Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Random thoughts

--I was thinking today about kindness. Tolstoy said that kindness can be added to anything, and that is correct. Kindness can enhance any gesture; it can even be added to criticism and punishment. Jesus told us to treat others as we would wish them to treat us; he did not say to treat others well in order that they will reciprocate. We are kind not because of expectation of reciprocity, but, rather, because kindness nourishes the soul and affirms and deepens our humanity. This is illustrated most clearly by kindness to animals, which seems simply natural, even instinctual, to human beings. We do not treat animals with kindness in expectation that they will respond in kind; in most cases, in fact, they will not. Not abusing bears or poisonous snakes does not make them them kinder to us. They will continue to pursue their natures whether we treat them kindly or no. We do so, nonetheless, because it is an expression and extension of our humanity. Kindness is, therefore, rooted in humanity, not in calculation or in the nature of the recipient or our relation to him, or in expectation of reward; it is rooted in our souls.

--If god is love, why does life hurt so much?

--The lesson of birth is that we will never make a move of any importance in this life without hurting someone we love.

--Death remains a problem no matter what we do with it. Tolstoy wrote that if life is good, then death, which is a necessary part of life, must also be good. This is not the case. Rather, one could argue that if life is good, then death, which puts an end to life, must be evil, since it cancels out good. What Tolstoy was failing to realize is that, faced with the problem of death, he was seeking a way to think about it which would make it appear good. This is like a man, faced with a defect in his beloved's face, squints or seeks a light in which the defect will not appear, or will appear beautiful. To conceive of death as good is self-delusion. What, then, do we do with it?

Death is inevitable; that is, it is tied to time. Hamlet said 'If it be not now, then 'twill come; if it is not to come, then 'twill be now; and if it be not now, then surely it will come. The readiness is all.' But what readiness? What does readiness for death mean? What does it consist of? Does it mean resignation, putting one's affairs in order, making peace with one's fate? If readiness is merely acceptance, and actions and attitudes based on acceptance, then we remain victims of death; its servants and not its masters. That is why I wrote in my Crusade novel that death teaches us we are nothing - nothing but the slaves of time.

If the alternative to this view is, as Tolstoy often argued, to focus on and live in the present, and to do as much kindness as we can, then the question arises: Why? Ultimately, doing so will make no difference in our lives. Yet it will in the lives of others. And so we are left with the forlorn hope that our behavior in this life will make better the lives of others, and the even more forlorn realization that it will make no difference to our own fate. What this suggests is that we live for others; yet, what is the point of that?

All of this is true only if there is no form of accounting after death. For those who accept this idea, there is no point to life. At best it is altruism, and, at worst, idle entertainment and time marking; rather like those long hours we spend in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists to whom we take our children for care. We may chat cordially or read or play games to pass the time, in the knowledge that we are doing what is best for another whom we love - and that has intrinsic value. This, it seems to me, is as close to an understanding of the meaning of life as I can come. But it is scant consolation in the face of extinction. And so I return to the idea that, unless one conceives of some form of accouting after death, the experience of life is shallow at best.

Now, as I have written before, I reject utterly the juvenile Christian concept of an afterlife of eternal punishment or reward, which is nothing more than a fairy tale intended to scare unreflecting minds into submission to dogma. It is, of course, posited on the idea that we will be in the body after death, which is nonsense when one thinks of it. Corporeal beings such as we cannot exist outside of time - there is no eternity for those who live within the confines of the body. And so, what is one to make of the necessity of an accounting after death? What vision of it makes sense in terms of what we know and what we can believe?

As I have also written before, I tend toward the Buddhist conception of a cycle of lives through which the soul passes in its quest to liberate itself from time and suffering. And yet, I continue to bump up against what appears to me a contradiction; namely, the idea of the individuation of the soul. To believe that a soul persists through many incarnations, intact as it were, is, I think, to confuses the soul with the personality. It is the personality which is individuated, and that individual personality, it seems to me, dissolves at death.

And so what of the postmortem accounting, which, I think, alone makes sense of suffering and kindness and the whole personal history of each human life? An afterlife alone renders personality meaningful, in that it extends the consequences of personal choice out beyond the temporal. But of such an afterlife I can find no conception that makes sense to me.

--Formerly I had thought of death as a threshold; as a sort of temporal-spatial doorway through which we pass into another dimension of existence. But this rather conventional view has given way in my mind to a less structural and more fluid one. I now tend to think of the experience of dying as passing through a membrane; a fluid transition from one degree of pressure, as it were, to another. We know that fluids always migrate from areas of higher pressure to those of lower. May it not be so with the soul, which is confined - pressurized, if I may so put it - within the body, and then, through a process of osmosis, returns to its natural state outside the body? And, if this is so, what are the implications for the soul and the afterlife?

--I continue to reflect on the idea that consciousness is the nature of the spiritual force which animates all things. Formerly I had though that consciousness was the product of the soul's intersection with the corporeal. But, more and more, it seems to me that consciousness precedes the corporeal, and is merely limited by it. Therefore, after death, the soul regains or returns to its true form, which transcends the human experience of it in the body. 'We see now as through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.' And the face we will see is our own true face.