I know that darkness won’t endure,
But sometimes it’s hard to see in the dark,
But I will not lose my reason,
My desire to understand the seasons,
Turning leaves reveal the truth,
Known to every pimpled youth,
There is no escaping that things change,
And so you can hold on
And squeeze the moment,
But it will eventually slip like sand,
And with time abrading your open fingers,
To make sure you learn lessons well,
To remind you, you’re avoiding the inevitable.
You can wallow in the quagmire of your beliefs,
You can even inspire with a clever tongue,
You can wipe clean all that science has found,
And it will come back and haunt you,
But humanity is no ghost,
It is curious and is happiest when it discovers,
Even though it risks its happiness,
Because somewhere in the maze of consciousness,
We know that without the risk there is no joy,
No success, no growth
We are not content to look through a pinhole,
While one eye looks at the dark, and the rest
Of our senses atrophy into putrid decay.
Each time that you hate and dehumanize,
You become less than you think you are,
Your victims more than you think they are.
And I will oppose you with heart, with teeth,
And you will fight on the battleground of reason,
Or risk endless cycles violence,
Ripping parents from children,
Casting yourself into an oblivion,
That you believe to be paradise,
All because you never knew,
How great a human you could become,
How so many pieces of existence,
Were waiting for you to know them.
And you will pay dearly for unwise choices,
And you will be forgiven,
Because the world has loss and pain,
But nobody really wants to destroy you but time,
And none of us have any say over that,
Make your meaning out of the indifferent universe,
And treat existence like a gift.
Because it is.
In my previous blog post I posited the idea that every moment in one’s life maybe is as remarkable as the next. But even if this were the absolute truth, it doesn’t change the fact that most of us simply don’t behave this way. We are emotional beings and so it’s not surprising that in times of great joy, sadness, anger, excitement (or what emotion we might be feeling in the extreme) those moments are going to make a stronger impression. The physiological response is immense when we feel emotion very strongly and the fact is, certain things are always going to “stick out” in our memories more than others.
Going beyond the biology, I think that humans have a real attraction to stories. I wrote a blog post on this importance of stories so I will not repeat myself
here, but I think that it is safe to say that we are all rather attached to the story of our own life. We really want our lives to have a good story. Some people embellish things to make their own story better. Some people don’t think much of the story of their life compared to ones they read in books or see in movies. I guess I might be that type of person. I often worry about what kind of stories I will tell my son about my life given I was always fascinated by my own father’s stories of how he left India and traveled across much of Europe along his way here. And of course there is also a bit of an art to telling stories. There is an art to drawing an audience in and perhaps it always requires a little bit of embellishment as well (A good movie concerning this is Big Fish starring Ewan McGregor. Great movie!). In Patrick Rothfuss’ book A Wise Man’s Fear (his series, The King Killer Chronicles are really a celebration to stories and storytelling) the main character tells a story of a poor hungry beggar who has no luck finding compassion amongst many of the cultural groups in his world until he finds a group of people that are the main character’s origin who are traveling musicians, performers, and story tellers. They offer the poor man food and a place to sleep and even invite him to stay and join with them on their travels. The man finds it hard to accept for he has nothing to give back for their generosity. They simply reply that he has a story to tell, the story of his own life, and thus a story they have never heard before. They value stories and thus to them it is more than a fair trade. So I think we would all do well to remind ourselves that we really all do have at least one story to tell…our own. And that story is like no one else’s.
I wonder if there is a connection to what we think about the story of our own life and our self-esteem?
Regardless of what we think of our own story, I think that inside we really want our story to be amazing and so we have a tendency to look at something like
the chain of events described in my previous post as amazing, improbable, and perhaps as though we are playing are part in a fate that has been laid out by a supernatural being given how amazing and improbable the events are. Personally I think that existence as a whole is likely improbable, but here we are anyway. Love is probably the most intense and wonderful of emotions we experience and so it is no wonder that are desire and attachment to stories involving love are so strong. Whether it is love lost or love found, it doesn’t matter. This is a story we can all relate to since it is such a strong part of the human experience. I think that our attraction to the love story is ultimately why arranged marriages and on-line dating are ultimately unsatisfying, because even if those do end up in love, the beginning of the story seems probable, mechanical, and thus uninteresting.
