When Faced with the Absurdities of Human Civilization, There Are Two Things You Can Do, One Positive, One Negative

When you hear about an event like the bombing at the Boston Marathon yesterday — or, worse, directly experience it yourself — there’s a momentary response that can occur, a split-second thought and associated feeling that often flashes through the mind before other questions and objectifying rational analysis set in.

The feeling/thought is:  that’s absurd.

There’s apparently no useful purpose to it.

The definition of “absurd” is:

Ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous; having no rational or orderly relationship to human life.

I think most people would agree that the killing and maiming of runners and spectators at the Boston Marathon had no rational or orderly relationship to human life and certainly seems to be an utterly incongruous act.

Unfortunately, human civilization confronts us with any number of such absurdities more often than we want, depending on our personal levels of sensitivity to suffering, strife, unreasonableness, and exposure to events and situations reported by the media.

When something like this happens, those who possess even a modicum of empathy wonder:  how can I deal with it?  How does one (as one of the television reporters put it yesterday) “process” it?

People have been asking questions like that for millennia, as long as there have been instances of tragedy.

South Vietnamese planes bombed a village with napalm during the Vietname War and burned children are shown fleeing the attack.  An example of the violence that still seems inherent in human civilization.

Children burned by napalm attack during Vietnam War. (Photo, Nick Ut / AP) For what happened afterward, see below.

I ask the questions, too.   Above all, many of us ask why such things happen.  But not many have the intellectual persistence to figure out satisfying answers.  It’s hard to find an explanation that leaves one’s personal prejudices intact and allows one to feel content with the civilization of which one is a part.  So, most of us, after posing the question, eventually chalk it up to a form of insanity.

There are also those who don’t want to wrestle with fundamental questions.  They simply want to know:  how do you deal with it?  They want to know how to restore their peace of mind.

When faced with a big question or existential conundrum, two approaches are possible:  deal with it philosophically.  Or handle it on a material level.  (You can try to do both, but the two options are like oil and water.)

My personal inclination, especially when confronted by the apparent senselessness of so much of human behavior, is to tackle it philosophically.

For what it’s worth, I’ll offer a philosophical approach here that may lead to solace for those mystified by how to cope with such willfully-caused suffering  — indeed, an approach that may help with how one relates to suffering in general,  as well as other major questions concerning evil and tragedy in life.

Since I like to offer options,  I’ll also mention an idea that might help those who are leery of psychological approaches and want to address such challenges in a primarily down-to-earth way.

First, a bit of overview.

What sets human beings apart is that we are adaptable — after bacteria, perhaps the most adaptable organism on this planet.  We keep trying new things.

We still have violence in our lives because many of us think that violence works.  We think that it will get us what we want.

Ironically, what most people want is to continue living in good health.

Or is it?

If that’s what we really wanted, we would have stamped out violence in our societies long ago.  Or it would have withered away due to a lack of relevance and effectiveness.  But it persists as part of human practice.  Why, for example, after thousands of years of cultural transmissions espousing peace and cooperation,  written and compiled by the smartest among us, do we still have war?  Why are we so dependent on applications of violence?

Human beings have the widest range of consciousness and behavior of any mammal.  Heck, the nature of Homo sapiens is so plastic and malleable that people can get to the point where they are primarily sexually aroused by footwear (or even more unlikely things).  Name another creature that sexualizes anything other than members of its own species.

Few of us remind ourselves that whole industries are devoted to the killing of our fellow humans.  Remember:  yesterday, April 15, was tax day for Americans (it was also “Patriot’s Day” in Boston).  Some of your tax money is used to hire people to kill other people.  Such hired killers are called soldiers.  Or police.

“Oh, but that’s fine,” you may say.  “They protect us.”

The fact remains that, aside from any justification or moral rationalization, we pay people to kill members of our own species.  We pay them in coin and we pay them in gratitude (sometimes).

Violence will be with us until we no longer value it, overtly or tacitly.

Of course, that may never happen, given that most of us eat other creatures in order to survive.  Heck, humans are even willing to eat each other, figuratively or literally, to survive.

A thousand things just as horrendous as the bombings in Boston happened to people around the world yesterday.  The only difference between those other things and the bombings is that you didn’t hear about them.

Is violence an integral part of our adaptive response?  It seems as though it is always on the table as a strategic option, not to mention a component of our “pursuit of happiness.”  Some of us may viscerally feel it is immoral — but one person’s morality is another’s atrocity.  We always justify our choices, of whatever nature, to ourselves.  Such justification is also part of the makeup of human psychology and culture.

We certainly find it all very dramatic and absorbing.

In fact, the marathon race commemorates the run of a messenger (Pheidippides) to inform the people of Athens about a military victory their army had won on the plain of Marathon — another example of the respect and esteem for warfare held by humans.

Human psychology encompasses such a wide range that it includes everything from Mother Theresa to serial killers.

If you can explain to me why that is, then maybe we’ll have an explanation for why somebody bombed the people at the Boston Marathon yesterday.

Then you’ll be able to explain to me why it seems incumbent on human civilization to integrate individuals like Saddam Hussein along with those like Frank Shorter.

Until such time — if ever — that we have such an explanation, following are two things you can do in the face of the violent absurdities and irrational behaviors exhibited by human civilization.  One is positive, the other is negative.

First Suggestion:  the Path

I regard the first as positive because it enables one to recognize and understand the good in life and others, as well as the balance at its heart.

