Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tackling the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Preface - Any thoughts contained in the following ramblings are not meant to include assessments as to whether or not the Divine exists, or what form it may take, or likewise, what happens after death. I'm not dead, so I can't know, and I really loathe making uninformed decisions. So, realize that this is coming not from an atheist, but from a questioner.

So, after a series of bizarre experiences, merging art and life, I find myself questioning that eternal mystery "What next?" Life is a straightforward enough matter. There's diapers at one end, families in the middle, and then diapers again at the other. It's that bit that comes afterwards that people are always wondering about. Generations of humans, millenia of lives marching forward into a big black curtain, a proper stage mask that no one ever sees behind. It is the one certainty in life that every person finds waiting at the end.

I once read that the human race invented the idea of gods as a response to the staggering reality of our own mortality. Horrified beyond the bounds of rational thought at the truth of our existence, the fact that we burned so bright, so fast, and then go so utterly dark, primitive man used his newly developed powers of imagination to impose an external order onto the world. Like a child naming it's invisible playmates, the elements were given identities. Fire, Earth, Thunder, these primitive gods sprang out of nothingness, to give meaning to the desperate young humanity's plight. Because that's where the roots of concepts of Afterlife come from, from our concept of the divine. We were so utterly mortified of what comes after death that we invented religion to protect ourselves from it. It sounds reasonable to me.

Some Asian cultures worship their ancestors. Thus, if you lived a good and venerable life, you would become a sort of house god, given the task of protecting your family. You had an identity, a task, and respect after you died, so it's almost as though you didn't die at all. Christians believe that if you lived a good and devout life, you go to Heaven to be with your creator. You keep your identity, you keep an anchor to your natural life (the same role of worship you had in church is now your role in the afterlife), and so it's like you didn't die. You simply entered a new form of being. Vikings believed their best warriors who died in battle went off to Valhalla, to life on in eternally glorious battle by day, and feasting by night. They kept their same roles and identities as in life, and so it's as though they did not actually die.

This all was triggered when I was asked what my thoughts were on the concept of reincarnation. That one is actually the most transparent of all of the ideas of afterlife. After you die, you just do it all over again. Some mechanism is in place to route your "soul" right back into a new body. You are alive again, and if you're quite good, you can dig deep and pull back memories of past lives. Then, it's like you never actually died at all.

The idea of an afterlife is insurance. It is the human race hedging it's bets against the darkness. By a collective power of will, the human creature unites with other, like-minded people and form a mental shield against the apparent truth of our existence. Even the word "After Life" carries within it's structure evidence of human denial. "Afterlife" or "Life After", it suggests that death is a transition, and not actually death. Death is akin to moving to another town, except the phones are a bit crap there and you can't get a signal to call all the other people you used to know. That's the core of religion, at the end of the day. It is the collective decision of its members to reject the physical evidence they are presented with, and embrace something else.

But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Boiled down in a test tube, the human condition is almost sadistic. Thrust into a vastly complicated universe with absolutely no apparent structure, we are given tremendous mental abilities. We are given the ability to perceive things that we cannot see, the powers of imagination and creativity. We have the unique ability to identify order and patterns, the ability to develop the disciplines of math and science. We are given a drive to know and understand everything, but then we are given the blink of an eye to do it. If we were crafted this way intentionally, it almost seems cruel. If it was accidental, it seems even crueler. Every single human being that has ever lived has been Alive. They have had the spark of life burning bright within them. An identity, a series of connections to other humans - Mother, Father, Friend, Enemy. They had likes, dislikes, quirks and oddities that were unique in all of the history of the universe to this one individual. For a long time, I always used to pride myself on being unique. But, as I open my eyes and study the people in my life, they are all marvelously unique as well. Every decision, for good or ill, is born of a chain reaction of chemicals and experiences and memories that I cannot begin to know. Snowflakes are child's play by comparison.

And yet, like snowflakes, every one of these people has but a short time. And we know it, because we have all seen the hand of death at work. Perhaps it was a bit more immediate for our less modern ancestors, but it was no less personal. Humans did not just being human a hundred years ago, or a thousand, or even more. We have been human the whole time. The sparks of creativity and genius that are with us today have been part of the human condition all along. Those ancestors were just like us, living, laughing, loving. But they're gone now. And they have left us no clues as to what is waiting for us beyond the curtain.

The human creature is presented with the ultimate paradox, and it's really no surprise that we've had to develop all manner of unfounded presumptions about what comes next in order to deal with it. We are given self-consciousness, the ability to have our own identity and unique personality. We then are given a timeline of indeterminate length, except we know with confidence that it will end. We are given the mental ability to tackle any mystery given sufficient time, and then someone starts a stopwatch. Humans are very purpose oriented creatures, so we create situations where we have Purpose. Purpose lets us tap into something eternal and immortal. Purpose lets us be part of something that is not temporary, that is not mortal, but that is everlasting. So, we embrace the purpose we find, and we pursue it because that is how we will live forever.

