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Interconnectedness May 8, 2009

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Scientists and other academic types often wonder why so many people won’t just give up God already. Any rational human being with even the slightest ability for critical thinking that has been exposed to even the tiniest amount of information about the natural world should just connect the dots already. We are the product of millions of years of evolution – no God needed. 

Well I don’t think that it really is that much of a mystery why people don’t leave the church pews in droves. It isn’t an issue that can be won by a rational argument – religion is too deeply integrated into the human consciousness to let it go after a quick read of the “God Delusion.”

People want to be part of something larger than themselves, something that will outlast them when they die – a purpose and reason for their existence. Ernest Becker describes this basic human need in his book, “Denial of Death”, he calls it “cosmic significance”. Many people find this need fulfilled in religion, but others find it elsewhere. The activist finds it in the cause that they fight for, the soldier finds it in their undying patriotism, even the die hard sports fan can find it in the allegiance to their team.

I think that if you analyze your life honestly and carefully, you’ll find a belief system there that endows your life with meaning.

This is why when the outspoken scientist tells people that they should just grow up already and mature past God, he becomes hated for it. He isn’t just asking people to give up their irrational thoughts, he is asking them to give up the whole system that gives value and meaning to their lives.  This same scientist doesn’t even recognize the slight hypocrisy in his request, because his life already has meaning. The scholar is immortalized by his writings and his contributions to the advancement of human knowledge, he doesn’t need a church to worship in because he has his universities instead. Even the student that maybe doens’t carry the same prestige still has his love for learning and finds pleasure and wonder and meaning in his academic field.

But what about the farmer, the policeman, the baker, the accountant, the great majority of people that have lived their lives with the idea of the Divine being the God of the Bible. See when you ask them to give up God, you are not just asking them to forsake irrationality, but you are asking them to give up their whole system of cosmic significance.

Imagine from the creationist’s perspective how terribly cruel the idea of a lifeless indifferent universe is – to think that we evolved just to become smart enough to realize how small and inconsequential our lives are – this must be a very terrifying idea.

So when we become champions of reason, we not only have to sell rationality and critical thinking to the masses, but we also need to provide a new sense of wonder. A new sense of cosmic significance.

Maybe one of the ideas that can fill this void is the idea of inerconnectedness. We are all in this life together. We each affect eachother’s lives in deep meaningful ways. Everything about us is tied to the vastness all around us, from the food we eat, to the books we read, to the friends we have, and the television shows we watch. All of it dancing together in a complex web of interconnectedness. 

This idea is expressed in John Donne famous meditation:

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Or from one of my favorite Buddhist poems “Call me by my true names” by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

What do I want out of Life… May 5, 2009

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Most of the time I run around so quickly from distraction to distraction, I am at work, then I come home and turn on the television, or cook something to eat, or I worry about something I forgot to do, or something that I want to get done.

Seldom do I sit down and think, “Am I living the life that I want to live?” It is such a difficult and usually disappointing question. That is probably the reason it is so easy to find something to distract me from thinking about it.

But really what question is more important?

With my relentlessly hypercritical mind, I think just because on the surface I might want something does that mean that I should actually strive to obtain it? The root of the desire is probably from some deep biological impulse forged from millenia of evolution, or perhaps it is just social conditioning. And if this is the case, what nobility is there in striving for some desire that was in a sense forced on me anyway.

Then I think about evolution itself, the incredible complex process that forged this beautiful thing we call life. It didn’t have any goals, it wasn’t trying to “create” humans. Molecules just did what molecules do, and what do you know a few billion years later here I am, thinking, and typing, and blogging. 

So if the most creative power I know of in the universe can function without goals and desires, why should I be so attached to having and obtaining my goals?

Even as I write that last sentence though, I know it isn’t right. I have spent days in bed before lying on a pile of dirty laundry because I was too lazy to get up and pick up my room, and I don’t need to tell you that I felt like crap. That isn’t right. That is no way to live.

It appears anyway, that just living a life of doing “whatever I want, whenever I want” doesn’t hold the same satisfaction of working towards a goal, and trying to live a fulfilling life. 

Then it must be fulfillment, I should try to live a life full of fulfillment. But that is just playing with words, what is fulfillment anyway, and how do I get it?

So I started reading up on psychology a little bit, and as people have been interviewed the ones that are the most happy are the ones that have the following things in their lives:

1. Relationships. We need close intimate relationships, and we need even broader ones. We need to feel like we are part of a group, part of something bigger. Maybe even something divine. This “need” must have evolved as our ancestors stood huddled in cold lonely corners of the African savannas and the ones that learned to rely on eachother stood a better chance of survival.

2. Work. We have to feel engaged. I read the book “Flow” by Mihay Csikszentmihayli. They did a study where they placed beepers on people. These beepers would go off randomly, sometimes when the person was at work, and sometimes when they were at home. The point was that the person wouldn’t know when it would go off, but the instant it did they were supposed to write down what they were doing and how fulfilled they felt at the moment. The strange part was that people, although they said that they wanted to be home more often, were actually more fulfilled at work. The book argues that this is because people usually just sit and watch TV, or do something else that doesn’t challenge and engage them. He wasn’t necesarily saying that people need to work more, but at least they should choose leasure activities that are more challenging.

I think both of these things, must be vitally important, written deeply into our DNA. I think they open up a hole lot of more questions?

Like who and what types of relationships should I have? What type of work and play should I be involved in to make sure I am feeling sufficiently engaged? Maybe these are too individual of questions and cannot be generalized, but at the least I think they provide the framework for a more fulfilled life.

Then, once you decide how you want to live, you have to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. Maybe that question is even more difficult that the original one.