I’ve decided that, with this being the New Year, it’s a good time not for resolutions, but for reflection, though the latter certainly has the potential to inspire the former. Reflection can liberate us, and it can imprison us. It all depends on the reflection you see. Some of the questions I’m about to ask may even appear to come from a negative place. For me however, they don’t. They are in my opinion, “growth questions.” Hard questions we have to answer for ourselves so we can grow. It’s like pulling out a thorn. It hurts, but it’s necessary for healing to take place.
I have decided to list the questions, and then give personal answers that I myself have found for these. Maybe you have a better answer. If so, tell me in a comment. Drop me an email. I would love to hear what you have to say. Onto the questions. I’ll start with the first one I mentioned.
What is the purpose of spirituality?
When the whole December 21st “letdown” occurred, I heard a bunch of people talking like “Well now what’s going to happen?” as though nothing happening on December 21st changed anything at all (It didn’t). I even heard a few people ask questions like, “What’s the purpose of spirituality if we can’t gain superpowers?” or “Why be spiritual when all it means is ignoring the fact life sucks and pretending everything is rainbows, happiness and sunshine?”
As you can see, it’s really not one question, but a nest of questions. The short answer, in my humble opinion is this:
The purpose of spirituality is to become a whole person.
It’s not about superpowers, or traveling the world, or becoming a guru. It is merely about becoming a whole person. And while that answer itself is simple, the actual task of becoming whole is monumental. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s totally possible. It means taking a long hard look at your blind spots, becoming aware of things about yourself that you didn’t even know are true. And then, once you do become aware of those things, you have to find a way not to obsess over them, a way to recognize they are there and then just let it drop. It’s the most difficult thing in the world. I know I’m not there.
And honestly, what is the point of superpowers if you’re not a whole person anyway? Who could possibly use superpowers for any good at all except if they were a whole person? Would the ability to fly or read minds, for example really make you happy? Or would it be a cool, fleeting parlor trick that sooner or later you took for granted? “So what?” You would find yourself saying. “I can fly, and I guess that’s cool and everything, but I still can’t do X.” And fill that X with anything you want. Any piece of pride or hedonistic pleasure, the vacuum remains.
Neither is spirituality about ignoring the fact that “life sucks.” If you think that’s what spirituality is, you’re doing it wrong. It’s about accepting the fact that “life is”, and what life is is change. It is constantly flipping from order to disorder, and even those words fall short of describing what life is. Sure, some of that “sucks”, in fact a lot of it does, but a lot of it is good too, and we have the potential in ourselves to change things for the better, but to do that, we have to become whole first. Or at least we have to try. We have to work at it.
It’s one of the reasons I love stories so much. You have characters, and like all characters, (except the Mary Sue stereotype) they all have flaws. The are all incomplete in one way or another. When they interact, go on adventures, conflict with each other and themselves, etc. they learn from each other, they grow. They grow a little bit closer to wholeness. Stories inspire us to seek out that wholeness too.
You are stuck having to make a sadistic choice. What do you do?
A terrible fiend forces you into an awful choice, where you have to choose between two things you value and care about. Maybe it’s two loved ones. Maybe he says he’ll kill one or the other, but if you do nothing, he’ll kill both. Maybe it’s between two groups you are loyal too. Both are great groups of people, both deserving of your loyalty, and no matter what you choose, you are going to let the other down. No matter what you choose, you are stuck with the burden of guilt or shame for letting something or someone you care about get hurt, or get let down.
It is so easy to answer this question with something like, “Take the third option. You find a way to save them both, or die trying,” or maybe you shut down all together and say “That’s why I care about nothing. It’s why I’m loyal to nothing. I can’t protect or save them anyway. No matter what I do, I fail somebody.”
The question also strikes down on a personal fear of mine, one that I haven’t honestly been able to shake. It is a fear that has trickled down into every thing else in my life. It is the reason that at times I’m scattered, or distant, or fill myself with things that I know don’t really fulfill me.(stupid internet videos, sugar, caffeine, you name it). I’m terrified that I won’t be able to protect my family, from death, from starvation, poverty, or suffering. I’m terrified that despite my best efforts, I’ll have to look at them as they live life in anguish. And every time I think of that, it’s like I’m gripped in the heart by this cold icy claw. It literally paralyses me. To think of these questions, it nearly drives me mad sometimes. I don’t fear what will happen to me, because I’ve come to accept what life has in store for me, but they haven’t, (especially my children who are far to young to face truths like that) and that terrifies me. I would hate to watch any of them break.
I’m asking these questions, but I’m honest here. I’m not whole either.
But the thing is, my fear is the truth. The utter truth is, I can’t protect them. Life will just keep marching on. Becoming whole is about accepting that, but how can you? I mean, my head knows it, but my heart cannot come to terms with it. My fears have not fully yet come to pass, but it’s only a matter of time. I cannot protect them forever.
Granted, my fear used to be worse. When my son was pretty little, he accidentally rolled off the bed and hit his head. He cried for a while and was fine, but that didn’t stop that icy claw from coming back. It didn’t stop that feeling of utter dread that, just for a moment, completely overtook me.
