The Suffering Matrix

 

 

The following is my proposed lens through which to view suffering. The two axes are Voluntary/Involuntary and Legitimate/Illegitimate, forming four types of suffering. I will be writing an extensive exposition of this at some point (hopefully I will get around to it somewhat soon), but I wanted to go ahead and post this to start soliciting comments and thoughts on the subject. This is a by-product of the curriculum development I am doing for Exosphere.
Suffering Matrix

The Strife is O’er

The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.

Deep within the soul of every man and woman resides the spirit of God, burning like a fire to transform the man into the likeness of the Unknowable. But there is a struggle between our infinite, immortal selves and our finite, physical selves. Our finite, physical selves fight for our evolutionary urges to survive. Our infinite selves want us to embrace the paradoxes of living and put our survival concerns aside in favor of a higher and more spiritual way of existing.

This is why the Resurrection is so essential to embracing the mystical, immaterial way of living–if we fear death, our evolutionary impulses will always override our spiritual yearning. If we live in fear of the grave, or in its shadow, we are incapable of putting aside the gnawing concerns that lead us to seek self-preservation and immediate gratification. For death follows us from phase to phase in our life, reminding us that we have only a certain amount of time. Aging is a sort of slow death that pushes people to waste their youth in pursuit of the most vain pleasures. It pushes older people to go to extreme measures to recapture their youth. All of this is counter to a spiritual existence.

But the Resurrection frees us from these concerns. The reality that Death has been conquered for us, that the grave is not the end of our existence gives us hope eternal that we can quell our evolutionary urges since we can see them as the farce that they are. In the angelic light of the Empty Tomb, we can know that if we make the decision to live in mercy and love, yielding to others, lowering ourselves to serve, we are not actually sacrificing anything, but rather gaining everything by living and walking in unity with the Divine Presence of I AM THAT I AM.

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By forgoing all of the distractions and medications we normally employ to reduce the pains of existence, we paradoxically suffer more in order that we might eventually cease suffering altogether. The more unified we are with the spirit of the Unknowable dwelling inside of us, the more we give power to the Infinite and the more we see the absurdity of being governed by the Finite, the more we are able to embrace our true freedom, and the less our existential pains cause us to suffer.

Indeed, the Resurrection is the ultimate solution to the pains of existence, for those pains are brought about by our coming to terms with our smallness and limitedness. The Resurrection gives us insight into our Limitlessness through the Infinite existence of God who dwells within our soul and who is ever-present in our life and struggle. The Resurrection gives us new life because it bears witness to the gift of immortality bought for us by the suffering of the Living God Incarnate on Good Friday.

Living in the glory of the Resurrection our strife truly is over. Our battle and victory are truly won. But we must then become conscious of this blessed reality and begin living and moving in its Truth.

 

Necessity is a Pitiful Excuse for Anything

We frequently describe our actions and desires in terms of needs or necessities. “I have to do ______” is one of the most common linguistic formulations in the English language. Living in Latin America, I can also attest to the equivalent in Spanish being quite common. When asked to explain the assumptions behind such a statement, a person will often answer that they must do something because somebody else expects it of them, or because they will be punished by somebody or God for not doing it. They might explain that they have a physical or biological necessity that compels them to do it. Or they might reason that they must do something because it is part of their identity as a person, and to not do it would be to violate their own identity.

For the most part, this is all garbage. When you justify your actions by necessity (excluding the most basic, true necessities–breathing, drinking water, minimal sleeping, and sustenance eating), you are attempting to disclaim responsibility for your actions, to borrow a phrase from Eric Fromm, you are attempting to escape from freedom. This attempted escape leaves you much worse off than you would be if you embraced your freedom of choice in matters that you normally ascribe to necessity because it means that your actions are predicated on unexamined assumptions that may turn out to be false.

Let’s take the family expectations example and work through it. “I have to do X because my family expects me to.” This is a common one in Latin American culture. Imagine, though, if you rephrased the statement honestly:

“I am doing X because if I don’t my family will be disappointed with me and I am afraid of the pain I will experience by being rejected by my family.”

In this formulation, you are accepting that you are free not to do X, but the reason you freely choose to do X is your fear of rejection. Once you understand the reason for your historic pattern of choices in this regard, you are able to determine whether or not this is a sufficient justification for present and future action, embracing your freedom to disappoint your family and determining how you can overcome the pain of rejection. Then, in cases where you want to do what your family expects, you do so with great joy, because it is what you truly want to do. And in cases where you want to do something other than what your family expects, you are freed to do so because you have no longer reduced your action to brutish necessity.

