قانون دومدوره: دوازده قانون زندگی / درس 3
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TREAT YOURSELF LIKE SOMEONE YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR HELPING
WHY WON’T YOU JUST TAKE YOUR DAMN PILLS?
Imagine that a hundred people are prescribed a drug. Consider what happens next. One-third of them won’t fill the prescription.30 Half of the remaining sixty-seven will fill it, but won’t take the medication correctly. They’ll miss doses. They’ll quit taking it early. They might not even take it at all.
Physicians and pharmacists tend to blame such patients for their noncompliance, inaction and error. You can lead a horse to water, they reason. Psychologists tend to take a dim view of such judgments. We are trained to assume that the failure of patients to follow professional advice is the fault of the practitioner, not the patient. We believe the health-care provider has a responsibility to profer advice that will be followed, offer interventions that will be respected, plan with the patient or client until the desired result is achieved, and follow up to ensure that everything is going correctly. This is just one of the many things that make psychologists so wonderful – :). Of course, we have the luxury of time with our clients, unlike other more beleaguered professionals, who wonder why sick people won’t take their medication. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they want to get better?
Here’s something worse. Imagine that someone receives an organ transplant. Imagine it’s a kidney. A transplant typically occurs only after a long period of anxious waiting on the part of the recipient. Only a minority of people donate organs when they die (and even fewer when they are still alive). Only a small number of donated organs are a good match for any hopeful recipient. This means that the typical kidney transplantee has been undergoing dialysis, the only alternative, for years. Dialysis involves passing all the patient’s blood out of his or her body, through a machine, and back in. It is an unlikely and miraculous treatment, so that’s all good, but it’s not pleasant. It must happen five to seven times a week, for eight hours a time. It should happen every time the patient sleeps. That’s too much. No one wants to stay on dialysis.
Now, one of the complications of transplantation is rejection. Your body does not like it when parts of someone else’s body are stitched into it. Your immune system will attack and destroy such foreign elements, even when they are crucial to your survival. To stop this from happening, you must take anti-rejection drugs, which weaken immunity, increasing your susceptibility to infectious disease. Most people are happy to accept the trade-off. Recipients of transplants still suffer the effects of organ rejection, despite the existence and utility of these drugs. It’s not because the drugs fail (although they sometimes do). It’s more often because those prescribed the drugs do not take them. This beggars belief. It is seriously not good to have your kidneys fail. Dialysis is no picnic. Transplantation surgery occurs after long waiting, at high risk and great expense. To lose all that because you don’t take your medication? How could people do that to themselves? How could this possibly be?
It’s complicated, to be fair. Many people who receive a transplanted organ are isolated, or beset by multiple physical health problems (to say nothing of problems associated with unemployment or family crisis). They may be cognitively impaired or depressed. They may not entirely trust their doctor, or understand the necessity of the medication. Maybe they can barely afford the drugs, and ration them, desperately and unproductively.
But—and this is the amazing thing—imagine that it isn’t you who feels sick. It’s your dog. So, you take him to the vet. The vet gives you a prescription. What happens then? You have just as many reasons to distrust a vet as a doctor. Furthermore, if you cared so little for your pet that you weren’t concerned with what improper, substandard or error-ridden prescription he might be given, you wouldn’t have taken him to the vet in the first place. Thus, you care. Your actions prove it. In fact, on average, you care more. People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves. That’s not good. Even from your pet’s perspective, it’s not good. Your pet (probably) loves you, and would be happier if you took your medication.
It is difficult to conclude anything from this set of facts except that people appear to love their dogs, cats, ferrets and birds (and maybe even their lizards) more than themselves. How horrible is that? How much shame must exist, for something like that to be true? What could it be about people that makes them prefer their pets to themselves?
It was an ancient story in the Book of Genesis—the first book in the Old Testament—that helped me find an answer to that perplexing question.
The Oldest Story and the Nature of the World
Two stories of Creation from two different Middle Eastern sources appear to be woven together in the Genesis account. In the chronologically first but historically more recent account—known as the “Priestly”—God created the cosmos, using His divine Word, speaking light, water and land into existence, following that with the plants and the heavenly bodies. Then He created birds and animals and fish (again, employing speech)—and ended with man, male and female, both somehow formed in his image. That all happens in Genesis 1. In the second, older, “Jawhist” version, we find another origin account, involving Adam and Eve (where the details of creation differ somewhat), as well as the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Tower of Babel. That is Genesis 2 to 11. To understand Genesis 1, the Priestly story, with its insistence on speech as the fundamental creative force, it is first necessary to review a few fundamental, ancient assumptions (these are markedly different in type and intent from the assumptions of science, which are, historically speaking, quite novel).
Scientific truths were made explicit a mere five hundred years ago, with the work of Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton. In whatever manner our forebears viewed the world prior to that, it was not through a scientific lens (any more than they could view the moon and the stars through the glass lenses of the equally recent telescope). Because we are so scientific now—and so determinedly materialistic—it is very difficult for us even to understand that other ways of seeing can and do exist. But those who existed during the distant time in which the foundational epics of our culture emerged were much more concerned with the actions that dictated survival (and with interpreting the world in a manner commensurate with that goal) than with anything approximating what we now understand as objective truth.
Before the dawn of the scientific worldview, reality was construed differently. Being was understood as a place of action, not a place of things.31 It was understood as something more akin to story or drama. That story or drama was lived, subjective experience, as it manifested itself moment to moment in the consciousness of every living person. It was something similar to the stories we tell each other about our lives and their personal significance; something similar to the happenings that novelists describe when they capture existence in the pages of their books. Subjective experience—that includes familiar objects such as trees and clouds, primarily objective in their existence, but also (and more importantly) such things as emotions and dreams as well as hunger, thirst and pain. It is such things, experienced personally, that are the most fundamental elements of human life, from the archaic, dramatic perspective, and they are not easily reducible to the detached and objective—even by the modern reductionist, materialist mind. Take pain, for example—subjective pain. That’s something so real no argument can stand against it. Everyone acts as if their pain is real—ultimately, finally real. Pain matters, more than matter matters. It is for this reason, I believe, that so many of the world’s traditions regard the suffering attendant upon existence as the irreducible truth of Being.
