Person’s familiar with the gaming world might well recognize the title of this essay as a quote from a famous incident in the online game World of Warcraft. The incident, recorded and posted on YouTube (see video below) might be labeled The Last Charge of Leroy Jenkins. A group of players are nervously planning a complex attack against a difficult, game generated collection of very dangerous “creatures” (the online game permits players in remote locations to play together, and communicate verbally even as they operate their “character” in the game.) But after a few minutes of this, one of them (“Leroy Jenkins”) loses all patience with the process, declares “Enough talk!” and rushes into the midst of the creatures bellowing his battle cry, “LEEEROY JENKINS!!!” Caught off guard, the other members of the team realize they’ve lost the advantage of surprise and follow in, only to have the entire team wiped out by this cluster of creatures. As they bitterly review this catastrophe, casting an occasional word of criticism in Jenkins’ direction, Leroy simply responds, “At least I have chicken” (presumably in his real world crib, as there is none in the game.)
The whole thing is much funnier if you’ve had any experience with multi-player roll-playing games, whether online, networked, or old school paper and painted tokens D&D. But the behavior is familiar to us all from the broader reaches of our lives, as we recognize a form of doomed compromise that those around us – and most likely we ourselves, at one time or another – have made. This came out again recently in a colleagues interaction with the students in his class. (It is not revealing much to note that said colleague is, indeed, a man.) The colleague was presenting one of the classic figures of Western philosophy, and the students began asking in reply, “but how important is this really?” Discussion went back and forth a few times until finally exasperated, my colleague said something to the effect that, “the alternative is to be an uneducated pawn in a machine that views you as nothing more than a commodity to be used until you’re used up, suffering the waste of your life in a job that offers no fulfillment, living in a house in the suburbs with a spouse that is indifferent to you and children that despise you!” There was a moment’s silence, when finally one student replied, “at least we’ll have a house in the suburbs.”
At least they’ll have chicken.
Of course, having chicken is not to be sneered at when the alternative is genuine hunger. Maslow’s hierarchy of values is a useful touchstone in this regard: one can scarcely concern one’s self with the higher purposes of life if one’s basic organic necessities are not being met. However, one should also recognize Viktor Frankl’s point, predicated as it is upon his years of personal experience, that even in the death camps of Auschwitz, the search for meaning in one’s life was a priority. What happens to us as persons when we abandon that search, and settle for some chicken in the suburbs?
Socrates famously declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” this in the second half of Plato’s Apologia, where Socrates’ trial has now moved to the sentencing phase and Socrates backs his accusers and their followers into a corner where they can only deliver the maximum, capital sentence. But is it not also at least possibly the case that the examined life is unlivable? One might dub this “the existentialist’s dilemma;” however, being a poor existentialist and a worse scholar of existentialist literature, I’m ill-equipped to follow it up as such. But one can “feel” the press of the issue (and here I am using the word “feel” in the Whiteheadian sense of the most basic form of internalizing a form of relational connectedness) the tension between the desire for one’s concrescent self to emerge into the present, and on into the future, as a fully human being on the one hand, and the oppressive, predatory forces that are aligned to deny any such concrescence on the other (these latter being, in effect, what Whitehead characterized as “evil,” the suffocation in the crib of the very possibility of the full development and expression of an actuality.)
So what if the chances of a fully lived life have been rendered moot by external circumstances? (The number-cruncher in the video above only came up with a 32% – 33% chance of survival.) Is a thoroughly examined life, whose examination has revealed the complete lack of actualizable potential, really superior to the unexamined life that wallows in inarticulate (but mostly subconscious) misery with chicken in the suburbs? After all, isn’t that life in the suburbs still some kind of life?
I suppose it is obvious that I’m going to say “no;” I’ll stand with my colleague on this. I grew up in the suburbs, and am now living in something that, by American standards at least, is closer to abject poverty than I ever imagined I would sink. I remain largely unimpressed by the suburbs. At least such little contributions as I make to the world (and you can look these up at Amazon if you’re inclined), sad as those might seem to those scrambling to justify their chicken and their house in the suburbs, do not sink to the level of bullshit jobs. But is this a path that an educated person should advocate for others?
Have you noticed yet how everything seems to keep coming back to questions? Or, better still, to the next level of questions? For the record a metaphysics – such as Whitehead’s process philosophy – justifies itself not on the basis of its final truth, but on the basis that it provides a better approach to those next level questions.
So how does process philosophy address the fat suburbanites with their buckets of chicken (parts)?
Step one is to observe that those buckets and suburban houses are terminations, not actualizations. As used here, a termination is an ending of possibility; an actualization is a realization and projection of possibility. (The game ended, but Leroy was done, because he had chicken. There was no future beyond that.) This is an artificial, and purely heuristic distinction since, in the sense stated, nothing can ever be an “absolute termination.” As a a relative – and relatively terminal – completion, many endings shut off and impoverish more possibilities than they open up, enliven, and enrich.i
Step two is to observe that education is precisely that process by which our possibilities are opened up and enlivened. And I am speaking specifically of education, not some mechanical, purely rote and only occasionally vocational procedures of “schooling.” Nonetheless, many writers over the years have highlighted the advantages that persons with backgrounds in the humanities enjoy over more specialized forms of schooling. I’m not especially interested in this debate, since it sounds more like an argument for chicken in the suburbs. Rather, I wish to suggest that when all you have is “chicken in the suburbs,” this is when education is best placed to serve a genuinely human life. Recalling Viktor Frankl here, the meaning in our lives is something we cannot contend ourselves with simply finding, since what we find will as likely serve others more than it ever serves ourselves. Rather, we have to actively construct that meaning starting with the materials at hand, and including the community(ies) in which we find ourselves embedded.
Such things are not likely to make one sanguine about an insufferably suffocating situation. But meaning in one’s life is not an object that one holds (a bucket of chicken; a house in the suburbs), but rather a process that one engages in. The suffocation occurs when one seeks a termination, rather than a process of actualization, of realization. This latter is what education is, something rather more subtle than a resonating bellow of “LEEEROY JENKINS!!!” Something rather more durable than a bucket of chicken, and more livable than a house in the suburbs.
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The attentive reader might notice that I’ve switched to more “Deweyan” style of speaking in the preceding. One can get a deeper sense of where I’m going by referring to some of Dewey’s classic works such as Democracy and Education, or Human Nature and Conduct.