A Society in tension

Christopher J Munson Jr

“Gosh, I pulled up to a stop sign on my bicycle after a car and slowed down to let them go. Then, they waved me through, I waved back at them, they waved back at me, I got frustrated and went. They got to the stop sign first, they should go.” 
– Chris to a friend. 

“Well, perhaps, it is a good thing. At least they are watching out for you.” 
– a friend

“I suppose. But if they were just paying attention, then we would not be in that situation.” 
– Chris

“I like to think of it as in tension. As bikers and cars become more aware of each other, there will likely be a period of extreme tension where everyone is starting to notice each other more and happenings like this will happen until things settle.” 
– an adapted version of the friend’s response. 

The morning in the city, just as the happenings ramp up, offers a great opportunity for learning. The world is generally calmer, the natural sounds appear brighter, and people have often not had adequate time to wake into their eyes. It is an overall natural state. If you were to ask me to point to humanity, I would look towards just after dawn. As the day goes on, people often become mechanical. 

The exploration I will undertake will focus on the question, what does it mean for a city, population, society, and human to “be alive.” What is aliveness? How do we know when it is here and how do we foster this quality in ourselves? In our society? By the end of this, my goal is to transform your understanding of tension and your relationship to it. 

A wonderful way to spend the morning is on the bicycle. The legs propel one across the ground, through the world, gliding. When a turn approaches, the bicycle leans and transforms into a roller-coaster banking in a high-speed turn. Gravity and centripetal force work opposite each other and maintain the bicycle upright, the human on the bicycle, and the bicycle whizzing around the turn. Physicists call the acceleration around the turn “G-Forces.” Exactly here, we will find the thrill. As the human maneuvers through the turn, the gravitational and centripetal forces counteract each other to match the goal of the rider; less the tires slip out or the rider loses their balance, these turns will flow in near perfect harmony. 

The relationship between these forces, we can call tension. Since they are linked, we can imagine a taught rope, string, or rubber band linking them. The tension between the gravity and centripetal force marks a harmonious back and forth, a push and pull. So long as the harmony—tension—persists, the rider stays on the bicycle and enjoys the turn. A lack of tension would represent an imbalance in force and a downed cyclist—and perhaps a few scrapes as well. 

The force tension represents a relationship. In this connection, the tension serves the crucial function of balancing two (or possibly more) systems. Back to the rider. Too high of a centripetal force (or not enough lean) will send the rider careening off the bicycle for a brief and thrilling journey. The result of that journey, however, likely results in broken bones. Too high of a gravitational force would pull the rider smack into the pavement (the rider would be leaning too much). The resulting scrapes do not constitute an ideal state for the bicycle rider. A bicycle rider rides the bicycle and I think we can assume that the bicycle rider is not masochistic or suicidal for the sake of the flow. The bicycle rider rides the bicycle and wants to ride the bicycle. So, our fictitious bicycle rider enjoys the thrill of swinging with the turn. The human, guided by a sense of joy, balances the centripetal and gravitational forces—like a tightrope walker spanning a height between the pole of force gravity and the pole of force centripetal. 

What is it about this joy that the bicycle rider finds so appealing? Sensations of ecstasy do not last long. It requires significant work to initiate the turning moments—walking the wire between force centripetal and force gravity. There is pedaling, and maintenance, and transportation, and eating, and material production, and sales, arguments with the spouse regarding the expensive carbon fiber handle bars that shave 0.3 grams of weight from the bicycle, and sleep! It takes a lot of work to produce joy. What is more, the rider may even craft their route to include more turns than straight lines! I do not think this is a question of why humans enjoy joy; that question has some empirical neuroscientific answer regarding our relationship to specific neurochemicals, or at least we think that is a way to explain it. In the case of the biker, why does cornering the bicycle produce such reward that makes them want to begin toward cornering in the first place? 

