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Our Choices

2014 February 2
by Ian Welsh

We are all born into the world destined to die.  Our reality is one in which pain is far greater than pleasure: you can scream for days in pain, but not ecstasy: the heights of pain far surpass those of please, and have far more endurance.

If there is meaning in this world it is not obvious, and the multitude of religions and philosophies, with their myriad different answers to “why are we here?” that we just don’t know.  The message of religion and philosophy is “find meaning”, not “there is meaning” because their very multiplicity states clearly “we don’t actually know.”

All around us there is degradation, cruelty, misery and hopelessness.  People living lives they hate, working all week for a few hours, desperately waitng on the weekend when they can be themselves.  TGIF, and the near-universal hatred of Monday speak to what work is like in our society.  A few, vastly privileged in the way that matters most, love their work, but that’s not the world most of us live in.

Illness and suffering stalk us, everything we care about will eventually pass away, the victim of the world’s cruelest joke of all: time.

In this world, a world which exalts suffering, we seem to go out of our way to make the world worse for each other.  We live in chains we ourselves have forged: societies which are far crueler than they need be.  Societies where most of us spend our days doing work that doesn’t need to be done, that helps no one, and in many cases which harms other people.  We are stuck in a cycle of abuse, where we hurt each other, and then go on to hurt others.  We writhe in fear at the meaninglessness of life, and if we find our bit of meaning in religion, philosophy or our tribe, we are happy to hurt as many other people as necessary to cling to our single spark of light.

One response to this is to say, “and so it is” and to be brutal and heartless and care only for a few around us, if even them.  Live life, take what you can, enjoy it while possible, and when you die, at least you lived.  Life is nothing but endless cycles of eating and being eaten, so make sure you eat, till the inevitable day you die.

Another is to simply accept what is: it is ordained by nature or God, or Karma, and so be it.

Another is to seek transcendence through mysticism, a path those who have not followed should not readily write off.  Perhaps there is something beyond, and perhaps it can be found through esoteric discipline.  Billions and billions have thought so, many have enlightened, and they were no stupider than we are.

Another is to embrace kindness: to scream against Nature and God, to say “just because it is so does not mean I have to accept it.”  If violence and rape and greed are part of human nature, endless selected for by mindless evolution, why then so are kindness and compassion, and we can choose the latter and strive to make our time in the world as good as it can be for as many of us as possible.  We do not need to be complicit in cruelty and suffering, but can make a choice otherwise.

This can be taken further, “nature made us thus but we do not have to accept it.”  There is nothing divine, or sacred about physical processes or evolution, and if there is a God who made this vale of suffering, to hell with it.  As our mastery of science and reality continues, why accept suffering, why accept death, why accept loss?  Oh, eventually the universe will end, but why not seek to change ourselves such that we rarely die, we are not cruel, and we suffer less?  The cry of the naturalist that we should accept our nature is not convincing to me.  Why?  To accept is to be complicit in all the evils of our nature.

However it happened, we have the ability to choose.  What we are, what our world is, does not ultimately define us.  Our choices to be complicit in suffering and cruelty, or to work for kindness and compassion: those define us.


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9 Responses leave one →
  1. February 2, 2014

    1. “Another is to simply accept what is: it is ordained by nature or God, or Karma, and so be it.

    “Another is to seek transcendence through mysticism

    “Another is to embrace kindness”

    These are not mutually exclusive and are integrated in most expressions of perennial wisdom.

    1. What the East calls karma, the Western theological tradition calls the will of God. In contemporary terminology it is path dependence. It is given. But path dependence does not imply rigid determinism such that the ability to change and effect change are not possible at all. The teaching is to change what one can and to accept what one cannot.

    Perennial wisdom teaches that “with God all things are possible,” i.e., that the relative changing world consisting gross/physical, subtle/formative, and causal/mental spheres — are the manifestation of the Absolute that appear as separate and diverse, whereas there is only one existence without real distinction. The Upanishadic saying, “That thou art,” means that this is a level of possible experience.

    2. To the degree that one transcends clearly, one experiences the nature of life and reality as transcendental realization and fulfillment, and to the degree that one integrates transcendence with experience clearly, transcendence becomes immanence. Transcendence generally proceeds through the stages, smoky, hazy, and clear, although not necessarily, since according to the teaching of karma and reincarnation, those who evolved in the past bring their previous state into the present, and this may become apparent suddenly.