We’ll examine one more example for this post and then hopefully if anybody has any other examples or counter-examples they can share them in the comments section for further discussion.

This one is intentionally controversially and provocative, and I have selected it because I believe it will force more people to really challenge the way they view necessity in decision making. Take the issue of fidelity in a committed long-term relationship. For most people who are not cheaters, it would be very common to say “I can’t have sex with another person because I am in a committed relationship.” Note the operative word “can’t,” denoting necessity. It excludes the possibility by definition. However, clearly you can have sex with some other person outside of the bounds of your relationship. People do it every day. It is simply inaccurate to claim otherwise, unless you have some sort of strange medical condition that literally physiologically prevents you from having sexual relations with somebody other than your spouse/partner (I have never heard of such a condition, but we could imagine it might exist somewhere).

No copping out, either–you can’t amend the statement to say “I can’t because I made a commitment and I always keep my commitments” or something like that, because there is not a living person who literally always keeps their commitments. We all break some commitments. We choose to break some, and we choose to keep others. The moral questions involved in this are to be saved for another day. What we are discussing today is merely the existential possibility of the actions being contemplated.

So why do you choose not to cheat on your spouse/partner? Some possibilities could include: you fear they might find out and subsequently end the relationship, the guilt you would feel for cheating on them, the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease from the third party, etc. These are all good reasons, and having established them as the justification for freely choosing not to cheat, you have accomplished something rather important, you have removed one of the most insidious human motivations to do something, which is that you do it because it’s forbidden (i.e. wanting what you can’t have).

By embracing your freedom to have sex with whomever you want, you are able to see that the actual decision to do so could be damaging to yourself and one or more other people. Your decision not to cheat is thus an exercise of freedom, not the contrary. There is this false belief that liberation means acting without limitation. It pervades because people have failed to consider what is meant by limitation. If by limitation we mean that we refrain from acting in a certain way because we have utilized our gift of reason to consider the consequences and have deemed them undesirable, then to claim that the liberated person must not be limited would ultimately lead to all liberated persons dying tragically through some act of genuine stupidity.

On the contrary, the person who recklessly sleeps with everybody who shows them a passing interest is the person acting out of necessity and not freedom, cementing evolutionary urges as biological necessity. I am not making a moral judgment, and I think post-modern society must come to terms with its need to redevelop sexual ethics–not by returning to some Victorian prudishness–but also not by falling prey to the myth that we are just animals and should act however we feel compelled to do so in the moment.

We are free to choose one way or the other in every circumstance in our lives. Only by embracing this freedom, and accepting the consequences of being responsible for our own lives are we able to transcend the bonds of necessity and emerge into the psychological independence required to reach our full creative, productive, and compassionate potential we have as human beings.

 

Great to Good

Who are the figures in history we would consider to have achieved Greatness? This is obviously a rather subjective question, and one that would elicit different answers from different people based upon their values, culture, language, and historical perspective. But certainly more than a few people’s lists would include names like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln,  Winston Churchill, John D. Rockefeller, and Albert Einstein. Why do we consider these men to be great?

The question is not rhetorical. If the answer seems obvious or self-evident to you, then I would submit that you need to more rigorously test your presuppositions. A sort of unsatisfactory answer might be that they are considered great because history has remembered them as such. Not only does that beg the question, it is also a moving target. What happens when, in 200 years, Winston Churchill is an all but forgotten figure? Napoleon will likely be remembered for longer, but what about Lincoln? If the United States goes the way of Rome, how many people will remember him?

Most of these men earned their historical marks by involving themselves in mass slaughter (war) of some sort. Rockefeller earned his by becoming insanely wealthy. Einstein by scientific discovery (which could well all be disproved at some point in the future–then where would he be?). There are a lot of men (and they are mostly men) who have set out to become great and have left carnage and destruction in their paths. Depending on the nature of the carnage, but more on whether they won or lost, they are included on the greatness list by history. Hitler, had he won, might have gone down as the man who united Europe and brought peace to it once and for all. Had the Soviet Union emerged victorious in the Cold War, Stalin might have been the greatest visionary for equality and social justice the world had ever known. This is the problem with history.

