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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sapere Aude!

One of the wonderful, miraculous things about being a child is having parents. They stride, god-like, through our lives, providing for our needs, salving our wounds, and absolving our guilt.

It is on guilt that I am ruminating today. When we do bad, we screw up, we hurt another. I can remember a few doozies from my own childhood. For instance, I cheated on my reading workbook in 5th grade. I could have very easily done the work and gotten 100's across the board. Reading in 5th grade was not terribly challenging to me. Maybe that's why I said "screw it!" as a ten-year old, and figured that reading off phony scores to the teacher (we were on the honor system) was just as useful. I was a little snot, some times. Eventually of course, my teacher (who I liked a great deal, and who liked me, as well) found out, and I had to be punished (lightly) for my misdeeds.

Whatever punishment that was doled out was insignificant in comparison to the guilt that I felt. I had hurt someone I cared about, I had received a stinging social rebuke, and I was embarrassed beyond belief. I remember that I became physically ill in the days that followed. I got an ear infection, which I had never had before. For a good week thereafter, I was in a state of absolute mortification. As depressed as a ten-year old gets.

But eventually, the healing light of a loving parent can begin to wash away that stain, to make a child feel whole again. Someone loves me, you say, even though I've made such an error. Someone exists to forgive me. I don't know that there is as warm and secure a feeling any where else in life. We are socialized into these schemes of symbol and value (grades, laws, morals), schemes that we will always fail in one way or another to adhere to. To have that fallback seems necessary, or we might just die from grief and pain for our transgressions.


Of course, we all grow older, and our parents become farther away, grow old themselves, and die. We still make our mistakes and commit our sins. Probably more so as we age and graduate into systems of greater complexity, and greater potential pitfalls. Let's say we cheat on a spouse, or betray a friend. Who can forgive us in that same magical way, with that healing light of unconditional love? No one, of course. Love outside of the parent-child bond is inherently conditional. We choose it, and we can choose to set it aside. No wife or friend or coworker can ever absolve us in the way we so desperately seek. There is a hole in our lives, and most of us strive to fill it in any way we can.

Is it any wonder, then, that when society tells us that there is an invisible giant in the sky who loves us no matter what we do, that so many people accept it, even if they suspect a fair amount of bunk in the message?

Here is the uber-symbol, the one that replaces something in our deepest areas of need, who supersedes all of the symbols that we transgress or fail to live up to in our social lives as human beings. Pray to me, he whispers. Ask me for absolution, and I will grant it.

But we cannot escape the nagging fear. Did he create us out of his love, or did we create him out of our need? If it is simply our parents who created us (and the simplest explanation is usually the correct one), and our parents are gone, who will make everything okay? Who will tell us that it all means something? And given that meaning, who will forgive us?

But the invisible giant in the sky doesn't answer. He never helps. He never gives us any indication that he is actually there. People who collect money from us tell us that he is there, he is listening, he did create the universe, and that it, our lives, and our deaths have meaning - so please donate to the invisible giant's house on Earth. And we want to believe, so we write the check every week to the Catholic church, or tithe to Islam, or take the Bridge of Scientology. It's all equally daft, and all prey equally upon the weaknesses of men and women the world over.


Our greatest sins tend to occur either in the invisible giant's name, or when that other of our created symbolic structures rules our lives and actions - nationhood. Many times inextricably linked with the symbol of God, the symbol of Nation offers a similar solace to its dirty, dying, rotting meat-bag constituents. You may die, but the Nation will be eternal. Your children and their children will inherit the glory of the Nation which you have helped to create and maintain. Your life has meaning. Your death, in the best of all possible worlds, will have meaning, too. Pay your taxes. Join the Army. Give your life for something greater, and we guarantee not only a portion of cosmic significance to you, but a tidy pension to to your spouse, as well (fine print: as long as they are of the opposite gender, and the union has been sanctified by the other great symbolic authority in our lives.)

The individual sins of men pale in scope to the sins of men acting as Nations. Lebensraum. Five Year Plans. Killing Fields. "Wars on Terror." Some nations act under the rubric of a god figure, some eschew that but laud the equally sacred (and equally illusory) "spirit" of their nation. They are all the actions of tribes who wish to assert their dominance and their greater cosmic significance over other tribes.

You blew up our buildings? Yeah, well, Fuck You, we'll blow up two countries. Take that. Our Dad has a better job than your Dad, and we're immortal, while you're not. Nyah nyah nyah.


