This a meditation, if you will. A few ideas offered for your consideration, regarding what I believe to be most essential in these turbulent times. My meditation bears on the meaning of life and death, and the various ways individuals and peoples can respond to the knowledge of our own mortality. But as with all such meditations one must first find the proper place to start, the right setting to begin the contemplation -- a context if you will for understanding the necessity for thinking hard about such matters. So forgive me a preamble before I begin.
I've been sitting around the last few days contemplating what to say about the current state of our country. We are faced with so many, seemingly intractable problems, so many issues which are not being addressed, though god knows people talk about them endlessly: income inequality, climate change, unemployment, health care, LGBT rights, women's rights, war, our social safety net, guns, the social safety net, the role of government, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam. As Hamlet famously said, in response to a question from Polonius regarding what he was reading, "Words, words, words."
Indeed, our society suffers from a surfeit of words these days. How often we hear the same arguments repeated with only minor variations, the same many of them with as little value to resolving, or even advancing the conversation on, the issues that confront America as trees that fall in that proverbial abandoned forest. After a time all these disputatious words sound alike. All we hear after a while is a great noise from which all significance has been washed away. Even here, among presumably like-minded souls, it is easy to fall into the trap of finding fault with others, of reflexive criticism, of simple categorization and cynical, spiteful personal attacks. So many speakers, so few listeners.
Perhaps you can understand my dilemma then, as I wondered what if anything I could add to this ceaseless barrage, for all I have to offer are words as well. And on any specific topic I cannot say my words are better than those presented by someone else. My knowledge about any particular subject is limited. I may know more than that person over there, but less than the person over here. I can protest and rant and offer up my outrage with the best of you (and I have often done so), but does that make my utterances any more meaningful or persuasive? If I say the same thing as someone else, even though it be true, can I do a better job of changing the minds of those who believe my words are false that they are mistaken?
This conundrum depressed me, stymied me, kept me silent. However, in the past few days I've rediscovered, or remembered, an obvious truth. I do not have to rely upon merely my own words. Far greater thinkers and moral teachers than I have considered these fundamental problems. For the basic issue, as so many of these great teachers have so often pointed out, involves how we think and feel about the life and death, both our own and the lives and deaths of others.
For example, the myriad deaths from all the violence human beings inflict upon each other, all the suffering and pain, across the globe and here at home have burned themselves into my consciousness. Yet, I was torn. What more can be said about the senseless nature of war, or of the desire of so many individuals to possess the very instruments that in so many instances lead to these outbreaks of violence? The usual arguments have failed us so many times before.
There is deep irony in the fact that many of the greatest practitioners and advocates of non-violence died from violent acts, whether the crucifixion of Jesus, an act of execution dictated and carried out by the ruling state of his time, or Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., victims of assassins who used guns to accomplish their murders. Akira Kurosawa, the world renowned film director, once stated that despite all our technological advances we had really only learned how to more efficiently kill one another. He despaired of human beings ever achieving comparable advances in the field of morality.
It is the nature of humanity to create tribes and hierarchies. To seek out insular societies that protect and succor their own members but fear, hate and all too often actively oppose and contest with members of other societies for land, power and resources. Whether you believe this fundamental condition was created by an all powerful supernatural being, or is the result of an evolutionary process, it matters little. The trait is inherent among all but those outliers we label sociopaths (and that nomenclature for individuals who feel no need or desire to join with, or rely upon, others is telling).
We Americans like to tell ourselves that we live in an advanced nation, one where the cruelty and predation of the past is a distant memory, but that is a lie. The recent revelations about the genocidal nature of our war in Vietnam, and the well known the brutality our people, our tribe known as America, imposed, and still imposes, on the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan is argument enough. Americans are not immune to the same blight that afflicts people throughout the world, from the killing fields of Africa, to the civil wars in the Middle East, to the many oppressive, murderous and tyrannical regimes of Asia.
Many Americans are sheltered from the barbarity of our "civilization" by their relative affluence, but even here, the signs of this plague are made manifest. Every day someone is killed with a gun, every day a child dies from lack of proper medical care, every day many go hungry, every day many bear the burdens of debilitating physical and mental conditions. Every day people are bullied, abused, and commit suicide in America. The reasons why this suffering continues are not that difficult to ascertain. There are those in our society who profit from these silent atrocities. There are those who deny that these injustices occur and condemn those who state these harsh facts for reasons of ideology; and there are those who do not care so long as the people suffering are not those they hold dear or for whom they feel some measure of sympathy.
All of us will someday die. Perhaps you hope or believe that in some other place apart from our known physical universe, your existence will continue in some fashion, but you cannot know that as a fact. You can only have faith in things unseen. But while we are alive we all we bear witness to the deaths of family, friends, and strangers. Their bodies stop functioning. Their lungs stop breathing, their hearts stop beating, and their brains stop all electrochemical activity. Their cells decay. If left alone long enough, all signs of their flesh and internal organs eventually disappear leaving behind only bones as evidence that once they too walked upon this earth, loved, hated, ate, worked, played, slept, and dreamed.
