I think I’m gonna start writing about my life influences, some ideas that have really influenced me in the course of my existence.
One that’s been really fundamental to me has been the Buddhist idea that life is suffering. I’ve really mentioned this many times before, but that idea is very key to my understanding of mankind. Let me explain where I learned that.
At Bellarmine, the college preparatory I attended prior to Stanford, being a Jesuit school, we had to take religious studies classes every semester. Freshman and sophomore year, the curriculum is fixed: Intro to Catholic Christianity, Intro to Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament, and I forget. Maybe New Testament was 2 quarters. As I’ve mentioned before, I am absolutely grateful for these classes. They gave me a Biblical and ethical foundation in high school in a lot of ways. It was really great.
Junior year I took Ethics and Morality and Social Justice, two classes maybe everyone should take. And Senior year I took World Religions. This class was taught by… I decided not to list his name since I’m gonna talk about. Those who know him already do, and those who don’t don’t really need to know the name.
Anyway, I really disliked this teacher. So much. It’s inexpressible. So many qualities about him that I disliked. Here’s one – he played favorites a lot. For example, he was very fond of David Park (the one at Stanford) and would often have him play piano during class, for no particular reason. Or a sham reason. What the heck is that. The second thing is, he would often say how he knew that most people in the class were smarter than him. His point being, we shouldn’t listen to him because he’s smarter than us, but because he has more life experience. The thing is, he was very convincing in being less intelligent, but less convincing in being wiser for his life experience.
Ack and his teaching style just really grated me. He was like a wannabe Socrates, who would answer questions with questions, or speak in this weirdo wannabe philosopher style. But he just came across as a fool. Or foolish. Or like he was winging everything he was saying and hadn’t prepared at all. Not my style. Maybe other people enjoyed it more. But personally, I like my teachers to know what they’re talking about.
The other thing I disliked is the life philosophy the teacher seemed to espouse. He was a really big relativist, both philosophically (I’m assuming) and more importantly, spiritually. And he really presented this as being true wisdom, which bothered me to no end.
Because I knew, even in high school, that relativism is a joke; it’s impossible to really espouse as a life philosophy. Anyway, apparently many Catholics are this way, it may even be official church doctrine, I don’t know. But basically the idea is there are many paths to God, many paths to truth. Each faith simply reveals a different aspect of that God / truth. In that sense, every faith is equally valid, as they involve just different aspects of God and/or truth. And thus there is much to be gained from other religions in terms of more completely knowing the truth. And no religion is better than another or absolutely true, so we shouldn’t press that. And as long as you follow the religion you’ve chosen completely, it is true for you, which is all that matters, and you will find salvation.
This is, of course, complete hogwash, and it would take me days to point out how this is an impossible position to hold both logically and spiritually in a satisfying way. But I don’t think I need to. I honestly believe that if you just use a fair amount of your own reason and extend that completely, anyone can see how relativism is untenable. So I won’t bother.
What fascinated (and repulsed) me was how someone teaching religious studies, and a member of the Catholic church, could really honestly live by such a philosophy. I honestly don’t understand how if you believe that everything is equally valid and true, how it is that you could completely believe in and follow the tenets of your own faith. What would cause you to do that? Just because you have to choose one? That’s just so intellectually unsatisfying to me, because it’s so arbitrary, and in the back of my mind I would be unable to shake the knowledge that my “faith” is not totally true, that it’s truth is more an extension of my belief than its inherent nature. I personally just could not live like that. To me, to be a relativist means not being religious. I just don’t see how it could be any other way.
So that my teacher could just fascinated me. But I don’t know. My belief is that the majority of relativists, those who believe that all religions are “true,” are intellectual wannabes. They want to be intellectuals, or use intellectual posturing, but don’t have the capacity to really do so. There are geniune relativists, who can really think, but my thinking is that the majority of them want to be thinkers and fancy themselves as such, but really couldn’t persuasively articulate how their beliefs are true. Basically they would lose any reasonable argument with me on the matter.
When I come across people like that, I’m really reminded of The Lion King, where Simba (is that his name? The main character) is talking to that orangutan shaman and saying he didn’t care because it’s in the past, and so that funky ape man hits him on the head. That’s exactly it. If they’re gonna say that everything is true, then fine, I’m gonna believe what I believe is totally true, because you say it is, and I’m right. If that doesn’t jive with you, then there must be something wrong with your philosophy.
That was my teacher to me. Anyway, that was a long digression. The class pretty much focused on a single book – The World’s Religions, by Huston Smith. I may be wrong about both the title and the author. There was a revision to the book and it was renamed The Religions of Man or vice versa. In any case, the book made up for the shortcomings of the teacher, because it was really a great, insightful book. It covered Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In all subjects, highly enlightening. In fact, the Christianity section was very very interesting. I highly encourage everyone to buy the book and read the Christianity section. You’ll be surprised and learn a lot, I think. I did.
At any rate, the insights I had into each “faith” would take too long to go into. The interesting thing is that for the most part, he concentrated on the religion as it was intended, or what it is supposed to be, not as it’s been changed or perverted, although these are discussed as well. So like, you know, Buddhism isn’t supposed to have any worship element in it, especially of Siddhartha Gautama, but that’s kind of what’s happened. If I remember correctly, which I may not. So in a lot of ways, Buddhism isn’t really a religion. But anyway.
