Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sometimes I Miss My Rose-Colored Glasses

A man was walking down the beach picking up starfish that had washed up on shore and was throwing them back into the ocean. A little boy came up to him and said, "why do you bother? You can't possibly save them all. It doesn't matter."

The man picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean and said to the boy, "well, it mattered to that one".


(I'm in a sour mood partly because I just watched Lord of War (trailer) which is okay but very depressing.)

There's so much awfulness in the world wrought by humankind. (Actually, perhaps the less-PC "mankind" would be more precise here.) Genocide, murder, terrorism, child molestation, forced prostitution, slavery, exploitation, war, drug addiction, poverty...

There's greatness, too, of course: kindness, generosity, love, sharing, art, family. But so much of even that is tainted. How much of our lifestyle in America is at the expense of sweatshop laborers, immoral wars by our country and by proxy, despoiling the environment, plundering the natural resources of other nations, etc? How many of our careers are dedicated to the further enrichment of the wealthiest of the wealthy? How many to support the military-industrial complex and the indirect killing of innocent people? How many of us can claim that our life's work will leave the Earth a better place? And how can we enjoy our lives knowing as we do the horrific circumstances of millions of others and not doing enough about it? Not being able to ever do enough?

If God exists, you can believe that somehow it's ultimately for the greater good. That there's some admittedly incomprehensible explanation for all the innocent people so unfairly wronged. That there's some meaning to the Holocaust and to the atrocities going on in Africa. That war isn't just a senseless waste of young men's lives and purposeless slaughter of civilians. That we won't fuck up the Earth so badly that God can't fix it in the time of the Messiah. That our greed for bigger and bigger weapons won't end up destroying all of human life within the next few centuries.

As an atheist, I try to have faith in the basic goodness of humanity, but sometimes the evidence to the contrary is just overwhelming. At the family level and even on the level of the community, things can easily be much more good than bad. But stepping back to look at the wider picture, it too often seems like we're just a bunch of overdeveloped, warlike apes who delight in finding bigger and better ways to kill each other.

It's similar, I guess, to accepting one's own death. As an atheist, I believe that when I'm dead, that's it. There's no Heaven, no Hell, no Purgatory, no reincarnation, no merging with the Divine. Just nothing. I think I'm okay with that -- being dead never bothered me before I was born, after all.

But knowing that not just me, but all of humanity will die, maybe sooner rather than later, is harder to accept knowing as I know how much suffering so many have to endure during the only lives they get.

I wish I could believe that the spread of Democracy or advances in technology will eventually lead to a world full of love and harmony. But I'm no Utopian. I've seen how we use technology. I've seen what we do in the name of Democracy.

I know that it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Like the kid on the beach, maybe it's enough to do what I can, to make the lives of those around me better to the extent that I can. Maybe I could join the peace corps or go to the Sudan and save a few lives. Maybe I can get involved in politics and fight for goodness and decency. Or maybe I'll continue to just sit at my computer and shake my head at the senselessness of it all.

22 comments:

Simon said...

Humans are selfish, yes, and their behaviour leaves us feeling hopeless.

Then again, humans are often astonishingly unselfish. Everytime I read about soldiers who fought in the trenches of WW1, who had to drag themselves into the open knowing they had every chance of being ripped to pieces, I also feel wonder at the mental capacity for self-sacrifice these people had.

Sadie Lou said...

As an atheist, I try to have faith in the basic goodness of humanity, but sometimes the evidence to the contrary is just overwhelming. At the family level and even on the level of the community, things can easily be much more good than bad. But stepping back to look at the wider picture, it too often seems like we're just a bunch of overdeveloped, warlike apes who delight in finding bigger and better ways to kill each other.

That's interesting that you say that because God says that even "bad" people love their own families. Even a murderous dictator, like say Hitler, loved someone. It's the love for our enemies that make a difference in this world.
It's loving those that do not earn your love that is unique. Of course I love my children--they love me back. Of course I love my husband--he loves me back. I love my parents and my friends--easy! They love me too. What about someone that hates me? What about someone that does wretched things to me?
Do I love them too?
No way! It's too hard and if the opportunity came up, would I want them dead so that they didn't make my life difficult anymore?
Maybe.
This is why the world sucks and so many people die at the hands of cruel people--nobody loves their enemies and I am just as guilty of it as anyone else--but I'm working on it.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"But knowing that not just me, but all of humanity will die, maybe sooner rather than later, is harder to accept knowing as I know how much suffering so many have to endure during the only lives they get."