In any case, that which we subjectively experience can be likened much more to a novel or a movie than to a scientific description of physical reality. It is the drama of lived experience—the unique, tragic, personal death of your father, compared to the objective death listed in the hospital records; the pain of your first love; the despair of dashed hopes; the joy attendant upon a child’s success.
The Domain, Not of Matter, but of What Matters
The scientific world of matter can be reduced, in some sense, to its fundamental constituent elements: molecules, atoms, even quarks. However, the world of experience has primal constituents, as well. These are the necessary elements whose interactions define drama and fiction. One of these is chaos. Another is order. The third (as there are three) is the process that mediates between the two, which appears identical to what modern people call consciousness. It is our eternal subjugation to the first two that makes us doubt the validity of existence—that makes us throw up our hands in despair, and fail to care for ourselves properly. It is proper understanding of the third that allows us the only real way out.
Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory. Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines. It’s the foreigner, the stranger, the member of another gang, the rustle in the bushes in the night-time, the monster under the bed, the hidden anger of your mother, and the sickness of your child. Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed. It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth, where the dragon and the gold it guards eternally co-exist. Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we are doing when we don’t know what we are doing. It is, in short, all those things and situations we neither know nor understand.
Chaos is also the formless potential from which the God of Genesis 1 called forth order using language at the beginning of time. It’s the same potential from which we, made in that Image, call forth the novel and ever-changing moments of our lives. And Chaos is freedom, dreadful freedom, too.
Order, by contrast, is explored territory. That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position and authority. That’s the structure of society. It’s the structure provided by biology, too—particularly insofar as you are adapted, as you are, to the structure of society. Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country. It’s the warm, secure living-room where the fireplace glows and the children play. It’s the flag of the nation. It’s the value of the currency. Order is the floor beneath your feet, and your plan for the day. It’s the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in a school classroom, the trains that leave on time, the calendar, and the clock. Order is the public façade we’re called upon to wear, the politeness of a gathering of civilized strangers, and the thin ice on which we all skate. Order is the place where the behavior of the world matches our expectations and our desires; the place where all things turn out the way we want them to. But order is sometimes tyranny and stultification, as well, when the demand for certainty and uniformity and purity becomes too one-sided.
Where everything is certain, we’re in order. We’re there when things are going according to plan and nothing is new and disturbing. In the domain of order, things behave as God intended. We like to be there. Familiar environments are congenial. In order, we’re able to think about things in the long term. There, things work, and we’re stable, calm and competent. We seldom leave places we understand—geographical or conceptual—for that reason, and we certainly do not like it when we are compelled to or when it happens accidentally.
You’re in order, when you have a loyal friend, a trustworthy ally. When the same person betrays you, sells you out, you move from the daytime world of clarity and light to the dark underworld of chaos, confusion and despair. That’s the same move you make, and the same place you visit, when the company you work starts to fail and your job is placed in doubt. When your tax return has been filed, that’s order. When you’re audited, that’s chaos. Most people would rather be mugged than audited. Before the Twin Towers fell—that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward. Everyone felt it. The very air became uncertain. What exactly was it that fell? Wrong question. What exactly remained standing? That was the issue at hand.
When the ice you’re skating on is solid, that’s order. When the bottom drops out, and things fall apart, and you plunge through the ice, that’s chaos. Order is the Shire of Tolkien’s hobbits: peaceful, productive and safely inhabitable, even by the naive. Chaos is the underground kingdom of the dwarves, usurped by Smaug, the treasure-hoarding serpent. Chaos is the deep ocean bottom to which Pinocchio voyaged to rescue his father from Monstro, whale and fire-breathing dragon. That journey into darkness and rescue is the most difficult thing a puppet must do, if he wants to be real; if he wants to extract himself from the temptations of deceit and acting and victimization and impulsive pleasure and totalitarian subjugation; if he wants to take his place as a genuine Being in the world.
Order is the stability of your marriage. It’s buttressed by the traditions of the past and by your expectations—grounded, often invisibly, in those traditions. Chaos is that stability crumbling under your feet when you discover your partner’s infidelity. Chaos is the experience of reeling unbound and unsupported through space when your guiding routines and traditions collapse.
Order is the place and time where the oft-invisible axioms you live by organize your experience and your actions so that what should happen does happen. Chaos is the new place and time that emerges when tragedy strikes suddenly, or malevolence reveals its paralyzing visage, even in the confines of your own home. Something unexpected or undesired can always make its appearance, when a plan is being laid out, regardless of how familiar the circumstances. When that happens, the territory has shifted. Make no mistake about it: the space, the apparent space, may be the same. But we live in time, as well as space. In consequence, even the oldest and most familiar places retain an ineradicable capacity to surprise you. You may be cruising happily down the road in the automobile you have known and loved for years. But time is passing. The brakes could fail. You might be walking down the road in the body you have always relied on. If your heart malfunctions, even momentarily, everything changes. Friendly old dogs can still bite. Old and trusted friends can still deceive. New ideas can destroy old and comfortable certainties. Such things matter. They’re real.
Our brains respond instantly when chaos appears, with simple, hyper-fast circuits maintained from the ancient days, when our ancestors dwelled in trees, and snakes struck in a flash.32 After that nigh-instantaneous, deeply reflexive bodily response comes the later-evolving, more complex but slower responses of emotions—and, after that, comes thinking, of the higher order, which can extend over seconds, minutes or years. All that response is instinctive, in some sense—but the faster the response, the more instinctive.
Chaos and Order: Personality, Female and Male
Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience—two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood (to the degree that they are understood at all) as personalities—and that is just as true of the perceptions, experiences and understanding of modern people as their ancient forebears. It’s just that moderners don’t notice.
