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Kafka and the True Way

11/12/2010 11:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

~Franz Kafka:
"The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It SEEMS intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along."

The other day in the YMCA locker room, the TV was blaring with two pundits. I was half-naked heading for the steam room, wading through the claptrap.

An officious man spouted off on the arrogance of citizens demanding social change when they lack expertise. I cringed. However, his debate partner's words resounded. She was a well-meaning woman and she earnestly replied that it is arrogant not to act when America runs on greed and ill-will.

Reflecting in the steam room, I thought it is actually understandable not to act on our good intentions in a society soaked with vainly competitive and ultimately enervating petty philosophies born of shallow psychologies that make life needlessly difficult. These make us feel like whipped curs on meaningless investigations instead of proud whippets on excursions. While apparently giving us many paths to walk toward real change, the glut of maxims makes it hard for compassionate and practical understanding to take root because most are minor, mostly bleak.

The things we fight about in the word wars are so stupid, superficial, superstitious and culturally entrenched that they can make us think human nature lacks perspective. In reality, we are not our words; we are behind them. Focusing so much attention on the details of our arguments and opinions bogs us down in bickering polemical minutiae when we could be talking with each other about how we can resourcefully ease communal pain while increasing personal freedom.

Common folk who love goodness are stultified in surveying the marquees of exalted worldviews warring for our minds that lack one essential quality: practicality. Seeing in ourselves and others the tight grip of reactionary verbal conformity begs the Gretchenfrage: can we prove the ineffectiveness of over-complicated philosophy (not all philosophy) by carefully examining its hold on us? Does dogma not make us defensive instead of open, fearful instead of joyous, elitist instead of egalitarian, perfectionistic instead of content, obedient instead of inquisitive and in denial instead of motivated to work through our doubts? Such indoctrinating thinking and unintuitive feeling is a holdover from ancient times; it reflects a giant misunderstanding of reality as a wholly haphazard, scary place.

Franz Kafka wrote brilliantly about mankind's muffing up of (albeit imperfect) reality through our reliance on philosophical motivations. This Jewish Czech who suffered a berating father, poor health and many more trials still did not adopt a cynical view of the world. He identified with his fellows and loved it. On how our misperceptions trip us up, he wrote, "The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon."

Let us tread upon Kafka's guiding rope. It is possible to use language to see a planet with basically good, sincere people--some under the influence of cruel circumstances and even crueler human abuses and misunderstandings--drowning in a sea of fearful words and their spawn, competition. (Competition can be healthy, it is important to note.) It seems to be our sentence for a misguided attempt to piece everything together perfectly, looking to the past or the animals to explain how we should live. More than an effable truth, we need a truce.

Words can build the bridge. If wordsmiths can hone their craft toward practically speaking truth to power, we can give great power to truth. The art of language is our greatest strength at a time when the world seems beset from all sides by political, economic and psychosocial problems. Ferocious writers, fierce speakers, fiery musicians, flint-faced philosophers can use words to transform this world collapsing upon itself into a planet on which people can grow closer. Words have the power to move mountains, not toward unrealistic perfection but toward the greater good. The castle of the powerful seems impenetrable; it seems so because the culture is so used to royal platitudes. And throughout history many who have studied the great philosophies went on to value ideals more than people, building and burning castles and killing potential confreres instead of creating rational societies.

One great hindrance that prevents us from doing good to the best we can is our unquestioned assumption that this is a Nietzschean animal world, which will always be wild until superhumans settle it. Yes, we are passionate mixed beasts. We have an urge to screw, eat and strut as well as a desire for peace, wholeness and love. I do not quibble with the first two of our animal instincts, yet the idea that some of us are "better" than others is a lie that must die out. We have the great gifts of reason and sentiment that can elevate us to the peak of our promise: to see each other as inherent equals.

Altruism is not pollyannish. An intelligent, kind world does not favor human misunderstanding or wizened conservatism. It favors wisdom and bold honesty with an eye toward right action. I agree with the evolutionists who hold the universe is not here for humanity's sake alone--or for God to hold us in hand always. That certain animal traits seem to survive is undeniable. Yet science can become so hard it loses its edge. It can fail to recall one of the first physicists, Aristotle. Aristotle knew the preference in physical beauty and most traits (intelligence, artistic talents, etc.) boiled down to highly defined symmetry, a split hair an inch longer.

The modern philosopher of most merit was Martin Luther King Jr., who understood the reality of a moral universe. In my understanding, reality does not favor human pettiness, procrastination or permissiveness of evil. There is considerable room for kindness and a deep desire for basic equality that we deny beneath the surface of our settling for symmetry, however highly defined. Our natural instincts may be overtaken for good if we do not open up to our other natural urge for goodness. We must act to call out corruption as we encounter it and understand that thugs spread fear not out of monstrosity but because it seems easier to intimidate than feel afraid. We may encounter resistance from ourselves and others. Such confronting carries an enormous cost: the price is our fear, the prize our freedom.

If we persist in placing even the noblest philosophy over actuality, we may no longer be fit for this planet. We must draw a line somewhere. Despite the world's problems, grand and annoying, we can act to solve them if we temporarily suspend our high judgment of "right" and "wrong" opinions. We can, if only for a moment in the sweeping time of space, sustain our arguments to reveal something realer and more forceful than trains of thought: each other in motion. We can radically cede dysfunctional debate for peace, if imperfect. The pain of perceptual paralysis gone, we can succeed in fixing what is broken economically, socially and politically through resourcefulness. I think what we will find is we will emerge less frozen in ideology and more free to move where our compassionate hearts and newly opened minds take us.

I am unshaken in my belief that we have the capacity to do whatever it is we set our minds to given the proper encouragement, opportunities and time. Death takes us all, and before we go we ought to do all we can to treat each other as equals. In the end, the endless march of words finishes second to friends.