Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Meditation

The world is a difficult place, where life is often “nasty brutish and short”. Some parts of the globe are prone to violence and terror that easily rival any Hell that I can imagine. Mothers wake each day wondering if their families will eat that day. Brutal tribal and civil wars disrupt and destroy life. Masses jam together in horrendous slums without access to the least comforts that even the homeless and destitute in America can sometimes find. Most Americans who speak of uncertainty and hardship have little or no understanding of how truly hellish life is for many others.

Because I study history, read and travel occasionally outside the United States, I have some minimal understanding of life in other parts of the world. Because I was in Vietnam, I am aware of what life is like in a war zone; I realized that a war zone is a place of peoples’ homes. I personally would not want my home–or anyone’s home–to become a war zone. It sucks. Of course, most Americans, among the richest people in the world, live comfortably and securely away from the difficulties of war. Americans may suffer random, tragic violence, perhaps, but not the sustained destruction, hopelessness and fear caused by war.

This knowledge is a curse. I know about all the suffering, tragedy and violence in the world and I can do little to change anything. Even powerful politicians are often unable make lasting change. What can I do? To stop the killing in Africa, Iraq or anywhere else in the world? To equitably solve all of the conflicts that create Hell on Earth? I can’t credibly address many complex international, scientific and economic problems. All that, plus I know human history, which does not give me any confidence in my species’ wisdom, judgment or goodwill. What’s the point?

The only answer that has any meaning for me is recognizing that I am an Everyman. Luckier than most–I’ve never wanted for food–but in the end no better or different than any other living thing on this planet. (Yes, I am one with the trees, coyotes and swamp algae of this world.) My good fortune is a matter of sheer geographical and genetic chance; I could have been that starving tribesman or maybe not at all. But here I am, in the comfort of America. That understanding helps me remember my humanity and respect for creation, including my fellow homo sapiens. And so I come always to the Golden Rule, which is something like: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Not “as they do unto you”, I might add.)

That’s what I can do in this life. I can respect the human dignity of others. I can respect the integrity of tne natural world and its gift of life. I can choose non-violence and compassion in all my actions. I can be kind at every opportunity. My non-violence may not end civil wars in Africa or relieve dire poverty in the world’s slums but it subtracts from the total evil in the world and adds trust. It’s what I can do most often that will make a difference in my life and those I encounter. It’s a start toward my ideal world where no one’s home is a war zone.

This keeps my existentialism from turning to despair. I agree with the existentialists about life and the world, or what I think I recall of existentialism from political philosophy courses and reading Camus in college. (The world is absurd and illogical. Expecting anything else is pointless. Life has no inherent meaning. Life is this world and is pretty much what you make of it. Makes perfect sense to me.) Choosing non-violence and respect for others adds about as much meaning to life on this planet as anything else I can do. By rejecting violence and hate, I build bonds with others. Not only does that expand the web of kindness available to me but those bonds add to others’ lives as well, creating friendships, families and communities. Choosing to build rather than destroy, to love rather than hate, is a big, big difference that I can make every day. The rest is beyond my power and is subject to life’s absurdity and ill-logic. I find meaning and hope in the one thing I can do.

I also read John Donne. His words went to Vietnam with me a have stayed with me since.
"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..."

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Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

my seabag had slaughterhouse 5 and the illiad in it. later i was totally wigged when i found a copy of meditations by marcus aurelius in singapore (where i was getting a tattoo and my dress uniforms wickedly tailored).

don't despair. remember that the last thing pandora let out of the box was hope. it's always darkest just before it goes totally fucking pitch black or some other shit

9:04 AM  
Blogger cile said...

Your words are an inspiration, Mark. Thank you.

10:13 PM  

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