Order and chaos are not understood first, objectively (as things or objects), and then personified. That would only be the case if we perceived objective reality first, and then inferred intent and purpose. But that isn’t how perception operates, despite our preconceptions. Perception of things as tools, for example, occurs before or in concert with perception of things as objects. We see what things mean just as fast or faster than we see what they are.33 Perception of things as entities with personality also occurs before perception of things as things. This is particularly true of the action of others,34 living others, but we also see the non-living “objective world” as animated, with purpose and intent. This is because of the operation of what psychologists have called “the hyperactive agency detector” within us.35 We evolved, over millennia, within intensely social circumstances. This means that the most significant elements of our environment of origin were personalities, not things, objects or situations.
The personalities we have evolved to perceive have been around, in predictable form, and in typical, hierarchical configurations, forever, for all intents and purposes. They have been male or female, for example, for a billion years. That’s a long time. The division of life into its twin sexes occurred before the evolution of multi-cellular animals. It was in a still-respectable one-fifth of that time that mammals, who take extensive care of their young, emerged. Thus, the category of “parent” and/or “child” has been around for 200 million years. That’s longer than birds have existed. That’s longer than flowers have grown. It’s not a billion years, but it’s still a very long time. It’s plenty long enough for male and female and parent and child to serve as vital and fundamental parts of the environment to which we have adapted. This means that male and female and parent and child are categories, for us—natural categories, deeply embedded in our perceptual, emotional and motivational structures.
Our brains are deeply social. Other creatures (particularly, other humans) were crucially important to us as we lived, mated and evolved. Those creatures were literally our natural habitat—our environment. From a Darwinian perspective, nature—reality itself; the environment, itself—is what selects. The environment cannot be defined in any more fundamental manner. It is not mere inert matter. Reality itself is whatever we contend with when we are striving to survive and reproduce. A lot of that is other beings, their opinions of us, and their communities. And that’s that.
Over the millennia, as our brain capacity increased and we developed curiosity to spare, we became increasingly aware of and curious about the nature of the world—what we eventually conceptualized as the objective world—outside the personalities of family and troupe. And “outside” is not merely unexplored physical territory. Outside is outside of what we currently understand—and understanding is dealing with and coping with and not merely representing objectively. But our brains had been long concentrating on other people. Thus, it appears that we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-human world with the innate categories of our social brain.36 And even this is a misstatement: when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the pre-human animal social world. Our minds are far older than mere humanity. Our categories are far older than our species. Our most basic category—as old, in some sense, as the sexual act itself—appears to be that of sex, male and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.37 Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.38 Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It’s the political culture, the corporate environment, and the system. It’s the “they” in “you know what they say.” It’s credit cards, classrooms, supermarket checkout lineups, turn-taking, traffic lights, and the familiar routes of daily commuters. Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly. It does so as the forced migration, the concentration camp, and the soul-devouring uniformity of the goose-step.
Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother; materia, the substance from which all things are made. It is also what matters, or what is the matter—the very subject matter of thought and communication. In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth. As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces.
Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts39). Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness.40 It is for this reason that we all have twice as many female ancestors as male (imagine that all the women who have ever lived have averaged one child. Now imagine that half the men who have ever lived have fathered two children, if they had any, while the other half fathered none).41 It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date. Human female choosiness is also why we are very different from the common ancestor we shared with our chimpanzee cousins, while the latter are very much the same. Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are.42 It is Nature as Woman who says, “Well, bucko, you’re good enough for a friend, but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation.” The most profound religious symbols rely for their power in large part on this underlying fundamentally bipartisan conceptual subdivision. The Star of David is, for example, the downward pointing triangle of femininity and the upward pointing triangle of the male.fn1 It’s the same for the yoni and lingam of Hinduism (which come covered with snakes, our ancient adversaries and provocateurs: the Shiva Linga is depicted with snake deities called the Nagas). The ancient Egyptians represented Osiris, god of the state, and Isis, goddess of the underworld, as twin cobras with their tails knotted together. The same symbol was used in China to portray Fuxi and Nuwa, creators of humanity and of writing. The representations in Christianity are less abstract, more like personalities, but the familiar Western images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male dual unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ.43 It should also be noted, finally, that the structure of the brain itself at a gross morphological level appears to reflect this duality. This, to me, indicates the fundamental, beyond-the-metaphorical reality of this symbolically feminine/masculine divide, since the brain is adapted, by definition, to reality itself (that is, reality conceptualized in this quasi-Darwinian manner). Elkhonon Goldberg, student of the great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinization (the known, order).44 He doesn’t make reference to the symbols representing the structure of the world in reference to this theory, but that’s all the better: an idea is more credible when it emerges as a consequence of investigations in different realms.45 We already know all this, but we don’t know we know it. But we immediately comprehend it when it’s articulated in a manner such as this. Everyone understands order and chaos, world and underworld, when it’s explained using these terms. We all have a palpable sense of the chaos lurking under everything familiar. That’s why we understand the strange, surreal stories of Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty, and The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, with their eternal landscapes of known and unknown, world and underworld. We’ve all been in both places, many times: sometimes by happenstance, sometimes by choice.
Many things begin to fall into place when you begin to consciously understand the world in this manner. It’s as if the knowledge of your body and soul falls into alignment with the knowledge of your intellect. And there’s more: such knowledge is proscriptive, as well as descriptive. This is the kind of knowing what that helps you know how. This is the kind of is from which you can derive an ought. The Taoist juxtaposition of yin and yang, for example, doesn’t simply portray chaos and order as the fundamental elements of Being—it also tells you how to act. The Way, the Taoist path of life, is represented by (or exists on) the border between the twin serpents. The Way is the path of proper Being. It’s the same Way as that referred to by Christ in John 14:6: I am the way, and the truth and the life. The same idea is expressed in Matthew 7:14: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them. We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal, transcendent environment of the living.
