Thoughts on Heidegger’s Concept of Thrownness

German Philosopher Martin Heidegger (Source: Willi Pragher Landasarchiv, Baden-Wurttemberg.)

I have been intrigued for some time with the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger‘s work, particularly his reflections on how human beings are thrown into existence and how so many,  actually the vast majority, of us become so caught up in this existence, certainly in the daily, mundane aspects of it, that we never become fully actualized creatures – at least, to the degree to which we are capable.  We simply become immersed in the demands and banality of daily existence and in the idle chatter largely associated with it, consequently, never becoming fully aware of all of the possibilities of living and, for that matter, of acquiring the emotional and psychological  means of living life to the fullest.

Yet, as presumptuous as this may sound to some, Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, brilliant as it is, raises some additional implications, at least, if I understand him correctly.

A Comparatively Raw, Unfiltered Experience with Existence

We modern humans are thrown into existence, yes, but not in the disruptive way that our hominin forebears were eons ago. The thrownness with which we deal on a daily basis is considerably far removed from the raw encounters our hominid forebears faced.  To be sure, among some of the more neurotic of us moderns, many hours in the day may be passed contemplating mortality and the inevitability of death.  But our ancient forebears were confronted by immediacy of death of which we moderns scarcely can conceive.  They were confronted on a daily basis with the strong possibly of death, whether this meant being devoured by hungry animals or running up against hostile hominids while undertaking the daily, desperate task of collecting water or foraging or hunting for food. 

Modern humans, at least, those born in the developed world, do not encounter anything resembling our forebears’ primordial existence. Indeed, it was their encounter with this primordial thrownness, this comparatively raw encounter with existence, that placed them and ultimately our species on a path that culminated in the highly nuanced, albeit filtered existence that we experience in the 21st century.

Thrown into an Amnion

Indeed, many, if not most of us, are thrown into something  that arguably could be more accurately described as an amnion, one that not only sustains each of us, however imperfectly, throughout our lives, but that also, in a manner of speaking, is somewhat soft and pliable, certainly compared with the filtering system that sustained the ancients.  And this amnion possibly will become even softer and more pliable in the future as our relationship with Artificial Intelligence intensifies. (I personally prefer to call our evolved existence the “Networked Human Exoskeleton” to underscore how a networking of language, technology and writing has provided our species with a dense layer of protection and sustenance over eons and that could be described as a largely incorporeal protective covering.)

To be sure, many moderns, whether because of genetic, psychological or emotional factors, never adjust adequately to this amnion – this highly evolved network through which we experience existence. And to underscore again, it functions only as an inapproximate filtering mechanism with the physical world that lies beyond us. Even so, this filtering system, as it has grown denser and more generative over time, has afforded our species, certainly those of us who inhabit developed world counties, with an immensely multifaceted reality. Even more remarkable is how it has managed to substitute what once was a largely raw, unfiltered experience with one that has altered in a variety of ways how we perceive what lies beyond us.

One of the most conspicuous examples is how this evolving filter has contributed to a radical alteration of our perception of natural phenomena, notably the sky, which fixated and enraptured the ancients. Now our perception and understanding of the sky, which our forebears experienced as a dense canopy of light, is now imparted significantly through highly trained specialists who use all manner of instrumentation, not only telescopes but also the data generated by deep space craft, planetary landers and, in the future, even submarines that will plumb the depths distant planetary and lunar oceans.  

Marta Hiller’s Experience 

Some insight into how our networked human exoskeleton, our densely evolved filter, has affected our perception of existence was provided by a German journalist who survived the Soviet invasion and occupation of Berlin and who, in the years following her death, was identified as Marta Hillers. She is credited with writing a “Woman in Berlin,” a remarkable but horrifying account of the rape and pillaging that followed in the aftermath of the German collapse and how she and other women not only physically survived but also marshaled the psychological and emotional resources to endure these daily indignities.

In the course of compiling a journal all of her disparate thoughts and experiences, Hillers offered a remarkable observation.  She reflected on how neuroticism essentially served as a marker of affluence in a society such as Germany, which, in the years before its collapse in 1945 was regarded as one of the most technologically and culturally sophisticated countries in the world.

What followed in the aftermath of the Nazi regime’s collapse, on the other hand, served to underscore to Hillers that life in more primitive environments required a sharper, if not a laser-like, focus on the daily task of survival.

It reminds me of a observation my late father once made about the widespread modern fascination with genealogy.  As he stressed, only a few generations back, people, particularly in the Depression Era South, struggling to scratch out a living, scarcely had the time or inclination to ask about their origins. 

For most people, genealogy has become a vocation, one that has been shaped significantly by the rising levels of affluence and education that has accompanied the post-WWII era.

I have come to refer to this phenomenon of densely filtered existence as networked slack. 

As our networked human exoskeleton has grown and become more dense and generative,  it has altered significantly the way we perceive what lies beyond us.  And as I devote more thought to this multi-generational improvisation, the more I appreciate Heidegger’s concept of disclosure. Our perception of our reality is, to a significant degree, sculpted out by our exoskeleton.  In many ways, this relates to biologist Stuart Kaufman’s concept of the adjacent possible.

The conceptual scaffolding that emerges from this evolving exoskeleton effectively discloses new facets of perception of existence and even has the capacity in extraordinarily disruptive circumstances, such as the ones that Hillers faced, to alter radically our perception – in her case, by providing unique insight into the comparatively unfiltered experience of the ancients.   

