It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Family values and me

For many people, family means refuge, a warm, inviting place where they will always be welcome, where there will always be unconditional support. Throw in a strong religious conviction, and they just add God to the list of familiars they can always count on.

For me, family was always about suffocation. Religion was there, a very strong presence, and stifling. The two together seemed absolutely crushing.

This had nothing to do with lack of love and support. That was always there, too, in abundance. It’s just that the totality was overwhelming, with no room left for the kind of soul-stretching I yearned for. I spent hours looking out doors and windows, dreaming of escape.

How to account for the difference? Hard to say, but I suspect it is rooted in the style of upbringing. Mine was very rigid and inflexible, and the same can be said for my religious upbringing: twelve years of Catholic school, ironically much more flexible than my father’s idea of what was appropriate for children. Still, the razor-wire was there all the same, just a bit further out.

These days, only three of us remain from the family, siblings. We live thousands of miles apart. We get along very well. Words like love and support are bandied about so often nowadays that I don’t trust them; basically, we live our own lives, and are interested in each other’s lives, and would undoubtedly rally to each other in case of a crisis. Let’s leave it at that.

As for religion, I’ve left it far behind. The still faithful erroneously think that’s because of a grudge against God. True, anger and rebellion initially caused me to examine the tenets of Catholicism, but once the cat was out of the bag there was no going back. Occasionally, protestants of various flavors tell me the problem is Catholicism, that their particular variant is more loving, more forgiving, etc. They miss the point. Nowadays, I’m no more angry at God than I am at Santa for not bringing me Christmas presents.

God, in the form of an omnipotent creator who nevertheless tinkers with his creation at the request of believers, is an insupportable idea. Once you start questioning dogma, and persist at it, this is inescapable. God was created wholly in the image of man: spiteful, loving, patronizing, generous, egomaniacal, vengeful, forgiving, take your pick; it’s all there to reinforce your decisions wherever your personal inclinations lead you.

Do I miss any of that? Rarely. The more I think about things like eternity and immortality, the more I realize we’re already there.

Non Credo

In unum deum, but that’s another story. Lots of people go on at length about the things they believe; I thought it might be useful to list all the things I have trouble believing:

• In the piety of people who spend all their time making sure we know it
• That anyone is actually made happier by all those inspirational quotes
• That when I hear the words ‘this is for your own good’ it actually is
• That corporations are benevolent and are looking after our interests
• That corporations are evil and are trying to control the world
• That we are all brainwashed except for all the people telling us we are
• That everyone who disagrees with me is stupid
• That everyone who agrees with me is smart
• That everything I believe is true
• That everything I believe is consistent with everything else I believe
• That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
• That it’s possible to become a billionaire honestly
• That you can be anything you want to be if you want it badly enough
• That giving money to some church will save my immortal soul
• That I have an immortal soul
• That whenever one door closes one door opens
• That poor people are just lazy
• That rich people just work harder than everyone else
• That just being yourself and ignoring what others think is a great idea
• That this list is anywhere near comprehensive

Living in the present

In these faux-buddhist  times, it’s become a true cultural meme: “Live in the present!”

It’s the fault of the beats, really, Kerouac especially, giving a Zen paint job to all the self-indulgent behavior they could muster, which was substantial.  Now we get Zen home decorating, Zen cuisine, Zen motorcycling, for Christ’s sake.  But the worst of all of it is the live-in-the-present motif, which seems to be interpreted, as often as not, as licence to reject responsibility.  You can’t fault Zen itself, which is in reality all about accepting responsibility.  Far from the hedonism spawned by everyone living “in the moment,” Zen actually teaches that desire, which motivates all this extremity, is something that we could all do without.

But let’s look at the idea of living in the present itself.  Can such a thing be done?

Not a chance.  First of all, from a purely physical point of view, it’s impossible, because by the time any information reaches our senses, it is already in the past, and from there it still takes time for us to process that information and become conscious of it.  It may only be microseconds, but it’s not the present.

But maybe we’re talking about the present as it relates to sense data already processed, and ready for use.  In this case, it doesn’t matter that the events themselves are in the past; the present we’re talking about refers to the interior present.  Can’t we live in that?

Good luck.  Suppose some light reflected from a moving bus enters your eyes and is processed.  Just to identify that light pattern as a bus requires you to use information stored in your memory from a lifetime of observation.  You’re stuck in the past.  Not only that, but if the bus happens to be moving toward you, you had better be thinking of the future, or you soon won’t have any.

You could say this is pointless quibbling, that what is meant by the present in this case includes events and decisions in the immediate temporal vicinity.  Also, you get to take advantage of all you have learned in your life in interpreting the present.  And, of course, you get to consider the immediate future.  Enough to stay alive, at least.  Okay, enough to have a reasonably secure life.

Trouble is, when you start expanding the bubble around the present to include what you need for survival, you immediately run into problems with what that means.  In the end, for most people, that seems to involve cars, cell phones, huge televisions, and the sources of money to pay for all that.  Next thing you know, living in the moment just means doing what you want, and to hell with the consequences, for yourself, yes, but more often the consequences for others.

Blap! Just like that, you’ve taken a concept out of Zen and turned it completely around to mean its opposite.

This sort of thing is not unusual where religion is concerned.  Lots of airy contemplation and metaphysical nuance at the top, but by the time you get down to the ground zero believer, it’s boiled down to a list of rules and regulations.  We are, of course, familiar with this for the Abrahamic religions.  God knows that what the nuns taught us at St. Philip Neri School all those years ago had little to do with the rarified theology debated at Notre Dame and the corridors of the Vatican.  But with Buddhism, somehow, we all think we get it.