Death is a reality on our world. And regardless of beliefs about an afterlife, people mourn for those whom they loved. They grieve for their dead. No faith can eradicate such emotions entirely, though some certainly try. It is our knowledge that death comes for each of us that informs and shapes our lives, and indeed our very societies. Oh, we have extended the average length of life over the past two centuries, at least in the developed world, but no one can say we are close to eradicating death. Even those who manage to avoid the diseases and accidents and violence that cut short so many lives know this to be true. Eventually the body can no longer repair itself. Eventually, even among those with the best genes, and with the best nutrition and health, the body wilts, fades, gives up the ghost. We can attempt to distract ourselves from this truth, or deny the aging process, but, at some point in time, we all must come to grips with our mortality. Even in the America of the rich and famous, death is omnipresent (the poor do not need to learn this lesson - they know it all too well from a young age).
The real question then is how do we respond to this awareness of our own mortality? Some adopt fatalistic attitudes and give themselves over to a nihilistic existence, living only for themselves. How many of us know of individuals who abuse drugs, seek sexual adventures, or engage in reckless and dangerous activities, addicted to chemically engineered thrills, natural or unnatural. These are the reactions of people who choose not to cherish life, but instead pursue raw, overpowering experiences that obscure their fear of death. In the passion of the moment, death vanishes from one's consciousness. One chooses to eradicate the self to escape the anxiety and suffering brought about by knowledge of one’s own mortality. Unfortunately, thrills never last, a tolerance to the means of escape builds up, and the addict requires a bigger dose to recreate that brief moment of bliss.
Others respond as children in the schoolyards do, viewing life as a contest to be won or lost. They spend their lives trying to obtain more of everything - more power, more friends, more fame, more money, more, more, more ... It seems they never acquire enough, though. Others fail under the sway of ideologies or religions that promise paradise, now or in the future, if they accept wholeheartedly the precepts and practices they are taught by the initiated. Most, I believe, simply struggle through the best they can, accepting that life is filled with both sorrows and joys. They do their best to limit the sorrows and enhance the joys for themselves or their families with varying means of success.
None of these lifestyles fully eliminates pain or suffering, or takes away the specter of death, for all of them rely upon selfish considerations. At best they can dull the fear for a while, now and again, provided one is lucky. Each of them depends on denial in one form or another. Each of them reinforces characteristics in our shared human nature that can lead to conflict with others, and the continuing propagation of suffering in the world. For if one seeks merely to avoid pain and deny death, then the lives of others, now or in the future, do not matter, or they do not matter enough. Other people become merely means to accomplish one's own pursuits, i.e., attempts to address the existential crisis that our impending deaths create. What other explanation best fits the attitudes and behaviors of the so-called 1% half as well?
Worse, anxiety and fear of death can lead one to search out scapegoats, to seek enemies to hate and blame for the suffering that comes to all of us in life. Is this not the current mindset of many people in our country, who adhere to belief systems that at every turn demonize others based on differences in religion, gender, race, ethnicity or political ideology? Systems, not so much of beliefs, but of anti-beliefs - of pure opposition to all who are not part of their self-defined tribes. They call for the rejection of all policies, all new ideas, all solutions to our long-standing problems so long as these ideas are proposed by their "enemies." The language employed by these people is the language of destruction and elimination, of violence and death.
There is another response to the knowledge that death comes for us all, however, though it is little spoken of these days in our 21st Century, post-modern America. It is an old teaching, but I suggest that it has never been more relevant to the lives we lead now and the world in which we reside. Indeed, I will make the claim that the principles that define this response were present at the beginning of our Republic, and are fundamental to our future survival as a nation and (for many) as individuals.
Evidence of this different "response" can be found in the teachings of the Buddha, where the practice of compassion and the development of the quality of loving kindness are fundamental principles of his dharma for deliverance from suffering. It can also be seen in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as set forth in the New Testament gospels, most particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
"A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?" He said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Both Jesus and the Buddha reject the usual pattern of acting only to benefit oneself. In place of selfishness and hate, they preach love and compassion for all human beings, even those who see you as their enemy, who hate and despise you. People should be treated as equals, universally deserving of our compassion, rather than restricting those sentiments to a small group of family or friends. Yet, perhaps no one has stated the central theme of this response to human suffering amnd mortality better than John Donne, the English poet, politician and cleric who wrote the following (from his "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions" MEDITATION XVII):
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; 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.