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How I Survived Existential Angst and Actually Profited from It

The passage below, from a review of Sartre’s philosophy, is titled “Nausea and the Absurdity of the World” and is intended to  convey the futility of existence. Indeed, speaking as a devoted user and contributor to the question-and-answer site Quora, I am struck, even awed, by the degree to which this kind of thinking resounds among young people.

“Consider having dinner with your partner. You are essentially part of a habitable planet called Earth, in the midst of the milky way galaxy, sitting down on chopped up wood which people use to make chairs and tables and you put pieces of plants and meat in your mouth along with your partner, with whom you one day hope to procreate with and start a family.”

From “Nausea and the Absurdity of the World,” and article by Eternalised: In Pursuit of Meaning Weblog.

Not an Absurdity but an Affirmation

Far from hailing this as a depiction the absurdity of existence, I view it as the affirmation of the remarkable nature of our existence, the consummation  of a process that began tens of thousands of  years ago, one from which we derive a myriad of material, intellectual, and, yes, what many of us regard as transcendent experiences.

There is beauty and mystery bound up in this evolved existence, though to be sure, science, aided by Artificial Intelligence, now is affording us a clearer understanding of this apparatus and how it has evolved over many millennia. This is paradoxically  slowly robbing our species of much of the mystery of existence and over the course of time even may erode the binding that holds together this complex system. Even so, these discoveries are remarkable and inspiring in their own right – to me, at least – because they serve serve to underscore that the refinements associated with our evolved existence have unfolded over an almost unfathomable stretch of time.

My Personal Crisis

Yet, I must confess my reverence and gratitude for this envolved existence is something of an acquired taste, stemming from a personal crisis. Some 30 years ago, I was confronted by my own experience with existential angst  that related significantly to the description supplied above.

Everything around me seemed surreal, far removed. I felt as if I had lost myself and that life was bereft of meaning and purpose. For a while, living and all the things associated with it seemed purposeless.

This experience occurred in my late 20’s and prompted a thorough-going reevaluation of many facets of my life  and how I had regarded virtually everything in life up to that point, notably may religious beliefs. Indeed, reflecting back, it was my religious outlook at the time that contributed significantly to this personal crisis. But this is a complicated issue is better taken up in another thread.

Looking back more than 30 years I feel deeply thankful for the experience, as disruptive and even horrifying as it was at the time.

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

The experience prompted me to read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which transformed me in a way that I never could have anticipated. Frankl and other writers acquainted  me – in a very real sense, baptized me – into what really amounted to an awakening. It underscored to me that while I have very little control over life and the randomness associated with it, I am afforded tremendous latitude in terms of how I choose to think about and react to it.

Looking back, it has occurred to me that this exposure to existential angst amounted to a disruption, one that forced me, in a matter of speaking, to undertake a thorough-going overhaul of my mental wiring. Reflecting on this crisis and all that I had read and contemplated in response to it, brought about a sweeping psychological transformation. I gained a clearer picture of how to cope with the exigencies of life.

Filling Up Our Mortal Existence

For me one if the most cogent observations about life was offered by New York Times columnist and bestselling author David Brooks. Time and again, Brooks has expressed his conviction that what counts most in life is how we choose to fill up our mortal existence. As he sees it, our experiences of self-actualization and the sense of self-accomplishment bound up with them are a critical facet of a fulfilled life, not only in terms of edifying us throughout our lives but also serving a means of fortifying us in old age.

It is also worth reiterating that we, in the developed world, at least, are fortunate to live out our  lives in what could be described as an evolved existence. We have been afforded a marvelous human inheritance which I have come to describe as the networked human exoskeleton, a fusion of language, technology and writing that has afforded us with a protective layering, similar to a crustacean or insectoid exoskeleton. But is has also provided us with a basis for dense forms of social interaction and community and, moreover, an increasing ability to understand a great deal about the nature our our existence – how we are affected by our natural environment and even what lies beyond our planetary bounds. This is why a few thinkers have described this networking as a human hive. Indeed, hive is an particularly apt term, because it underscores how densely evolved existence not only protects and sustains us but also, conceivably, at least, affords us the opportunity for enriched living and even immense personal growth over the course of our lives.

We are sustained by this evolved existance all through our lives.

I have shared before the account of a Soviet Cosmonaut subjected to all the  training conceived and designed for the rigors of spaceflight, which included exposure to long periods of isolation. This cosmonaut passed his time reciting the reams of poetry that he had committed to memory throughout his life. I can’t thank of any account that better conveys how we are able to draw on elements of our densely evolved existence to sustain us throughout our lives.

Likewise, Frankl, faced with the horrors of daily existence in death camp, undoubtedly drew not only on his intensive medical and psychiatric training but also his immense erudition for sustenance.

Granted, one of the arguments of existentialists, some of them, at least, is that the very existence of this networked exoskeleton, as I routinely describe it, that is behind so much of humanity’s contemporary angst.

Still, I, for one, simply refuse to give in to this notion of life’s inherent meaningless. I suspect all the the reading and counseling I pursued to come to grips with my own personal crisis eventually immunized me to this impulse. At the exceedingly ripe age of 59, I wake up every morning with enthusiasm for the next book, the next opportunity to become acquainted with a new facet in what has become a comparatively wide range of intellectual interests.

