What do awe, sadness, hope, love, history and faithfulness have in common? They are keys to my understanding of what is important in this brief life.
Awe: I respect all who have sought spiritual and scientific wisdom throughout history. I, myself, am still a seeker. I find awe in all the arts and accept the beauty, sincerity and cultural value of the things that humans have created, whatever the source of our inspiration. I experience awe when looking out into the sublime vastness of the sky or when focusing on the exquisite detail in the reproductive centre of the tiniest flower. Observing the interdependent, teeming contributors to the life of a coral reef fills me with awe – and sadness when I realize the degree to which these magnificent relatives of ours are threatened due to global pressures for which human activity has been responsible.
Sadness: I chose the word, sadness, above, hesitating to use the word, shame, because that might imply that we complex humans are somehow a higher form of life than the simpler genetic constructions with whom we share the diminishing purity of our air, water and soil. I’m not certain that we will ever be properly capable of shame. We seem to have peaked as a species. Perhaps, like previous earthly species that have dominated and disappeared, we will die out. Gaia appears placidly poised to go on for another four or five billion years with or without us.
Hope: For someone raised to believe that it is a real virtue, it is all but impossible for me to lose hope. I still have some. It comes from the fact that we humans seem to be capable of feeling some shame at least some of the time. It comes from the basic goodness and goodwill of many of the people I know.
Love: The majority of us care for our friends and our families. Many of us care for our neighbours. Some care for people from other countries, and may even appreciate how much our high standard of living owes to places whose lands and people have been, and are still, exploited. Pets come pretty high up on the ladder of love. Endangered species, like distant relatives – pretty low. I believe that love is a sign of hope. I believe, however, that humans may have erred in thinking our capacity to love to be of another order when compared to that of dolphins or dogs.
History: The People of the Book who are reading this have also read in Genesis that humankind was given dominion over all living things. This is, I think, a case of history being written by the victors. I believe that Biblical scripture is a human creation – a response to the human experience of a gifted, monotheistic, Palestinian culture. Homo sapiens has simply outperformed other vertebrates in the game of evolutionary survival. Genesis is a somewhat triumphal expression of humankind’s growing realization that we were winning the species war over lions, snakes and elephants. Other religions, particularly those of indigenous, non-Christian societies, did/do not put humankind on a pedestal. They see us as sharing the planet with many other beings and spirits who are not subject to us. For them the world is an interconnected whole. The evolutionary and biological sciences, in objective agreement on interconnectedness with native spirituality, confirm DNA as the thread that binds all life together.
Faithfulness: In expressing my deep commitment to an ethical and stable life philosophy I prefer the word faithfulness to the word, faith. Faithfulness expresses what might be the highest possible form of human ethical achievement. By faithfulness I mean remaining true to, and honest with, our friends and loved ones. It means careful, wise attention prior to making a promise and the unselfish sacrifices involved in keeping it. Faithfulness means valuing and cultivating important, loyal friendships. In politics or business it means honouring treaties and contracts. It means valuing a stranger’s well-being as equally important to ours. It means recognizing the supremacy of the collective over the individual. Very early on, simple one-celled organisms gave up some of their individuality to become successful multicellular organisms. Humanity has much to learn from biological history.
Faith: Faith, on the other hand, often involves the submission of one’s intelligence and will to an external religious authority or scripture. It can emphasize divisive and hateful differences in unverifiable belief systems. Its very essence is a commitment to believe in something that cannot be demonstrated. Some of the kindest, most loving people I have ever met have been deeply religious. Their faith has undeniably helped them become better people. But, for ideas that people uncritically believe, they have involved themselves in genocide, in the illegal settlement of occupied territories, in holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, executions and suicide bombing. Our own, undeniably racist, Canadian crusade to wipe out the “paganism” of our First Nations via the capture, internment and indoctrination of their children in Catholic and protestant residential schools (from 1857 until the 1990’s) is now recognized as genocide.
My own treatment in Catholic schools for “white people,” while violent, pales in comparison to the above. I relate some of it in a post called Same Pot, Different Glazing. This post sheds valuable light on “how I got to where I am.”
I do not disrespect the holy human figures whose energy, vision and charisma led people to follow their unique spiritual interpretation of the things that cannot be known. There is much human wisdom to be found in all holy books. There is also more than a sprinkling of human prejudices and nonsense. Humans seem to have a craving to worship the unknowable. This, I believe, is largely a part of our evolutionary make-up, which, itself, comes from the interplay and reciprocity of genetic factors and natural experience over the millennia during which human life has existed on Earth. It is a valid expression of the present human condition, but an unfortunate hindrance to the progress in ethics and the crafting of difficult, international agreements that must be made if we, an extraordinarily populous and powerful band of recently-arrived bipeds, are to survive the next ten decades.
Having opted for faithfulness, and not faith, as my lodestar, I have been, for some time now, content to continue my seeking without the guidance of a hierarchy or the promise of a hereafter.
3 thoughts on “On Meaning”
Loved this piece.. I would add WILL to the list of positive attributes.. the WILL to act, the WILL to persevere, the WILL to share, the WILL to protect. WILL is one of the most appreciated virtues of “good” people. In that book you mention by the Palestinian tribe, they associated WILL with GOOD as in “the WILL of God”… a testament to it’s virtue.
Thanks for contributing Will to the list and you are permanently welcome to add your wisdom to any of my posts.