I shall leave you with a wonderful song about stories that lead to love. I hope you all think about your story today, and I hope you find some good in it. The best part about our own stories is that we really never know how it’s going to end. If we knew, that would take all the fun out of it. 🙂
A charming blogger I follow who is full of sharp wit, emotional depth, and genuine kindness recently posted a poem called What is Life? Her answers to that question follow and are an enjoyable read. Someone in the comments of that post asked the question, “What then is NOT life?” and that question had me thinking. So I thought in response to her poem, I would write a quick one of my own, which is not nearly as clever or humorous, but hopefully at least makes you ponder the question that I did. 🙂
What is not life?
It is not straight lines,
It is not absolute,
It is not nothing,
It is not one truth.
It is not an ideal gas,
It is not constant,
It is not always visible, heard or felt,
It is not just about you
It is not probable,
It is not in equilibrium,
It is not predictable,
It is not perfect.
It is not disconnected,
It is not small,
It is not for the faint of heart,
(And…in the vast depths of time of this universe),
The second chord occurred once while watching a debate on-line about whether religion still had value. A difficult debate to have to say the least, but in that debate a physicist posited one of life’s larger questions which to be honest I am not sure I had asked before even though I like to think about such things. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This chord was played again just recently by a fellow blogger who asked those in the blogosphere to answer the question “If God created the universe, why did he do it?” This is like striking the same chord, but in a slightly different key.
The third chord was just now struck after reading a blog post by another blogger who had the statement “You cannot define yourself in the absence of another.”
So now let me try to bring it together if I can. One of the intriguing thoughts I had from the first chord was how concept of nothing was tied to the concept of infinity. Mathematics before was tied to geometry. Things with area and volume and shape. There was no room for zero, nor was their really room for the infinite. Accepting zero as a number meant you also had to accept infinity because when you divide any number by zero that is what you get (or negative infinity if you want to be picky). Here we have two things are really the exact opposite of each other: everything and nothing. I find that absolutely fascinating. At least in a mathematical sense, one defines the other.
The second chord further made me contemplate nothing. You might be thinking to yourself “Contemplating nothing Swarn? You must be popular on the weekends with all that excitement”. And you might be right with your sarcasm. Well even if you are wrong with your sarcasm, I do appreciate sarcasm. Anyway, back to nothing. So in the answer to the question why is there something instead of nothing, I thought, well if there is just nothing. Then not only is it not very exciting, there really is nothing to define. In fact you can’t even define nothing, unless there is something for which to compare it to. Pure nothingness or non-existence, even in the presence of something can at best be only categorized as such. There are no measurements to be made or pictures to take of it. It’s nothingness.
With the 3rd chord the melody began. I thought about definitions of words. I thought about any definition you might look up in the dictionary. Not surprisingly you’ll find other words there to help you understand what one word means. You can look up those words. But what if words started to disappear from a language? As this happens our ability to define any one word disappears. I then imagine 3 words left “cat”, “dog”, and “not”. Cat – not dog, Dog – not cat. The word “not” doesn’t get a definition, you just have to learn it contextually. 🙂 Definitions of any word cannot occur in the absence of other words. More to the point it seems sensible to me that in answer to the question why is there something instead of nothing the answer becomes “there has to be”. We cannot even know nothing without their being a universe. Whatever everything might be it’s in the universe. Or multiple universes I suppose. And anything that isn’t, is nothing. Nothing by itself, as already discussed, has no value either. Nothing and everything are two sides of the same coin. They define each other.
Now right now you are probably thinking I want to have what he’s smoking, or else “Get a job hippie!” (I have a job thank you! 🙂 ). So what if there is no reason for everything other than existence had to happen? And what if, as Douglas Adam said, “Whatever happens, happens”? What if it’s then all on our shoulders to create purpose? Maybe that’s the best gift we can give to someone. The freedom to develop their own purpose in life. With the recognition of course that purposes can change as we do as well as the universe around us.
The human mind is amazing. Think of things you can imagine. Some are real. Some are fantastical. Some are not possible. Some may be possible. The range of what we are minds are capable of coming up with is astounding.
Now humans are also curious. Part of our imagination may be to visualize something and then ask ourselves. How can I make this dream, this fantasy I have, real? The fact that we can make any of these dreams real is impressive. Any inventor though will probably have more failures than successes.
You may be questioning where am I going with this, and you’d be right to question me. The truth is I don’t exactly know and luckily this is part of the point.
