I am in love with Meghan Daum’s essay from Sunday’s NYTimes, “I Nearly Died. So What?” It so perfectly captures my own irreverent feelings every time I hear one of what I’ve come to call “The Platitudes,” which perhaps I should put in ALL CAPS, so ubiquitous and “believe in them lest you commit blasphemy” have they become.
No, I do not think that a brush with death need wake us up to anything, and I definitely do not believe everything happens for a reason. I have too much life experience to believe that, not to mention the mincemeat the renowned statistician David J. Hand made of that in his book The Improbability Principle which, true confession, is waiting, as yet unread, in my must read asap queue. Still, I am 99.9% sure that Hand will win me over, predisposed as I already am to see logic where others might look for mystical magic. I am, it is worth noting, a highly spiritual person. I just don’t use the logic of spirituality — which belongs more to the nonphysical world than the physical one (in my opinion) — to run the practical aspects of my life.
I do, as it happens, let the mystical intrude upon my ordinary reality. As a writer, I know, for example, that when we step away from a problem, the answers come via a process that is nine kinds of mystical. Somehow, we pull things down from the collective unconscious. We know things that we should not know or see connections that are not obvious in the least. The great ideas that leap mankind forward come from this mystical place. It’s like we plug ourselves in and, voila, we know deep truths or simple the answer to the story question we were wrestling with. As I write my first novel, I am discovering deeper layers to this mystery, finding, for example, that I am up to things that I don’t even know I’m up to and that some me that is greater than the everyday me is weaving a tale that I, the author, am oblivious of until suddenly I see that this little seed I planted over here was rooted, unbeknownst to me, in some deep awareness or some long ago experience that is finding it’s highest expression in this little story that is emanating from my pin. Mine is a novel of big ideas or big themes as much as it is simply and also a piece of literary fiction that takes seriously the human condition while concerning itself, simultaneously, with the kind of genre preoccupations that can make a big ideal digestible to those who do not have a mystical bent. I didn’t plan that either — it emerged natural from the writing process and from the process of living my life over lo these many years — and so I bow down to the mystical in my logical midst.
The truth is I am many things, as are we all. I am science and logic based, and interested in the inquiry the way that scientists are, though if I am a scientist at all, I am a scientist of the human being who roots my understanding of the human experience in neuroscience and theoretical physics and even religion, for these are the things with which we human beings are constructing and coming to understand reality.
Einstein attributed the intuitive leap that lead to his realization of (and subsequent proof of) the theory of relativity to Spinoza’s God. It’s worth noting, though, that Spinoza was considered an atheist because his use of the word “God” signified something quite different than the god of the Judeo–Christian tradition. That God, the Judeo-Christian one, is a God the Father, a Creator, a puppet master who orchestrates events and oversees even the minute details of our lives. It is to this God (whether we call it God, Goddess, the Universe or pick your poison) is the God we are suggesting when we say that “everything happens for a reason” or that “God [God/The Universe] has a plan” or that “the Universe wants” this or that for us. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been able to believe in that conception of God. A quick look around me reveals that God/Goddess/The Universe is not orchestrating the events of every human life or even of human life overall (and if he/she/it is, he/she/it is doing less than a bang up job).
So Spinoza’s God. It is that God I pray to. Some would no doubt call me an atheist or at least an agnostic, though I would say simply that I believe in the material world that I can perceive with my five senses and understand from within the three dimensions in which we are perceptually bound, and I believe also in the world beyond these five senses and these three dimensions which we, in our anthropomorphic infancy, mistook for the reality. Reality is so much vaster than we can imagine. Every so often we catch a glimpse. If we are artists or scientists of a certain kind we are lucky to have work that gives us that glimpse more than most. This can be a disorienting thing, but it also allows us to orient into a deeper truth that opens our aperture and expands our understanding of ourselves, God and the world.
When I was 15, I watched a friend lose a leg to bone cancer and saw her life transformed. At 33, she died of a second cancer, this time breast cancer, and after relinquishing her breasts, her uterus and her bone marrow, she died. At her memorial service, when I stepped into the pulpit along with the other friend whom she had asked to memorialize her life, a bright burst of sunlight burst through the stain glassed window directly behind us. Was it my friend? I like to think so, though of course I can never know. The scientist in me says she is somewhere — I believe in mass-energy equivalence, after all, memorialized in the equation E = mc2.. I believe, in other words, in logic, in science, in the value of the proof. It is why I’m not a good practitioner of religion, though I am a great student, having studied and found great solace in the stories of Christianity and the stories of Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism and the stories of Judaism, which are tied more to this world than the others. These stories, I believe, like all great stories, have great things to teach us about the human experience. I’m just not sure they have anything at all to teach about God. I stand firmly in Spinoza’s camp, with the God who does not orchestrate events. I stand, I suppose, on the side of nature, and stand deep inside the belief that the organism, the Life, does not need a Creator and this story we are inside of does not need an author. We are the authors I truly believe. Or as I said in a workshop I recently led, we are the protagonists of the story of our life who, though we do not choose the circumstances of our birth nor the tragedies and triumphs that befall us, we do decide who we become in the face of what Life brings our way.