When I am not reading I am writing, and while none of what I conceive and put in print will garner the slightest interest after my passing, I nevertheless view my writing as a affirmation of life. But most important of all, I regard it not only as an affirmation but also as an expression of gratitude for the evolved existence that been handed down to me across some five millennia.

An Incomparable Gift

This evolved existence, which, over the course of time, has grown into a dense network, is an incomparable gift, which has enabled me, the grandson of a coal miner with a fifth-grade education, to earn  three university degrees and to develop the skills to acquire a decent working knowledge of humanity’s struggles with existence.

Out of a profound since of gratitude for this gift, I devote a significant amount of my modest writing exploring the nature of this inheritance in hopes of reaching others, notably younger people in their late 20’s who, like me some 30 years ago, are working through their own existential crisis, struggling to secure a lifeline in what seems at this juncture their lives to be a hostile, tempestuous sea. 

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Opposable Thumbs and Human Destiny

Source: Wikimedia Commons

New research into the origin of the opposable human thumb is fascinating, to say the least, even though many of these new insights remain entirely speculative.

Even so, the insights arguably demonstrate a lot about the nature of the immense series of improvisations that have occurred over eons and that have culminated in the contrivance that I’ve chosen to call the “networked human exoskeleton.”

First, advances in artificial intelligence are providing us with a considerably more nuanced insight into ancient human origins. And for that reason, many people, notably specialists in this field, contend that we are living in unusually exciting times.  But all of these new insights into our ancient development, notably the deepening knowledge of the agonizingly slow, incremental pace in which it occurred, are producing a bracing effect for some.  One could make the case that these deep insights afforded by artificial intelligence, despite their speculative nature, have contributed to an increasing untethering of our species from the characteristics that have historically defined us. In a sense, they are dehumanizing us, serving as a reminder that we are not quite as singular as we believed.

So much of what we regard as human achievement was not the result of conscious human thought but rather occurred through a series responses, in many cases, entirely unconscious responses, to the exigencies of hominin and, later, human existence.

Consequently, we are being robbed of much of the mystery of our origins. We are learning that our distant forbears, for the most part, didn’t consciously undertake the construction of the dense networking of language, technology and writing that makes our enriched lives possible. As we are learning, we’re are not the stewards of our existence.  We are not sovereign in any real sense.  What we achieved – if achievement really is the right term to use within this context –  occurred overwhelmingly through unconscious improvisation in the midst of our intermittent brushes with reality.

For eons, mystery, expressed throughout much of the world in some version of the Abrahamic God, has helped much of our species deal with a perennial paradox: the fact we we, compared with other creatures, appear to be truly singular, though this singularity has been accompanied by the stark perception that we do not exercise substantial control over our existence.

Our thumbs potentially serve as one of the most conspicuous reminders of the ponderously slow steps that resulted in the evolved, language-using, technological species we know as Homo sapiens. They challenge the notions of human singularity.

They serve as a reminder that human biological innovation was slow, ponderously slow. 

Using 3-D modeling, a team of German scientists speculate that it required about 2-million years for our forebears to develop this critical survival tool. 

The scientists reached this conclusion after studying the hands of a small, cave-dwelling species known as H. naledi, who inhabited Earth between 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, and also the closely related species, Australopithecines. 

The 3-D technology led the scientists to conclude that a muscle known as opponens pollicis, attached to the base of the thumb, enabled the thumb to flex inwardly.    

One wonders how human achievement would have been possible without such a specialized appendage.  Technology is an integral part of our networked exoskeleton.  It, along with language and, notably, writing, ultimately contributed to sufficient enough levels of memetic activity to form what I call our networked exoskeleton, a largely incorporeal contrivance, a fusion of language, technology and writing, which humans and their hominin forebears constructed largely unconsciously over many millennia and in response to the exigencies of existence. It that has enabled us to extend our reach onto every continent on the planet and into the deepest deeps of the oceans and even into the vast vacuum of Space.

Opposable thumbs appeared to play an integral part of the formation of critical technologies – stone tools and weapons, for example – that greatly aided the ability of humans to acquire the rudimentary facets of technology, which formed the basis of a dense, extended technological realm, the technosphere, as it is known to many specialists, which now encompasses everything from personal computers and smartphones to manned rockets and deep-space probes.

Thumbs seems indispensable to the conceptual and material leaps that humans have achieved over the last two million years.  And that leads me to wonder:  How would the lack of opposable thumbs have degraded this progress? 

And this raises yet another question:  Were thumbs inevitable or merely a stroke of luck?  It seems that any technological species ultimately would have developed something like opposable appendages in order to create the rudimentary technology that ultimately produced synergy that led to the formation of the dense technological web that now distinguishes human life on this planet.

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Networked Synergy

A Soviet technician with the Soviet Sputnik satellite.

In 1966, in what was hailed by some academics as a major conceptual breakthrough in social science, a book titled  The Social Construction of Reality by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann was published. 

I’m sure that somewhere along the way as an undergraduate sociology major, I encountered this book or some discussion of it.

Even so, based on years of my own rather undirected, undisciplined reading and my own thoughts regarding what we define as culture, I’ve come to reject the view that reality, at least, most of it, is socially constructed.  Some of it is. And to be sure, reality is an undertaking confined solely to the human experience.  Yet, I can’t bring myself to accept that social reality, certainly within the last few centuries, can be strictly defined as socially constructed.  