To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice—it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos. The subjective meaning that we encounter there is the reaction of our deepest being, our neurologically and evolutionarily grounded instinctive self, indicating that we are ensuring the stability but also the expansion of habitable, productive territory, of space that is personal, social and natural. It’s the right place to be, in every sense. You are there when—and where—it matters. That’s what music is telling you, too, when you’re listening—even more, perhaps, when you’re dancing—when its harmonious layered patterns of predictability and unpredictability make meaning itself well up from the most profound depths of your Being.
Chaos and order are fundamental elements because every lived situation (even every conceivable lived situation) is made up of both. No matter where we are, there are some things we can identify, make use of, and predict, and some things we neither know nor understand. No matter who we are, Kalahari Desert–dweller or Wall Street banker, some things are under our control, and some things are not. That’s why both can understand the same stories, and dwell within the confines of the same eternal truths. Finally, the fundamental reality of chaos and order is true for everything alive, not only for us. Living things are always to be found in places they can master, surrounded by things and situations that make them vulnerable.
Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you still need to know. Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged. That is where there is something new to master and some way that you can be improved. That is where meaning is to be found.
The Garden of Eden
Remember, as discussed earlier, that the Genesis stories were amalgamated from several sources. After the newer Priestly story (Genesis 1), recounting the emergence of order from chaos, comes the second, even more ancient, “Jahwist” part, beginning, essentially, with Genesis 2. The Jahwist account, which uses the name YHWH or Jahweh to represent God, contains the story of Adam and Eve, along with a much fuller explication of the events of the sixth day alluded to in the previous “Priestly” story. The continuity between the stories appears to be the result of careful editing by the person or persons known singly to biblical scholars as the “Redactor,” who wove the stories together. This may have occurred when the peoples of two traditions united, for one reason or another, and the subsequent illogic of their melded stories, growing together over time in an ungainly fashion, bothered someone conscious, courageous, and obsessed with coherence.
According to the Jahwist creation story, God first created a bounded space, known as Eden (which, in Aramaic—Jesus’s putative language—means well-watered place) or Paradise (pairidaeza in old Iranian or Avestan, which means walled or protected enclosure or garden). God placed Adam in there, along with all manner of fruit-bearing trees, two of which were marked out. One of these was the Tree of Life; the other, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God then told Adam to have his fill of fruit, as he wished, but added that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden. After that, He created Eve as a partner for Adam.fn2 Adam and Eve don’t seem very conscious, at the beginning, when they are first placed in Paradise, and they were certainly not self-conscious. As the story insists, the original parents were naked, but not ashamed. Such phrasing implies first that it’s perfectly natural and normal for people to be ashamed of their nakedness (otherwise nothing would have to be said about its absence) and second that there was something amiss, for better or worse, with our first parents. Although there are exceptions, the only people around now who would be unashamed if suddenly dropped naked into a public place—excepting the odd exhibitionist—are those younger than three years of age. In fact, a common nightmare involves the sudden appearance of the dreamer, naked, on a stage in front of a packed house.
In the third verse of Genesis, a serpent appears—first, apparently, in legged form. God only knows why He allowed—or placed—such a creature in the garden. I have long puzzled over the meaning of this. It seems to be a reflection, in part, of the order/chaos dichotomy characterizing all of experience, with Paradise serving as habitable order and the serpent playing the role of chaos. The serpent in Eden therefore means the same thing as the black dot in the yin side of the Taoist yin/yang symbol of totality—that is, the possibility of the unknown and revolutionary suddenly manifesting itself where everything appears calm.
It just does not appear possible, even for God himself, to make a bounded space completely protected from the outside—not in the real world, with its necessary limitations, surrounded by the transcendent. The outside, chaos, always sneaks into the inside, because nothing can be completely walled off from the rest of reality. So even the ultimate in safe spaces inevitably harbours a snake. There were—forever—genuine, quotidian, reptilian snakes in the grass and in the trees of our original African paradise.46 Even had all of those been banished, however (in some inconceivable manner, by some primordial St. George) snakes would have still remained in the form of our primordial human rivals (at least when they were acting like enemies, from our limited, in-group, kin-bonded perspectives). There was, after all, no shortage of conflict and warfare among our ancestors, tribal and otherwise.47 And even if we had defeated all the snakes that beset us from without, reptilian and human alike, we would still not have been safe. Nor are we now. We have seen the enemy, after all, and he is us. The snake inhabits each of our souls. This is the reason, as far as I can tell, for the strange Christian insistence, made most explicit by John Milton, that the snake in the Garden of Eden was also Satan, the Spirit of Evil itself. The importance of this symbolic identification—its staggering brilliance—can hardly be overstated. It is through such millennia-long exercise of the imagination that the idea of abstracted moral concepts themselves, with all they entail, developed. Work beyond comprehension was invested into the idea of Good and Evil, and its surrounding, dream-like metaphor. The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will keep that out. Even if the fortress were thick enough, in principle, to keep everything bad whatsoever outside, it would immediately appear again within. As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.48 There is simply no way to wall off some isolated portion of the greater surrounding reality and make everything permanently predictable and safe within it. Some of what has been no-matter-how-carefully excluded will always sneak back in. A serpent, metaphorically speaking, will inevitably appear. Even the most assiduous of parents cannot fully protect their children, even if they lock them in the basement, safely away from drugs, alcohol and internet porn. In that extreme case, the too-cautious, too-caring parent merely substitutes him or herself for the other terrible problems of life. This is the great Freudian Oedipal nightmare.49 It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.
And even if it were possible to permanently banish everything threatening—everything dangerous (and, therefore, everything challenging and interesting), that would mean only that another danger would emerge: that of permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness. How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger? How dull and contemptible would we become if there was no longer reason to pay attention? Maybe God thought His new creation would be able to handle the serpent, and considered its presence the lesser of two evils.
Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?
