We’ve been contemplating contingency in one of our meditation exercises. The idea here is, the more you deny your mortality, your finitude, your thrownness, the less connected you are to your own being and reality. (Well, not exactly. I’m taking liberties with vocabulary here and mapping existentialist thought onto meditative practice.)

Lana Bragina's Tarotkarten

I’ve begun thinking that the modern way of saying everything is connected is everything is contingent. To the modern ear, the former phrase sounds vaguely positive and non-threatening, while the latter conjures up all the anxieties of an era of neo-liberalism.

Everything is contingent suggests to me a language and vocabulary derived from project management and capitalism and state power rather than a spiritualized woo woo language that doesn’t connect to our modern, everyday life.

Everything is contingent speaks to the inherent volatility of the financial market and its human fallout.

Everything is contingent calls the logic of the N. American cult of individualism and the narrative of the American Dream into question.

Everything is contingent presents to me, a more accurate understanding of modern life in which our freedoms (of consumer choice and a seeming ahistoricity) mask our dependencies upon modern networks of power and commerce.

I’m starting to think that in addition to the unequal distribution of material resources and wealth, we can also think of modernity as a force that has restructured the distribution of contingency. That is to say, we in the west/democratic/modern/”developed” world (and within the west, there are further divisions) have attempted to decrease the contingency in our own lives by downloading risk into other parts of the world where people now live highly precarious lives leaving them far more vulnerable to factors like market fluctuations, weather patterns, epidemics, what have you. I’ll refrain from examples – and there are many devastating ones – for the sake of staying on topic and I’ll return to this idea of distributing contingency in a moment.

We have a hoarding mentality in which everyone is fighting over security, never feeling satisfied, nor safe. Perversely, the historically aberrant levels of predictability and stability in the postwar west have only resulted in a collective state of vague dissatisfaction, anxiety and ennui while others have born the brunt of the west’s quest for security and happiness. First world problems. Mid life crisis. Quarter life crisis. What kind of crisis are we in?

The thing about contingency, is that fighting it is a losing game. As emotionally uncomfortable contingency is (and logistically frustrating due to your compromised ability to plan into the future), there’s an exhilarating emptiness that comes when you are connected with contingency and when the self made structures of your life that project into the future begin to loosen and unravel. In contrast, avoiding contingency numbs you to reality so that living experience is dampened and muted. And not being able to touch and experience reality will always precipitate an existential crisis and a crisis in meaning.

Found on piccsy, credited to Eriksson Jonas

Something I wrote awhile ago now makes more sense to me now in which I described modern life as living in a perpetual free fall. The dream and the nightmare of the modern man, his most deepest desire and most fervent fear, that which lies below our perverse fusion of lust, anxiety and reason, is the belief that he might actually be falling into something… Emptiness is not a void. If you wipe out all your plans, your narratives, your goals, if you radically embrace contingency, there is something else. I’m not sure what to call it. A different mode of being perhaps.

There is also an alternate approach to being and distributing contingency that I learned from living in a hunter-gatherer community. In our culture, we build beautiful castles in the sand (I really can’t think of a better way to describe the expectations market) and rail against contingency when the tide comes in. We’re like two year olds throwing a tantrum. I don’t say this to belittle our sense of injustice and loss, I only mean to capture the kind of instinctive and primal suffering we experience when life doesn’t go our way.

When I lived with hunter-gatherers, I learned from people who suffer as we do but who do not fight contingency. Nor does contingency cause them anxiety the way contingency causes the modern man to experience a pervasive, free floating anxiety. Contingency is in your face there everyday – unpredictable weather patterns and migrating herds, unexpected injuries and fatalities, etc. And the learned social response there is to spread contingency around the group. You never hoard or “manage risk” onto others. You always share because you know that you cannot own or possess anything. And because it’s obvious that your actions are a life or death matter. It is a life or death matter.

Elle Hanley photography

What I learned is that there is nothing contingent about how you choose to treat other people. That to me, is the existential challenge of the modern, western citizen living in a system of logic in which human rights abuses, torture, genocide, environmental degradation, etc. can all be rationalized. And for what? To continue to keep contingency at bay? Everything is contingent. How are you going to respond to that? What does humanity look like in this world and how are you going to express it? And how are we, as a society, working together and supporting each other, going to rise to this existential challenge?

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