While some of it is, much, if not most of it, has occurred spontaneously and is not a product of conscious human design.  And this stems from how human networking of technology, language and, more recently, writing, has unfolded within the last few centuries.

The fusion of all these elements within our network – what I’ve come to call the networked human exoskeleton because of the protection it has afforded our species for eons – produces synergy of which human beings are scarcely aware. Some of the most remarkable advances in human history, which have produced immense numbers of tangential effects, are the result of the synergy produced by our networked exoskeleton.

The science and innovation writer Steven Johnson supplies several superb examples of this networked synergy in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation.”

One of the most conspicuous examples stemmed from the widespread formation of coffee houses that sprang up rather spontaneously in England in the 17th century.  Entirely unbeknownst to patrons, these venues would provide a means by which information could be shared across intellectual disciplines, forming a remarkable ecosystem within which the meeting, mating and morphing of ideals could occur.  And this amounted to a form of cross-fertilization that occurred beyond the conscious awareness of the participants and that would portend major conceptual and technological advances in the centuries to come.

Yet, coffeehouses are only one example among many of these synergist effects.

One of the most remarkable occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Sputnik launch when two young physicists at the Applied Research Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Laboratory, George Weiffenbach and William Guier developed on the fly a means of tracking the path of the Sputnik as it passed over the United States. 

Little did they know at the time that this rather elementary undertaking  stemming from sheer geekish curiosity and enthusiasm would spark advances on several fronts as divergent as Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles and Yelp, which provides 21st century consumers  with a means of sharing their evaluating of restaurant experiences.

There certainly were copious elements of conscious design in all of these technological advances, though many facets of these occurred without the participants being unconsciously of the technological advances that would follow or, for that matter, their ultimate effects.

What I find equally remarkable about these sorts of serendipitous effects is that so many have the potential of transforming facets of our culture, even in terms of how humans relate to each other. To return to the Sputnik example, one could trace how the technological disruptions stemming from the launch of this craft facilitated the formation of satellite-based telecommunications, which, over the course of the next few decades, formed a critical basis for the formation of an incipient global community, not to mention, the erosion of national loyalties.

None of this was anticipated by Sputnik’s designers.  None of them could have anticipated that this advance would enable American scientists to reverse engineer this innovation and, in effect, to hoist the Soviets on their own petard through the development of SBLMs.  Likewise, no Soviet designer could have foreseen that advances in satellite communications that grew out of this reverse engineering would end up affording capitalism a major competitive advantage.

Equally remarkable, though troubling to me and millions of others, is how these technological advances have contributed  significantly to the march of Artificial Intelligence – advances that very well could alter every facet of human life as we know it, even to the point of absorbing human life into something that could be broadly described as post-humanism.

All of this simply serves to underscore to me that his networked human exoskeleton, the first elements of which were put in place eons ago and that significantly were the result of direct human interaction,  eventually has grown so large, extended and complex, particularly because of its technological facets, that it is producing a synergy of its own that is beyond human conception and even intervention, in many cases.

In a very real sense, we live within and are protected by a runaway exoskeleton. The strong case could be made that humans lost stewardship over this exoskeleton centuries ago and that today we are now, as never before in human history, at its mercy.

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Getting to the Root of Our Existential Angst

One of history’s principal existentialist writers, Albert Camus. advised his readers to deal with life’s existential dilemma – its absurdity – by defying the meaninglessness bound up within it.

I have developed a somewhat different view, one stemming from my concerns with how existentialists characterize our confrontation with existence. Yes, we may confront reality as individuals and we may encounter a sense of absurdity in the process but we are really alone in this encounter?

I, for one, deal with Camus’ “absurdity” of existence by reflecting on the marvelous apparatus that humanity has constructed over eons to cope with the exigencies of life – what I have come to describe as a “networked exoskeleton,” a protective layer composed of technology, language and writing that is the result of eons of improvisation and refinement and that, partly for this reason, bears a remarkable resemblance to insect colonies.

In the course of improvising a strategy for survival, we, however unwittingly, constructed an unusually dense apparatus, largely incorporeal in nature, that, much like an ant mound or a beehive, has sustained our existence as a species across many millennia.

It is a remarkable contrivance,  deeply detailed and highly nuanced, though, to be sure, profoundly inadequate in many respects, bound by the inherent limitations of language and technology. And one of its most singular traits  is that so much if it was constructed unconsciously and on the fly by countless millions of human beings over eons as they confronted the exigencies of life.

Much of what we consider to be the most sublime facets of existence, the very things that make life palatable for so many of us – God, mysticism, spirituality, Da Vinci’s art and Mozart’s symphonies, for example – not only are embedded in this protective layering but are also the products of it. And, for that matter, so are we in terms of the behavioral and physical traits that define us as humans.

We are ensconced in our exoskeleton and protected by it, but we also carry many of the incorporeal aspects of it in our head. Indeed, our networked exoskeleton is as much mental software as it is protective layering. And for me, at least, it is interesting to consider how this mental software has been supplied by legions of people across the eons who were confronted with their own unique struggles with survival.

Our embededness, our filtered existence within this network, is the reason why we are able to derive so much joy from life, despite all the manifest unfairness and flaws that are also bound up in our exoskeleton.

