Take it or leave it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


How to rise above karma? How to surmount fate? How to become the universal individual? How to live in a consequence-free environment that's not Romper Room? 

I used to think that the secret lay in being free of desire. After all, that is what the Eastern scriptures tell us, and I have at various times been a devout Buddhist and Hindu. And it's true. Desire leads to action which can involve the peace-lover in a whole host of problems. Popular proverbs advise us that "he who wants the ends must also want the means." But the means are often not for me, because consequences can be so unpredictable. 

In the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, the actor, or doer, "never quite knows what he is doing, always becomes guilty of consequences he never intended or even foresaw. No matter how disastrous and unexpected the consequences of his deed he can never undo it. The process he starts is never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and its very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backward glance of the historian who himself does not act.

"All this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom, which, by producing the web of human relationships, seems to entangle its producer to such an extent that he appears much more the victim and the sufferer than the author and doer of what he has done."

It is for this reason that not just Eastern spirituality but Western philosophy has accused so-called freedom of action of luring a person into necessity, and to condemn action, the spontaneous beginning of something new, because "its results fall into a predetermined net of relationships, invariably dragging the agent with them, who seems to forfeit his freedom the very moment he makes use of it."

So true! I remember when I enrolled in medical school. Sure I knew that many hours of study would result from this decision, but I never could have foreseen all the moves to different cities, all the insufferable physicians I'd have to deal with (never mind the patients), and all the paperwork. Had I known then what I know now... Famous last words. So I'll shut up.

It seems then that the only salvation from the relentless cycle of cause and effect lies in non-acting, in abstaining from the whole realm of human affairs to safeguard sovereignty and integrity as a person. And then you wind up a recluse like me.

But Arendt herself condemns such non-acting as escapist and even disastrous. The Stoics tried it, without much success, and my own personal experiment is still a work in progress. Never mind that the founders of most major religions have been loners, including Buddha himself who went into isolation to attain Nirvana, and Jesus Christ who spent 40 days alone in the desert. Maybe for the average individual it is better to "live with your hands in society and your head in heaven." That's striking a nice compromise. 

But there does exist a way to transcend your individual fate which doesn't involve doing without friends. And it is given in the words of a song by the Eagles. Now I am with usually with the Dude in matters of musical taste, but "Heart of the Matter" is some kind of magic. And it's not by the Eagles, per se. It's from the third solo album of their lead singer, Don Henley. Not to split hairs. But if you abide by the lyrics you may even win yourself a friend or two.

The heart of the matter is this: You can transcend your karma through forgiveness. Long before Henley, the Founder of Christianity, when he was not hanging with Satan, taught forgiveness. In the Gospel of Matthew Christ says, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." So that he could not be accused of preaching what he did not practice, dying on the cross Jesus asked God to forgive those who put him to death, for "they know not what they do."

How does forgiveness break the chains that bind? How does it release you from the endless cycle of action and reaction? In the words of Arendt: "In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action."

Forgiving, in other words, "is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus' teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which encloses both the doer and the sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process," which never ends.

This is why I told a friend who was going through a bitter divorce with a wife he left: "Give her what she asks for, even though you think her demands excessive. Or else be prepared to drown in the mire of endless legal battles, accusations, and general acrimony." Leaving aside whether he took my advice, how do I practice what I preach? Last week as I was riding my bike home a lady driving a Tesla SUV (and texting) pulled in front of me, cutting me off. The foolish woman could have made a pancake of me! I was a bit irate. A couple days back I encountered the same woman on the road, this time while I was running. Resisting my impulse to flick her the bird, I instead gave her a pleasant wave and a friendly smile. I'm not sure she recognized me as the rider she almost drove into.  But now we regularly exchange hellos. It seems I have made a friend of a would be enemy. Good vibes are contagious. And forgiveness feels nice.

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