So ultimately, the answer comes down to this: You have to make a choice, and then, when that choice inevitably hurts someone (because you cannot protect what you care about 100 percent of the time) you have to learn to forgive yourself and move on, because if you don’t, it’s only going to cause more suffering, and at least you’re doing something. That’s one of life’s most bitter truths, and it is so difficult to accept, believe me I know. But it is so, so important to come to terms with if you want to be a whole person.
A man presents you with a magical mirror that will show you all the truth of existence. Not knowledge, truth. Do you dare look inside?
“Of course,” you might say at first, your curiosity getting the best of you. “Why wouldn’t I want to know the truth?”
This has been said before, but it always bears repeating:
The truth hurts. To do this would mean seeing the suffering of all the people in the world. The people you care about, the people you’ve never met. It would mean seeing images of starving children, people dieing of thirst and disease, horrors of all kinds, the worst kind of evil. And it would mean not just seeing it, but feeling it and living it, as if you were these people. It would experiencing, if only for a moment, alternate existences where you were the one suffering those horrors.
It would mean also, however, seeing people heal and grow. It would mean seeing people change, grow and learn from the most unlikely places. It would show the unyielding change of existence. And it would again show, that with or without us, time marches on. But these are just words. There ultimately is no way to say what such a thing would show you. Because talking about it and experiencing it are two different things. In short, I imagine, it would be a cacophony of horrifying enlightenment, all at once more than overwhelming.
And it would be painful because truth makes you accept things you don’t want to accept, things that don’t seem right. Things that don’t seem fair. Things that make you and everything you care about seem insignificant.
So would you still look? I would, but I cannot say how long I’d last.
What has worth to you?
This is my last question for now. I recently talked with a man on Skype, an intelligent, millionaire atheist who later informed me that he felt like killing himself during my conversation. I didn’t know I had that affect on people. We were talking philosophy. It’s really weird how I came to meet this man. Before I met him, I never had the chance to talk to any millionaire before. He never would have told me if it wasn’t for an earlier coincidental conversation we had.
To the person I spoke with, if you ever incidentally see this, I know that this is deeply personal to you. I hope you’ll forgive me for writing this for the world to see, but I believe it can help people, help people with deep wounds in their heart. People who are going through what you are. So I apologize, but I’m sharing this.
We were talking about how nothing in this world makes sense, how we can never truly know anything for sure. I asked him if that was true, why he wasn’t an agnostic instead of an atheist.
Myself, I take up many labels to describe my beliefs, because no one label entirely encapsulates what I believe and I’m constantly changing anyway. One of these labels is ignostic. Not agnostic, ignostic. Ignostics believe that the question of whether any kind of “god” exists is silly because to answer that question you first have to define god, and of course doing so puts god in a box. It creates a straw man god (i.e. like the one in the Bible). It is impossible to define god, because to do so would require infinite information, infinite description. All the science in the world won’t get us closer to defining what god is or isn’t, what it could or couldn’t be. At best you could get “A good idea.” Therefore, you can neither prove nor disprove his existence, neither with a test or a thought experiment.
We went back and forth along this line of conversation for a while, him saying I cannot use word games to win an argument, me asking why not, and saying I’m less trying to win and more trying to show a new perspective, a different one he’s not used to hearing. Whatever it was I said, it got to him (I didn’t mean for it to).
He told me that he’s terrified of death. That he doesn’t even masturbate anymore because he’s afraid it would bring him closer to death. He told me that the other day he went to the bank, withdrew a couple hundred dollar bills, and just used them for kindling in his fire. He told me that every year, he gives 10 thousand dollars to charity and it means nothing to him.
It’s weird when you’re friends with someone online who has money like that. It’s weird because, I know if he wanted to, he could chip a few thousand dollars my way and solve all my financial problems in a heartbeat. But I never ask him. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because I value the friendship and the interactions more. There’s very little chance I could talk him into helping me out anyway, and if I did, it would just poison our friendship. So in this context, knowing that he just burns money because it has that little meaning to him, when there are so many beautiful things he could do with it, I didn’t know what to say.
I tried to tell him about all the cool things I would do if I had that kind of money, things that would give me meaning, but he was a person void of personal meaning, and my heart went out to him. His head is right. Pretty much everything is subjective. Pretty much everything dissolves into word games. The rationalist perspective relies on accurate measurements and comparisons, but how do we know for sure the tools we use to measure are even as reliable as we think they are? From a big, overarching “I stared into the mirror of truth” sort of sense, it does seem meaningless.
But there is another way. If life is a matter of definitions, then we can define meaning for ourselves. We can choose, arbitrarily what gives us meaning. I find meaning in living with a sense of awe and wonder in the world, awe like a child. And I get that sense of wonder not from any kind of hedonistic pursuits, or any kind of pursuits really, but from (and here we go full circle) becoming a whole person, or at least working to it. To those reading, I sincerely hope that, you too find something that fills you with meaning.
Until next time, take a breath, reflect, and may your year be filled with wonder.