    3. Loving-kindness is the manifestation of transcendence as the awareness of the unity of being.

    The teaching of perennial wisdom is that personal change for the better comes the result of expansion of awareness toward its full potential, which takes place by removing the obstacles in the way of this realization. Social change that is real and abiding takes place through raising the level of collective consciousness. As personal and collective consciousness expand in the direction of unity, then loving-kindness is the manifestation of unity at the ground of apparent diversity.

    Personal change for the worse comes as result of deepening the impressions that bind one from realizing one’s real potential as infinite. A society whose members are degenerating, degenerates collectively and becomes increasingly dysfunctional.

    See Abraham Maslow, Theory Z, and Meher Baba, The New Humanity.

  2. February 3, 2014

    All one can really do as regards the human predicament is to promote human versatility, and to work to stave off the collective bad end for as many people as possible for as long as possible.

  3. February 3, 2014

    This can be taken further, “nature made us thus but we do not have to accept it.” There is nothing divine, or sacred about physical processes or evolution, and if there is a God who made this vale of suffering, to hell with it. As our mastery of science and reality continues, why accept suffering, why accept death, why accept loss? Oh, eventually the universe will end, but why not seek to change ourselves such that we rarely die, we are not cruel, and we suffer less? The cry of the naturalist that we should accept our nature is not convincing to me. Why? To accept is to be complicit in all the evils of our nature.

    BOOP

    That’s pretty much it.

  4. Celsius 233 permalink
    February 3, 2014

    I can’t argue the fact of birth and death; but, your POV on everything in-between seems biased by a belief system I don’t hold. In fact, belief systems are part of the problem, IMO.
    Every single thing we humans do is within our nature; I posit we cannot act other than our nature.
    That alone is a wondrous thing, because it encompasses our entirety; the good, the bad and the ugly; everything we do.
    One must start from that fact and find the meaning in/for our own lives. There is no answer; there is just life.
    My experience, my life, does not reflect your somewhat negative overview of existence.
    Yes, I see, have seen, the reality. It’s why I left America. My miniscule, unacknowledged, rejection of what is/was. I have no expectations; only personal choices; for my own life and its values.
    That’s all we have and to think other is? What? I’m not sure; I’m not sure of much of anything…

  5. RJMeyers permalink
    February 3, 2014

    Celsius233:

    “Every single thing we humans do is within our nature; I posit we cannot act other than our nature.”

    I think there are some issues with having different definitions of “nature” here, but other than that: I’d posit that human nature is so variable and broad that we can choose what aspects of it to encourage and what aspects to discourage. You’re right that we cannot act other than our nature, but we can concentrate on and promote certain aspects of it. We also have the capability, with much work and time, to change our nature, either through social conditioning or technological intervention.

    “Human nature” is very broad and its boundaries change or can be changed over time.

  6. February 3, 2014

    As Celsius & RJMeyers have indicated, human “nature” is a pretty rich palette. So, yeah, we can’t escape this nature, and I suppose Ian is railing against some of the “practical” folks who consider our “nature” to be a particular way (no doubt the Hobbesian one.)

    And I’m on board with that.

    But, yo, Celsius 233:

    Yes, I see, have seen, the reality. It’s why I left America. My miniscule, unacknowledged, rejection of what is/was. I have no expectations; only personal choices; for my own life and its values.

    You are documenting an escape, not a confrontation. I don’t object to your observations, but this particular reaction to reality is not laudable in this context. To stress, I sympathize completely over your motivations for this (as stated over the years here on this blog) for re-patrioting – and I’ve entertained the idea myself.

    It’s still a choice, of course, but a choice of a different character than that which Ian is entertaining here… you can’t ex-pat life. :)

  7. Celsius 233 permalink
    February 3, 2014

    You are documenting an escape, not a confrontation. Petro

    And you know that, how?

  8. Celsius 233 permalink
    February 3, 2014

    Sorry; but I have to add; you do not know what you are talking about.
    Utter bullshit.

  9. The Veal Calf permalink
    February 4, 2014

    “The cry of the naturalist that we should accept our nature is not convincing to me. Why? To accept is to be complicit in all the evils of our nature.”

    Who is this naturalist that you refer to? Do you have a particular one in mind? If so, why does that person get to represent the views of naturalists in general?

    I think it’s possible to accept one’s nature without necessarily giving in to its worst aspects. I also think that we’re all complicit in the evils of our nature until we gain some kind of understanding of it, and an ethically-grounded recognition of the need to maintain some control over it.

    Otherwise, this is a fine essay. I appreciate your writing and always look forward to a new post. The quoted part above is just a bit of a sticking point with me, as I generally consider naturalist as something rather good to be, at least potentially.

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