Given what are minds are capable of, and given that only a handful of our dreams ever can become reality, is it possible that we can dream up questions which have no answer? I can ask a lot of questions that have no answer. For instance I might ask “When we build a ship capable of traveling across the galaxy how many planets can one visit in a lifetime?” Of course there are answers that you can give, but how much accuracy or value would such an answer have? It is first contingent on a device we don’t have, asks us to know the number of planets in the galaxy which is something we don’t know, and we also are uncertain what our lifetimes might be at some future date when this device is available. Such a question might have value. If I cared enough about the answer I may devote my life to trying to see out into our galaxy more clearly, or build a faster than light speed spaceship, or perhaps try to increase our life expectancy, so that one day people can see lots of planets potentially.
The question is a loaded one because of all the uncertainties in the question, and it has no precise answer. There are however grander questions we can ask. What does God want from us? There is uncertainty as to God’s existence so the answer becomes difficult. And even if there was one, most cultures disagree on God’s nature, so trying to determine what God wants becomes rather challenging.
But we can get even grander. What is the meaning of life? I would respond back with “whose life?” or “how do you define life?” But let’s go a step further to a related question: Why are we here? The simplest of all questions. Not much ambiguity to it all. Those who might have an answer have no evidence to back it up. Many would simply say they don’t know. And answers of course vary from person to person. Of all the many questions we can ask, perhaps we can answer them all; partly by answering some smaller questions first before getting to the bigger parent question. But what if there are some questions like “Why are we here?” that have no answer? What if this question is a simply a product of our wonderful minds. Nevertheless one of our inventions. We invent machines, concepts, why not questions? And while the question “Why are we here?” seems a natural question to ask, must every question have an answer? Maybe our answers are inventions as well. What if the only answer to that question is “We just are”. That seems quite unsatisfying because “Why” has not been addressed. Making it not really the answer at all. Just a truth which we might have to accept.
And if “Why are we here?” really has no answer, can’t existence still be wonderful? Does there have to be some grand plan in order for you to be happy? Is there no value in a satisfying career, making the world a better place, raising your child to be happy and strong, bringing smiles to the faces of friends and family, giving to those who have less than you? Maybe it is these smaller questions we should be trying to answer with our lives. The bigger question has almost no value to the countless millions who live in abject poverty. If you are reading (or writing this blog) you have the privilege in life to ponder this big question more deeply. Would the answer really change you all that much? Is the answer preventing you from being a good person? Do you need an answer to see that love is better than hate? That peace is better than violence? That generosity is better than greed? Would an answer make learning physics, chemistry, or biology meaningless? Would an answer make creating art, writing, or making music any less enjoyable or meaningful?
The only seems clear is that there are many questions to be asked, many questions that are important, and that we should never stop asking questions. 🙂
One of the unexpected things that happened when I realized that I was an atheist was that I began to have a greater respect for life. I know the existence of an afterlife cannot be disproven, but neither can it be proven and so if this is the only existence we have, and death means non-existence, then appreciating this existence is paramount. I know that being atheist isn’t a pre-requisite for an appreciation for existence, but that’s just how it happened for me (not that I was ever in support of violence). I realize also that I am in an economic position in life to enjoy it much more than others but it is often surprising to me how often poor people are happier and more generous than those with wealth. There is something to the old adage “Take joy in the simple things in life”. Nevertheless there are those beyond just being poor. Countless millions who do not get their daily need for food and water met. If one values life then it should be our first and foremost goal to lift all those up to enjoy the marvels of existence.
When someone says they value life, it is often unclear what they mean. First of all, what do we define as life? Some people just seem to mean human life. Some value other animals as well. For some it is just certain animals that we think of as pets, but not ones that we use for food. This tends to vary by culture. Some value the life of animals, provided that they die without suffering and are treated
humanely in their life. Some value the life of an animal based on how close to a human it is, and are okay with ending the life of simpler creatures. Finally some value all animals and only eat vegetables. Why is plant life less important? Should feelings, or the fact that they are part of Kingdom Animalia at all be the deciding factor on how valuable life is? As I have argued before that whenever we put value on life just because of its similarity to us, there is a certain human conceit there that I am not so sure is healthy.
