My doctor says that tobacco would be a great drug if it weren’t for the way we come to care for it too much. It’s perfect in that it induces the perfect pairing of calm and alertness.
A venerable philosophy professor, now long dead said “I can’t imagine how one could do philosophy were it not for pipe tobacco.”
I’ve been thinking about that juxtaposition of calm and alert a lot lately. Calm is dispassionately unflappable. It doesn’t care. It’s fine however things go. Alert is motivated by care, attention trying to discern differences that you believe make a difference.
I go deep into the pairing every four months, almost to the day, when I go to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned. I ask for nitrous, claiming to have very sensitive gums whether I do or don’t. Barbara, my dental assistant smiles a wry smile, turns on the fans and gives me the maximum legal dose. Under the influence, I’m attentive enough to the careful Barbara, to signal often that I’m not falling into a coma, as I fall into that drug’s unique blend of calm alertness, passionate dispassion, and the philosophy one can do in there.
My care for nitrous started accidentally. I was alert to the need to get my teeth cleaned but my teeth were alert to every scraping. To calm my teeth the dentist offered me the drug celebrated by no less than psychology pioneer William James. I get why.
My first nitrous experience barreled me down a tunnel at the base of which I found Aesop’s grasshopper and ant. You’ll remember these two. The ant worked assiduously preparing for the winter, much like Barbara assiduously preparing my teeth for future health. The grasshopper couldn’t be bothered. He fiddled and played much like me lollygagging there in my dental-chair rapture, not a care in the world. Under nitrous and after, the fable felt profound, cosmically important. I went home and wrote my first nitrous-laced essay. Now I write one every time.
On nitrous I’m both participant in life and observer, in it and yet outside it looking in. My life doesn’t pass before my eyes, all of life does. I take stock of my notch of time, my day in the sun, my moment emergently organized into conscious human form, but not mine distinctly from anyone else’s. We all get one.
I spend my whole life in a lighted glass box, everything dark around me. On nitrous I burrow through a dark vent to where I can peer into the box and see me in there, or anyone, and I’m still inside the box too. I’m both in and out of body at once.
Over the years in that chair, musing while my dental assistant carefully cleans, I’m brought back to that same pairing of grasshopper/ant, play/work, calm/alert, dispassionate/passionate, not caring/caring, outside the box calmly observing/inside the box alertly doing. Today in the chair I was reminded of the King at the end of Alice In wonderland.
What do you know about this business? the King said to Alice.
Nothing, said Alice.
Nothing WHATEVER? persisted the King.
Nothing whatever, said Alice.
That’s very important, the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: UNimportant, your Majesty means, of course, he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
UNimportant, of course, I meant, the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, important–unimportant– unimportant–important– as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Some of the jury wrote it down important, and some unimportant. Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; but it doesn’t matter a bit, she thought to herself.
At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, cackled out Silence! and read out from his book, Rule Forty-two. ALL PERSONS MORE THAN A MILE HIGH TO LEAVE THE COURT.
The King’s important/unimportant oscillations came to me as I was thinking about another variation on calm and alert, the difference between two kinds of ambiguities: who cares? and maybe.
I work in decision-theory, where the mother of all decisions is deciding whether to decide something. That is, you can be in two states about a decision: Deciding it still or already decided. Which state your in about a decision is therefore itself a decision—a decision about a decision, or a meta-decision. You’re deciding whether to be calmly decided. Or conversely your deciding whether to be alertly deciding.
Sitting there today, as my dental ant carefully worked my Northern teeth I thought about the difference between an anxious pleading “who knows?” and the same phrase as the rhetorical question, “who knows?” meaning really “who cares?” Both are variations on “maybe” but one alertly inquiring, the other, the opposite, calmly indifferent. The ant struggles with ambiguities to make the right decisions about how to prepare for the future. The grasshopper is indifferent to the ambiguities, decidedly relaxed into “whatever.” There are therefore three variations on decided: Yes, no, and whatever, which leaves “maybe” as the one deciding state.
Nitrous, I notice today in the dentist’s chair stirs me to such dispassion, such commitment to stepping back. Calm yet alert I’m feeling what’s meant by the Tao’s 16th chapter:
Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.
Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.
If you don’t realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.
Though with an added quality not captured in the chapter. It’s intense. I’m not just watching. I’m in it and I care. Like the Zen Koan: My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes. Or like the Quaker Koan: Build it to last 100 years; be ready to leave tomorrow.
This theme: Yes/no; care/don’t care is itself is like that tunnel, its sides made by walls of yes and no, its top and bottom by care and don’t care, as though we were tunneling down the Z axis of a three dimensional graph. Z is time and the changing questions time brings. X is yes in one direction; no in the other. And the Y axis is up for care, down for don’t care. I imagine life like a tube ride with buttons on the walls ceiling and floor. We ride along through time, a rickety ride hitting the yes, no, care, don’t care buttons, like the video game Dance Dance Revolution but sliding, abrading through the tube of life. We hope we’re hitting the right buttons, saying yes when the answer is yes, saying no when the answer is no, caring like the ant where it matters and not caring, like the grasshopper where it doesn’t.
My teeth are clean, good for another four months. Barbara purges me with oxygen and I am reborn into my cares and carelessnesses.