Looking for the reason behind the unfathomable is a trap that leads us to a place of powerlessness, when what are called to a human birth to step into is our power. The human mind, the human nervous system, the logical faculties of our human minds, those rooted in the executive function centers of our neocortex rather than the fear and danger avoidance centers of our amygdala, are uniquely made for that, and singularly so among the beings that walk this earth.
So why, then, do we turn away from the power that we have? Why have we embraced a God, the belief in whom all but requires us to cast ourselves in a passive role rather than in the role of the active protagonists we are so clearly meant to be?
Sometimes an experience is just an experience. There is no reason, save for the reasons we give. And sometimes — and I have witnessed and weathered enough suffering to know this for sure — life defies us to give it one. Some things can only be accepted. Some things can only be endured. And if we are lucky, we will realize that this random thing happened to us for no reason at all and that it set off a chain of suffering that did not redeem us or deliver us to some higher and more exhausted life, but we stepped through it anyway, and came out the other side, scarred and battered and bruised, but, in our own way, also whole.
The point, I think, is not that there is a meaning, but that life itself is the meaning.
Everything in life isn’t purposeful. Quite a bit of it is random.
But here we are.
For some of us — those of us who are not predisposed to believe platitudes, or who have been robbed of our ability to believe in them by the harsh realities of our lives — the most empowering thing to do is to face our own catastrophes with the attitude, “That happened, moving on.”
I find that, as I do, my life becomes bigger and better and more my own. I root back down into who I am, both before and after my catastrophes, and I discover that I am more than what I’ve suffered. That I am also and most of al my passions, and the insights born of simple interest and attention. When I place my attention there — on who I am and what I am a priori interested in (my native curiosities as I think of them), I find that a narrative emerges in which I am in charge, rather than fate or circumstance or God. And from that place I discover that the things that come to me unbidden and threaten to destabilize my life need not. I can look at them as random events on my radar screen that I should manage if I can, but that I need not give them more weight than they deserve. Everything isn’t a sign. Some things are just annoyances or obstacles or burdens that we must do our best to overcome so that they do not pull us away from the powerful center of our own lives.
A final note. Meghan Daum ended her “I Nearly Died. So What?” piece with some words that capture, more perfectly than anything I might quickly right, what’s at stake when we give ourselves over to an unfounded belief in the logic and order of life — or one of the things at stake — is an ability to inhabit the truths we know in our bones, the very truths that can free us. Daum writes, powerfully, about the prisoners beheaded by the Islamic State and how their suffering did not fill their lives with meaning, that the prisoners did not feel a clarity of purpose before they died but instead, died as we mostly would have had we died under those circumstances — with fear and confusion. It is fear and confusion that we feel, after all, when irredeemable things are visited upon our lives. We wonder why this befell us, we struggle to make sense of it and, if we are courageous enough, we admit that some things just don’t make sense. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are lucky and I am glad up to a point. Glad, for example, that your own suffering has not forced you to know these kinds of truths. But I am sad that you do not, or will not, know these truths second-hand, for that way lies compassion. If the suffering of the world is to be ameliorated, we must ameliorate our suffering. God will not do it. The Goddess will not do it. The Universe will not do it. There is no divine plan. What divinity there is in this world comes, in the end, through us. So let us lay down our platitudes, and enter into the realm of deep and complex truth. Let us emerge from the infancy of childlike belief, into the power and maturity of our adulthood.
It is time for humanity to grow up, not just technologically and scientifically, but emotionally and spiritually. It is time we put down the Father God of our childhoods and pick up the mature God of humanity’s adulthood. This God, if we will to call it that, is not a being who orchestrates, but a divine presence that lives and breathes through us and all of existence. It will not save us. We are not, in the end, meant to be saved. We are meant, though, to do some powerful living while we’re here, that our hands might help to sculpt this clay.
Daum writes, “Crises, by definition, are chaotic. They don’t always impart lessons and, contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, they’re just as likely to bring out the worst in people as the best.” The redemption narrative and the recovery narrative, narratives of closure, if you will, are, Daum writes, “a perfect example of the American preference for sentimentality and neat endings over honesty and authenticity.” They also, I’d like to add (and Daum makes this point also) put an impossible burden on human beings at a time when they are doing their level best to just deal with the kind of tragedies that you cannot make something good from, the kind of tragedies that you just have to accept in all their meaninglessness.
Of course, I write as someone who has suffered meaningless things and witnessed meaningless suffering. Accepting that there is no reason is what freed me, and lifted me from the depth of suffering into the bright light. Sometimes ugly things happen for no reason — senseless illnesses, the senseless acts of other human beings, natural disasters (which may have a reasons, but the reasons have nothing to do with us). It is a great truth, perhaps the great truth of nature, that this isn’t all about us. We’ve known this for some time now, ever since the heresy that the Earth revolves around the sun — that we are not the center of the universe after all — was proven once and for all.
In a world created by a God who has not placed us at the center — or by Spinoza’s God, who may not be a Creator God at all — maybe things just happen, and if there is a reason, maybe the reason has nothing to do with us. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to believe that it does. Maybe the proper attitude in the face of the unfathomable, in the face of the things we cannot get closure around is not to strain for closure anyway — and fault ourselves when we can’t find enough blind, childlike faith to get us there — is to admit simply that, “yes, this also,” this unfathomable suffering also. And maybe then we can learn to bear the things that we must so that we can live the lives that remain within our grasp even so.
IMAGE BY JON HAN via The New York Times
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.