So, to answer the question, no, I don't believe in reincarnation. I think that, rationally, humans should not be letting ourselves get distracted by the irrelevant. The human creature has a very short time on this world, and we have a great many more important things to be doing than trying to organize what happens after we die. Because, scientifically, we have no evidence of an afterlife. If there is one, there is no reliable physical proof to back it up, so why make an issue of it? I have irrefutable physical proof that I have a life right now. I have an apartment, a car, a cat, and a beer waiting for me in the refrigerator. It is a waste of our precious minds to go muddling around in the afterwards, because we can't yet. If there is something there, then we will all have plenty of time to deal with it when the time comes. For now, I can prove scientifically that I have a beer in my fridge.

For a few more moments, anyway.

There is more to this, though. So I am confident this will not be the last time I find myself tackling it. Feel free to share your thoughts, please.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

And then the Leprechaun buggered off with the pot o' gold...

So, due to certain events and recent decisions I've dealt with in my life, I feel a strong need to write about the nature of Love, Relationships, and Dating in Modern Society.

The whole topic is rubbish, though, so why not root out the real source of the problem.

Just as I believe the Rebellion spirit that lives in us is the result of heavy indoctrination during youth, I fear that the modern concept of romance is likewise culturally ingrained into us. Raised on fairy tales of Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming, it is essentially inevitable for children to grow up with severely warped perspectives on relationships. I personally had the misfortune of spending my formative years regarding these things, sequestered away in my church youth group, but more on that later.

The fundamental problem is the delusion of "The Perfect Other". Likely stemming from the Judeo-Christian that God is watching out for you, the idea essentially is that there is a Mr./Mrs. Right out there, just waiting for you. This sort of thinking can only exist in a universe that allows for an all powerful/all knowing God, or Fate, which is the same thing with a more secular coat of paint on it. Now, I won't deny that even in my social circle, I have married friends who I cannot imagine being involved with anyone else. That is a reactionary attitude, though. I cannot imagine them with other people, mainly because I have not really seen either of them with other people. The concept is foreign to me, likely not encouraging to the couple (who wants to imagine their significant other with anyone else?), and therefore largely frowned upon. Personal experience and social graces combine forces, and suddenly it's Destiny.

Except it's not Destiny. It's not Fate, or God, or any other invisible force. It is a convoluted combination of personal chemistry and compatibility, genetic predisposition, and a significant amount of compromise and work on the part of the people actually in the relationship. Those couples who were "made for each other" are likely the first ones to point out to you exactly how hard it is to live with their spouse/significant other, and will easily rattle off several issues that they are currently in the process of hammering out. They are still together because their personalities mesh in just such a way that they can get through with the relationship intact. But that is no guarantee it will last, even for the married ones. It is fallacious thinking to assume permanence simply because it is the way things are now. The couple may have worked through a lot. They may have overcome challenges that likely seemed absolutely insurmountable at the time (I can think of a half dozen examples of the top of my head for at least as many of my married/seriously commited friends). Issues which the couples managed to work through. But, I can also say with confidence that the key factor in every one of these situations was not divine providence. It was not the invisible hand of Fate, Destiny, or the Divine. It was the stubborn persistence of the poor bastards caught in the middle of it. I've watched small issues shatter "perfect" couples. I've seen a lack of persistence destroy casual couple and decades-long marriage alike. The fact that a relationship has not failed yet does not automatically assume that it cannot fail.

There is no such thing as a "soulmate". At best, there is "the ultimate accomplice". Someone who is conspiring with you against the forces of entropy and boredom. When you think about it, monogamous relationships are a bit bizarre for a species with attention spans as short as humans. Yes, they're convenient for stability while raising children, but beyond that, there is a decided lack of incentive to stay involved. There is likely a reason the words "stable" and "stagnant" both begin with the same three letters. I'm no linguist, unfortunately, but I'd be glad to hear from someone with a thought on that. Personally, I have the attention span of the average gray squirrel cranked up on pop rocks and mountain dew. And while I am fully aware that the rest of the human race does not share my weakness (Thank God), my cousin informed me recently that the average human intellect does not usually stray further than 6% off the baseline, one way or the other. Assuming I am truly exceptional, and have literally half the attention span of the most extremely inattentive person, that puts me at either 9% or 12% off the mark, respectively. In class, a full letter grade, but we're not talking about the difference between "Passing with Honors" and "Dismal Failure". This implies that I, with my miserable ability to stay on course, am at the very most, only slightly less capable of keeping my head on track. That means that most other people will eventually get bored by the same lack of variety that bores me (albeit not nearly as quickly). It seems odd that there is this expectation that, even though I have difficulty maintaining a single guiding thought in my head throughout one single paragraph, I will somehow be perfectly fine sticking to a single woman for the rest of my life. And, if some of the more extreme cases are to be believed, that I was supposed to be "true" to her all the way up till now as well.

We are raised on promises of Happily Ever After in Love, as well as other things. It's a load of bollocks, though (God Bless the UK). According to a hero of mine, Harris K Telemacher (as played by Steve Martin), "There is someone for everyone, even if you need a compass, pick axe, and night goggles to find them." I disagree. I believe the formula is that you find someone you are happy with, and then you use the compass, pick axe, and night goggles to keep the relationship together.

Just keep your nerve, batten down the hatches, and with a little luck, you can make it through, with all your friends looking on in awe saying "They were meant to be together."