Careful now. The more you think like this the closer you head towards the existential angst that is so prevalent today.

My religion consists of seeing the world - seeing that there is good in it and that there is also much bad in it, but I make the conscious decision to pursue the good. It is a religious statement because one cannot rationally justify doing _anything_. Your basic values and morals are themselves not rationally determined and so actions predicated on those values are likewise ultimately not rational.

If all is lost and life itself is just a leaf on the wind, what can you do? We might as well crawl into a hole somewhere and wait for death.

"I call heaven and earth today to bear witness against you: I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live"

We must choose life.

CyberKitten said...

When it all boils down to it JA all that we can do is save a few starfish - it may not mean very much in the grand scheme of things but, if they could, the starfish would thank you.

We do tend to dwell far too much on the negative side of humanity. With what is going on in the world its pretty damned hard not to. I know I dwell far too much on the problems which can be more than a little depressing. We are *capable* of greatness (as a species) if and only if we put our minds to it - and we seem awlfully distracted ATM.

Maybe we should just try and be another straw in the wind - we can only do our best and nothing more.

..and maybe as a species we're just too stupid to survive. At least if we manage to destroy ourselves one way or another enough life will survive to replace us with something hopefully better [grin].

Laura said...

This is something I often wonder about as well. Sure, I can make a small difference in my tiny corner of the universe - but so what? What does that even mean? DOes it matter?

I like to believe that people are inherently good in nature. But I honestly think that when given the chance, most people simply give in to the base instincts. Our self-awareness is the only thing that really separates us from other animals.

Every time I read about some disgusting excuse for a human being who duct-tapes puppies to each other and throws them in a swamp, or abuses a child, or rapes someone, or kills someone I can't help but think that maybe we're really NOT inherently good. Maybe it's just our social rules that keep us 'civilized' and once those social rules start to decay - as they do in refugee camps for example - our base natures begin to emerge.

David said...

Where's the quote from?

Jewish Atheist said...

Humans are selfish, yes, and their behaviour leaves us feeling hopeless.

Then again, humans are often astonishingly unselfish.


Yeah, I just worry that the selfish ones do too good a job screwing up the world for the rest of us to compensate for.


Sadie Lou:

Even a murderous dictator, like say Hitler, loved someone.

I don't know, I doubt that's really true.

It's loving those that do not earn your love that is unique.

I agree that would make the world a much better place.


Orthoprax:

Careful now. The more you think like this the closer you head towards the existential angst that is so prevalent today.

Maybe there's a reason it's so prevalent.

My religion consists of seeing the world - seeing that there is good in it and that there is also much bad in it, but I make the conscious decision to pursue the good.

Throwing the starfish back in, eh? Nothing wrong with that.

We must choose life.

Yeah, in the end. I just wish it were easier.


CK:

..and maybe as a species we're just too stupid to survive. At least if we manage to destroy ourselves one way or another enough life will survive to replace us with something hopefully better [grin].

Heh. Talk about looking for the silver lining. :-)

Every time I read about some disgusting excuse for a human being who duct-tapes puppies to each other and throws them in a swamp, or abuses a child, or rapes someone, or kills someone I can't help but think that maybe we're really NOT inherently good.

I think we're inherently good AND bad. Some more good, some more bad. And it's changeable.

David:

I don't know. It's something I've heard many times (and see all over the net) but can't find an attribution for.

Just me said...

JA said: "As an atheist, I try to have faith in the basic goodness of humanity, but sometimes the evidence to the contrary is just overwhelming."

Therein lies the source of the problem. First off, an atheist, by definition, should have no faith. Secondly, where is it written that atheists (have to) believe in the basic goodness of humanity?!

That's not atheism, that polyaniasm of the worst kind (ala Candide, by Voltaire).

To me, being an atheist means looking the world in the eye with all the bad and good and working actively to make it a better place (as opposed to "believing" in some faith-based notion that world is somehow headed toward a "world full of love and harmony."

Ein lanu ela ANACHNU!

Jewelsparkler said...

Dear Jewish Atheist,

I hope you'll like this comic strip. I do.

From out of the darkness come Calvin and Hobbes. :)

Jewish Atheist said...

Just me:

Therein lies the source of the problem. First off, an atheist, by definition, should have no faith.

False. An atheist, by definition, doesn't believe in God. He may have faith that his wife won't shoot him in the face, for example.

Secondly, where is it written that atheists (have to) believe in the basic goodness of humanity?!