In any case, there’s a serpent in the Garden, and he’s a “subtil” beast, according to the ancient story (difficult to see, vaporous, cunning, deceitful and treacherous). It therefore comes as no surprise when he decides to play a trick on Eve. Why Eve, instead of Adam? It could just be chance. It was fifty-fifty for Eve, statistically speaking, and those are pretty high odds. But I have learned that these old stories contain nothing superfluous. Anything accidental—anything that does not serve the plot—has long been forgotten in the telling. As the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov advised, “If there is a rifle hanging on the wall in act one, it must be fired in the next act. Otherwise it has no business being there.”50 Perhaps primordial Eve had more reason to attend to serpents than Adam. Maybe they were more likely, for example, to prey on her tree-dwelling infants. Perhaps it is for this reason that Eve’s daughters are more protective, self-conscious, fearful and nervous, to this day (even, and especially, in the most egalitarian of modern human societies51). In any case, the serpent tells Eve that if she eats the forbidden fruit, she won’t die. Instead, her eyes will be opened. She will become like God, knowing good from evil. Of course, the serpent doesn’t let her know she will be like God in only that one way. But he is a serpent, after all. Being human, and wanting to know more, Eve decides to eat the fruit. Poof! She wakes up: she’s conscious, or perhaps self-conscious, for the first time.
Now, no clear-seeing, conscious woman is going to tolerate an unawakened man. So, Eve immediately shares the fruit with Adam. That makes him self-conscious. Little has changed. Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time. They do this primarily by rejecting them—but they also do it by shaming them, if men do not take responsibility. Since women bear the primary burden of reproduction, it’s no wonder. It is very hard to see how it could be otherwise. But the capacity of women to shame men and render them self-conscious is still a primal force of nature.
Now, you may ask: what in the world have snakes got to do with vision? Well, first, it’s clearly of some importance to see them, because they might prey on you (particularly when you’re little and live in trees, like our arboreal ancestors). Dr. Lynn Isbell, professor of anthropology and animal behaviour at the University of California, has suggested that the stunningly acute vision almost uniquely possessed by human beings was an adaptation forced on us tens of millions of years ago by the necessity of detecting and avoiding the terrible danger of snakes, with whom our ancestors co-evolved.52 This is perhaps one of the reasons the snake features in the garden of Paradise as the creature who gave us the vision of God (in addition to serving as the primordial and eternal enemy of mankind). This is perhaps one of the reasons why Mary, the eternal, archetypal mother—Eve perfected—is so commonly shown in medieval and Renaissance iconography holding the Christ Child in the air, as far away as possible from a predatory reptile, which she has firmly pinned under her foot.53 And there’s more. It’s fruit that the snake offers, and fruit is also associated with a transformation of vision, in that our ability to see color is an adaptation that allows us to rapidly detect the ripe and therefore edible bounty of trees.54 Our primordial parents hearkened to the snake. They ate the fruit. Their eyes opened. They both awoke. You might think, as Eve did initially, that this would be a good thing. Sometimes, however, half a gift is worse than none. Adam and Eve wake up, all right, but only enough to discover some terrible things. First, they notice that they’re naked.
The Naked Ape
My son figured out that he was naked well before he was three. He wanted to dress himself. He kept the washroom door firmly shut. He didn’t appear in public without his clothes. I couldn’t for the life of me see how this had anything to do with his upbringing. It was his own discovery, his own realization, and his own choice of reactions. It looked built in, to me.
What does it mean to know yourself naked—or, potentially worse, to know yourself and your partner naked? All manner of terrible things—expressed in the rather horrifying manner, for example, of the Renaissance painter Hans Baldung Grien, whose painting inspired the illustration that begins this chapter. Naked means vulnerable and easily damaged. Naked means subject to judgment for beauty and health. Naked means unprotected and unarmed in the jungle of nature and man. This is why Adam and Eve became ashamed, immediately after their eyes were opened. They could see—and what they first saw was themselves. Their faults stood out. Their vulnerability was on display. Unlike other mammals, whose delicate abdomens are protected by the armour-like expanse of their backs, they were upright creatures, with the most vulnerable parts of their body presented to the world. And worse was to come. Adam and Eve made themselves loincloths (in the International Standard Version; aprons in the King James Version) right away, to cover up their fragile bodies—and to protect their egos. Then they promptly skittered off and hid. In their vulnerability, now fully realized, they felt unworthy to stand before God.
If you can’t identify with that sentiment, you’re just not thinking. Beauty shames the ugly. Strength shames the weak. Death shames the living—and the Ideal shames us all. Thus we fear it, resent it—even hate it (and, of course, that’s the theme next examined in Genesis, in the story of Cain and Abel). What are we to do about that? Abandon all ideals of beauty, health, brilliance and strength? That’s not a good solution. That would merely ensure that we would feel ashamed, all the time—and that we would even more justly deserve it. I don’t want women who can stun by their mere presence to disappear just so that others can feel unselfconscious. I don’t want intellects such as John von Neumann’s to vanish, just because of my barely-grade-twelve grasp of mathematics. By the time he was nineteen, he had redefined numbers.55 Numbers! Thank God for John von Neumann! Thank God for Grace Kelly and Anita Ekberg and Monica Bellucci! I’m proud to feel unworthy in the presence of people like that. It’s the price we all pay for aim, achievement and ambition. But it’s also no wonder that Adam and Eve covered themselves up.
The next part of the story is downright farcical, in my opinion, although it’s also tragic and terrible. That evening, when Eden cools down, God goes out for His evening stroll. But Adam is absent. This puzzles God, who is accustomed to walking with him. “Adam,” calls God, apparently forgetting that He can see through bushes, “Where are you?” Adam immediately reveals himself, but badly: first as a neurotic; then, as a ratfink. The creator of all the universe calls, and Adam replies: “I heard you, God. But I was naked, and hid.” What does this mean? It means that people, unsettled by their vulnerability, eternally fear to tell the truth, to mediate between chaos and order, and to manifest their destiny. In other words, they are afraid to walk with God. That’s not particularly admirable, perhaps, but it’s certainly understandable. God’s a judgmental father. His standards are high. He’s hard to please.