So Buddhism was founded by the first Buddha (or was he the first? I have no idea) Siddhartha Gautama who I believe was previously a Hindu. Anyway, the insight he had into life was that life is essentially suffering. That if we pare away all the things we do in life and just get to the heart of it, life is suffering, and everything that we do is just to distract us from that reality. So we constantly engage ourself in activity to forget that reality.
And to him that was bad, I guess. His ideal state was Nirvana, which as I understand it is best explained as being the state of wanting nothing. You want nothing. Kind of kooky if you ask me, but interesting.
Anyway, when I read that, the life is suffering part, I thought, wow that is so true. It pretty much articulated something I had vaguely realized already. But the more I think about it, and the more I look at human behavior, the more I see how true it is. I’m really sold on the idea.
My belief is that people respond in one of 4 ways: 1) Realize it and go crazy, which is sad but to me a little bit noble, because they at least had the courage to try and realize that and understand it. 2) Try to ignore it by never thinking about it, or maybe even never think about it in the first place. This option actually requires that people not think introspectively at all ever, and just kind of exist. You’d be surprised how many people do this. A good friend once said to me that he never thought until he reached college. It’s a common occurrence. 3) Try to ignore it by constantly doing things, thus distracting you from that understanding. This to me is the most loser option. It’s just a copout. And most people do this. 4) Realize it and deal with it.
This last option is to me the best option, the most noble one. And in my view, it’s very hard to do this without reaching into the spiritual realm. Not necessarily Christianity, I mean, it’s a Buddhist idea, but some sort of spirituality. And so, when I see how in American society most people aren’t particularly spiritual, it leads me to believe that most of them are really living their lives by options 2 or 3. The more I’ve thought about it and observed, the more I’ve believed that this is true.
Anyway, challenge a person to really think about their lives, and simultaneously take away from their lives all their meangingless activity. Just force them to do nothing and think, and invariably, they will get depressed. And I think the reason for this is because life really is fundamentally suffering. And it’s a reality that few people want to deal with.
And when you look at how people live their lives, and why they do whatever they do, in my view, most of the time it’s not purposeful, it’s not really for some self fulfillment or anything, but mostly it’s just to do something, to distract themselves from the doldrums of their existence. It’s crazy. Especially in those countries with the most spare time, the need for entertainment is just crazy. The extent to which people need to fill up their time is phenomenal.
And why is that? It’s not purposeful. Entertainment is probably the least purposeful life pursuit there is. There’s no reason for it other than diversion. That’s how important diversion is. And it can only be that way if what we’re trying to divert ourselves from is powerful. And it is. Life is suffering.
Anyway, I could go on and on about it, and why I think it’s true, and how I’ve observed it to be so profoundly true. The great thing is, Christianity, I think, recognizes this. In fact, it’s the perfect solution for it. In my view, Christianity affirms that this life is pretty much wretched, because of sin. There nothing we can do about it, life has become fundamentally wretched. And that’s the first key in becoming a Christian, I think. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Man is sinful and separated from God. Thus life just sucks. It’s a key understanding in salvation, I think. And the Bible constantly says the proper response to this world actually is sadness and such.
To me that’s just incredibly reassuring, that it is proper and right to be lonely, and bored, and unsatisfied, and all those other sad things that we feel when we strip every other thing away from our lives in this world. Its just liberating, because to me it means we’re not held back by those things. It doesn’t surprise us, as it may those of this world, because we understand it to be reality and true. And that’s OK! It’s OK to feel all that! You even should! But our hope is not of overcoming that inherent suffering in this world, but the knowledge that someday we will be renewed. It’s an inherently otherwordly hope, because we cannot hope to escape the sinfulness of ourselves completely in this world.
I don’t know, to me it’s just so liberating. To know it’s cool, and good to feel sad and lonely. That’s reality. And it doesn’t mean I’m a freak, it means I’m understanding. And I think it gives me true joy, not a joy of diversion but a real joy of hope. It’s real, and lasting, unlike joy in this world, because it doesn’t at all go away when I feel the sadness of this life again. Because it doesn’t depend on diversion but on that real hope of more beyond. So I can feel simultaneously real sadness and true joy. It’s profound.
The sad thing to me is that even many Christians don’t have that understanding that life is suffering. As much as they believe, they still life to divert themselves, and that to me is sad. Because, well, C.S. Lewis has this book called Surprised By Joy. Anyway, my feeling is that eventually, these Christians may be surprised by sadness, that they do actually feel sad when they pare all the activity away. And that is sad to me because that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
Like I said, a fundamental part of Christianity is understanding that this life is suffering (because of sin). We should expect sadness and loneliness. Embrace it even! And not live to distract ourselves, which is a worldly strategy, but realize that our joy doesn’t come from that, but from something greater, and because of that, because it’s not of this world, the sadness of this world still can’t take away our joy.
Anyway, don’t live trying to distract yourself. That’s lame.
So life is suffering. One of the most influential ideas in my life.