In a land far away, though not too far from us, there once lived an elephant. His name was Tradition. And he lived by his namesake, always keeping with tradition, and—but for the next water-hole—avoiding change whenever possible. Tradition was happy and content for most of his days, and he wished to keep life that way. In that same land lived a jackass. His name was Progress. He too lived by his namesake, constantly changing his views and ideas, if not because they were actually improving then because they were merely different. Progress was often irritable and malcontented, both because his situation never actually improved and because, in order to have enough energy to change it, he had to be upset about it. Thus, Progress would fly north only to get upset about the cold and head south; he would run south till he sweat so much that he ran away from the falling sun; but when the sun rose the next day he turned away west and tried to out run it. He tried every direction because none could satisfy him, and he found that his favorite way to get north was often to go south by spinning in circles. In fact, Progress had evolved so much that he actually never left his watering-hole, but his circular motions and zeal for them gave him the false impression that he was moving forward.
One day, while Progress was undergoing his daily gyrations, Tradition arrived at this same watering-hole. When the old elephant saw him, he saw a jackass who was so progressive, his mere forward movement had to be countered by several movements to the right and left, with the occasional attempt at biting his own tail. After laughing at Progress, Tradition decided to try and help him.
“Hullo there,” he said. “What is your name, and where are you headed?”
“My name’s Progress,” the jackass said. “Though I’m thinking of changing it.”
“A lovely word, lovely. Do you live by it?”
“Oh, indeed, I do. Whatever new whim or fancy enters my head, I proceed in that direction. I try it out until something better comes along. When I die, I want to be well-rounded, you see. I want to be a jackass who has given every idea a shot and has lived nearly everywhere. Perspective is important you see. If we only do what we’ve always done, we never move forward. And moving forward is the most important aspect of life. Nay, moving forward, change, mere change, is life. A young jackass colt is constantly changing. Remove change and you remove the life force. So when I try out a new direction, I immediately must subvert it; I must find something negative about it, tweak it slightly, or even go in the opposite direction.”
“I see,” Tradition responded. “Have you ever tried subverting subversions?”
Progress gave Tradition a quizzical look, for the question was clearly beyond his scope of understanding.
“I have an idea,” the elephant continued. “How about you travel with me to the next watering-hole? I usually know exactly where I am headed. You see that well-worn path up ahead. I always take that path because I know it leads to water. It is the path that has been tried and true that I take.”
By this point in his adventures, Progress had not actually been to a new watering-hole in some time, though he was under the impression that he had seen them all. The offer was therefore unexciting to him. Most things, you see, made Progress get bored very easily. However, there was a certain charm about Tradition, something solid and stable about how he carried himself, and so he accepted the offer. He had, after all, never tried the path, which Tradition spoke of, and it would be an interesting change, if nothing else.
As the two creatures traveled down the path, Progress, like most modern jackasses, almost immediately grew bored and irritable.
“Say, how long is this path, Tradition?” he asked.
“It is a long path, Progress, a long path” the elephant responded. “It is not a safe path either, but it is full of perils and dangers. Yet, I hold fast to it because I know it works. Come now, what are you doing?”
At the words perils and dangers, Progress immediately went into the fetal position and started to cry. In all his changing ways, he never tried anything that might cause pain. Tradition saw this, and because time was of the essence on his travels, he decided he might speed Progress’s destination up a bit.
“Progress, get up! I see now that you seem to be an animal full of ideas. You change philosophies and geographical settings quite often, but have you ever thought of progressing against those two things? Have you ever tried progressing against fear? Have you ever tried progressing against your own mere nature? If changing truth is as easy as changing a mood, why not change fear into courage, or legs into wings?
Almost immediately, Progress was transformed. Of course fear was only a relative term, created and defined by old, white men like Samuel Johnson. But the definition was arbitrary, and so from this point onward, Progress decided that fear no longer meant “An emotion excited by danger, evil, or pain; apprehension; dread” but that it could also mean “The capacity to meet danger or difficulty with firmness; bravery.” So while Tradition talked about the wild animals on the path and the high cliffs with narrowing avenues, Progress approached with an illogical fear. His mind was changed almost so completely at the mere change of the word’s meaning, so Tradition thought he would test Progress a little more.