It's not, of course. There are no rules for atheism. Still, I'd prefer the basic essence of humanity to be good. I guess when I say "I'm trying to have faith" in that, I mean, "I want to believe." But, don't worry, the skeptic in me carries the day.

To me, being an atheist means looking the world in the eye with all the bad and good and working actively to make it a better place (as opposed to "believing" in some faith-based notion that world is somehow headed toward a "world full of love and harmony."

Sounds like a good policy. I think I even agree with it, but don't fall into the trap that all atheists have to be the same way.

Ein lanu ela ANACHNU!

I like it! Is that some group's motto?


jewelsparkler:

Thanks. :-) I love Calvin and Hobbes. And you remind me that hope can be found in a lot of beautiful art.

United We Lay said...

One of my main arguments against religion is that you don't need it to be a good person. My husband and I are doign just fine without it. As a teacher, I try to keep in mind that my sole job is to spread knowledge to young minds, and I do it to the best of my ability. I also teach them to help others, be kind, and stand behind people who can't stand up for themselves. I think religion is used as an excuse for doing good just as much as it is for doing bad.

The Jewish Freak said...

JA: I believe that it is a mistake to think that humans are either inherently good or bad. People, on the whole are made, not born. It is up to us as humans (and parents), to create ourselves. With surprisingly little effort, great things can be accomplished.

CyberKitten said...

Jewelsparkler said: From out of the darkness come Calvin and Hobbes. :)

Brilliant. Love it.

The Jewish Freak - Spot on.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Problem #1: people are ego-centric. When my desires come into conflict with yours, I want to get my way — too bad about you.

Problem #2: I strongly disagree with the old adage, "it takes two to tango" (meaning, it takes two to fight). In my opinion, it takes two people to make peace. A violent person can destroy the peace single-handedly.

The point is, the odds favour the kind of nasty, brutish world you're describing in this post.

My hope is that there is a God who is not trapped within the above equation like we are. And that God will transform humanity to make something better come about.

[Not far from Cyberkitten's hope, except a theistic version of it.]

Why has God kept us waiting so long? I don't know. Sometimes I struggle with despair, too. But most days, hope prevails.

Kyaroko said...

Yeah. Rose-colored glasses... ignorance is bliss.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Maybe there's a reason it's so prevalent."

Surely so. It's one of the first stops on the road of skepticism.

united,

"I think religion is used as an excuse for doing good..."

So why do you do good?

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: So why do you do good?

Because it's the right thing to do... and is often the best thing to do too... and speaking personally... it's the way I've been brought up.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Because it's the right thing to do"

Ok, now rationalize that statement. What does that mean?

"and is often the best thing to do too"

In what sense? Best for me? Best for you? Best for all of us? Best materally? Best ethically? Best emotionally? Best spiritually?

"it's the way I've been brought up"

Ok, that's great, really it is. But lots of folks here are following religions and philosophies that are a far cry from the ones they were brought up in. How do you justify keeping that moral uprbringing while leaving a cultural or religious one?

dbs said...

I must admit that I've still got the glasses on. I think that if you wind back the clock to some prior date (100, 300, 800, 2400) years ago and look and the level of humanity, the forward progress is just amazing. It's very much not a straight line, and there is a long way to go, but I think that we're getting there.

Maybe we'll mess up the planet before we come to our senses, maybe someone will set off the missiles, maybe some microbe will mutate and we'll all die from some new virus. But, if the human race can hang on for a few more centuries, I think that things are going to be pretty good. There will still be bad guys, and even bad ideas, but there will be much more reason and equity.

(Okay, I know that I sound like some aquarius singing, sprout-eating, poneytail-wearing freak, but hey, it could happen.)

Sadie Lou said...

Q said--
Problem #2: I strongly disagree with the old adage, "it takes two to tango" (meaning, it takes two to fight). In my opinion, it takes two people to make peace. A violent person can destroy the peace single-handedly.

Well said.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

From your perspective, wouldn't it be better for the entire world to perish simultaneously in a nuclear (or some other) holocaust? No one would ever suffer or mourn again.

Jewish Atheist said...

Rabbi Seinfeld:

I know what you're saying. As Camus said, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

I guess my response is that despite the terrible things that go on, on the balance, I enjoy life. Do I think it'd be worth it to extinguish all life to put a minority out of misery? I don't think so. But maybe the minority would disagree.

You always give me stuff to think about, Rabbi. Thanks.