Sunday, July 15, 2012

The realization of randomness...

I have felt exasperated sometimes with people who might be categorized as "New Age" who think that the right belief system and good behaviour can save a person from the randomness of life on earth. These people believe that the good and bad experiences in their own and other people's lives can be explained by their positive or negative thinking and good or bad behaviour, whether in this life or in previous ones. They look at everything that happens to themselves and to others in this cause and effect way, without any regard for the fact of the randomness of life on earth.

I know a man who recently bought a car from a used car place. After about a week of driving it, a serious underlying problem with the car was revealed, and he was blaming himself for having bought a bad car. He seemed to think that if he had thought differently, or if he were more spiritually developed or a better person, he would not be in the situation of having a bad car. My reaction was "Maybe it has nothing to do with who you are as a person - maybe it's just a bad car", trying to open his mind to the randomness factor, but he didn’t seem to be able to consider it this way at all.  Of course, buying a used car from anyone entails a certain amount of risk and maybe he had been too trusting, which some might consider a character flaw. I could have argued that it might have been a good idea to have had the car thoroughly checked out by a mechanic before buying it - something practical like that. I didn't think of saying these things at the time, though, because his concern seemed to be deeper, as though it was some flaw in his essential nature beyond being simply too trusting or not careful enough that had resulted in him being in the situation of having a bad car.

I have tried to tell various New Age people that not everything that happens is orchestrated and fore-ordained, but they do not want to hear this and they even sometimes seem offended. When I start talking about randomness, most get quiet and take on a kind of superior attitude. One nice thing about New Age people is that they tend to be respectful and not very argumentative, so usually my statements about randomness are not challenged very forcefully, if at all, but I can tell they disagree and since continuing to talk about it tends to cause increasing discomfort, I usually back off and change the subject.

For me, the fact of randomness was a huge revelation that happened gradually over several years from observing or knowing about the severe pain being experienced by two close relatives. Fortunately for one of them, the periods of pain would come and go, with bouts of severe continual pain lasting anywhere from three weeks to four months and then subsiding for anywhere from several weeks to several months; in recent years, the periods of pain have become rather infrequent and of shorter duration, which has been a great relief. Unfortunately for the other person, the pain started five years before she passed on when she got shingles on her torso; for her, the pain never subsided, so that she lived out her remaining years in unimaginable agony. 

Some of the character traits of these two individuals include: kindness, optimism, helpfulness, loving actions, compassion, trust, and believing the best about others. These are two of the nicest individuals I have ever known, and I had not been able to explain their pain experiences inside of the belief system of reincarnation and karma, which in its simplest explanation is something like this: we live, we learn, we make mistakes, we die, we are born again, etc., and our future learning experiences are based upon some reckoning of the goodness and/or badness of our collective lifetimes, until we ultimately pay off all our debts and reach Nirvana/Heaven. I felt as though applying this understanding to these two dear relatives would be like blaming them for their pain and I could find no blame in them.  I refused to blame them, and I remember feeling angry when well-meaning friends would say things like, "Well, there must be some lesson that their soul needs to learn".

So I lived for some years with this conflict between my love for these people and this belief system that didn't really work in their cases, until I came to the realization of randomness. This realization allowed the ideas of karma and reincarnation to still exist, but in a new context, and it looks like this: Randomness is the only explanation of the random bad things that happen in the world: disaster, disease, accidents, death (not wars, or other intentional harm caused by humans). Of course there are things we can do to minimize risk such as eating well, getting enough sleep, observing safety precautions in dangerous activities, but random bad things happen here - it is the nature of life on Earth - and that is the karma of being here. The karma is coming back to this random place life after life to learn lessons. Maybe we have some choice about our initial circumstances, such as choosing to be born into a family where there is a reasonable likelihood that we will survive to adulthood and not be killed by war, famine, or disease - where we will have a chance of getting a reasonable education so that we can go on to contribute something to society - but randomness is always a factor. Nothing is really certain here.  As much as we try with our positive thoughts and good deeds, which probably do help to achieve certain things, or at least to feel better while we are trying and make life easier for ourselves and those around us, nothing is certain on this earth, and death is inevitable.  So the random bad things that happen to us and to our loved ones are not because of our own or anyone else's personal failure - they are not our fault - it's just what life is like here.

There may or may not be lessons for an individual who is suffering because of some random event, and as observers of their suffering, the only lessons that matter are the ones that exist for us  - whether or not we take advantage of the opportunity to exercise compassion and try to help them.  

If I would start a church, which is a fantasy I sometimes have, one of the central teachings would be the importance of the realization of randomness.


Christopher said...

The idea that our sufferings and misfortunes come out of the bad things we did in this and in previous lives, and so we must keep on being reborn and reborn until we have learned our lessons, isn't much different from the notion that we go to Hell to suffer for the did bad things we did when alive.

Reincarnation and Hell are just different forms of punishment.

I find the idea of reincarnation to be abhorrent. To keep having to be reborn in order to learn our lessons would be my idea of Hell. One life on earth is quite enough. Well, for me it is.

marain said...

I feel similarly, Christopher. I actually believe that hell/purgatory is having to come back here life after life, and that, in a way, it's a blessing that most of us do not remember our previous lives - that the memory slate is wiped clean with each incarnation, and we get a chance to begin again without the burden of knowledge of the past.

Sorry for the slightly religious trip I am about to lay on you, but I also believe that the entity known as Jesus Christ introduced the idea of Grace, which is an immediate forgiveness of everything from one's past and a complete release from the burden of reincarnation.

Then there are those who believe in the Bodhisatva path, who have vowed to return again and again until everyone makes it out of here.

Who knows, really? What is most important is how we live and how we treat each another. Our belief systems are only useful to the extent that they help us to be better people.