April 17, 2017

17 04 2017

I am reading The Book of Joy. It is a dialogue with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The title is very apt.

Here are two spiritual leaders from two different belief systems that would seem to be utterly contradictory—one theistic and one atheistic—and yet they are devoted friends from way back who think very much alike. In their eighties, they are still vibrant, eloquent, witty, and both with a puckish sense of humor. “Mischievous” they say of each other and themselves. Filled with joy despite the hardships and bitter disappointments both have faced in their lives. Both are political as well as religious leaders, fighting for a justice that seems impossible to achieve. And yet they continue to do so with reason, compassion, and steady determination.

Marvelous, admirable men. This is a book well-worth reading for any person of a philosophical bent, anyone who yearns to understand the meaning of life and the enigma of true happiness.

What is riveting for me, and makes me go back and read certain passages over and over again, is their agreement on what is true. Here are two learned men, educated in very different wisdom traditions, from very different cultures, and yet they have come to very similar conclusions. As I have said before, I find the scientific method to be the best way to assess reality. If the same experiments can be done, the same data collected, and the same conclusions reached by any individual regardless of ideology or background, one can be pretty sure they are factual. This can be a working truth to build more understanding on. One experiment is not enough. There must be corroboration.

Here is corroboration in a spiritual search for truth.

I became an atheist because the whole business of the existence of God was controversial. There wasn’t universal agreement. People conducted their own spiritual research, if you will, and were coming to a host of different conclusions. It was an unresolvable mare’s nest. Belief in God required all sorts of mental calisthenics, and still people throw up their hands and declare that His ways are mysterious. The best parallel I can come up with is the Ptolemaic model of the solar system which held sway for hundreds of years. The Earth sat at the center, and a convoluted choreography tried to explain the motions of the heavenly bodies. Then along came the Copernican system which put the Sun in the center. It was simple, elegant, and explained everything without the need for all those celestial gymnastics. Although it was controversial at the time, considered heresy by many, it emerged as the working truth upon which science has operated ever since.

For me, eliminating God made everything simpler. No need to wrestle with the problem of evil or the contradictions inherent in free will vs. the omniscient, omnipotent deity, or given the vastness of the universe and our utter, vanishing insignificance, how a personal creator in whose image we are created can make any sense.

Of course, your results may differ. And that’s just the point.

The results the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop came to in this book did not differ except in minor ways. In matters of religious dogma, the two agree to disagree. They come from different belief systems. No matter. What does matter is the fundamental purpose of life and the key to happiness. We are here in this world to seek true happiness, which is achieved through compassion and caring for our fellow creatures. We are a part of a slow process of working towards perfection. Each individual strives for it in their lifetime (many lifetimes in the Dalai Lama’s belief system) and humanity as a whole is striving towards it. The Archbishop points out that our news media makes us feel as if the world is rife with violence and injustice, and getting worse, that people are basically bad and there’s no hope. But a study of history shows strong, steady improvement. Once, some human beings, and all women, were considered no better than cattle. This attitude is heading towards extinction. Because slavery and abuse still exist it only means there is more work to be done. People are basically good, and are generally kind and helpful. This does not make the news. The ugly exceptions do, because they are startling exceptions to the norm.

True joy is found in simple things, in connecting with others, in being content with what one has and at peace with oneself. Happiness is not the goal; it is a byproduct of living a good life, avoiding negative emotions like fear, anger and envy, cultivating patience, tolerance, and empathy. No wonder there is so much depression, so many people steeped in anxiety, despairing, desperately searching for the key to happiness. Western society is built on materialism, competition, suspicion, fear and outrage. From an early age we are set against one another, stressing over test scores, trying to be the best. We celebrate winners and scorn losers. Whether it is beauty, income, power, material possessions, or any of the other idiotic yardsticks we measure ourselves by, we envy those above us, compete against our peers, and feel contempt for those beneath us.

In other words, we have built a society designed to make us unhappy. That is why we find joy elusive.

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12 responses

17 04 2017
Mary Jolles

I couldn’t agree more. Your essay called to mind a discussion I recently had with my daughter regarding how to measure excellence in education. There are so many differing definitions of excellence–my notion of excellence may be different than someone else’s notion of excellence. Some definitions focus on pre-existing conditions, like resources and student ability, that people believe will result in excellence. Some definitions depend on outcomes. Because extreme poverty often has quite negative consequences, I think that many people in our society assume that happiness must automatically result from material pre-existing conditions– wealth, recognition by one’s peers–and it is assumed that unless you have these things, you can’t possibly be happy.

19 04 2017
justinegraykin

It is very difficult to understand the distinctions among different sorts of happiness. Much of the suffering that comes from poverty is the sense of injustice–in countries where nearly everyone is poor, there is much less resentment and anguish. But in this very wealthy country, where no one needs to be poor, the bitterness of being held back, oppressed, frustrated and made to suffer translates into anger and bitterness. And despair, which saps the motivation of the poor. The children suffer the worst. They see their well-fed, well-loved, suitably housed and cared for peers, and are consumed with feelings of resentment, envy, and self-hatred that they aren’t mature enough to begin to understand. This is not a prescription for success in school or in life.