Returning to the tightrope, the balancing on the wire strung between force centripetal and force gravitational absorbs the walker in the task. Each step constitutes the walker’s entirety of existence. The balance atop the tension becomes the focal point of existence, so refined that focus, tension, wire, existence, melt away into a constant stream of sensations. The bicycle is a boat rafting the River Styx! Here, the walker can balance on a moments notice, a gust of wind or some extraneous stimulation. In this state, it is near impossible to fall—it is actually quite impossible to conceive of the idea of falling while under the influence of a stream of sensations. I do suppose that it is possible that the biker set up the turn incorrectly or the material of the bicycle spontaneously reconfigures into a shape that does not resemble a bicycle but the first, I think, is unlikely because the biker who derives this much joy from a bicycle turn knows how to properly set up a turn and unless we live in a literal simulation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, material probability will likely stay constant without worry of spontaneous rearrangement. But then again, crazy things happen. But if the wire snapping is an unlikely phenomenon, then the joy the bicycle rider derives from the turn–their absorption—becomes them. We are talking egoic transformation here—even just for mere moments. The joy, the sensations, becomes the entirety of the biker’s existence—their aliveness. Walking atop the tightrope without conceiving of the fall necessitates a mastery of walking such that there becomes no walker, rope, poles, wind, walking—right foot left foot right foot left foot. But in order to walk the rope, tension must exist to make it taught.

An important question that follows: who made the tension? Certainly, the force centripetal and force gravity serve as the poles by which the wire stretches. The two forces, however, are not necessarily creating the tension. And if they are, who created them? A fine answer, I think is the human. After all, the human created the bicycle, the street, force centripetal, force gravity, etc. But even then, the forces do not know they are creating tension, nor the wire knows it is carrying tension, and if the force tension is to exist in the first place, the tightrope walker must walk and let go of the idea of them walking across a wire creating tension and the forces tension, centripetal, gravity! The walker does not have enough bandwidth to keep everything in the forefront of egoic representation. When we really get down to it, there’s a whole lot of not-knowing going on—knowingness disappearing into the ether. We are left with a bunch of positions and no function or a large function and no positions. The question creates an indeterminable perspective from which the answer could be judged. That is, to ask the question, one cannot be walking and to be walking one cannot be asking the question thus they are existing in entirely separate worlds for different purposes. The tightrope walker has little use to question where the forces come from. It is simply not in their best interest as such intensive questioning could break the wire itself. The biker might lose concentration and over-lean the bicycle. Questions are better asked by the philosopher. Walking for the tightrope walker. Biking for the biker. A biker who is not biking is hardly a biker. 

Within the biking community, there sometimes exists an animosity, disgust, and tension towards cars. And within the car community, there likewise exists a tension with the bikers. The bikers claim, often, that drivers are inattentive, or that cars are far too deadly—both fair points. Drivers complain about bikers disobeying the rules of the road and biking in between them at stoplights—both fair points. If the bikers feel scared, why don’t they improve their attention, shift routes, or give up? Likewise, if drivers feel frustrated or scared, why don’t they sit back and enjoy their warm buns and bumping music. Or they could pay more attention while operating their machinery. These concerns and question bring to surface valuable points. Within the ecosystem of society, the bikers and drivers have found themselves in tension—their actions directly affecting one another. The biker, desiring to save momentum, runs a red light. This the driver thinks unfair. A driver, also, neglects their responsibility to check their mirrors and cuts off a biker in a right turn. The tension necessitates the question, where is the joy, where is the aliveness between the bikers and cars?

If the tension creates a harmonious balance between the drivers and the bikers, then we are okay to think that we have approached some sort of “good”, “ideal”, or alive state. If this tension does not create the aliveness, however, then the forces within the environment will enter a state of imbalance and the wire will snap—thus necessitating a change in the ecosystem. We must erect new poles. The change could take the form of banning drivers, banning bikes, or creating a structured ecosystem better suited for both drivers and bikers; I think we will tend towards whichever contains the strongest sense of aliveness—that is eventually. Similar to force gravity and force centripetal, the knowingness of their effects is largely unknown, the drivers and bikers cannot know where they will find their strongest sense of aliveness without walking the wire. 

Thus, a society in tension is one in which the largest numbers of wires are strung such that as many tightrope walkers can emerge. This ecosystem will strive towards a state of high tension, joy, aliveness, attention, frustration, complaints, and absorption. It may not be an ideal society, but it is a society that is at least alive. 

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