We would not even experience existentialist angst but for the construction of this exoskeleton. Without the presence of this contrivance, we would be no different that any other species on this planet, entirely unconscious of anything that lies beyond us.

Our networked exoskeleton, this largely incorporeal apparatus (for lack of a better term) makes existence possible, though, to be sure, it does not provide us with an objective view of what lies beyond us, only an evolving but nonetheless imperfect one.

Likewise, our networked exoskeleton has conferred as much suffering and disillusionment as it has physical well-being and happiness. Yet, it is the most incomparably valuable possession on this planet – at least, arguably so – because it has secured for us a perception of outsidedness, something of which every other species on this planet apparenly lacks the slightest conception.

The great irony of this remarkable contrivance, this networking of language, writing and culture, is that it lies at the very heart of our existence as well as our existential angst or, as Camus would have characterized it, the awareness among our species of the inherent absurdity of existence. And, of course, that is because our exoskeleton provides a filter, albeit a woefully imperfect one, through which we perceive a realm that lies beyond us.

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My Mother: A Eulogy

Suzanne Wages Langcuster

In times such as these, family members are called upon to sum up their loved one’s life and legacy in a few words. 

The three words I would use to describe Mother are connectedness, compassion and gratitude.

Mom always described her father, Erskine Wages, as a family man to the very core of his being. Family was his lodestar.  His whole life was predicated on loving and serving his family and ensuring that they got through life successfully.  

This commitment to family – this connectedness – was the most conspicuous trait Mom inherited from her father – at least, I think so. And this trait was backstopped by a superhuman reservoir of compassion and leavened by a remarkable degree of gratitude. 

Some have characterized gratitude as a woefully underappreciated trait.

Gratitude: An Egregiously Overlooked Trait

New York Times writer and bestselling author David Brooks has observed that while that most of us express gratitude from time to time, there truly are singular people who express gratitude as second nature.  They seem to be thankful practically all of the time. In fact, this sense of gratitude assumes a sort of spiritual quality that is so overpowering that they feel compelled to pay their sense of gratitude forward to others.

Mom was one of these singular people: She evinced a deep well of gratitude, arguably the deepest well of gratitude I’ve encountered in my almost 60 years of life. 

And that’s not all that surprising.  She had every reason to feel grateful. She was born into a family that evinced a deep, inextinguishable, unconditional love for one another.  And that not only included her two exceptional parents but also her maternal grandparents, with whom she lived throughout her childhood.  And I’ll add to that list her aunts and uncles and first cousins who lived up and down the same street.

Granted, all extended families, even closely knit and highly functional ones, are beset with tensions, and mother’s family undoubtedly dealt with their fair share of them.  All in all, though, mother and her sisters and cousins were enshrouded in unconditional love and a keen sense of belonging within this large extended family.  And this fact was evident in all of their lives.

I can readily attest to this – and so can my brother and my cousins. All of us experienced this love and this deep sense of belonging growing up.  We always knew that our parents and grandparents had our backs, but so did our extended network of aunts and uncles and cousins. We are all the products of undying love and family loyalty. We all shared a common identity.  And looking back over the veil of time, I’m struck by the numbers of people in town who aware of this and admired us for it.

Family Connectedness

Every time our cousins and I are together, which, alas, is very infrequently, this topic invariably comes up.  It’s become a custom of my cousin Brian to message us each Christmas Eve with an affirmation of just how fortunate we all were growing up around an extended family that loved and cared for us so much.

My cousin, Laurie, affirmed just this week that some of her happiest memories centered around the intersection of Chestnut Drive and Hickory Lane where my parents and grandparents lived. 

So Mom and, for that matter, all of us Wages and Wakefield family members were afforded a remarkable start in life.  There is no doubt that family was an indispensable factor in my mother’s becoming such a well-integrated and exceptional human being.

Paying Her Gratitude Forward

She paid her gratitude forward – frequently and unreservedly.   There were many times in John’s and my childhood, typically without warning, when Mom would enter our bedroom to inform us that we had been enlisted in a social work project.  As a school teacher, she was painfully aware of all the families in town suffering from acute deprivation – and I mean deprivation, not just poverty but Appalachian-style poverty – the stuff about which Southern Gothic novels are written – deprivation of the most basic human needs. 

Mom would pack the trunk full of canned goods and clothes and off we were go to some remote corner of town of which we previously were unaware.

One visit was especially seared into my memory:  a family of roughly ten or so people occupying a badly dilapidated house in which discarded lumber was leaned up against rotted-out sections to ward off the elements.  This horribly ramshackle structure actually looked more like a lean-to than a house.

A handful of towheaded kids played out front, their clothes so worn and ragged that their undergarments were visible. A few of them were bereft of undergarments.

I remember another visit years later involving a heart bypass patient who had lost everything he owned in a fire during his hospitalization.  We secured a couch from someone and delivered it to a federal housing project using my grandfather’s appliance store truck.  I remember encountering a visibly shaken, emaciated man in an utterly barren room, barely able to stand, shirtless in a pair of ragged overalls, his surgical incision readily visible. As soon we placed the couch to his liking, he collapsed onto it with a deep sigh of relief.

