Thomas Nagel's Non-Interference and the Meaning of Maya

Updated on January 23, 2018
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

A Lost Lid

Every now and then, I’ll see her very early in the morning, looking as if she were completely wrecked from rampant drug abuse from the night before. She trudges slowly, eyes soaked in tears, wailing down the walkways that separate man from machine. In great heaving sobs she wraps her arms tightly around her body, freezing in the cold, crisp dawn. Smeared makeup drips down her withered cheeks and I wonder what went wrong in her life. Every time I pass her, she is in hysterics, as if her life were hanging by a thread and all the world had abandoned her long ago. She calls out for help, but no one heeds her call.

One day, I turned my bike around to see if I could ease her pain. As I slowed to a stop, a million thoughts ran through my head: what if she bites me, what if she asks for a place to stay, what if she’s another person, just like me? People scuttled by, making wide arcs around her, shaking their heads in pity, and filming her on their phones. Her hair was matted down; caked with dirt, leaves, and years of depression.

Her pants were either unbuttoned or broken, covered up by her protruding belly that sagged well beyond her waist. Again, her face was streaked with dark mascara, black and purple lines that told the unending traumas of her life. She clutched five large McDonalds cups tightly to her bosom. A dark liquid sloshed out from the cracks and holes that twisted up the sides of this trash. When I stopped in front of her, she was shocked. Her body continued to tremble, but she was quiet.

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I asked her why she was crying and if there was anything I could do to help. Like a child, she sobbed out that she had lost the lid to one of her cups. At first, I couldn’t tell if she was serious, but after closer inspection I found that it was true. She turned from me and continued to drag herself down the sidewalk, filling the air with horrid screams of desperation and sadness. I felt like there was no way I could help, so I turned and continued on my way.

As I slowly rode down the now lonely road, I felt a mixture of sadness and anger. I was sorry for her and the life she was living, and angry at a society I was thriving in, when so many others were not. I began to look at the world around me and noticed the carelessly strew refuse that littered nearly every nook and cranny of the block. There were entire bags of trash that had exploded all over the curbs; a metaphor for the overindulged American, lazily cluttering myriad belongings in slipshod fashion upon the face of the earth. After passing by the waste of nearly every single fast food joint imaginable, a curious realization finally hit me. In my meanderings about our listless culture, I had failed to empathize with the keen eye of a weary wanderer. I realized that the vagabond sees neither diminish, nor depression. Rather, she finds sustenance to be had in all shapes and sizes.

Within seconds, I scavenged the treasure that would seemingly solve all the world’s problems. Then, I turned around and raced back to where I had last seen the poor woman on the corner of lost lids and agony. She wasn’t far off and was still mourning the languid depths of her suffering. Proudly, I rode up to her once more and gave her what seemed like the finest gift she had ever received: the top to a McDonalds cup, completely intact and without an ounce of dirt on the inside of its surface. Immediately, her crying stopped. She capped off her fifth drink and quietly went on her way. For a few moments, I watched her shrug off into the distance. It was strange how quickly her temperament had changed. I’m not even sure if she understood how trivial this matter truly was. I wondered how long my solution would last.

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Thomas Nagel and Non-interference

This story reminds me of a haunting thought experiment done by Thomas Nagel in his essay, “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life.” It addresses issues of non-interference and the meaningfulness of life. He got the idea when he noticed a sad little spider living in a urinal in the men’s bathroom at Princeton where he was teaching. The spider appeared to have an awful life, constantly getting peed on, and “he didn’t seem to like it.” He continues:

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. So one day, toward the end of the term, I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened. I left, but when I came back two hours later he still hadn't moved.

The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor" (Nagel).

Nagel acted out of empathy, assuming that the spider would fare better and perhaps even enjoy life outside of its normal existence. But the exact opposite happened. In the end, he did the spider no good. Perhaps this woman was much like the spider and I like Nagel. In my attempt to salvage the remnants of her tired life, I was only shocking her into a reality that was so foreign that she had no way of knowing how to respond next. Maybe she needs her world of solitary confinement in order to exist. I suppose that means that all I can do is continue to micturate in caution, with the hope that someday she will crawl out of the bowl on her own.

The treatment to such depravity is simple, yet it remains lamentably out of reach to those who see no way out of their presiding predicament. I know this pain as if it were my own, as I am sure many do. Yet it seems that every time it is a gifted blessing from on high that draws me from this squalor and into a greater realm of my own existence. Why is this grandeur not happening for this woman? Sometimes I wonder if she and others like her are mere projections of my own mind upon the various layers of existence, symbols meant purely for a greater reflection of myself in the midst of others. If this is true, how terrible must the world become before I am truly awakened?

We are all the same; the woman, the spider, Nagel, and myself. The only difference is the surface level interactions we express in order to find deeper meaning in the context of our existence.

The meaningfulness of this inquiry can be summarized in an old joke that begs the audience to empathize with the deplorable disposition of humanity: A man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

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    © 2017 JourneyHolm

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      • Luke Holm profile image
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        JourneyHolm 14 months ago

        Kenneth, I just realized you wrote a comment on this hub. It was marked as spam. Thanks for reading. I had a lot of fun writing it. It was like a night out. Peace.

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        Kenneth Avery 15 months ago

        Compelling; Well-written and deep. Man, this was deep. Loved it to the last syllable.

        Keep up the fine work.

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