We humans spend most of our lives searching for a path forward. Our priorities tend toward avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. We don’t even think about it, it is the instinctive reaction of any living thing. In this, we are essentially the same as any other life form on our globe. Humanity is no different than an amoeba, for example, in its instinctive struggle to survive, seeking the positive environment and avoiding the negative.
It is reported that Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In his day, he was reportedly a gadfly, challenging everyone and everything with his relentless questioning. Difficult and sometimes uncomfortable though it may be, we ourselves often feel the need to honestly examine the what, the who and the why of our lives. And we have to look at both its micro and macro elements.
As for myself, on the macro side, I find I have a huge loyalty to my tribe, the Jewish tribe that I was born into. I am so proud of the contribution we have made, as a people and as individuals, and are continuing to make, in the advancement of the human condition in so many fields. I believe that much of this flows from the unique cultural package that adherents absorb with their mother’s milk.
But I am also aware that, along with the benefits of the moral code that our religiosity has contributed to improving the life on our planet, comes the distressing tendency for religion’s most orthodox adherents, whatever their stripe, to insist on a closing of minds to ideas that do not fit into an inflexible and unalterable worldview. I have needed to come to terms with the role my tribe (e.g. Baruch Spinoza) has played in that.
We have seen that, when religious and political dogma become state policy for believers and non-believers, and these are forced on the unwilling (e.g. the Inquisition, Communism), humanity stumbles on its way forward. We have seen the expression of the effort to avoid this in the adoption of the principle of separation of church and state, but this is imperfect and does not solve the problem of secular fanaticism. For me, humanity must always move to avoid extremism and the inevitable pain and destruction it causes to so many people.
Historically, we have seen how the advances that humanity made during the Greek flowering in the arts, philosophy and science were lost for a millennium. Some of this was salvaged under early Rome. They were then smothered for centuries by religious orthodoxy. We have seen how we have benefitted as humans from their liberation. These forces have shaped the world we live in, and the lives we are living, as we seek our pleasures and strive to avoid life’s pains.
On the micro side, I, like many of you must have, and must have been, studying the trajectory of our lives. Thinking back over my times, I wonder at the career decisions that I have made. I wonder at my actions during what proved to be watersheds in my life. Some of it was not much fun. I wonder at the impact on those whose lives, willy-nilly, were carried alongside of me in the tide of my life.
Then there is the question of nature or nurture. To what degree are our futures driven by the DNA package we inherited? Surely, to some extent, we are programmed in our reactions to fate by our inheritance. I wonder at the impact if our blood is programmed to run a certain way or another, or if our hormones, liver and kidneys function efficiently, the quickness of our minds, the quickness of our step, the state of our health. Doesn’t that make a huge difference in what we can accomplish? How much do we owe to our forbears for our results?
And then, what if we are raised on the “right side of the tracks,” our parents are educated, they pay attention to the development of their offspring, or none of these things? If we were born into abject poverty or in a country in turmoil, how greatly would our opportunities be constrained? Does not colour, economic circumstance and location make a huge difference in our range of opportunities? Doesn’t the political system, religion, sex and sexual orientation, the very epoch in which we were raised, make a difference even in these so-enlightened times?
Some of us can believe we deserve all the credit for our accomplishments, but how much do we owe to all the positive circumstances that affected our lives? Or, we may weep over our misfortunes, and surely we can truly finger the circumstances and the evidence that show that all of us do not start out on a level playing field.
We have little room for arrogance about our outcomes in the lottery. We can count on our lucky stars if we are winners, if we overcame our disadvantages enough and, summoning the best of the resources we salvaged, we can find some satisfaction in the outcomes. For those still on the trail, you may wish to proceed with caution with your assertions of personal mastery. As well, the knowledge that we face disadvantages will not absolve us from desperately trying our best in our lives. We have that obligation to ourselves.
We will know in our hearts at the end of the trail where we failed and where we succeeded. Special pleading will not help when we face our internal judge and jury, as we are the harshest of the judges we face when we examine our lives. My advice is to be kind to yourself and to one another.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.