Looking back across the decades, it’s now readily apparent to me that Mom viewed these visits not only as outreach but also as a lesson to John and me.  As an educator, she knew that real-life exposures such as these would underscore to us how immensely fortunate we truly were.

Mom’s informal social work efforts were not limited to the indigent.  She also enlisted us as helpers during visits to local nursing homes, where Mom would take baked cookies and juice and hold hymn-singing, one favorite of which “When We all Get to Heaven.”

As early as age 3 or 4, I was entrusted with going from room to room to take beverage and food orders and then to pass out hymnals.

Those were special memories.  And it’s occurred to me in adulthood how Mom, ever the educator, understood how assuming these responsibilities would better ensure that we grew up to be compassionate, assertive adults.

An Exceptional Classroom Teacher

And this sense of compassion was carried into her classrooms.  One of her most gifted fourth-grade students, Mark Kelly, who went on to become an accomplished writer, related this account of Mom in one of his columns:

“If Mrs. Langcuster ever had a bad day, her pupils didn’t see it. She was unfailingly cheerful — but not cloyingly so — even when she had to be stern. She taught in a way that made you want to learn, generous with praise and gentle with correction, always seeking to help every student find the best in themselves and perform to that level. She made me realize that I was smart, while instilling the idea that being so put me in a position of obligation, not privilege.”

There are so many other subtle ways that Mom contributed to our formation as adults. I recall the rather scraggy pine tree on the side of our yard that Dad was determined to cut down time after time.  Mom wouldn’t hear of it.  She wanted John and me to have a climbing three and this rather threadbare 15-foot pine three fit the bill perfectly.  Yes, we easily could have fallen off and broken an arm, but this was precisely the point of having it.  Mom knew that while we were at moderate risk of falling and breaking a limb, this wouldn’t be deadly. The tree afforded us with a means of learning how to assess risk.

Raising Boys

Her guiding hand was evident in so many other ways. I tended to be a sedentary kid, content to stay  in the air-conditioned confines of my bedroom in the summertime, reading, playing board games and deploying my toy soldiers and tanks in battle.

Mom set strict limits to this indulgent behavior

Sometime in the early afternoon, she would inform me that it was play time outside and as I passed through the back door she reminded me that I was “white as a sheet” and that I needed to play go shirtless. She apparently thought that the added skin exposure to sunlight would increase my intake of vitamin D, which it undoubtedly did.  

Long before the Farm-Fresh food movement became radically chic, she cultivated a network of local fresh produce providers.  Mom was determined that we would consume fresh vegetables all summer long.  Every summer meal was enriched with fresh carrots,  tomatoes, turnip and collard greens, s and potatoes, to name only a few. Fried green tomatoes, one of my father’s favorable, was standard fare at breakfast.

She took very good care of John and me.

A Home Filled with Music

Other memories come to mind.  As mentioned in her obituary, Mom was born into a family of gifted musicians, particularly the Sides branch of the family.  There even was a Sides family band that travelled to Russellville from the family base in Carbon Hill on a regular basis to perform in my grandparents’ living room.  My grandmother and Aunt Mary accompanied them on piano, while my Aunt Dianne participated with her clarinet.  Uncle Johnny would play the violin and cousin Bourbon the saxophone, while dear old Uncle James supplied the base. 

For Mom, music was an affirmation of life as well as stress reliever.  She played lustily when she was happy, which was often. Our house brimmed with music on weekends – all sorts of music, including evangelical Christian hymns and pieces by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Chopin, to name a few. On those stressful days after long hours of teaching on her feet and learning that I had flunked yet another algebra or geometry test, she would spend twenty or thirty minutes playing the piano before preparing supper and helping us with homework. More often than not she came away from those brief therapeutic sessions visibly transformed.

A Long, Courageous Struggle

As most of you know, Mom endured a long and courageous struggle against dementia, which, I now believe was first evinced in her late seventies, almost a decade ago.  One thing I’ve learned about this disease is how it invariably erodes the social filters that people painstakingly construct over the course of their lives. In many cases, the intrinsic character of a sufferer is laid bare. The children of these sufferers often gain keen insight into the primal thoughts and impulses that drive them.

John and I gained some unique insights into both parents over their long, unceasing struggles with dementia. In Dad’s case, I was reminded of how his abandonment by his father as well as his experience with grinding childhood poverty shaped his entire life.  He worried to the very end about having enough money.

With Mom, though, I was struck by how this disease simply exposed her compassionate nature – her unwavering, unconditional love for Dad, John and me and other family members.

One day, late in her life, as she was recuperating in the hospital after one of several serious falls, I noticed her smiling and talking in very loving, assuring language as she appeared to stroke the hair of someone.

“Who are you talking to, Mom?” I pointedly asked.

“I’m talking to you!” she replied. 

On those especially difficult days during the last months of her life, when Mom was agitated, and needed assurance from John and me, her concerns invariably involved children – children under her care, children who needed to be fed and looked after, encouraged and put to bed at night.

Indeed, reflecting back, I can’t recall a time during my mother’s long decline that she ever pitied herself – and her suffering included significant blindness and frequent falls, ultimately resulting in a fractured back, which consigned this remarkably active woman to a sedentary and, ultimately, to a bedridden existence in the last year of her life.  Her concerns were always about what would happen to us or to the imaginary children whom she imagined in her agitated moments.

I’ve been deeply moved by all these messages I’ve received in the days since Mom’s passing. I will remember them for the rest of my life.

