I recently got into a disheartening debate with a young woman, a fellow intern at RFE/RL, about religion. My heart sank so much because, at no older than eighteen years old, she already has a rigid, cynical, and contradictory view of the world. On the one hand, this life is all there is, and it should be sufficient — all kinds of metaphysical talk about God, the soul, afterlives, and so on, is only unprovable distracting claptrap. On the other hand, this life is also insufficient — human beings are evil, civilization is a moral failure, and the empirical, measurable universe is a cold, indifferent wasteland.
I tried to explain my point of view: human beings aren’t evil, they’re stumbling in the dark, and civilization is only a moral failure if we hold it to an impossible and abstract standard. Evil exists, yes, but, ironically, it’s not always so evil. We never know the true fruits of actions. For example, had the Khmer Rouge never brutalized Cambodia, I would never have known my first love, and had Socrates not suffered injustice, Plato might never have written his dialogues and Aristotle his meditations, and who knows how art and science would have fared without them?
As to the universe being a cold, indifferent wasteland, one might be surprised to discover the contrary. Astronomers often remark about the miracleness of our planet — so much has had to go right, from the position of the moon to the placidity of our immediate cosmic neighborhood — that sometimes it seems the universe is actually conspiring on our behalf. But even if the universe is indeed a blind machine, then, as Nietzsche thought, could it not be the mission of intelligent species (ours and perhaps others) to inject moral and aesthetic order into this mechanistic order?
Finally, turning to her Sartrian argument against metaphysics, this seemed to be at the core of her logic: essentially, either there is God, and therefore no freedom and value in life, or there is no God, and therefore this life is all that we have — and yet, precisely because it is transient, it is also naggingly empty. I struggled to find the words for my response at the time, but alas, they come to me only now.
“Suffer me, O my God, to draw nigh unto Thee, and to abide within the precincts of Thy court, for remoteness from Thee hath well-nigh consumed me. Cause me to rest under the shadow of the wings of Thy grace, for the flame of my separation from Thee hath melted my heart within me.” — Baha’u’llah
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” — Marcus Aurelius
I am not only tired from the things that have happened to me since coming to Europe, but I am also tired of my responses to them. Yes, much of what happened was severe, but I added to the difficulties with my own overreactions. I have lost touch with my inner logos in a private frenzy of neuroticism, hypervigilance, and obsessions with personal adequacy. It is time to reconnect with who I really want to be.
My friend Alex said that in the end we are all striving to “pay attention but pointlessly”, to remain optimistically vulnerable to life yet without expectations, perhaps even without hope. It’s a paradox, of course, and not only on the level of hoping without hope, but on the level of ontology itself, for it is as much the nature of being to strive as to simply be.
But the art comes in knowing when to do which, and I know that right now I must simply be, to cease fearing my fears and un-feeling my feelings while also permitting myself to rest, momentarily severed from expectations. It is not always enough to wait for the wheel; sometimes you must simply cease waiting and just ride.