God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat something you weren’t supposed to?” And Adam, in his wretchedness, points right at Eve, his love, his partner, his soul-mate, and snitches on her. And then he blames God. He says, “The woman, whom you gave to me, she gave it to me (and then I ate it).” How pathetic—and how accurate. The first woman made the first man self-conscious and resentful. Then the first man blamed the woman. And then the first man blamed God. This is exactly how every spurned male feels, to this day. First, he feels small, in front of the potential object of his love, after she denigrates his reproductive suitability. Then he curses God for making her so bitchy, himself so useless (if he has any sense) and Being itself so deeply flawed. Then he turns to thoughts of revenge. How thoroughly contemptible (and how utterly understandable). At least the woman had the serpent to blame, and it later turns out that snake is Satan himself, unlikely as that seems. Thus, we can understand and sympathize with Eve’s error. She was deceived by the best. But Adam! No one forced his words from his mouth.
Unfortunately, the worst isn’t over—for Man or Beast. First, God curses the serpent, telling him that he will now have to slither around, legless, forever in peril of being stomped on by angry humans. Second, He tells the woman that she will now bring forth children in sorrow, and desire an unworthy, sometimes resentful man, who will in consequence lord her biological fate over her, permanently. What might this mean? It could just mean that God is a patriarchal tyrant, as politically motivated interpretations of the ancient story insist. I think it’s—merely descriptive. Merely. And here is why: As human beings evolved, the brains that eventually gave rise to self-consciousness expanded tremendously. This produced an evolutionary arms race between fetal head and female pelvis.56 The female graciously widened her hips, almost to the point where running would no longer be possible. The baby, for his part, allowed himself to be born more than a year early, compared to other mammals of his size, and evolved a semi-collapsible head.57 This was and is a painful adjustment for both. The essentially fetal baby is almost completely dependent on his mother for everything during that first year. The programmability of his massive brain means that he must be trained until he is eighteen (or thirty) before being pushed out of the nest. This is to say nothing of the woman’s consequential pain in childbirth, and high risk of death for mother and infant alike. This all means that women pay a high price for pregnancy and child-rearing, particularly in the early stages, and that one of the inevitable consequences is increased dependence upon the sometimes unreliable and always problematic good graces of men.
After God tells Eve what is going to happen, now that she has awakened, He turns to Adam—who, along with his male descendants, doesn’t get off any easier. God says something akin to this: “Man, because you attended to the woman, your eyes have been opened. Your godlike vision, granted to you by snake, fruit and lover, allows you to see far, even into the future. But those who see into the future can also eternally see trouble coming, and must then prepare for all contingencies and possibilities. To do that, you will have to eternally sacrifice the present for the future. You must put aside pleasure for security. In short: you will have to work. And it’s going to be difficult. I hope you’re fond of thorns and thistles, because you’re going to grow a lot of them.” And then God banishes the first man and the first woman from Paradise, out of infancy, out of the unconscious animal world, into the horrors of history itself. And then He puts cherubim and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden, just to stop them from eating the Fruit of the Tree of Life. That, in particular, appears rather mean-spirited. Why not just make the poor humans immortal, right away? Particularly if that is your plan for the ultimate future, anyway, as the story goes? But who would dare to question God?
Perhaps Heaven is something you must build, and immortality something you must earn.
And so we return to our original query: Why would someone buy prescription medication for his dog, and then so carefully administer it, when he would not do the same for himself? Now you have the answer, derived from one of the foundational texts of mankind. Why should anyone take care of anything as naked, ugly, ashamed, frightened, worthless, cowardly, resentful, defensive and accusatory as a descendant of Adam? Even if that thing, that being, is himself? And I do not mean at all to exclude women with this phrasing.
All the reasons we have discussed so far for taking a dim view of humanity are applicable to others, as much as to the self. They’re generalizations about human nature; nothing more specific. But you know so much more about yourself. You’re bad enough, as other people know you. But only you know the full range of your secret transgressions, insufficiencies and inadequacies. No one is more familiar than you with all the ways your mind and body are flawed. No one has more reason to hold you in contempt, to see you as pathetic—and by withholding something that might do you good, you can punish yourself for all your failings. A dog, a harmless, innocent, unselfconscious dog, is clearly more deserving.
But if you are not yet convinced, let us consider another vital issue. Order, chaos, life, death, sin, vision, work and suffering: that is not enough for the authors of Genesis, nor for humanity itself. The story continues, in all its catastrophe and tragedy, and the people involved (that’s us) must contend with yet another painful awakening. We are next fated to contemplate morality itself.
Good and Evil
When their eyes are opened, Adam and Eve realize more than just their nakedness and the necessity of toil. They also come to know Good and Evil (the serpent says, referring to the fruit, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”). What could that possibly mean? What could be left to explore and relate, after the vast ground already covered? Well, simple context indicates that it must have something to do with gardens, snakes, disobedience, fruit, sexuality and nakedness. It was the last item—nakedness—that finally clued me in. It took years.
Dogs are predators. So are cats. They kill things and eat them. It’s not pretty. But we’ll take them as pets and care for them, and give them their medication when they’re sick, regardless. Why? They’re predators, but it’s just their nature. They do not bear responsibility for it. They’re hungry, not evil. They don’t have the presence of mind, the creativity—and, above all, the self-consciousness—necessary for the inspired cruelty of man.
Why not? It’s simple. Unlike us, predators have no comprehension of their fundamental weakness, their fundamental vulnerability, their own subjugation to pain and death. But we know exactly how and where we can be hurt, and why. That is as good a definition as any of self-consciousness. We are aware of our own defencelessness, finitude and mortality. We can feel pain, and self-disgust, and shame, and horror, and we know it. We know what makes us suffer. We know how dread and pain can be inflicted on us—and that means we know exactly how to inflict it on others. We know how we are naked, and how that nakedness can be exploited—and that means we know how others are naked, and how they can be exploited.