If my Mom’s legacy has taught me one  enduring lesson, it’s the importance of expressing on a daily basis the traits that most distinguished my mother and the singular life that she led:  undying compassion and gratitude, unfailing gratitude.

She underscored to many people – family, friends and students alike – that success was not about how many riches or how much education one stored up over a lifetime but rather the quality of human connections one made and, most important of all, how one grew as a result of these connections and how one paid the gratitude for them forward.

And this is why I believe that the life and legacy of my mother, Suzanne Wages Langcuster, are truly singular. 

The eulogy was delivered at the graveside service of Suzanne Wages Langcuster, January 19, 2021, at Knights of Pythias Cemetery, Russellville, Alabama.

This hymn, embedded below, which is featured in the United Methodist and other Protestant hymnals, was sung in honor of my mother at her graveside by her beloved niece, Laurie Forman Taylor. It was chosen because the lyrics remind me so much of my mother’s view of life and faith and the assurances she gave to my brother and me as were were growing up.

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From Joseph Smith to Erich Van Daniken

I run across this book occasionally when I am browsing bookstores. I’ll never forget the sensation its publication in the 1970’s sparked among all sorts of people, including my father, who had cultivated a lifelong fascination with the prospect of intelligent extraterrestrial life and the possibility that aliens not only had visited Earth but had even influenced the course of our species’ cultural development, if not our evolution.

Van Daniken, a hotel executive who possessed no specialized expertise in archeology aside from the classical education he acquired attending a gymnasium, succeeded in becoming one of the 20th century’s most noted and talented snake-oil salesmen.

He merely repackaged a theme that had previously piqued the interest of uncounted tens of thousands of post-colonial Americans. Roughly a century and a half before Van Daniken, American pioneers encountered the thousands of Indian mounds across the American frontier, prompting many to ask: Are they evidence of the Lost Tribes of Israel?

It became a national obsession by the early 19th century and gave rise to all manner of movements, including what, however improbably, turned out to be one of the fastest growing and influential faiths in human history, one that now is rightfully regarded as a global religion: Mormonism.

As many scholars attest, Joseph Smith, a semi-literate but gifted spinner of yarns who was brought up by a family of treasure hunters, apparently used a handful of written accounts to compose a compelling account involving the Lost Tribes.

Harold Bloom rightfully described this yarn spinner as one of American history’s most gifted theological innovators. And as it turned out, Smith didn’t stop with the Book of Mormon, which won over thousands of adherents among his fellow, semi-literate frontiersmen.

Initially founded on the Book of Mormon, the Latter-Day Saints, as they officially are known, started out simply as adherents of another frontier evangelical faith, albeit a rather esoteric one with its own distinctive holy book. In time, thanks to the fertile mind of its founder and prophet, Smith, it ultimately developed into a temple-based faith somewhar reminiscent of pre-diasporic Judaism, sustained by Masonic-derived practices and undergirded by a remarkably esoteric theology of an afterlife centered around the colonization of distant planets by faithful Mormon men and their plural wives.

Americans seem to have a special penchant for ideological and theological entrepreneurialism. And while van Daniken was Swiss, he likely never would have gained traction but for the tens of millions of Americans whose pioneering forebears were acclimated to this sort of mystical thinking during the settlement of the vast American frontier more than 150 years earlier.

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An Overlooked Fact of Human Existence

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My Father: A Eulogy

I have a very vivid memory of being three or four years old and accompanying my father on a Saturday morning to a local barbershop, where he, for whatever reason, decided to go to have a straight edge-razor shave.  I watched intently while the barber applied the lather and proceeded to shave him.

In only a short time, I became hysterical – so hysterical that Dad was forced to wipe away the lather and accompany me home.

As long ago as that has been, I think it speaks volumes about our relationship. Mother and John [my brother] both have pointed out what a strong, almost psychic connection Dad and I had.  I could almost anticipate every thought he had, every opinion he expressed, and he mine. 

Looking back over the decades, I realize that I was frightened for Dad while he was being shaved because I always discerned, despite his masculinity and assertiveness, a certain vulnerability.  I think that is the reason why I acted out so hysterically at the barbershop.

As I grew older, I came to understand that Dad’s sense of vulnerability stemmed significantly from his being abandoned by his father at age three. There was always a stigma associated with paternal abandonment, especially in the Deep South in the 1930’s.  Dad even was forced a time or two to quell rumors that he was illegitimate.

I think that childhood trauma, more than any other factor in his background, defined the sort of person he would become – an ambitious, manically driven man, one who would manage to make up for the shortcomings of his father.

I think that those traits were reflected in two films to which he was absolutely devoted and that he would quote at length throughout his life – the 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby” and the iconic  1982 picture “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

I should stress that it was not the artifice of the central character that attracted Dad to the film or to Jay Gatsby.  Rather it was Gatsby’s relentless striving.  Dad could relate to that.

Whenever I channel surf onto this movie I inevitably will watch it and tear up at the end when Gatsby’s bereaved father reads his late son’s “schedule of resolves” – “practice elocution, poise and how to attain it… save five dollars a week (cross that out) save 3 dollars a week…no more smoking and chewing…be good to your parents.”   

