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Monday, February 20, 2017

A PERFECT WORLD

After reading Zen and the Art of Happiness, and having for decades been a devotee of Voltaire's Candide, I decided to finally sit down and read Liebniz, who in his Theodicy treatise reasons why a good God permits the presence of evil in the world. What do the former two books have to do with the latter? As I mentioned previously, the Zen book argues that in a Universe invested in its perpetuation, only beneficial events can happen, and as you are a part of this Universe, everything that happens to you is for your ultimate good. Voltaire attempted to mock this simple notion by plunging his Candide into all manner of hardship and having him cling to the notion that we live in the "best of all possible worlds," a statement made famous by Liebniz, who was Voltaire's 17th-century contemporary.

Now the Theodicy is slow going. These scholars of yore were long-winded. They were before the Internet and so their readers had fewer distractions (phone, TV, computer, etc) vying for their attention. In fact the attention spans have historically been much longer than they are today. Short-term memory as well. Just the other night my friend's wife complained that she can't remember anything that happened to her the day before. Although her long-term memory is perfect. I'd worry that this was the early signs of Alzheimer's, since dementia presents this way, but really her lament is merely a symptom of the current age. Why do I have to remember facts when I can run to Wikipedia and look them up, or bark an order at my phone, or at Amazon Echo (neither of which I own) to answer my questions for me. This can't be good for the human race, a fact I'll return to - oh but that reminds me, if everything is for the best, and our interests are always served, then becoming a race of ineffectual, flabby consumers is just what God/the Universe intended. Unless that day never comes. But a visit to the McDonald's drive-thru is enough to convince a person that the day is already here.

It's just really baffling to think that the world is perfect as it is. I for one could imagine a world without suffering, pain, anguish and death. Not the details, which are hard to envision, but in vague, broad brush strokes, a paradisical place where everybody was happy all the time, where every day was bright and sunny, where a smile was today's equivalent of a straight face. One word, boring! Ya think? But it's comical to think that a world in which the vast majority of inhabitants consume animal products, and also where various health experts and religious leaders throughout history have discouraged meat-eating, could be perfect. Isn't this a contradiction? How can eating hamburgers be okay when beef causes cancer and heart-disease? Among Buddha's laws was that we should not be cruel to other living things or kill. Eating meat involves both transgressions. But I have used this contradiction, between what we "should" do and what most of us actually do, to argue my way out of endeavors on account of their futility. In response to the suggestion of one friend that I accompany her to a public school and lecture the kids on healthy eating, I replied, "I don't think God created obesity in order that I should fight it." In other words, leave well enough alone. Maybe this is escapist, I don't know. It felt right at the time.

But suffering does have a purpose. Take running, which I do quite a lot of. Training for a marathon and completing the 26.2-mile race involves a lot of effort, struggle, commitment, even pain. And the fact that such inconveniences are involved make it worthwhile. If running a marathon were easy, maybe fewer people would do it than the 20-plus thousand that complete the LA Marathon every year. How's that for irony. My friend recently asked me for an example of a paradox. Well, look nor farther than running marathons, if in our alternate world they were easy to achieve. I guess for some people even in this world they are. Like George Sheehan, who ran marathons in around 3 hours per, and well into his fifties, while logging a mere 30 or so miles per week. That stat never fails to astound me.

But I take comfort in the fact that things are as they should be. Sure, I'd prefer it if I didn't have screws in my leg, if I never had to clear my throat or detangle my hair, where people would call me back when they say they will, a world without traffic and smog, one in which my writings would be appreciated, one without hemorrhoids and herpes and hangnails and hangovers, and I really could do without making my bed every dang morning, but these things are just part and parcel of life. They add to the tapestry. And your life is your art. Maybe the true purpose of suffering is to allow us to feel relief when our time has come. And despite what Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who imagines a future in which humans become useless and their lives lose all meaning, has to say in his new book, Homo Deus, which is that technology will one day allow us to defeat death - egad, not wanting to go on living and being doomed to live forever, now that is a real paradise! - for now and the foreseeable future, dying and suffering have their rooted place. 

So suffer to your heart's content, and when it comes time, die that way too, but do so with a smile on your face, is what I say. A perfect world is one in which we all get to wear hairpieces like Liebniz did. Give me that, and I am happy. It all boils down to simple pleasures I guess.

4 comments:

  1. Mr. (Dr.?) Dave, you ever think Sheehan's running accomplishments are evidence that the rest of you marathoners are probably overtraining a bit?There is a motif in sports of athletes, for example, setting records to accomplishing personal bests while dealing with injuries. The prevailing theory amongst some is that because of the injuries, those athletes were giving their bodies more rest and therefore minimized the risk of overtraining. It's obviously not a widely-accepted theory, but to me it makes some sense.

    On a more topical note, people have a hard time understanding the usefulness of suffering. People think they want to live in a boring world where nothing ever happens, but the closer they get to that world, the more they look to "escapism" to help them get through the day. Most of the people who go to the movies regularly or play video games (both of which thrive on narratives that create imaginary forms of suffering for their characters and for the consumers) regularly are not poor people who deal with a lot of daily hardships. They're more "well-off" souls who are bored with their mostly boring, comfortable lives. And even if we look at substance use, poor people are not self-medicating themselves at a higher rate than anybody else. The types of substances may change, but the overall use does not (of course, many poor people experience far too much suffering, so they also pursue forms of escapism. But having grown up in poverty, and for a time even homeless, I feel like most poor people are struggling more with the shame of being poor than the actual suffering. Having a solidly middle-class job now, I often pine for the freedom of poverty, but don't miss waking up in the middle of the night with mice nipping at my toes. The point being, I suppose, that my feelings on the topic are perhaps a little too complex for this kind of virtual conversation).

    The westerner who came closest to understanding the usefulness of discomfort was Nietzsche, of course. But because he was a megalomaniac who got his rocks off by writing in a manner that enraged the "bourgeoisie," people often miss the beautiful subtlety and nuance of his ideas, as he, himself, also seemed to.

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  2. Hey Lazy, it's easy to dispense theories, but they don't always hold up in practice. My advice: try running and see if you fare better with less mileage. I know from personal experience that I ran a 3:15 marathon on 45 miles a week, a 2:49 on 60, and a 2:49 on 70. So up to a point more mileage made for faster times, without injuries. But after a point (60 miles) my performance flattened out.

    As for suffering, you seem to speak from experience. Kudos. I like Nietzsche too, but find much of Western thought a reiteration of Eastern truths. I don't like dispensing unsolicited advice, but have you ever read some of the works of Ramana Maharshi or Shankara, or even the Gita? Filled with the purpose of suffering. And how to go beyond it. Should you desire. But the trick is becoming desireless! Going in circles, like life, and time... Cheers!

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  3. Thanks for the response.

    From a strength training standpoint, I seem to do better with more rest between sessions than most people adhere to. But I'm sure it's different for everyone. And, as for running, I did twenty minutes a week ago and realized that running once every year or so does not provide enough miles to improve at it, although I don't have any running injuries to show for it. (wink)

    Sure, I've read some of Ramana Maharshi and the Gita. I haven't read Shankara. I agree that the Eastern folks came to many "truths" much earlier than us Westerners. I personally really enjoy the Zhuangzi and the poetry of the Chinese taoists/Chan/Zen Buddhists. I'll check out Shankara.

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    Replies
    1. Of course you do, thus the name. I love the Tao too! :)

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