We can terrify other people, consciously. We can hurt and humiliate them for faults we understand only too well. We can torture them—literally—slowly, artfully and terribly. That’s far more than predation. That’s a qualitative shift in understanding. That’s a cataclysm as large as the development of self-consciousness itself. That’s the entry of the knowledge of Good and Evil into the world. That’s a second as-yet-unhealed fracture in the structure of Existence. That’s the transformation of Being itself into a moral endeavour—all attendant on the development of sophisticated self-consciousness.
Only man could conceive of the rack, the iron maiden and the thumbscrew. Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate. Animals can’t manage that, but humans, with their excruciating, semi-divine capacities, most certainly can. And with this realization we have well-nigh full legitimization of the idea, very unpopular in modern intellectual circles, of Original Sin. And who would dare to say that there was no element of voluntary choice in our evolutionary, individual and theological transformation? Our ancestors chose their sexual partners, and they selected for—consciousness? And self-consciousness? And moral knowledge? And who can deny the sense of existential guilt that pervades human experience? And who could avoid noting that without that guilt—that sense of inbuilt corruption and capacity for wrongdoing—a man is one step from psychopathy?
Human beings have a great capacity for wrongdoing. It’s an attribute that is unique in the world of life. We can and do make things worse, voluntarily, with full knowledge of what we are doing (as well as accidentally, and carelessly, and in a manner that is willfully blind). Given that terrible capacity, that proclivity for malevolent actions, is it any wonder we have a hard time taking care of ourselves, or others—or even that we doubt the value of the entire human enterprise? And we’ve suspected ourselves, for good reason, for a very long time. Thousands of years ago, the ancient Mesopotamians believed, for example, that mankind itself was made from the blood of Kingu, the single most terrible monster that the great Goddess of Chaos could produce, in her most vengeful and destructive moments.58 After drawing conclusions such as that, how could we not question the value of our being, and even of Being itself? Who then could be faced with illness, in himself or another, without doubting the moral utility of prescribing a healing medicament? And no one understands the darkness of the individual better than the individual himself. Who, then, when ill, is going to be fully committed to his own care?
Perhaps Man is something that should never have been. Perhaps the world should even be cleansed of all human presence, so that Being and consciousness could return to the innocent brutality of the animal. I believe that the person who claims never to have wished for such a thing has neither consulted his memory nor confronted his darkest fantasies.
What then is to be done?
A Spark of the Divine
In Genesis 1, God creates the world with the divine, truthful Word, generating habitable, paradisal order from the precosmogonic chaos. He then creates Man and Woman in His Image, imbuing them with the capacity to do the same—to create order from chaos, and continue His work. At each stage of creation, including that involving the formation of the first couple, God reflects upon what has come to be, and pronounces it Good.
The juxtaposition of Genesis 1 with Genesis 2 & 3 (the latter two chapters outlining the fall of man, describing why our lot is so tragedy-ridden and ethically torturous) produces a narrative sequence almost unbearable in its profundity. The moral of Genesis 1 is that Being brought into existence through true speech is Good. This is true even of man himself, prior to his separation from God. This goodness is terribly disrupted by the events of the fall (and of Cain and Abel and the Flood and the Tower of Babel), but we retain an intimation of the prelapsarian state. We remember, so to speak. We remain eternally nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, the divine, unconscious Being of the animal, and the untouched cathedral-like old-growth forest. We find respite in such things. We worship them, even if we are self-proclaimed atheistic environmentalists of the most anti-human sort. The original state of Nature, conceived in this manner, is paradisal. But we are no longer one with God and Nature, and there is no simple turning back.
The original Man and Woman, existing in unbroken unity with their Creator, did not appear conscious (and certainly not self-conscious). Their eyes were not open. But, in their perfection, they were also less, not more, than their post-Fall counterparts. Their goodness was something bestowed, rather than deserved or earned. They exercised no choice. God knows, that’s easier. But maybe it’s not better than, for example, goodness genuinely earned. Maybe, even in some cosmic sense (assuming that consciousness itself is a phenomenon of cosmic significance), free choice matters. Who can speak with certainty about such things? I am unwilling to take these questions off the table, however, merely because they are difficult. So, here’s a proposition: perhaps it is not simply the emergence of self-consciousness and the rise of our moral knowledge of Death and the Fall that besets us and makes us doubt our own worth. Perhaps it is instead our unwillingness—reflected in Adam’s shamed hiding—to walk with God, despite our fragility and propensity for evil.
The entire Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall—the history of Israel, the prophets, the coming of Christ—is presented as a remedy for that Fall, a way out of evil. The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right, culminating in the Messiah Himself—that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right. And what would that mean?
And this is an amazing thing: the answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the Image of God—to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good—but to do so consciously, of our own free choice. Back is the way forward—as T. S. Eliot so rightly insisted—but back as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake beings, instead of back to sleep:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
(“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 1943)
If we wish to take care of ourselves properly, we would have to respect ourselves—but we don’t, because we are—not least in our own eyes—fallen creatures. If we lived in Truth; if we spoke the Truth—then we could walk with God once again, and respect ourselves, and others, and the world. Then we might treat ourselves like people we cared for. We might strive to set the world straight. We might orient it toward Heaven, where we would want people we cared for to dwell, instead of Hell, where our resentment and hatred would eternally sentence everyone.
In the areas where Christianity emerged two thousand years ago, people were much more barbaric than they are today. Conflict was everywhere. Human sacrifice, including that of children, was a common occurrence even in technologically sophisticated societies, such as that of ancient Carthage.59 In Rome, arena sports were competitions to the death, and the spilling of blood was a commonplace. The probability that a modern person, in a functional democratic country, will now kill or be killed is infinitesimally low compared to what it was in previous societies (and still is, in the unorganized and anarchic parts of the world).60 Then, the primary moral issue confronting society was control of violent, impulsive selfishness and the mindless greed and brutality that accompanies it. People with those aggressive tendencies still exist. At least now they know that such behaviour is sub-optimal, and either try to control it or encounter major social obstacles if they don’t.