“Progress, I’m sure you have dabbled in existentialism. Have you ever questioned why you were a jackass? Or, have you ever dreamt of being something else?”
“Certainly, Tradition, certainly. Why, just the other day, I saw a fish swimming in a water-hole, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m tired of being a jackass, why am I not a fish or an amphibian? It would be so much easier to stay cool, after all.’ I immediately subverted the experience by telling myself that thought preceded essence and that all living creatures and plants came down from the great Pan and that we were all really one creature, and I rested content in the fact that I was at that moment a jackass and a fish and an amphibian. I then grew discontent and subverted that thought by—”
“Hold it right there!” interrupted Tradition. “But though you are all things, since we all come from the same Pan-Spirit, do you not acknowledge that your physical form still limits you to that of a jackass? That is, I do not see gills on you.”
“Oh, most certainly, Tradition. But that is the beauty of it all. While I take on the physical form of a jackass, inside I currently self-identify myself as Salmon and a Salamander. I don’t believe in literal essences, of course, that is a far-too fettering approach to life; but I do hold that though outwardly I am a jackass, inwardly, I am essentially many things.”
“Progress,” Tradition said gravely. “I think it is high time to subvert this philosophy.”
“Indeed. As I was saying, I had these beautiful—such an arbitrary term!—thoughts in my head that day but grew bored with them and had to move on to something else. That’s when a pack of wild jackasses showed up at that very water-hole. I decided then and there that mere self-identification, though very progressive, was only a step along a very forward thinking path. You see, I had self-identified as many things, but I had no foundation; my theories came from my own head, but would that help social progress? We are but individuals in a larger society made up of other individuals, and we cannot neglect the greater responsibility we have to social progress and peace.”
Tradition raised his large, bushy eyebrows at Progress’s use of evaluative terms, but held his own peace.
“So I approached the group of wild jackasses and presented my case to them. None of us agreed completely on anything, but we all agreed that whatever we could conclude, we ought to conclude and it ought to be true and final. It was very difficult, but we eventually made a social contract, which we called ‘social constructivism.’ What was meant by this was that if we could agree on anything, that meant it was true. As a small society, we disagreed on some of the larger issues of life such as what happens after we die or who created us. Since we disagreed, we decided it was best not to discuss those things and instead focus on ourselves. We were able then, to socially construct truths for ourselves. By presenting ideas we made up to the whole group, we could be reassured of their validity. For instance, when I told the group of my existential experience, they all agreed that I had every right to self-identify as a Salmon and a Salamander. And for the first time in my life, I felt this was very real change. For instead of me changing my mind on my own, I had society telling me it was true. And if everyone agreed with me, I was contented and happy. Thus, from that point on, I decided to live the malcontented life of a jackass who was inwardly tormented because his true self was a Salmon or a Salamander.”
After hearing this tale, Tradition was rather discouraged, and he decided that perhaps progress for the sake of progress only lead to absurdities and eventually death. He therefore decided to encourage Progress in his search for self-actualization.
“Progress,” he began in his slow, solemn way, “you tell an interesting story. But do you think that you are actually experiencing everything you could experience? I don’t doubt the experience of being a Salmon is without excitement; but what if you could both be in the sea and floating above it? What if you could feel the high wind in your hair, the hot earth under your feet, and the cool sea upon your neck? Why not be more, if more is indeed better?”
Though progress had never considered self-identifying as a bird, he feigned that he had thought of this, and that it was only a matter of time before he realized his true nature as that of a Seagull.
“But,” continued Tradition, “is it enough that you are only inwardly those things? Tell me, what is reality? Is this stone, which I kick, not real? What is the true essence in the world?”
“Ah, you touch on a good point,” observed Progress. “Reality, as we see it, is a fiction. It is, in other words, a lie. That stone you kick is real only in the sense that it was accidental. Since there is no higher reality unless we socially construct it to exist, that stone has no deeper meaning than that matter which makes it up. But more importantly, we must question whether that stone would exist had we never come across it. It is the old question: Does a tree that falls in a forest make a sound if there is no one there to hear it? The answer is most obviously, “No, it does not.” We must individually experience things into being, into reality, and them solidify their existence through society. You see, that stone only exists within our society of two. It is not real for the masses of the world because the masses are not here to experience it. What is reality for us is not reality for everyone else. In this sense, the majority concludes that that stone does not exist; therefore, that stone you kick is a fiction.”
