Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.
It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.
Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.
A meteor from outer space.
Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!
I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).
Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.
Hey, I get all that.
But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive. And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space…
Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.
Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.
We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.
The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.
Maker of horror and holocaust.
Jesus Christ and Buddha.
Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
…penicillin and Groucho Marx.
Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.
I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.
But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.
After writing my previous mini-essay, I discovered some wise words from the dean of comparative religion, Huston Smith. This excerpt is from his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, and relates his experiences following the deaths of a beloved daughter and grand-daughter. I revere Mr. Smith and this is why:
“After Karen’s death I had returned to work; after Serena’s, I sat in a dark room, to which eventually I admitted a few friends, not for them to utter words of comfort—what comfort was there?—but for the mute warmth of another presence. Yet when a reporter asked me, ‘Have your tragedies shaken your faith in God?’ I thought it a ridiculous question. What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history? They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary.
Christ said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn’. Had I been living in Jerusalem, I would have joined the mourners grieving and praying at the Wailing Wall. Suffering led the Buddha to enlightenment, and it may cause us, against our will, to grow in compassion, awareness, and possibly eventually peace. In Buddhism monks daily recite the Five remembrances, which are: I will lose my youth, my health, my dear ones and everything I hold dear, and finally lose life itself, by the very nature of my being human. These are bitter reminders that the only thing that continues is the consequences of our action. The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but—as I do Karen and Serena—love them even more. Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farther shore.”
There’s been a lot of bad news of late. Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits. A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys. Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about. A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.
We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses. Like the old Doors song goes: no one here gets out alive. But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise. They deserve better. That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence. A cold, dead universe. Endless and eternal and empty.
I know nothing of the physics of death. I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists. I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.
All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath. These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours. That may sound selfish but it’s not. Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt. We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake. When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.
To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith. Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound? Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being? Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?
We’ve been together a long time, you and I. Not only in this lifetime but before that. We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet. As long as you are with me, I can survive anything. I truly believe this. Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.
You are all the proof I need. There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges. Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving. We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us. In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams. Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.
It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.
I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up. One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words: “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”
Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:
Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.
Here are four short-short stories, my version of “flash fiction”. Ethereal, odd, evocative. Literary and auditory Rorschach tests. Give them a listen…and then tell me what you see.
Submitted for your approval, as my old pal Rod Serling would say:
I’ve thought long and hard about writing this post, not wishing to exploit the anniversary of 9/11 just so I can have great subject headings for “tag surfers”.
I was doing my morning prayer/meditation–it was six years ago today that the Towers fell so my mind, naturally, began pondering that and I started remembering… and discovered I had vivid recollections of what transpired—
We were in the midst of our morning routine. My wife was out of town on a business trip so it was up to me to make sure my sons’ lunches were made, their homework collected and their milk moustaches wiped off before I sent them to school. Their backpacks and shoes were by the front door, coats on the banister, ready to grab on the way out…I thought I was ready.
As usual, we were listening to CBC Radio, though the reception here isn’t that great. I don’t remember the actual announcement verbatim but Sheila Coles, the regular “Morning Edition” host, came on, sounding a bit baffled, taken aback:
“We’ve just received a report that a plane has struck the World Trade Center in New York…” Details were still sketchy–
By then I had the TV on and was switching back and forth between our two stations, looking for more details. Because even at that point it sounded odd. Out of all of the buildings on the New York skyline, an aircraft had smacked into the Trade Center?
At first there was nothing. I started getting the boys kitted up—and then the story broke wide open and there were interrupted broadcasts, shaken anchors and then the first footage…my God. Those of us who looked on that morning will never forget, we don’t need the commemorative issues and anniversaries. That second plane zooming into frame and then disappearing into one of the most famous, recognizable structures in the western world. Christ, even King Kong had climbed the fucking thing in that terrible 1977 remake.
It was terrorism, no doubt about it. Hatred for our way of life, for our institutions and our hypocrisy. They hated us so that gave us the right to hate them right back. And we did. And do. We find it unforgivable that their tribal squabbles have led to carnage on our shores. We resent being victimized for other people’s historical (and evidently insoluble) conflicts.
Atta and the others were fanatics, monsters. Anyone who claimed otherwise (hello, Bill Maher) in those jingoistic early days quickly paid the price for their ill-considered observations.
Over 50 years of ongoing failure at trying to achieve the partition of Palestine into two equal, independent and viable states. Which has resulted in the largest refugee population in the world, a diaspora that has had a destabilizing factor on the entire region. The plight of the Palestinians is one the greatest single failures of Western diplomacy since World War II. It is the symbol in the Arab world of Western duplicity.
Hate is a powerful force. Look what can be accomplished when it is wielded by a master. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Hate and its allies intolerance and xenophobia have caused the deaths of tens of millions in the past century…and were unquestionably responsible for those who perished in the Towers, the Pentagon and that field in rural Pennsylvania.
And in the midst of my meditation, a thought: this is what we come to when we reject our spiritual aspects and defy moral absolutes, the kinds of teachings passed down by religious figures and enlightened individuals for thousands of years.
This is what happens when you kill God (figuratively speaking).
I’ll agree with Christopher Hitchens and all the folks who subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer: religion (man’s truncated version of God’s divine plan) has caused incredible suffering and privation…but I also hasten to point out what happens when you remove God from the equation: our species’ unbridled cruelty and greed (no longer held in check by fear of judgement or operating under divine fiat) running rampant, resulting in mass murder and the subjugation and exploitation of great populations…
God wasn’t responsible for the witch hunts, the Inquisition, World War I and II, Dresden, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the atrocities of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Charles Taylor. All were the result of human agents acting on behalf of a small cadre of brutal men. Am I simplifying or is this not historically accurate?
Put it this way: what possible part in God’s great creation could the horrors of Auschwitz play? The “killing fields” of Cambodia. The ghosts of Kigali. It’s ludicrous to suggest unseen hands at work when there is such overwhelming evidence of human culpability. Genocides occur because people are complicit by deed or negligence. Pinning the blame on God won’t wash, philosophically, theologically or any other way you want to look at it.
Every single religion I know of decries senseless bloodshed and counsels some form of tolerant co-existence with neighbours, even rivals and enemies. Each requires a code of conduct from its adherents and demands that they offer safety and shelter to strangers, charity and succor to those in need. None sanction cruel, lawless behavior and there are often stern punishments ordained (either in this life or the next) for those who fail to live up to the highest principles of their belief system.
What happened that day wasn’t divine punishment handed down by the vengeful god of Pat Robertson…and certainly not the true, revealed God (Blessed be His Name) of Mohammed Atta et all. God was not with Atta and his pitiless companions six years ago. He had been driven out by the hate that consumed them, distorting and withering their souls.
God is blameless, not responsible for the schemes of such men. They deny the message of the great scriptures, repudiate His will and desecrate the legacy of the teachers and prophets He has seen fit to send us.
It is God’s will that we flourish and thrive as a species.
If we falter, it is by our choice…and if we fall far enough, our savage natures and stupid indifference will consign us forever to a netherworld of perpetual fear and suspicion.
And even there, I think, God will not forsake us.