Napoleon himself gave a lot of thought to this subject, and there are two statements he made in particular that should give us insight into the topic. He was once asked who he thought were the greatest generals. He replied “the victors.” The second statement, which has become a semi-famous quote of his–“history is but a set of lies agreed upon.” Indeed, he seemed to understand rather well that his pursuit of greatness and glory was rooted first in victory and second in the ability to utilize that victory to write history the way he wanted it to be told. I suggest that much of what we believe we know about world history is substantially skewed if not rendered utterly useless by this reality, if not the particularities of events, the grand narrative and story arc of history’s various episodes. Perhaps indeed much more of what we know about the world pre-history is accurate, even if we know less about it.

When we take Napoleon’s first observation that the greatest generals (and we could insert anything here…greatest tech visionaries, greatest politicians, greatest financiers, or whatever) are the victors, then the pursuit of greatness so defined necessitates a win-at-all-costs attitude. After all, failing to win relegates one to the dustbins of history, or worse, to be vilified by the victor as he is writing history. Therefore, we may be able to conclude (or at least reach a working assumption) that the pursuit of greatness puts the pursuer unavoidably in a zero sum game. He must win at others’ expense.

Zero sum games are troubling to anybody who has studied economics, as the final outcome represents a static state of affairs. There have been no net gains as a result of the ‘game’ being played. All too often, however, the pursuit of greatness leads to many negative sum games, that is, where there are net losses as a result of the game being played. War is an archetypal example of a negative sum game. People die, resources are expended, capital goods are consumed without being replaced, and both sides are worse off in absolute terms, even if the victor is better off in relative terms. The negative externalities of such conflict are overwhelming.

In business competition the same is true as well. Although competitive forces are economically beneficial, in the same way that fertilizer is beneficial in the growing of plants, also like fertilizer, too much can turn growth to ruin. The cut-throat competition of modern corporatist capitalism where people will do anything (illegal, immoral) to gain an advantage proves this point rather well. We should look no further than the absurdity of the recent Apple-Samsung patent dispute. The consumer, the global labour market, everybody but Apple is worse off for that dispute having taken place. What we find is that hyper-competition eliminates positive competition in the way that malevolent bacteria eliminate good bacteria in the human body (there is a corollary too, that the external remedy often does even more damage, but that is a topic for another day). The pursuit of greatness comes at great cost.

The alternative, however, would appear to be unpalatable to many high achievers: the pursuit of mediocrity. After all, is that not the opposite of greatness?

Any of my readers who know me personally will be sure that this is not what I mean to suggest. Nothing is more anathema to my own character and personality than the mediocre. Herein has been the root of my personal struggle in the past five years–a vacillation between a desire for greatness and a moral dilemma at the cost of pursuing it.

There are other options, two of which can be pursued simultaneously: Goodness and Excellence. Both of these, when pursued, allow us to play positive sum games. When we play them, all sides are better off in the end. An Excellent Apple can make outstanding products adored by their customers at the same time that an Excellent Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are doing the same. An Excellent United States can have market policies, flexible labour laws, open immigration, and a growing economy at the same time as an Excellent China, Russia, Germany, and Iran could do the same.

An Excellent You can live an amazingly fulfilled life of service to others at the same time as millions of Excellent Others are doing so as well. All of the back-stabbing inside of organizations, jockeying for position, securing the promotion over somebody else whatever the cost, is not only unnecessary, but brings out the worst in all of us. It damages our humanity and ability to be present for other people and makes it impossible to be instruments of healing in a world full of suffering. But even removing the altruistic motivation, we will find that this zero sum game attitude of living produces endless disappointment for ourselves. We are forever comparing, measuring, and ultimately falling short. Even if we become the best at what we do, we will always be compared to somebody in another field, or another person in history who might have been better. “The greatest since so and so” implies there was one better.

We should strive instead for Excellence–to deliver on our commitments at the time, quality, and price agreed. We should strive for Goodness–to treat others as we would want to be treated, to love others as we love ourselves, to act the same in public as we do in private, to be honest with ourselves and others. With enough Goodness and enough Excellence, we might just end up getting recognition and remembrance after all. It has worked for a few people–Gandhi and Mother Theresa come to mind. But still, it would be better to live the life of Mother Theresa and be forgotten than to be like Napoleon and be remembered.

 

The Unsexiness of Meaning

“Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

-The First Book of Kings

What are you doing here? By here, I mean wherever it is you are in your life–your occupation, preoccupations, anxieties, goals, desires, fears, the people surrounding you, perhaps your geographic location as well, but most importantly your values. This is what God was asking Elijah in the cave–not so much “why are you in this cave?” but “what is it that you value, fear, and believe that led you to this place?” and “why exactly did you expect to find me in the earthquake and the fire?”