Donne here directly speaks of death, and makes the assertion that no one's death is insignificant, no one's life is worth less than another life. All life is connected ("No man is an island"). All deaths are connected as well. Each life that ends is equally a tragedy for humankind ("[N]ever send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"). Donne, at the time he wrote this devotional meditation,n was a converted Anglican priest after having been born into a recusant Catholic family (many of his cousins had been martyred or exiled for their Catholic beliefs). He lived both as a rich man and a poor one. A diplomat and one time member of Parliament, he was certainly aware of the looming political crisis between followers of the Crown, as head of the official Church of England, and the Puritans. In short, he lived in turbulent times and knew his own share of personal sorrow, having lost his wife, to whom he was greatly devoted, in childbirth. He also suffered several bouts with ill health one of which nearly killed him.
I imagine it would have been easy for Donne to turn away from the world or because of his religious position and powerful political connections and merely pursue his own fortune, but that was not the choice he made. He chose not confront death. He came to to view it as a means to find commonality between all peoples. He preached the same message that Jesus and the Buddha had centuries before him: that all humanity must rely upon one another, that love is stronger than hate and acts of compassion are the proper response to suffering. I've quoted above the most famous passage from his Meditation XVII, but please take the time to read that which follows after it:
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.
I do not believe that Donne suggests here that we should wallow in suffering, but rather that we should respond to it, not with isolation from others or withdrawal into selfish desires and pursuits, but by active engagement in the world, with the purpose of making it better for all of humankind. I also believe that contrary to the claims of many on the right, reliance on the help of others, including government, has been a major theme of our nation since its founding.
In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ...
Vague terms one might say, and Jefferson gives us no indication how one should live life or pursue happiness, yet he felt it necessary to make specific reference to these three "things" to which we are entitled. Many argue that these words form the basis for American individualism, but I think they do more than that. Jefferson never speaks about individuals. In the Declaration he refers to all men (and for my purposes I will extend his references to mean all people) as a whole, and the status of governments as servants of the people's will. Jefferson was a flawed man; that we know. He owned slaves, and permitted those who worked for him to mistreat those slaves that he might profit from their labors.
Yet, his words at least reflect a different sentiment, one that President Lincoln refashioned and refined in his most important speech, the Gettysburg Address. In that brief statement, Lincoln implied for the first time in American history that freedom applied to all those who reside in this country, and that the institution of a new, expanded meaning of freedom was the purpose for which the Civil War was being fought. Lincoln's words were spoken at a time of great suffering, anguish and mass slaughters that all wars provoke. Lincoln spoke of “a new birth of freedom” during a period of far greater division among the various classes and races that comprise our population than exists today. They were words of inclusion, much like those found in the Preamble of the US Constitution:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
There are those who will tell you that the path to insuring these stated goals requires less compassion, less reliance on the assistance of our governments and communities. Instead they would have you subscribe to an ideology that is premised solely on greed, ruthlessness and selfish ambition. Yet the very words of our founding documents and our greatest President dispute that contention. The Constitution itself established a more centralized, stronger federal government precisely because the government created by the prior Articles of Confederation had been such a miserable failure. There would be no need to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty" if the limited government of the Articles of Confederation had done so already.
The truth is that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, our nation was deathly ill and would have perished from the face of the earth, had the founders not chosen to establish a stronger government, one still with limits, but also with powers and responsibilities not previously surrendered by the states. It was (and remains) far from a perfect form of government, but every time we have made progress as a nation, both activism by those who were oppressed and action by government were required. Without both working in tandem, those efforts would have been in vain.
Think of the Labor movement, the New Deal, the Civil Right Movement, the Women's Movement and all the other progressive movements in American history that fought for the expansion of rights for more and more classes of people, and the elimination of barriers to the expression of those rights. In each case, the individuals and groups sacrificed so that others in the future, their descendants, could have what had been denied to them.
Now we find ourselves again at a crossroads in American history after four decades of conservative backlash to policies that promoted equality and rights for all people, rather than a mere handful. The future is filled with potential dangers not only to "our freedoms," but to life itself on this planet. We, as a nation can choose to turn down the path of denial and escapism, of selfish indulgence and inequality, but we already know where that path leads, because we have seen how were it took our nation since the rise of Ronald Reagan. It led to greater suffering, more pain and death, both of the body and of the spirit, to individuals and to society. It led to the darkness of fear, hatred, bigotry and an increase in senseless violence. And it will continue to lead to greater divisions among Americans that will further isolate us, one from another, and decrease the possibility of our mutual survival.
The alternative is to find in our own mortality a reaffirmation of the value of life, our own life and the lives of others. To rediscover that reliance on community and individual liberty are not mutually exclusive, but are necessary partners. To understand that compassion and love for all people, even our enemies, is not a weakness but a strength. To recall again the strength to be found when we join together to promote the common good, for as we know so well, there is strength in numbers. One person cannot tear down the walls of injustice or protect the innocent from those who would prey upon them, but a community of people dedicated to helping each other, respecting each other and fighting for each other can. Indeed, they are the only thing that ever has.
One last quote to for you to consider:
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. Dalai Lama