Eliminating these savage inequalities would relieve much of the suffering. But an absence of suffering does not translate into happiness. Witness the materially affluent people who are still miserable. The happiness they strive for–recognition, material gain, superiority over others–brings them a momentary pleasure which then fades into dissatisfaction; new ambitions must be achieved to get that temporary charge of happiness.

The kind of true and lasting joy these spiritual leaders are talking about is very different. The culture of our society does not make the distinction and does not teach or practice it. Many people have discovered it on their own, but most never do. For them, happiness is elusive.

18 04 2017
Mary Jolles

An addendum: in a discussion with a Korean native (now an American citizen) about education, the topic of excellence and the definition of “success” came up. The Korean mentioned that she preferred the American education system to the Korean, because in Korea there was only one definition of success–additionally, no matter how hard all students tried, only a certain small percentage were allowed to go to university. That number never changed. As a student you learned that you could do your very best and achieve high marks, but still fail. The levels of anxiety and depression among Korean students was very high.

19 04 2017
justinegraykin

Indeed, by comparison, our system is far superior. The source of anxiety has been moved further along. Access to a university is better than in Korea. But finding adequate employment after one graduates that allows one a decent living and the ability to pay off the crushing debt one has acquired from student loans–that’s the gnawing uncertainty. It’s essentially the same wicked game of musical chairs in which even the deserving can find themselves without a seat.

19 04 2017
Laura Fry

Mel coming to this late but love this posting. In many ways it’s how I see our friendship. It’s a model of what is common among two folks – one a deist & one not- and loving those commonalities rather than the differences. I’ve always said you were more Christian in the true sense than many who espouse the religion because you take the core of jesus’ teaching about how we should behave toward each other, revolutionary compassion, and get it, live it. Besides that I like you and your fun to hike & kayak with!

19 04 2017
justinegraykin

Bless you, Laura, yes! It is a challenge overcoming that primal wiring in our brain that urges us to separate “us” from “them”. Our instinct is to identify our “tribe” and stick with it against all others. As enlightened human beings, we have the ability to modify that instinct, to expand the sense of “tribe” to include all of humanity, and even all sentient beings. It’s difficult battling that animal impulse. And what horrifies me is how people seeking to achieve and maintain their power exploit this instinct, manipulating us using fear. Instead of encouraging us to strive to overcome our baser impulses, they bring out the worst in us. They divide us into tribes and goad us to hate one another.

23 04 2017
Paul Sunstone

The book sounds quite interesting. It’s also an interesting question of whether people are all good, all bad, or a mixed bag. “Good” and “bad”, of course, are judgments, rather than actual properties of a thing. I judge us as more of a mixed bag — when I feel it’s necessary to judge, or when I reflexively do so.

24 04 2017
justinegraykin

Hi Paul, nice to hear from you. I think that the normal, healthy person does tend towards the good, and their instinct is to be helpful and to care about others. However, there are certainly exceptions. We have the example of genuine sociopaths, people who lack the ability to feel empathy. It is a fault in the way their brains developed, a genetic mutation or environmental influence. And, of course, our warped Western social culture, particularly in the US, educates us to be sociopaths. We are taught the philosophy of Nature, red in tooth and claw, and hammered into us that we must compete, get ahead, win at all cost, as rugged individuals. This stunts our inner ability to be compassionate and cooperative to varying degrees, producing a mixed bag.

And, yes, of course it is a judgement. In order to function in a society we must make judgements about good and bad. It’s all well and good to philosophize about the subjective relativity of morals and qualities, and assists us in forming a our own working assumptions about them. But we must have them in order to function productively among others.

24 04 2017
Paul Sunstone

Would you say it’s a Western trait to dichotomize things as good and bad, Justine? I’m curious how you see that?

25 04 2017
justinegraykin

It certainly seems as if Western thought has carried it to extremes. Taking religion/myth traditions for example, there has been a steady march towards the concept of Good vs. Evil, with a symbolic god for each. The origins of this concept can be traced to Mithraism and similar mystery religions. In other myth traditions, where there is a pantheon of beings symbolizing the forces in the world, the division is more nuanced. There are more benevolent beings, creator gods, and there are tricksters and mischief-makers. The Greek gods were all created in the image of humans, capable of benevolence or rage as the circumstances moved them, neither entirely good nor entirely bad.

25 04 2017
Paul Sunstone

Thank you. One of the things that drove home for me how nuanced the old polytheistic religions could be was learning that a temple in Rome to Juno served as a sanctuary for adulterers. If they could make it to the temple, they were protected from retribution, for they had a patroness in Juno.

25 04 2017
justinegraykin

Hah! I hadn’t heard that one. Perfect example.

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