Who’s Out There?

After reading “Who Do You Call On When The Plane Shakes?“, I gave some serious thought to the question of who I call on/pray to when I’m faced with moments of terror and anguish. When I’ve been on a plane and thought I was in mortal danger, when people I loved went into the hospital with life-threatening problems, that time I was driving on the interstate in heavy traffic and one of my tires blew out…who did I call on? Who did I ask for help from?

And I realized the answer is: no one. In moments of crisis and panic, I feel alone on a spiritual, cosmic level. I might ask “the Universe” for help or relief, but I don’t really feel there’s anyone or anything actually listening to my prayers. In those moments, I hope my desperate wish for a good outcome will somehow influence the cold, uncaring universe, but there’s also a small voice in my head that speaks at those moments, saying, “Things will unfold as they will, and you’ll have to do your best to deal with them.”

Which explains why the only religions that have ever really spoken to me are Taoism (at least, by way of The Tao of Pooh) and Discordianism. It’s why I feel completely comfortable telling people I’m an atheist, not agnostic. When faced with the stark terror of death (my own or someone I love’s), I don’t see or feel any kind of sentient, divine presence in the universe. When I look into the abyss, I don’t see anyone looking back.

And you know, I’m quite fine with that.

“I am Involved in Mankind”

From John Donne’s 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.

Turkey on Wry, Hold the Karma

Ellie Di‘s recent blog post about positive thinking and why it is often a load of banana oil reminded me about the thoughts that have been bouncing around my noggin recently on the subject of karma.

Regardless of the traditional concept of karma in Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions, I see it most often used today as a fairly basic, cosmic cause and effect thing. “Karma’s a bitch,” someone will say when they see someone who’s done bad things having bad things happen to them. Or someone will say, “I’m racking up good karma,” because they’ve helped someone in need. Why do bad things happen to bad people? Karma. Why do good things happen to good people? Karma.

Frankly, I think this is bullshit. The idea that the universe is, in one way or another, keeping tabs on our actions and putting them in a “naughty” or “nice” column is truly offensive to me. If something bad happens to me, it’s because I did something bad at some point and I deserve what is happening to me? The best reason to do good to others is to accumulate cosmic brownie points so that we’ll get rewarded in life? How horrible! I don’t help people to get any kind of reward, temporal or cosmic. I do it because I was raised to revere life and to help those in need solely because they’re in need. I do it because it makes me feel good to help people. And in general, I don’t see any way to get through life happily unless we help each other out, because none of us are alone, and trying to get through life alone is monumentally more difficult than trying to get through life together.

To quote the character of Marcus Cole in the TV series Babylon 5,

I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, “wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?” So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.

A universe where life is fair, where our actions bring us good or bad karma, where the good and bad things that happen to us happen because we deserve them is not a universe I would want to live in. I don’t want to live in a universe where my friend gets cancer because at some level they deserve it.

Now, I do believe that if you treat people poorly, you can’t really be surprised or upset if people treat you poorly in return. Our social contract tends to be “treat others the way you wish to be treated.” But even people I think are assholes and bastards (say, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, or Donald Trump) seem to have friends and people who love them. I know kind, loving people who have had difficult, troubled lives. If you look for evidence of people being punished for bad karma and rewarded for good karma, I think it’s easy to find it. But I think it’s just as easy to point of where this popular view of karma has had no bearing whatsoever on things.

And of course, karma isn’t exactly something you can prove. In the end, it’s about belief. You can believe in karma if you want to, but it’s not something I want to believe in (any more than I want to believe in a diety who cares about the gender of the people you fall in love with and/or have sex with). I prefer my universe to be a cold, impartial, unfeeling place where we love each other because it simply feels good.

Meaning in a Meaningless World

We had a memorial service for my dad this afternoon. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to talk about. Although we had a complicated relationship and I still have some unresolved feelings over things my dad did, I have a lot of good memories of him, and keeping my talk down to a few minutes seemed a bit daunting. But I figured out my focus and talked about my dad’s whimsy, his sense of the absurd, his goofiness, his jokes like, “One man’s fish is another man’s poisson,” the silly songs he made up and the silly walks he would do in public just to get a laugh from the people around him.

My father was a huge Albert Camus fanboy. Camus’ existentialist absurdism infuenced my dad’s sense of humor and my dad’s sense of personal and political activism, which in turn influenced my own sense of humor and sense of personal and political activism. To help illustrate this at the service, I quoted from the TV show Angel, which my dad and I were both fans of. I pasted together these lines Angel speaks in the episode “Epiphany”:

In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win…If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if…nothing we do matters…then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today…All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

I don’t think there’s any great meaning to the universe, certainly not anything we humans can comprehend. I don’t believe the cosmos or any deities reward us when we do good things or punish us when we do bad. So why do good? Why help those in need? Why try to ease the suffering of others? Because our actions create the meaning of the universe. Because we can’t get through our tiny lives alone. And because the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

My father’s physical form is gone, but the meaning he created in his life lives on in me, my brother, our children, and the rest of my dad’s family and friends. The absurdity of life goes on.

Let’s not beat around the bush; I love life — that’s my real weakness. I love it so much that I am incapable of imagining what is not life.
— Albert Camus