But now, also, another problem has arisen, which was perhaps less common in our harsher past. It is easy to believe that people are arrogant, and egotistical, and always looking out for themselves. The cynicism that makes that opinion a universal truism is widespread and fashionable. But such an orientation to the world is not at all characteristic of many people. They have the opposite problem: they shoulder intolerable burdens of self-disgust, self-contempt, shame and self-consciousness. Thus, instead of narcissistically inflating their own importance, they don’t value themselves at all, and they don’t take care of themselves with attention and skill. It seems that people often don’t really believe that they deserve the best care, personally speaking. They are excruciatingly aware of their own faults and inadequacies, real and exaggerated, and ashamed and doubtful of their own value. They believe that other people shouldn’t suffer, and they will work diligently and altruistically to help them alleviate it. They extend the same courtesy even to the animals they are acquainted with—but not so easily to themselves.
It is true that the idea of virtuous self-sacrifice is deeply embedded in Western culture (at least insofar as the West has been influenced by Christianity, which is based on the imitation of someone who performed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice). Any claim that the Golden Rule does not mean “sacrifice yourself for others” might therefore appear dubious. But Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically—how to walk with God despite the tragedy of self-conscious knowledge—and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service of others. To sacrifice ourselves to God (to the highest good, if you like) does not mean to suffer silently and willingly when some person or organization demands more from us, consistently, than is offered in return. That means we are supporting tyranny, and allowing ourselves to be treated like slaves. It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.
I learned two very important lessons from Carl Jung, the famous Swiss depth psychologist, about “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “loving your neighbour as yourself.” The first lesson was that neither of these statements has anything to do with being nice. The second was that both are equations, rather than injunctions. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obliged to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. What good is that? It much better for any relationship when both partners are strong. Furthermore, there is little difference between standing up and speaking for yourself, when you are being bullied or otherwise tormented and enslaved, and standing up and speaking for someone else. As Jung points out, this means embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect.
As God himself claims (so goes the story), “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” According to this philosophy, you do not simply belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. This is partly because your Being is inexorably tied up with that of others, and your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others. This is most clearly evident, perhaps, in the aftermath of suicide, when those left behind are often both bereft and traumatized. But, metaphorically speaking, there is also this: you have a spark of the divine in you, which belongs not to you, but to God. We are, after all—according to Genesis—made in His image. We have the semi-divine capacity for consciousness. Our consciousness participates in the speaking forth of Being. We are low-resolution (“kenotic”) versions of God. We can make order from chaos—and vice versa—in our way, with our words. So, we may not exactly be God, but we’re not exactly nothing, either.
In my own periods of darkness, in the underworld of the soul, I find myself frequently overcome and amazed by the ability of people to befriend each other, to love their intimate partners and parents and children, and to do what they must do to keep the machinery of the world running. I knew a man, injured and disabled by a car accident, who was employed by a local utility. For years after the crash he worked side by side with another man, who for his part suffered with a degenerative neurological disease. They cooperated while repairing the lines, each making up for the other’s inadequacy. This sort of everyday heroism is the rule, I believe, rather than the exception. Most individuals are dealing with one or more serious health problems while going productively and uncomplainingly about their business. If anyone is fortunate enough to be in a rare period of grace and health, personally, then he or she typically has at least one close family member in crisis. Yet people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortful tasks to hold themselves and their families and society together. To me this is miraculous—so much so that a dumbfounded gratitude is the only appropriate response. There are so many ways that things can fall apart, or fail to work altogether, and it is always wounded people who are holding it together. They deserve some genuine and heartfelt admiration for that. It’s an ongoing miracle of fortitude and perseverance.
In my clinical practice I encourage people to credit themselves and those around them for acting productively and with care, as well as for the genuine concern and thoughtfulness they manifest towards others. People are so tortured by the limitations and constraint of Being that I am amazed they ever act properly or look beyond themselves at all. But enough do so that we have central heat and running water and infinite computational power and electricity and enough for everyone to eat and even the capacity to contemplate the fate of broader society and nature, terrible nature, itself. All that complex machinery that protects us from freezing and starving and dying from lack of water tends unceasingly towards malfunction through entropy, and it is only the constant attention of careful people that keeps it working so unbelievably well. Some people degenerate into the hell of resentment and the hatred of Being, but most refuse to do so, despite their suffering and disappointments and losses and inadequacies and ugliness, and again that is a miracle for those with the eyes to see it.
Humanity, in toto, and those who compose it as identifiable people deserve some sympathy for the appalling burden under which the human individual genuinely staggers; some sympathy for subjugation to mortal vulnerability, tyranny of the state, and the depredations of nature. It is an existential situation that no mere animal encounters or endures, and one of severity such that it would take a God to fully bear it. It is this sympathy that should be the proper medicament for self-conscious self-contempt, which has its justification, but is only half the full and proper story. Hatred for self and mankind must be balanced with gratefulness for tradition and the state and astonishment at what normal, everyday people accomplish—to say nothing of the staggering achievements of the truly remarkable.
We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. You may therefore have to conduct yourself habitually in a manner that allows you some respect for your own Being—and fair enough. But every person is deeply flawed. Everyone falls short of the glory of God. If that stark fact meant, however, that we had no responsibility to care, for ourselves as much as others, everyone would be brutally punished all the time. That would not be good. That would make the shortcomings of the world, which can make everyone who thinks honestly question the very propriety of the world, worse in every way. That simply cannot be the proper path forward.
To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is, instead, to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.” You must get children to brush their teeth. They must put on their snowsuits when they go outside in the cold, even though they might object strenuously. You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity—able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?
You need to consider the future and think, “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?” You need to know where you are, so you can start to chart your course. You need to know who you are, so that you understand your armament and bolster yourself in respect to your limitations. You need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.
You must determine where you are going, so that you can bargain for yourself, so that you don’t end up resentful, vengeful and cruel. You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others’ taking inappropriate advantage of you, and so that you are secure and safe while you work and play. You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.
Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being. As the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so brilliantly noted, “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”61 You could help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.
You could begin by treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.
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