I don’t consider myself a Buddhist; I don’t believe in any religion, actually.  I was enchanted by it for a time in my youth, however.  I read all of the Western Zen writers, like Alan Watts, and moved on to the works of D. T. Suzuki and what other Japanese writers I could find in translation.  This sparked an interest in Buddhism in general, and so I was delighted when I met a young man from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), who was an ardent Theravada Buddhist.  Theravada is the closest thing in Buddhism to orthodoxy, so I jumped at the chance to get at the roots of it all.  My friend was delighted in my interest in his religion, and gave me a handful of books and pamphlets.  To my dismay, what I found was the same old list of things to do and things not to do.  It could easily have passed for my old grade school catechism with a few minor changes in terminology.

What happened to all that cool Zen stuff about letting go and being in the moment?  I later learned that, even in Zen, the practice of it was far different from the lofty metaphysics, involving more sitting in wretched discomfort (for someone raised to sit in chairs), and getting whacked with a stick than any of that marvy freedom I’d been reading about.  My horrible nuns, it seems, had been Zen masters all along!

By the time any religion percolates down to the great unwashed (us), it’s all about rules and regulations, sprinkled with more or less of magical ritual.  I think of the St. Christopher statues in the cars of my youth, or the prayers rated with the precise number of days off from Purgatory their recitation would get you, or how, if you took communion on nine consecutive first Fridays of the month, you were guaranteed salvation.  Interesting that I never made it past five!

Buddhism is no different.  Think of the prayer flags of Tibet, or the redemptive power of reciting “Namu Amida Butsu” over and over in the Japanese Pure Land school of Buddhism.

I must say we’ve been pretty clever in our cooption of Buddhism in Western culture, though.  We’ve taken some of the lofty metaphysics of a religion we’ve no intention of following seriously, stripped it of any inconveniences, reinterpreted it to suit ourselves, and imagine ourselves to be marvelously spiritual.

Sweet!

An open letter to God, Esq.

Dear Sir (or Whatever),

As you know, I don’t usually write you open letters, but these days, things have piled up.

First off, why did you have to make my hard drive crash?  Don’t go all innocent; every day I hear people say how you’re in total control, and it’s all according to your plan, etc., etc.  Besides, don’t think I haven’t noticed that everything computer lately is in the cloud.  That’s where you live; hard to believe you’d allow a setup like that unbeknownst.  Sure, lots of people say it’s just the computer companies trying to get more and more control and money off their customers, but I can’t believe you’d let your space be used that way – doesn’t seem like you.  I am also aware I’ve been rude lately, maybe even blasphemous, but a hard drive crash seems a bit much.  How about just one of those migraines, wouldn’t that have been more appropriate?

And then there’s the matter of your people down here – you seriously need to get a grip on them.  They’re always yammering about peace and love, and the whole time they’ve got their hands around your throat and in your pocket.  I like the new guy, Frank, at the Vatican, but frankly, I’m worried for him.  I saw what happened to John Paul I.  Was that you, or some of your Vatican enforcers?  Either way, things seem out of control, and not just in your Mideast franchises.  Here in the US, your people have gotten really crazy.  Look, I know that those you would destroy, you first drive mad, but did you ever consider that the rest of us have to live through that, too?  Didn’t you learn anything from that whole Job experience?

And the weather.  Don’t get me started on the weather.  Yes, we’ve screwed it up ourselves, but, again, it’s your people who have worked the hardest to keep us from fixing things.  We’ve got preachers down here positively gloating about Tribulations and Rapture and what-not.  If you’re not coming back right away, I’d just as soon you fix the weather thing and leave us alone for awhile.  Don’t give me that business that you can’t do anything about it; people ask you all the time to reverse those laws you set up so long ago, just so they can win a big football game, for Christ’s sake.  You could just wave your hand, or whatever it is you’ve got, and Bob’s your uncle.

Well, I know Bob’s not really your uncle.  I won’t even ask you about that triangle thing you’ve got going with Jesus and the Holy Ghost.  Not my business really.

Sincerely,
You-know-who

Saints preserve us!

Pope Francis has put two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, on the fast track to sainthood.  Well, alright, for all I know, they were fine people, and maybe deserve some recognition.  Setting aside for the moment the question of all the millions of other fine people who were their contemporaries, but not popes or even Catholics, I have a major quibble with the reasoning here.

According to the ancient rules of such things, to even get this far (beatitude) there has to have been an attested miracle.  This can vary widely, from healing the sick to simply not rotting in the casket.  In the case of John Paul II, there have been two alleged miracles, both involving inexplicable cures from incurable medical conditions after praying to him (while dead, of course) to intercede with God on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Here’s what’s weird.  Presumably, had JP II not been in heaven, all those pleas for intercession would have been for nothing, and the women involved would still be sick today, if they hadn’t died first.  But according to the Church, God is perfectly just.  The whole thing seems to resemble a lottery, in which your health depends not on medicine, or even on your personal faith or the extent of your prayers, but on whether you guessed right as to the eternal disposition of some dead person.

Of course, this is just a minor quibble, in the face of the idea that God, presumably the creator of the universe and hence all of the laws of physics, will suspend those laws on the request of someone from earth.  And not do it for anyone who doesn’t ask nicely, or even for the vast, vast majority of those who do.

Mysterious ways, indeed.