That scene encapsulates my father’s life.  First and foremost, he was a striver and he made lists.  Perhaps he didn’t write them down but they occupied a dominant place in his mind.  He was determined to transcend the squalor of his upbringing and the moral deprivation that he associated with his father. 

Dad’s manic striving is also expressed in a scene from “A Officer and a Gentleman,”  when Mayo, played by Richard Gere, is subjected to relentless hazing by the gunnery sergeant who employs every means to drive him out of aviator school.   

“Why don’t you just pack up and leave, Mayonnaise?” the sergeant derisively asks.

“Because I have nowhere else to go!” Mayo plaintively replies. 

Dad was captivated by that scene and quoted that line again and again over the next 30 years.  He associated that scene with experience at Troy.  For Dad, he years at Troy State Teachers College represented a kind of inflection point – a make or break opportunity – his chance to become a substantive person – a self-sufficient, well-integrated man, someone far removed from his father, who, incidentally, we learned only a few years ago, died a penniless alcoholic in a veteran’s domiciliary at Camp White, Oregon, in the mid-1950’s.

Life really began for Dad at Troy.  And as his obituary stresses, he remained a passionate supporter of Troy academics and athletics for the rest of his life,  raising money for Troy programs and attending games and reunions.   His blood ran deep cardinal, silver and black.  And I can still remember the old hidebound wool Troy blanket that he cherished throughout his life and the Troy class ring that our mother bought for him shortly after Troy was elevated from a state college to a university in 1968.   

He sported that ring proudly and unabashedly, as if it were the Hope Diamond.  Years later, Mom even had the cardinal red stone removed and replaced with small diamonds – a subtle affirmation of the immense value he placed on that ring.

Gratitude to his alma mater defined my father.  But he also reserved a deep well of gratitude for a handful of singular people who guided him through life.

Indeed, Dad was grateful, deeply grateful, for the adults who stepped into his life to assume parental roles:  his grandparents, James Clinton and Lorena Hale, his uncle Roy, and his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Belton, who, incidentally, were also immensely influential forces in my and John’s life.  I should also mention a beloved Troy history professor and Florence native named Leonard Trapp, whom Dad visited whenever he was in Troy.  

Last but certainly not least was Coach C.C. Kindig, who not only served as Bear Bryant’s freshman coach at Alabama but also happened to be one of the greatest educators who ever taught in the Russellville City School system

Dad never forget these seven indispensable people.  Like a devoted son, he was with six of them to the very end, affirming his love and lending assistance in any way that he could. 

And that is why I hope that this day will serve as an affirmation not only of my father’s extraordinary life but also as an affirmation of the legacies of these seven truly singular people. 

And I won’t even begin to recount how dad paid this gratitude forward with so many of the young people he taught and coached.  With dad’s encouragement, a few even attended Troy on athletic scholarships, while others excelled and completed their degrees at other institutions.   A few of the truly exceptional students Dad reached as a recruiting officer for West Point went on to achieve stellar careers in the military and numerous professions.  

I’d like to close by mentioning another movie from the 1970’s – a movie anyone 55 years of age and older will recall – the 1977 film “One on One,” starring Robby Benson.  It’s about a basketball player from a small Western town who earns a scholarship to a state university, with all the challenges that such an undertaking entails for any small-town, provincial 18-year-old.  While all but forgotten now, the plot closely reflects my father’s own experiences at Troy. I especially find the lyrics to the movie’s theme song, “My Fair Share,” deeply moving because they express the sense of vulnerability mixed with dogged determination that my father evinced throughout his years at Troy.

“Lost, lost as a child’s first thought
I must have arms to hold me
Lost without loving care
I will have my fair share.”

“There, there is a changing word
Fair is an honored promise
Justice if you’re still there
I will have my fair share.”

This is a sad and very difficult time for our family for reasons other than Dad’s passing.  But I have to say that I am buoyed by my father’s gritty strength and courage in the face of adversity.

Dad was a scrapper.  He fought every battle until his last breath and he abhorred defeatism.  And that is the central lesson I take from his life – his courage, his undaunted, unflappable courage, and his dogged determination. 

And that is why I choose to regard this day not as a passing but rather as the celebration and affirmation of a truly singular life.

Presented at the graveside service of James Cecil Langcuster, Nov. 30, 2020, Knights of Pythias Cemetery, Russellville, Al.

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A Refined Gaze into the Starry Canopy

I started this book yesterday – a fascinating account by a scholar and gifted science writer, Jo Marchant about how our distant ancestors’ constant gazing into the starry canopy above deeply affected how we regard all facets of existence – religion and mortality, in particular.

This leads me to wonder: How different would life on Earth be today if this awe-inspiring spectacle had been hidden from our view – if this magnificent firmament, as it was once called, never had acquired such a deep footing within our species’ consciousness?

Remarkably, this canopy, now mostly obscured for those of us in Europe, North America and much of the rest of the developed world, has receded somewhat from modern human conscious. Most of us spend far more time with our eyes riveted to a smartphone or laptop screen than gazing up into the sky. And yet, we still evince a strong, almost obsessive preoccupation with the cosmos, though our experience of it now is primarily filtered through scientific instrumentation, not to mention, the opinions of highly trained astronomers, cosmologists and astrobiologists. And this highly refined understanding of what lies beyond this relatively obscure planet in a remote corner of our galaxy undoubtedly raises major implications for how we will view our place in the comos in the decades to come.

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