us are destined to do, almost always requires severely narrowing the menu of personal choice by thirty.  That’s why the society of pure possibility is increasingly a post-familial society, one plagued by a global birth dearth. The future of us all depends on us thinking that having and raising kids is more than a lifestyle option.

Brooks adds that “Many people are committed to their professional development and fear that if they don’t put in many hours at work they will fall behind or close off lifestyle options.“  That commitment to professional development might be admirable as an existential commitment that privileges worthwhile work over many of the other good things of life.  But our professionals tend to understand work to be for other lifestyle options, and those who think of themselves as working so hard just to keep those options open are surely quite unfortunate.

Brooks urges us not to “jump to the conclusion that the world is going to hell.”  But that’s only after he has written so eloquently on why the experience of pure possibility might be the closest thing to hell many of us will experience in this world.


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