Unless you are a philosopher or a drug user, our existence isn’t something we think about very often. The only time most people consider the very nature of their existence is when some horribly traumatic “something” befalls them.
Imagine yourself imprisoned for literally years on end, without ever being told why. Or being told an inoperable blood vessel will burst in your brain at any moment. Imagine watching another person die before your eyes. Really. Take the time to imagine it. Or maybe you have experienced something similar yourself. Remember it, for it seems that only morbidity can cause most people to consider what it is, and what it means, to exist as a being in all that we find around us.
“How can this be happening to me?” This question is interesting. It almost always has a quality of foreboding ill. But, for at least a moment, I’d like to suspend that ill quality and instead take the question simply and exactly as it is, with no hint of imminent doom — I’d like to take that question with only the literal quality of curiosity and wonder:
“How can this be happening to me?”
You sitting there, with the computer in front of you, and the room around you, reading. The people surrounding you that you do, and do not know. The building around you and the electrons moving through it, bringing these words into your mind. The air moving on your skin, and the greater motions of the moving atmosphere outside your walls.
Sitting rooted by gravity on a spherical object hurtling silently around in a vast, unfathomable space. You, and that vastness, comprised of vibrating particle waves, somehow working in concert to manifest on a level we call our consciousness, our awareness — our being.
“How can this be happening to me?”
It’s a loaded question, isn’t it? So many ways it could go. So we close it down, shut it off, bury it, then balance our checkbook. It’s just the way things are. No question.
Yesterday my dad came running into the house shouting with an uncharacteristic anguish on his voice calling for me to come quickly — Spencer was dying. I was barefoot at the stove, absorbed in creating an elaborate breakfast. All I could say was, “what?”
“Come help me – Spencer is dying!”
What does he want me to do, I wondered. Lay hands on the dog and return life? Perform some miracle surgery with kitchen knives and spatulas? But I turned off the fire and followed him outside where Spencer was laying across the two front seats of the car, his body arching stiff, convulsing, with urine on the seat and a puddle of drool running from his mouth, his eyes strangely wide staring up at me helplessly as I approached.
Oh Spencer, I felt. “What are you doing here!?” I asked my dad. “Take him to the vet! I can’t do anything to help!” But by this time, Spencer had somewhat calmed and was trying to get up.
I asked my dad what he had fed him this time — another hot fudge sundae, a Whopper with Cheese, or some fresh mad cow steak? I imagined Spencer buckling under the weight of my father piling upon him the heaviness that the loss of my mother left behind. Then I thought, I’ll blame him for anything.
He went to the vet, spending the larger part of the day under observation and undergoing bloodwork. By the time he arrived at the vet, he was well back to normal. That night he was very happy to be home.
People who have dogs know without a doubt these animals have feelings and moods. I think it is a mistake to attribute too many anthropomorphic attributes to dogs yet I have no doubt they experience emotion. Spencer experiences the world and his own existence in his individually unique dog way. Looking at him, eye to eye, there is a fundamental gap between us that cannot be bridged, yet there is also some essence of commonality which is undeniable and shared. This is the essence of mutuality, whether this mutuality exists between divergent animal species, or the mutuality that exists between the same species.
A biologist named Frans de Waal has been instrumental in finally convincing the scientific world that animals can, at least, experience emotions. For some reason we have always wanted to set ourselves apart from other animal species. One of the many ways we’ve accomplished this is by claiming the emotional life solely for ourselves. We can no longer make that claim. Other animals do, in fact, feel emotion. However, it now seems we might have to give over even more of our special status to the animal kingdom — other animals are demonstrating what can reasonably be described as the beginnings of moral awareness.
Dr. de Waal has shown that primates demonstrate characteristics traditionally attributed only to humans, such as empathy and even a modicum of social justice. They will console each other in times of distress and even influence any hoarders of food to share with others more equally.
Philosophers have argued that a sense of morality is firmly based upon reason. Philosophers have also argued that a sense of morality is fundamentally based upon emotion. Avoiding the whole distinction between ethics and morality, we have observed primates demonstrating both emotion and the capacity to reason, so is it a stretch in the least to say that these primates certainly have the necessary basis to develop a moral sensibility and, in fact, that it seems this development might be a natural progression?
However, no primates other than humans exhibit religious inclinations. Most of us are aware of our lives, and seek, at least, to find meaning and comfort for our life’s eventual and inevitable end. We have also constructed a good deal of rigmarole to keep us occupied and reassured in the meantime.
I have to ask, does religion help us discover greater truth, or does religion keep us from finding greater truth by providing pre-packaged answers and ways of thinking? I wish I could ask Spencer his opinion.
But our society is far more complex than anything else reflected in the primate world. The people, their hierarchies, desires for more than just food to survive, the caring for each other, the killing for abstract reasons, the need for perfectly sculpted hair that frames our face perfectly.
The notion of perfection. The assumption of the One Absolute Answer. The forces that draw us onward, rather than just simply existing.
After a while, over a few centuries, it becomes difficult to re-connect our awareness back into the world of the immediate experience of our existence, as it happens. We have become very much caught up in the abstractions we have constructed, and give validity to, that we affirm to be as solid as the earth we walk upon.
This is something we all know, though. We cannot help it. We carry on along the abstract paths we have created, or more often, the paths others have made available to us. We pop religion like a pill to keep us from swinging too wildly up or down. Then we start it all over again with our children. And then we die.
But what have we felt along the way? What experiences have transformed us, and how have we shared this with others? Have we kept all of ourself locked away inside, only exhibiting those parts of ourselves in line with a social construct? Have we chopped off our arms and legs to fit inside the box we want? Have we watched others being destroyed while silently telling ourselves that it’s not me doing it? What is this program that’s running so far beyond our control? Or is it that we simply just can’t be bothered?
That’s something I have to ask these strongly religious people, in particular. Not the ones who direct the dogmatic processes — they are little more than banana-hording apes. I would ask this of the common ape: “How can this be happening?”
Strangely, even philosophers avoid delving into the ultimate prima facie. Not for lack of interest, but rather because doing so takes us into a place where reasonable-ness breaks down. We can only go so far back before we reach the barrier of the first instance, like the singularity from which all matter and energy sprung.
Our adherence to the structures we have created over time elevate us, yet in some ways remove us from the more basic experience and understanding of ourselves. Our truly amazing achievements have distanced us through the distraction of a million little things, from the basic human experiences we are all aware of to one degree or another, and that we all cherish. We often sacrifice both ourselves and the others around us mercilessly to further some abstract cause, even when we know that cause is not justifiable. We work psychological magic upon ourselves to rid ourselves of the responsibility for our actions, and our inactions.
Nearly everyone I’ve met considers it wasteful or strange to try exploring that which lies beyond or outside the reach of the constructs we have manufactured collectively for ourselves. In one sense they are right: we are forever connected to the terms and ideas that have shaped us as we evolve.
But is it not something else that drove us, originally, to consider ourselves in terms of the creatures around us? Is it not something else that brought us together in mutuality to achieve something greater for all of us? Is it really so crazy to still respect, and to honor this primordial leap?
And when do we say, and at what point do we realize, that many of the abstractions we have created are more in the interest of themselves, rather than for we people who continue them? When can we say that it’s time for another great leap? Or does it just happen?