Thursday, March 24, 2016

This examined life

The last few posts were not accidents, but were by design.  Let me remind you about those posts:
  • On Sunday, I wrote about the important conversations that we do not have with friends and family, and then wonder and worry about the missed opportunities after they are dead.
  • Monday's theme was "love is wise, hatred is foolish."
  • I followed those up with living a life through the filters of truth and conscience.  
  • And then I blogged about empathy and how to help fellow humans.
While the contents reflected materials I came across, I had decided earlier that I would use the start of the Holy Week of the Christian calendar to think about what it means to be human and what it means to lead a good life.  Atheist I am, but I feel constantly driven, sometimes a tad too intensely, to understand these.

When I was a believer, and a sincere one at that, it occurred to me that religions set aside days and times to worship, but it was more than merely to pray to god.  It was essentially to take a detour from the grinds of daily life in order to figure out if we are doing the right things and whether we needed any course corrections.  The near miss with dog shit was merely a metaphor for one of those evaluations.  If it turns out that we do have to adjust the path, or if we feel completely lost, then any religion suggests to the believer to pick up a holy book and to figure out a new path.  If for whatever reason we are incapable, then the believers can always seek the guidance of the religious leaders.  But, ultimately, the quest comes from within; a quest to find out whether one is doing alright.

Over the years of being an atheist, I find that I am all the more keen on making sure I establish for myself what it means to do the right thing and whether I am consistent with my own understanding of the right thing.  And this time, I thought I might as well parallel the Christian believer's Easter Week and engage in that introspection.  Especially because after a long time I was staying put at home for the break, instead of being on the road like I was the last two years.

It is tiring, draining, to always inquire into doing the right thing.  And even more so when I knowingly do the wrong thing.  But, life does not seem worth without such a constant examination.  As the Nobel-winning Steven Weinberg put it,
Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God
Satisfaction is an understatement.  It is a rich life.  And, yes, there is a certain honor in realizing that doing the right thing means simply for the here and the now and not because of a fear of the unknown.  Doing the right thing not because of any calculations on maximizing the odds in the after-life.

As this essay pointed out a few years ago:
[There] are things one loses in giving up God, and they are not insignificant.  Most importantly, you lose the guarantee of redemption.  Suppose that you do something morally terrible, something for which you cannot make amends, something, perhaps, for which no human being could ever be expected to forgive you.  I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief.  You cannot have that if you are an atheist.  In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.
To be one's own prosecutor, jury, and judge, without any possibility of a presidential pardon, well, there is no other way to live life.

"May peace be with you!", is a way to wrap up this post consistent with the Holy Week approach.  Or, as in the religion in which I was raised, "Sarve Jana sukino Bhavantu!" (let the world's people be happy!)


Ramesh said...

Sukhino Bavantu indeed my friend. Have a happy Easter holiday. And when you find eggs on your Willamette walk, leave it behind for the children, will you :) Oh I forgot - its another 3 months before you can walk the walk without a raincoat :):)

Mike Hoth said...

The ideas behind the Holy Week, if we are to pull the religion from it, would be to create an understanding of sacrifice and betrayal and look to a great man (God's son, but we're trying to ignore the religion part!) for how to handle such a situation. The period of Lent, which I am once again taking part in, is meant to further enforce that idea. By giving something up that I will truly miss for several weeks, I become empathetic to those who really know what suffering is. I can understand sacrifice without reward.

I gave up chocolate and pizza this year, so that every time I was offered or wanted to have those things I would stop and say "right, I gave those up in remembrance of a greater sacrifice". I find evidence that there is a God in the fact that I have yet to go four days in a row without being offered one of those things for free! Either way, a period of sacrifice can be therapeutic for anyone, religious or not.

Sriram Khé said...

I am totally with you, Mike. I have always believed that even the "fasting" that believers do is to pause and (a) be thankful for the luck and the privilege of having food in plenty and, (b) to remind oneself about what it means to be without food so that we can empathize with the unfortunate. To give up something like pizza during Lent is very much along these lines. But, of course, not all believers fast and even when they do it is not because they want to exercise (a) and (b).

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