We ought to ask ourselves these questions more frequently than we do, but we must do a bit more work and peel back the layers of our assumptions and make these questions ever more probing–even more painful. If our self-questioning does not result in at least a little bit of pain, we are not asking the right questions in the right way. As a student of economics, I have learned that one of the most important concepts to understand is opportunity cost. In everything that we do, every decision we make, what it is that we choose is at the expense of something else, frequently a plethora of alternatives. No decision comes without the cost of foregoing alternatives. This is so basic to our existence that we rarely even bother to think about it in detail.

If I wake at 7am, I am foregoing the hour of added productivity of waking at 6am and the hour of added sleep of waking at 8am. If I decide to spend Saturday gardening, then I won’t spend Saturday reading or practicing chess. Being in a committed relationship is mutually exclusive to dating and to being in a committed relationship with any other person. Living in South America means I am not living in Beijing or Prague or Alaska. The reason I discuss these seemingly obvious realities is that they make a significant difference in who we are and who we are becoming.

Each decision we make, each alternative we forego, pushes us in a new direction. Rarely do our decisions push us in a fundamentally different direction–the changes are often more subtle. Few people muster the courage to forego familiar alternatives in favor of a new path altogether. This is why it is of paramount importance to continually ask ourselves “why am I here?” Especially if “here” is not where we want to be (hint: “here” should never be where we want to be if we are intentional in our spiritual growth, but be careful not to conflate “here” with place alone).

Most of us want meaning in our lives. We want to do meaningful work. We want to have meaningful experiences. Much of what we do is in search of such fulfillment. Having interacted with people from around the world, from different cultures and languages and backgrounds, I have concluded that the vast majority of people live in want of this fulfillment. In no segment is this more true than in Generation Y, who have become nomads in search of meaning, wandering the globe (usually figuratively, but quite often literally) looking for that series of experiences and people that will deliver novelty and fulfillment. What I see under the surface of this way of living, however, is a deep yearning for something-they-know-not-what. The only thing my generation seems to know for sure is that the place they are is not the place they are going to find whatever it is. Expecting to find it in the earthquake, they cannot hear the still small voice above the din of the iOS device buzzing to alert them of an update on Facebook or Twitter that needs their immediate attention.

Indeed, so many people travel to far off places only to see them through the filter of the screen on their iPhone, taking pictures and uploading them to Instagram to show everybody else just how meaningful and exciting their life is. A generation or two ago, the conventional wisdom was that meaning was found in settling down (usually near one’s hometown), getting married relatively young, having a family, and hopefully living well enough into old age to enjoy grandchildren and retirement. For many people that may indeed define a meaningful existence, but if demographic trends in Gen Y are any indication, it is no longer the majority.

We are a generation of spiritual nomads too afraid of attachments, commitments, and putting down roots to experience any one thing long enough for it to become routine and boring. In doing so, we fail to experience any one thing long enough for it to actually become meaningful. We fear doing anything that will define our lives because we consciously or subconsciously believe that the moment we do so, we lose control of who we are. Like Buridan’s Ass we are starving due to our failure to make a choice. Why put our spirit into something–work, a relationship, building community–when something better might be just around the corner? I submit that this ethos is killing us.

In our era of abundance (the financial crisis and high unemployment notwithstanding, it is still better to be poor in 2012 than to have been rich at any time prior to the advent of modern medicine), the greatest pain we experience in the West is not hunger or fear of physical violence, but boredom, anxiety, and the apparent absurdity of life. We do not have institutions equipped to deal with these pains. The Church has abdicated its role by driving itself into obscure irrelevance, either through its failure to admit its error on the part of the conservative movement or through its abandonment of all foundations on the part of theological liberals.

With the evisceration of civil society in the past 30 years, there are no other institutions left to fill the gap either. Hyperconsumerism has left us living isolated, atomized lives that have pulverized our souls into fragments. These phenomena are compounded when we seek fulfillment in the glamorous, the fashionable, and the popular. What we need most to counteract this trend is to be willing take the risk to make commitments, and then to keep them. Commitments undoubtedly limit our possibilities by number, but they increase them in quality.

By making and keeping commitments we are able to relish the joy and work through the pain involved in the effort required to do so. Then, just then, we might be open to real meaning. We might be still enough to hear it, and lacking the distractions of post-modernity, to grasp it.

