THE TWO GREAT CHALLENGES OF LIFE
By Roland Watson
I ended the last article by speculating about how humans will lead the evolution of life forward, not through our own evolution, but through creating completely new forms of life. I commented that as a value judgment, we - homo sapiens - may be considered to be a higher form of life if the life we create itself achieves a greater level of order. But, if it does not, moreover, if it increases - if this is even possible - the destruction of the earth's ecology that we have triggered, then most definitely we are not a "higher" form of life.
What this reflects, really, what I designed the entire University of Life initiative to illustrate, is that in life there are two great challenges. The first is to understand it; and the second is to live it. But, of these two, the second is by far the more difficult.
Of course, they are linked. The better you understand life, the easier it is to live it well.
For the first, the problem is not only what we have yet to understand, but also, more importantly, what we can never learn. Viewed this way, we can see that the frustration of existentialism is not a result of lack of purpose. There's plenty to do. Rather, it is that we know so much, yet at the same time so little.
People understand this implicitly, and my ant-farm analogy provides the logical basis for it. And, it is also behind the new reverence for science. We are effectively saying: please find us the answer, all the while knowing that there is none - at least that is available to us. This website, then, is an attempt to provide enough of an answer - a partial answer - sufficient to keep us moving, and to reduce our reliance on non-answers, which are presented to us as the truth.
To repeat, the real challenge is in the living, moment-by-moment and day-by-day, without knowing exactly why we are living, and with the knowledge that at some point the living - our lives - will end. One of the best summations of this is from the book To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."
As another comment, the Lord Buddha's second to last words were that all composite things decay. This is the same as the modern conception of entropy. His very last words, though, were: "Strive Diligently."
One interpretation of this is that it applies to the quest for enlightenment: that we must strive to follow Buddhist practice to eliminate our desire, annihilate our egos, and achieve some form of communion with universal consciousness.
Another, more general interpretation, though, is to see it as a closing guide for the basic challenge of living a life. No one ever said that life is easy or fair. It's not. It is very difficult to get along with other people, and to achieve your goals. However, you can do it. If you work at it diligently, and persevere, you can get what you want. Life, your life, can be anything that you want it to be.
But, to accomplish this, you will have to face, and overcome, all aspects of the challenge. And, since life is will, another way to say this is that you will have to learn to harness all of the power of your will. For example, life is energy, but weapons are energy, too. You have to use your will to transform the energy of life into peace and happiness, rather than into hate and war and destruction.
Fortunately, life is not fixed or determined. Also, it is not an accident. Everything does happen for a reason, just not in the way that the determinists think. Indeed, one proof of the existence of a fundamental reason or purpose for life is its ability to have hope. We are born with a forward motivation - a positive motivation that balances everything we struggle against, and suffer from.
Life may be a gift, but it is not free. It makes great demands. It demands that we make judgments and decisions, including to resolve conflicting desires and obligations, and in the context of chance and uncertainty. And, in this process it is easy to be wrong, and there will be a cost. But, such decisions, such mistakes, are not wrong in some absolute, universal way, but rather in a small, intimate, personal way, which will be clear to you, which may well be clear only to you. And this, in its own way, is much more profound than failing to satisfy an absolute universal law. It shifts the burden to us. Uncertainty and will demand that we be responsible for our lives. Life is an unimaginable opportunity, but it is also a terrible obligation.
Our basic constraints in the challenge are that we must seek to shape and control our lives in the context of chaos, and also with our perceptual limitations. These include that we do not see life, the universe and ourselves as we - and they - really are; and that we view ourselves as separate, when in a very important sense we are not.
What this also signifies is that viewed in the abstract, form does imply content. All forms have content. A form and its content are in fact inseparable.
We must further accept that our limitations do not constitute an excuse; an "out." The fact that humans are imperfect cannot be used as a convenient excuse for whenever you do wrong. You have to work hard, especially when life is difficult and unfair, to do right. Also, you cannot rationalize your failings by saying that many of our consequences are unpredictable. You cannot complain that you were not sure what was going to happen, or that things didn't work out the way you planned. They don't for anyone. Instead, you have to work hard to understand your consequences, and use your will to deny yourself when they might be bad.
Derivative challenges - fighting form
There are an infinite number of challenges in life, which different individuals may have to face. However, they can all be organized as follows:
First, the starting point is the never-ending problem of behavioral form: of learning to recognize it, of when you are being influenced and your will is being subverted, and then rejecting it. Your underlying goal is to regain control of your will, starting with control of your thought. For instance, the fact that it is difficult to learn - we can recall that education is the antidote to form - does not excuse you from making the attempt.
As part of this, you must also overcome the effects of when life has been unfair to you, especially the bad things that happened to you when you were young, and had no ability to prevent them. But, this is extremely difficult. It takes years to recover from such experiences, to realize that they were not in some way - in any way - your fault, and that you are not a bad person. Also, it is essential to realize that only through overcoming such a past, will you ever truly feel good about yourself.
This type of situation, which unfortunately is very common - since so many parents do a poor job raising their children - is best resolved through personal development. If you change and grow and become a new person, this enables you to leave the old person behind. You create a buffer of positive experiences and memories that form the basis of your new identity and self-view. These in turn replace the terrible experiences for which you have long blamed yourself - probably unconsciously, which happened to you as a child.
Secondly, and following from this, is the imperative to be ethical, including by not taking the unfair aspects of your life out on others. It will not help you feel better about yourself. Indeed, it will actually create new barriers to your having positive self-esteem. And, it will perpetuate the form.
A related ethical test is to overcome your selfishness, and not only when you really want something and will do anything to get it, but more generally through viewing everything in the context of your own interests and desires. Most people lead their lives focused solely on themselves, including their needs, their development, and their close relations.
We now understand, though, that the other perspective, focusing on helping others, is a better, higher ethic, and which will create greater order for all of society, and hence for us as well. I might add, the idea that is implicit in this is that everyone is a relation.
Another basic ethic pertains to your relationships with social institutions: that you will not be a pawn, one of the ignorant masses.
Next, there is the ethic for your behavior relative to other forms of life: that you will monitor and control your consumption, such that your use of resources, and technology, and your taking of life, is minimized. Indeed, there is no greater ethical challenge than that of deciding when to take another life. Also, the guideline that is implicit in this is that you should only do it very, very rarely, if at all.
Furthermore, there is the added difficulty that all of this must be achieved in all of the circumstances of your life, including - most importantly - the worst. Being ethical is hardest in moments of severe emotional strain, when it is challenging enough to find a reason to go on living, much less living well. And, there is the problem of being ethical when you are tired, when you are too tired to maintain your commitment, alertness and equanimity. You have to defend yourself from succumbing to the idea that you are too tired to care. And lastly, you must accept this responsibility for your entire life: until the day you die.
I will offer some concluding thoughts in the next and final article.
© Roland Watson 2015