"The irony was not lost on me: the man my trials had molded me into, was the master I'd spent all these years trying to find. I was lost and alone, awash with despair. I sought mentorship, I sought guidance- I'd fallen to my knees and begged for it. And now, there is no other way to say it, than to say I'd been blinded by suffering; I just could not see that my many struggles had been the hands sculpting me into the guide I'd sought. Where I once sought from others their forgiveness for my failures, I now forgive myself, and seek to help other extend the same to themselves. Where I once sought from my loved ones support for my dreams, I find now that they did not extend aid because they saw who I could be, and not who I was. I am my own master. Master, and servant - I am not above humanity, nor below it. I am of it, I am it. I am all that is human: life, death, love, loss, joy, and suffering. I am all of it, and because I am all of it, I am important, and necessary."
I didn't mourn Ali with a long piece, though he is probably my most important hero. I believe that both Ali and Camus can be felt when I speak, though the latter is likely most evident when I write. So, a piece in homage to the Greatest of All Time will be written in the tongue of Sisyphus.
I've no interest in discussing Ali's skill as a boxer, nor his stature as an activist. Both are relevant, and important, but neither thing infused me with confidence. The importance of Ali, for me, came from his faith in self. His faith in self informed Ali the boxer, and it encouraged Ali the activist. The man who told America that he was the greatest because he thought he was, and because he thought it was necessary for him to be that, that is who I look to and draw confidence from.
It wasn't an empty boast, it was honest faith. Ali didn't simply have strong belief in himself, he had faith. And I respond to visceral expressions, be they chocked full of emotion, or evidential of incredible faith. My favorite rappers as a younger man were DMX, Beanie Sigel, and Scarface. I didn't connect with DMX because of his aggressive energy, but because he had such faith that it would move him to tears just to speak of God. I connected with Beanie Sigel because his emotions could, and often did, overwhelm his ability to deliver the lines he'd written. I connected with Scarface because he possesses an unusual fluency in emotionality- it doesn't matter whether you've experienced what Face is rapping about, you will feel how it impacted him. But their powers of expression all come of pain, they all are lost in it. That they can communicate how lost they feel is miraculous, but it is no longer enough for me.
My favorite rapper now is Chance the Rapper. Not because he's the most talented lyricist, nor because he has the most entertaining delivery, but because, as he puts it, he speaks to God in public. There are songs in his catalogue that aren't simple vehicles for expression, there are songs that are very plainly prayers. He espouses a faith the likes of which has been absent from rap for as long as I've known it. There is a happiness in his music that does not exist in most other popular rap. Kendrick's music, for all its thoughtful consciousness, is bound by despair. Drake's music, for all its honest emotiveness, is beset on all sides by misery. Kid Cudi's music, for all its self-confident themes, speaks blatantly of losing self to mental suffering. But Chance, his music is faith-filled. And his happiness is not a blind optimism, he speaks of struggle. But he is happy in spite of it. His music is an acceptance of suffering's ubiquity, but a defiant love of life in spite of it.
Chance's music is an involuntary, genuine smile, and that energy is very reminiscent of young Kanye. Kanye broke into the public consciousness with the complaint that if he talked about God, his record wouldn't get played. And now, a decade later, Chance speaks to God in public.
I reference these things as I speak of Ali because he embodied the defiance I sense from Chance, and used to sense from Kanye. It is easy to accept suffering, and that can lead one to wallow in it. It is necessary to have voices that openly defy it, especially in a year as trying as this one.
The time now is for neither hope nor despair. We cannot admit hope, because hope speaks to transcendence, which the human condition does not now allow, and we cannot admit despair, because despair heeds inferiority, which the human condition never allowed. To be human is to be neither transcendent nor inferior, to be human is merely to be. You are both a speck of dust in the infinite universe, and a coalescence of all the universe's most fundamental elements. You are unimaginably small in the grand scheme, and unfathomably important to mortal progress. You are inferior in size to the universe, but you are transcendent in importance to humanity. Being- yours is something more than what you think, and something less than what you think. Your being is simultaneously disparate parts acting in concert, and a unified whole. But if you are two things, you are neither thing- you are something else entirely. As Rebecca Sugar might say: You are an experience.
What defines that experience? God? Life itself? Truth?
The question of whether God exists orients humans against each other, because either answer is so profound as to allow and encourage a raw and prepossessing radicalism. But if all answers to a question are equal in value, then it is not the answers that will draw humanity at odds, but the question. If all the answers to a question are worthy conclusions, then it is not the answers that are faulty, but the question. You ask whether God exists, but I find other thoughts to be more pregnant questions: what does God's absence or presence matter? What would God's existence add to our experience, and what would God's absence take away? What matters about our lives?
The question of life's value orients human beings against themselves, because life is fraught with suffering, and the truth of the experience of death is outside our knowledge. To live is to suffer, but what death yields is unknown. In consideration of mortal suffering, you will be confronted with a question: "To be, or not to be?" Are the intermittent joys of life enough of a counterweight to the ubiquity of suffering? What is the truth of the matter?
The question of truth orients humans against each other, because that is our most natural inclination. To be human is to pursue truth. But objective truth is well beyond what the human condition allows, and subjective truths are not truth, but fragmented pieces of truth. Our capacity for knowledge is such that there can be relative certainty, but the limits of our condition mean that absolute certainty is right now beyond us. The human condition causes us to thirst for truth, but the human mind cannot yet find truth's fountain, and the human body is ill-designed to digest its waters. Is our pursuit of truth beyond us? No, but it is nigh impossible.
And that, the apparent impossibility of ascertaining truth, that is why you must pursue it. You must live in pursuit of truth because it now appears impossible for you to find it.
You must exist within the constraints of your condition because it is your condition. But you must rebel against your condition because your condition demands it of you. Your condition limits you, but your condition demands that you stretch its limits.
You must fight against your fears because your condition ensures that you are already powerful enough to overcome them. But to fight fear is not to force it down- your condition ensures that there is much to be afraid of. To fight fear is to live both in acceptance and defiance of it.
That is what it is to be human. To live both in acceptance of death, and in defiance of it. To accept that objective truth is beyond us, but to defiantly pursue it. To accept that we cannot truly know the experience of another, but to defiantly extend kindness and empathy.
To accept that you must fail, that you will fail, but to defiantly continue to fight.
Behold this world, this social world, and all our machinations. Our arts, our languages, our currencies, our governments, our organizations, our scientific works, all of it. The social world is our canvas, and to be human is to both be scientist and artist, if there is a difference. We can discern its truths because our hands can form creations, and those creations reveal truth to us in pieces. That process makes each and every one of us important as individuals; that process makes important the understanding that we are all integral parts of a greater collective. We need each and every human to express themselves, to create, in order to discern understandings, and we need collective humanity to fit all the pieces together, in order to discover truth.
Be defiant in your assertion of self, and be defiant in your pursuit of truth.
These are the lessons I learned from Ali, and from Camus.
And for that reason, they are important, and they are necessary.
That they are those things, means that I am those things.
I am important, and I am necessary.
That I am those things, means that you are those things. And, the next idea, it follows that pattern:
I must be the greatest.