Monday, May 22, 2006

On Altruism

In medicine I have met some incredible humanitarians. I even try to be one myself, which brings up some interesting thoughts on human goodness. It is odd that doing good would inspire anxiety, but I believe it does. I work with some incredibly caring people, but I can't help but wonder if this applies to them too. I wrote this originally in 2001 while in medical school:

Each human role has its inherent fears. The rich fear poverty, the strong fear weakness, the independent fear impotence. But the greatest of fears must be the unspoken fears of the good person. He fears himself.

He fears that he will suddenly be exposed as the opposite of all he does. So he works even harder. His dread that he might someday be caught doing something cruel or selfish makes him into a saint. He is driven to goodness by his phantoms. He wants to see himself as someone else, someone like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, or Ghandi, assuming that these people never had that frightening sense of rottenness inside. So the good person becomes good at such a price. He sacrifices himself. He becomes a fiction, a shadow. Ah, but it is a beautiful shadow, something good, something he loves, something worthwhile, a puppet in an imaginary story. And despite all he does for others he dreams at night that they will turn on him and point their fingers saying, "Ha, you are not the good man you seem to be. You are a fraud!" He wakes afraid and tries to comfort himself with better thoughts.

He even tries to still do good while abdicating his claim to the title of goodness. He speaks openly of his flaws to all who praise him as good. But this only makes it worse. They praise him more because he does his good with humility. And so his isolation grows.

The good person is always out of place. Because he always does good he cannot even describe his strange feeling of inadequacy. He is most alone among other good people. “Perhaps something is wrong with me? They cannot possible feel like this.” Of course they are all uncomfortable around him for the same reason, but he doesn't know this.

Such an odd group of good people! These are the ones that really do give all. They change the world. And we admire them, because our own fears drive us to such baser things.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In the Hospital

Sorry I haven't posted much of late. I have been on the hospital service this month. I'm sure I'll have some interesting things to say later. Right now I am working too much to think. There seems to be a lot more death and suffering in here than I remember when I am off service. I spent all day taking care of someone who probably won't make it another 24 hours. It sometimes makes this place seem futile.

For more optimistic thoughts on death you can read this post from last month.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Spiritual but Not Religious

The other day I saw a classmate of mine carrying a book named “The Wisdom of the Buddha.” I doubt he is a Buddhist. I also doubt he is an Atheist. I barely know him, but it would be safe to guess that he is not a true believer of any religion, nor does he intend to be. I am also sure he would describe himself as "spiritual."

The rise of "Spirituality" in our culture is a very interesting phenomenon. The hospital here has a questionnaire that they gave to all the patients. There was a question that asked the patients to identify their religion. The question listed the 70 religions most prominent in the US. Even with so many to choose from over 60% identified themselves as "other." Since 90% of Americans say they believe in God, it would be quite an anomaly to have a hospital in the “Bible Belt” with that many Atheists. No, instead they want to communicate "Yes, I am spiritual, but it is something that is my very own. It is not like anyone else and not like a religious system."

My classmate was reading Buddha to seek “spirituality.” Spirituality encourages exploration. Everyone's spirituality is different. Spirituality is a freer way to reach that which is transcendent. It is a way to believe without having to disagree with anyone else's belief.

It seems that "Spirituality" is a backlash against the cold, empty universe of Existentialism. Once it was popular to be a proud Atheist, but that was just a passing fad. Human beings need myth and transcendence to bring meaning to their existence. So now everyone is very excited about their rediscovered status as spiritual beings.

But we still hold to so much of Existentialism. Existentialism embraced the emptiness of a world without God, because without the weight of divine purpose human beings were truly free. We were free to define ourselves as we pleased and live and die in an existence that was ours alone. And the Western world loved autonomy, even at the price of a dead God. Since then, the idea of a cold and purposeless universe has lost its appeal. Westerners are flocking back to what was lost. We are ready for spiritual meaning in our lives. But we Americans love our individual liberty. We love our autonomy. So we run headlong back into transcendence as if it were a shopping mall. We enter with a new attitude, an attitude unique to our free, unstructured, and post-Atheist culture.

We have a strange view of transcendent things! We see the spiritual as if it were some raw material of the invisible world. Like wood, stone, or steel, we imagine we can take transcendence and build it into any form that suits us. New Spirituality is ours to use. We do not belong to the spirit, the spirit belongs to us. We trust it to give our lives meaning, but only because we give it meaning first. We have taken the infinity of the spirit and reduced it to a piece of ourselves. “We are Americans, we are free, and we will not be dictated to by anyone or anything. We create our own reality, so the spiritual world had better be pliable enough to fit our needs.”

The New Spirituality theoretically embraces all religious traditions, and yet is opposed to the basic spiritual premise underlying almost every religious tradition. Religious traditions believe that we did not create the spiritual world; it created us. Religions acknowledge that the spiritual world is beyond our understanding and we must approach it on its own terms. Although the many religions differ greatly in their approaches, they all approach humbly, believing that that which is transcendent sets the rules we are to follow. As far as I know the New Spirituality is the only religion on earth that claims that we can all just step into the spiritual and tell it how it should configure itself to fit our needs. We Westerners are so arrogant! We are highly offended by the idea that the spiritual world or God might be so rude as to possess specific eternal qualities without asking our approval first. How ridiculous we must look, approaching that which is immense and eternal and telling it that it must conform to our tastes and desires!

"The Almighty sits in the heavens and laughs" -Psalm 2

Monday, May 01, 2006

Pascal on Happiness

"All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man, including those who go and hang themselves…"

"All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions… What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

"God alone is man's true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place… Since loosing his true good, man is capable of finding it in anything even his own destruction."

-Blaise Pascal (1623 -1662)