Embrace the Suck

My last few weeks have been spent in the town of Vinton, Iowa, where training experience in NCCC North Central Region has shown us how Americorps NCCC FEMA Corps functions, as well as how we team members relate to each other.  I have also noticed that in a program such as this, schedules are subject to change–an administrative adaptation apparently necessary to constitute a sufficient response to the problems caused by natural disasters which most certainly will not bow to the schedule of any human government.  In order to address unpredictable disasters in the desired manner, the organization must be unpredictable itself.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to evaluate the unpredictability of nature; unpredictability may be a good or a bad thing, even a source at once of evil and of perfection.  One night out here in IA, for example, I decided to go out for a walk.  What I expected to be a mere breathe of fresh air revealed a heat-lightning storm to me unlike anything I have ever seen before.  No rain was present, but an entire face of the heavens was illuminated almost continuously by a flurry of lightning bolts, dancing across what must have been miles of skyscape.  After bringing some of my teammates out to share this phenomenon, we sat out watching the lightning for a good twenty minutes before a few drops of rain indicated that it was time to head back inside.  I could never have dreamed of seeing such a show actually light up the sky in that way, but the world releases such pleasant surprises without warning.

On the other hand, there are unexpected surprises which are less than pleasant, as well.  Obviously, disasters are such an example, but my experience in this department lately has been of the less significant problem of unexpected responsibilities and schedule changes.  I got Monday off on Labor Day, for example, but Saturday we had to work, and various instances of paperwork have taken chunks out of Sunday (our day off before starting on a regular schedule again on Monday).  In light of this, we have been learning to “embrace the suck”, as they say in the military.  But how is this absurd act of “embracing the suck”, embracing the un-embraceable, possible?  I find assistance in a realization stemming from a certain argument in the philosophy of religion.

This is the traditional “Ontological Argument” for the existence of God, popularized by Anselm of Canterbury.  The argument is an attempt at an a priori proof of the existence of God through a reductio ad absurdum against “The Fool”, who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1 NIV); Anselm tries to show that the Fool’s premises are incompatible and thus reducible to the absurdity of contradiction.  In Gareth B. Matthews’s and Lynne R. Baker’s paper “The Ontological Argument Simplified”, the Fool’s stance is presented in terms of “mediated” and “unmediated” causal powers; Anselm believes that God has “unmediated” causal powers and thus is “actual”, whereas the Fool believes that God has merely “mediated” causal powers (since, according to the Fool, God is merely possible, and only causally potent insofar as actual agents believe in God’s existence and act on those beliefs).  According to Anselm, the Fool’s beliefs are incompatible with the definition of God as “that than which none greater can be conceived”, for the Fool must think that than which none greater can be conceived to have merely mediated causal powers, as a figment of the imagination; since this being could be conceived as actual (i.e., with unmediated causal powers), and since being actual makes something greater than being merely possible, the ‘actual’ being referred to by the theist is greater than the merely possible one referred to by the Fool, and thus the Fool is mistaken when he talks of something nonexistent (that is, merely possible rather than actual) as the greatest conceivable being.  In other words, that than which none greater can be conceived must be actual by definition.

How does this relate to “embracing the suck”?  While the ontological argument is usually employed as an argument for the actuality of a certain pre-conceived “great” state of affairs (i.e., the existence of God), I find it to fit better as an argument for the greatness of whatever state of affairs–rationally governed or otherwise–happens to be actual; why not determine valuability in terms of actuality, rather than actuality in terms of our conceptions of valuability?  Going further than Anselm’s idea that actuality is a condition for maximal valuability (or ‘maximal conceivable greatness’), I contend that actuality is a condition for valuability in general; in order for something to be valuable at all, it must be actual.  Thus, the real Fool is the one who thinks that the merely possible–regardless of its appeal to our evaluative intuitions–is greater than the actual, despite its apparent absurdity.  The only alternative to “embracing the suck” of actuality is embracing the phantasmatic dreams of non-existence; I’ll take the former any day.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or AmeriCorps.