The larger the sin, the more yearning for forgiveness. When the ranks of soldiers killing in the name of their Nations swell, so too do the lines at churches, begging for absolution. Somehow, call it a moral instinct, call it an inclination, even absent the Cosmic Father to dole out morality, we still know it's wrong. There's just some sort of empathic drive in all (or most) of us - as Hume put it: would you just as soon step on a man's gouty toes, as walk around them to avoid causing him undue pain? Most of us would avoid them. Those who do not avoid stepping on their fellow humans' toes are sociopaths, or people who have been convinced by a purportedly greater symbolic authority that causing pain to others is right and good in this particular instance (i.e. Republicans.)

And so it goes, as Vonnegut was fond of saying (If there were a God, I'd ask for Him to rest Kurt's soul - as it is, I'll just say he'll be missed), we engage in all sorts of moral gymnastics to attempt to convince ourselves that this immorality is in fact the reverse, that our victims deserve it, that Our Nation and Our God demands it of us. And millions, hundreds of millions, who have a sneaking suspicion that they know better, try as hard as they possibly can to either gain absolution, or to put it out of their minds with American Idol and Dancing With the Stars.

But we are not children. There is no magic parent who can hold us and coo into our ears, telling us that even though we did wrong, we are still loved. There is no womb. There is no cocoon. There is no exogenous meaning - derived from an outside authority like God or Mom or Dad. There is no immortality. We live for a brief time on this Earth, and then we're gone. Something in our makeup tells us it's wrong to cause others pain, and yet, in our brief lives, we do. On the most massive of scales. We are all culpable. We all, by action or inaction, have given our assent to it. Nothing can erase this stain from us. We are guilty.

Shame on us.


Okay. Depressing shit, to be sure. So what's to be done?

First, we need to acknowledge our sins, and the fact that we're going to keep doing it. People are weak. Though we possess moral instincts, we also possess kill/rape/pillage/steal instincts. It's hard to balance them out with each other some times. We're animals. We have brains and bodies and glands that are the product of millions of years of evolution. Asking us not to hurt each other is like asking a cat not to scratch the couch.

We need to stop looking for the Cosmic Parent to absolve us. We need to come to terms with the fact that our guilt is our guilt, and nothing will make it go away. It's wrong to cause others pain, especially on the supermassive scales of cultures and nations. We can feel it in our bones, so to speak. So we should stop bullshitting around and trying to cook up symbols and schemes which make it okay to do so. "I'm doing it for God." No, fuck you, asshole, you're doing it for you, and appealing to an invisible authority to rationalize it. "I'm doing it for my country." Fuck you, too. A country is a group of individuals who all have the same animal drives, urges for pleasure, urges to avoid pain. They all want to eat, sleep, make babies, and enjoy themselves. NEWSFLASH: So does everyone in every other fucking country! We've all aligned ourselves with a god figure or a flag, broken down into groups with their own arbitrary symbols, and then we squabble over which symbol has more meaning. Fuck that, you imbeciles. Eat, sleep, make babies, and enjoy yourselves; and try not to impede someone else doing the same.

But of course there will be conflicts. It's simple arithmetic - an steadily increasing number of claimants, and steadily dwindling pool of resources. Things are going to get dicey. But when we stop couching our claims in the symbolic language of gods and nations, we can look at them on a rational human basis.

"Lower" animals reach an equilibrium with their peers and their environment. If there are too many lions, some of them starve. It's just the way of things. Symbiotic organism relationships abound in nature. But we have a problem - our big brains. Instead of reaching an equilibrium with our surroundings, we've used our brains to extract more resources to meet our increasing needs, as well as create symbols around which to rally groups of people. And it's worked for a while. But only an idiot would think it is indefinitely sustainable. Resources will still dwindle, and rabid symbol groups will clash with increasingly dangerous types of weapons until most or all of us are dead.

But our brains are both the cause of and solution to all our problems. We can see what we're doing. We can see how foolish it is. We just need to will to shed our pacifiers and security blankets, and to live as the rational human beings we all can be. Aware of our drives, but modulating them in such a way that we can sustain growth as a human civilization. Respectful of an interesting and entertaining past, but able to move beyond it, to not remain hidebound to the superstitions and insanities that governed us in our infancy as an intelligent race.

There are a lot of nitty gritty details to be worked out. It is not going to be easy, and for all I know, there are not enough people of like mind to make the project succeed. We may, perhaps, stay in this infancy, throwing successively larger and larger tantrums, until we kill and/or consume everyone and thing.

But if it does happen, if we do grow, I think the first step is to shed our hope and our desire for a surrogate parent who will absolve and endorse all of our worst actions and attitudes.

We can stand up. We can walk. We can grow. We can become human.


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