The elephant did not fully understand, but then he rested on the fact that he believed Progress to be speaking nonsense. He probed further.
“If I understand correctly, a thing’s existence is only complete by its being observed by a cognitive being? And that the majority must acknowledge it for it to become a true reality.”
“Can it then work the other way?”
“What do you mean?” Progress questioned.
“Well let’s take this stone again. Before we came across it, it did not exist. By observing it, and by talking about it, we have solidified its reality.”
“Yes. Very true.”
“Can we not then construct or own stones from mere discussion? That is, if existence and reality is determined by cognitive thought, can cognitive thought not evolve to a point where matter is changed? Can we not cry out and create silent stones from nothing? If there is no creator, can we not become creators?”
Tradition was, once again, thinking much further along than Progress, for the jackass had not yet considered this possible scenario. But because he was itching to subvert his latest theory, he decided to go with it. Tradition, meanwhile, continued humoring the mutable jackass.
“Let’s take your longing for becoming a Seagull,” he said. “Why be content with the inward torment of self-identifying with being a Seagull and not outwardly living like one? It seems that even though your society accepts you as a Seagull, they still shun your living as one. They are not nearly progressive enough; unless they let you live how you self-identify, you will always be mere stone to them. That is, they will still be determining what you are by determining how you live, no matter how you feel inside. We acknowledge this is a stone, thus limiting its ability to be a tree; they acknowledge you as a Seagull, but only inwardly, limiting your ability to sprout wings and fly. Is it not time to fully experience your true self? I say, be a Seagull! Put on wings and fly!”
The fickle jackass was so moved by this speech, that he nearly began flapping his skinny little legs and dashing off the cliff side. Tradition held him back, however, for he was having a bit too much fun to see the end just yet.
“Hold it a moment!” he said. “You must first don a good pair of wings before you take off flying. As for our society of two, though, lets decide right here and now, this Saturday, June 27 the year or Our Lord two thousand and fifteen, that you are now inwardly identifying as a Seagull. Go now, gather up some branches and leaves. Lets make you some wings!”
Progress was so overjoyed at this idea that finding enough branches and leaves to create wings seemed to take no time at all. Tradition helped him situate the wings to his sides so they would not fall off, placing a rope he could pull, so they would flap. The transformation was now complete. The jackass was no longer a jackass but a seagull, though an ugly one at that.
“I feel so free and self-actualized,” he said. “I feel like all the tormenting my soul has undergone these past few moments has all vanished away. I feel nearly content with life. I feel I can be the best seagull. I feel I can do what any seagull can do. I feel the bonds of tradition and stereotyping and bigoted negativity are all in my past and the rosy future is one of inward peace and outward realization. I feel. I just simply feel.”
And with that statement, the seagull stood tall and proud. He pulled the rope a couple of times to make sure the wings worked, and after a few successful attempts, jumped over the side of the cliff, screaming, “I feel I’m free!” But the truth of gravity pulled him down quite quickly, and the seagull fell upon the rocks. He split his head open, broke his neck, and gave up his spirit—the spirit of a dead jackass.
Tradition looked over the ravine for a moment and then heard a noise come from the trees. About ten jackasses had now entered the path chanting, “Change for the sake of Change! Progress for the sake of Progress!” but they stopped when they saw Tradition.
“There’s your Progress,” he said after hearing their last chant. And with a final glance over the ravine, he turned and continued on his well-trodden path.
The jackasses meanwhile were dismayed. They all tried to agree on what to do next, since their leader was dead, but no one could really decided on anything coherent. Some tried to go after Tradition, but others wanted to follow Progress and dash their heads against the rocks. In the end, all that one could hear amongst the jackasses were a few words. When their faces were turned toward Tradition they said such things as “Bigot! Murderer!” But when they faced Progress, they chanted “Martyr! Martyr!”
Written at Thee Ole Midshipman,
June 27, 2015
Painting: “Dead Seagull”
By G. Murray
Oil on canvas, n.d.