For those that value human life, even that is inconsistent. It is clear that we humans have a different line of reasoning when it comes to the harming of those that we deem innocent. People often get much more outraged at a mistreated animal, or the abortion of a fetus, than a mistreated adult. But we were all children once. A child who is taught to hate minorities will become an adult who hates minorities. If that adult commits a hate crime, why do we hate him back, call for his punishment, or even death. In reality he is simply just an older child who was never taught to see the value in all people and that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet. It is akin to me being upset at someone for not knowing calculus. How could they if they were never taught? It always seems to be assumed that as an adult we have choices to just change the way we think in an instant. This is clearly not true, and in fact it gets harder as you get older, not easier.
The biggest paradox I see for those people who are both “pro-life” in relation to abortion, is that they tend to be conservative in their views on capital punishment, war, and gun control. Abortion is a tough issue, no question, and one where I truly understand the “pro-life” point of view. What is clear to me is that no legislation should force a woman to go through something that profoundly effects her body, and for which there is no such equivalent or societal requirement on the father. And the cold reality of the matter is; mothers ending the lives of their infants are a natural part of our psychology. It is uncomfortable to accept such a cold fact as this, partially because it almost makes no sense in a modern society. It is important to remember though that most of our evolution did not take place in civilization, but in the wild. And in the wild resources are often scarce and raising a child, as anybody even today will admit, takes a lot of resources. So in our brains when we feel like the child is not going to be able to get the support it needs, women will make the logical choice of abortion. There is some logic to it. Yes I said it. Our brains are not programmed for birth control; our brains are not programmed for a society in which adoption is possible. In the end, our world is the one right in front of us and in that moment ending an unwanted pregnancy is sensible. This is why abortion rates are lowest in countries with adequate health care for all citizens, especially mothers, easy access to birth control, and plenty of education about sex and the consequences thereof. Then of course there is the issue of whether a fetus counts as life, counts as human? I don’t think that it can be answered anytime soon. All I know is that it is not my place to decide what happens to an embryo inside a womb in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.
But if I weep for an aborted baby, then why do I not weep for all those people killed in war, shot down by gun violence, sent to the electric chair, or for even that matter the 20,000 people who die every day from hunger. The answer comes down to the fact that killing is serious business and we have to justify it. Perhaps abortion is just killing that we have justified. But then it is no less immoral than any other killing that we find acceptable. If we can justify abortion based on the grounds that it is not a child so early in development, then is it not the same reasoning we use for any other type of killing we support and even call for? It comes down to dehumanizing people. Whether it’s Muslims, criminals, poor people, minorities…whenever we say that any human life has less value then our own you will find things like abuse, torture, and killing. Dehumanizing at a fundamental level involves two things. First is the stripping away of things like the individuality of a person (i.e. All Muslims hate Americans). Secondly it focuses on making out their desires to always be about negative things. Things that we consider the worst qualities of humanity or just the opposition of the virtues that we value most highly in our species. So we can say “All Muslims hate freedom”, rather than suggesting that they are more like us than different, and that all Muslims want is to have a livelihood, take care of their families and have self-determination in their lives. Something we all want.
This same reasoning can be applied to how many people think of the poor, other races, political affiliations, criminals, etc. It concerns me that in this country that there seems to be a decreasing value placed on life. The Travyon Martin case exemplifies this all too well. Not just about his murder (it is at the very least manslaughter) itself but by the “Stand Your Ground” law. If being threatened is enough to justify killing another human being then I think we need to seriously address this philosophy in our society. Something must have gone wrong somewhere for such a law to even be proposed. Should someone’s existence end for stealing a television set? There was a recent story about a woman who shot at a car for turning around near her driveway. There were 4 children in the car and children could have been shot. Luckily the bullets only hit the car. The woman’s explanation was that her driveway was getting ruined because people were turning around on it all the time. What does it say about our society when something so trivial as a driveway takes precedence over life?
As far as we know it, death is the very end. Even if it isn’t, this existence must have value or we would not be born into it. We must therefore question ALL killing. We must be forgiving and believe in redemption. We must look at a human as a product of his experiences rather than a creature who always has the power to make conscious choices to do acts of good and evil. This planet teems with life and we are connected to it all. Nothing that lives has more right to life than anything else, and yet killing is also natural whether it is for food or for protection. As a species we have the ability to kill with the strength and power like no other species, but we also have the equal ability to find alternatives to killing. The latter should always be our goal. We should be continually striving to find ways to survive that do not deny the right to life of others even if killing happens along the way.