 

The Empire Business

“You asked me if I was in the meth business or in the money business. The answer is neither. I’m in the empire business.”
-Walter White, Breaking Bad

There was a time in my life when I wanted to build an empire, to create something that would last beyond my life for which I would be remembered (and adored). The industry wouldn’t have mattered–an empire is an empire. For somebody who sets out to build an empire, it rarely matters what kind. Indeed, it could have been a meth empire, or a technology empire, or a finance empire. I like to think that it wouldn’t have been a meth empire, but there is something about that lust for grandeur that betrays our stated system of ethics and supposed sensibilities.

The problem is that the world, and the human race in particular, is naturally opposed to empires of all kinds, be they business, political, or cultural in nature. Empires serve an Emperor, universally at the expense of everybody else. The Emperor may give patronage to the people who help him build it and maintain it, and certainly those beneficiaries of such patronage are immensely better off than everybody else as well (though not as much as the Emperor himself), but those benefits are not widely distributed, and they are only by chance predicated on merit. Even then, merit is defined in the narrow terms of what is contributed to the expansion or preservation of the empire, a poor metric for the Christian and the humanist alike.

One might inquire, what about the business empire? Surely this can be morally sanctionable given that its success is tied directly to meeting customer needs fastest, cheapest, and best. Unfortunately most business empires do not meet such criteria by entirely honest or competitive means. Even Apple, the most vaunted example of business empire in our day, resorts continually to nasty legal tactics to prevent its rivals from competing with it, and approaches upstart competitors with the intent of destroying them before they can become a threat. Their labour conditions in China are an entirely more egregious matter. This is the ethos of empire, any empire.

In our age of the ‘meritocracy’ it seems everybody is encouraged to engage in empire-building. Nothing could serve as a better example of the cultural call for society’s most able minds to become emperors than the famous line from Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network where Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker says to the fictional Zuckerberg “A million dollars isn’t cool anymore. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

There is a fear amongst many (if not most) smart and talented people that they will be forgotten in death, unremembered by history. The fate of Shelley’s Ozymandias is a clear and present threat to the ego:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

And yet, the best of us would do well rival Ozymandias. King Solomon, immortalized in the account of his life in the Hebrew Scriptures, recognized the vanity of his pursuits–building houses and gardens, consuming all his eye could see, gaining great wisdom–all of which he called ‘vanity of vanities’ and ‘striving after a wind.’ The quest of empire is just such an elusive striving. Solomon was the wealthiest man the world has ever known, and yet, even with such privileged historical status in the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he is ultimately known for his descent into idolatry, and his ultimate legacy was leaving the Kindgoms of Israel and Judah divided.

How quickly a legacy is undone. Walk around America’s universities and see the buildings and lecture halls and fountains named after dead men, who believed they were immortalizing themselves by bequeathing their wealth to some institution that would put their name on brass plaques. We may call something “Smith Hall,” but this is not a memory of Smith. The name fades into mere vernacular usage–not a thought is truly given to the dead man behind it.

This drive to build an empire comes from our attempted revolt against our own humanity. We refuse to recognize that we are but 1 out of 7,000,000,000 living human individuals, 1 out of 108,000,000,000 humans who have ever lived. To leave a legacy that will remain a thousand years from now, in the top 1,000 most memorable people, we would need to esteem ourselves in the upper 0.00000001% of all of the people who have ever lived. Even then, it is a rapidly moving target, for we will have to outdo the billions yet unborn, who will find their place on earth during our own lifetimes and in the years following.

The Genesis narrative of the Garden of Eden shows the fall of man taking place because of a desire by man to possess the knowledge of good and evil–on par with God. It was an attempted revolt against the reality of our human finitude. The desire to build an empire is hardly different.

It is little wonder, then, that we can think of few Emperors for whom we have much fondness, whether in commerce or politics. Those who are remembered are remembered in infamy, not for their magnanimity. Yet most of the acts of kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and love are to be credited to those whose memory will fade with the passing of their own grandchildren, if they are so lucky.

The Good must almost necessarily be self-effacing, not self-promoting. When we seek to promote ourselves and our interests, even if we do so in the name of some other cause that we self-righteously proclaim to be ‘greater than ourselves,’ we cannot possibly hope to have done something worthy of recognition. Indeed–the first will be last, and the last will be first.

In such context, it seems we are left to the conclusion that if we are to leave the world a better place than we found it, we must very likely be forced to leave it anonymously.