It is a spiritual approach.

Study, understand, and apply the philosophy described in the Tao Te Ching.

If I could easily explain that philosophy, I would.  Instead, the Tao Te Ching (roughly translated:  The Great Book of Inner Strength) is an unmistakably practical spiritual text in that you have to figure out what it means for yourself.  And then you have to figure out how to apply that meaning to your life.  It is not spoon-fed wisdom (if there is any such thing).

Is it worth it?  Well, talk to some people who’ve actually worked on applying the ideas of Taoism to their life.  Study the lives of some of those who have espoused and taught Taoism.  The teachings have been around for thousands of years.  See what you think.

Here is the opening of the Tao Te Ching.  This is from the translation by Robert Brookes:

The physical path cannot be the eternal way,
just as the spoken word cannot be the eternal truth.

The void manifested the beginning,
the beginning manifested the Tao,
and the Tao is the mother of the ten thousand things.

A mind free from desire
can comprehend the nature of the Tao,
while a mind full of desire
can only witness the Tao’s effects.

The Tao and its manifestations originate from the same source.

It is a seemingly incomprehensible mystery
but it is the gateway to one’s true being.

Beauty is given birth through ugliness
and good is given birth through evil.
Therefore ‘is’ and ‘is not’ originate from each other.

Difficult and easy become one another,
long and short form one another,
high and low position one another,
sound and silence define one another,
future and past accompany one another.

Therefore the wise person lives without effort in his daily life.
He practices a wordless doctrine.

Good and bad come to him
and he refuses neither.

He assists in developing people
but he does not presume ownership over them.

He works but is not attached to the fruits of his labour
and does not dwell on his accomplishments.

Because he does not take credit for his accomplishments,
they last forever.

It would be ideal to read the Tao Te Ching in the original in order to fully embrace and practice it.  But if you don’t read Chinese you can make do with a number of translations.  Try three different ones to get a broad perspective.  The translation by Brookes quoted above is good.  Also try the Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell, an updated English version that retains the flavor of the original while harmonizing with contemporary culture.  Get them from Barnes & Noble, an actual bookstore (as opposed to Amazon).  Or your local bookstore or library.

But the Way is not found in reading.  It is found in contemplating what you read.  Only insight produces wisdom.

Taoism contains no violent or judgmental God.  It helps you figure out for yourself what God is rather than depending on what some other person tells you.

Taoism has no rules.

Spirituality is only ultimately comforting if it teaches you — and helps you learn — that the Source is infinite love and that you are an immortal being inextricably intertwined with the Whole.   Any other religious baggage tacked on to that realization is either claptrap or manipulative foofaraw.

Of course, some people are heavily invested in foofaraw, another component of our civilization.

Hence, the bombings yesterday.

Robust, pragmatic spirituality takes some effort.

You must deal with the problem of feeling powerless.  That is one of the fundamental challenges facing every human being.

The bottom line is, if you are feeling happy and empowered, you don’t go around blowing people up.  Or The Tao Te Ching, here translated by Robert Brookes, is a 2,500-year-old manual to robust spirituality.  You can click here to get it from Barnes & Noble.shooting school children.  Or shooting people in a theater.  Or any of the other outrageous things perpetrated by human beings.  If you are not afraid, you don’t seek to instill fear in others.

Basically, the bombing yesterday was carried out by a person or people who are unhappy, feel powerless, and are afraid.

Everyone feels that way sometimes.  The question is:  what is the best way to handle it?

Spirituality was invented to deal with feelings like that.  Spirituality is meant to help us discover and realize the love underlying existence.

Life was a lot harder for people in 600 BCE, when the Tao Te Ching was written, than it is now.  I mean, you could freeze to death or starve if the winter was too severe.  You could die of an abscessed tooth.  A noble could take your wife away (because, you know, men owned women).  So, a philosophy and teaching that aimed to help people deal with the numerous burdens of life 2,500 years ago should offer something helpful for those of us today who are facing life’s challenges, including horrific ones.

The book is not called The Great Book of Inner Strength for nothing.

 Second Suggestion:  no cities

I think the second suggestion is negative because it is based on fear.  But many people feel that fear is a legitimate response to, well, many things.  And many people (including the entirety of government) worry, when something like the bombings in Boston happen, that it may happen to them.

So, don’t live in a city.  And try to stay out of them as much as possible.  Admittedly, this will curtail your options in life.  But that’s simply one of the consequences of making choices based on fear or anxiety, or oriented toward simply surviving as long as possible.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with survival.  Human beings have been doing it for millions of years.  And if that is your bottom line, then avoid the most dangerous places.

Have you noticed that 99% of terrorist attacks occur in cities?  (Other targets are military infrastructure.)  That’s also where most mass killings and other types of murder and warfare take place.

There’s something about cities that not only fosters human creativity, industry, and ambition, it foments violence.  So, if you want to avoid being killed or injured in a bombing or other attack, go live in a small town.  Not the suburbs — that’s just an extension of a city.  Go to an actual small town.   Better yet, live on a farm.

There is much to be said for living close to nature.  Aside from avoiding the path of terrorists.

Of course, if you live in a small town because you love small towns, that is positive.  Maybe, for example, you want to raise your kids away from the toxic atmosphere and servile materialism of a city.

There are two reasons why we make the moves we do in life.  We either move toward something because we like it or we move away from something because we don’t like it.  We can move toward what we love or away from what we fear.  That’s what makes the difference between positive and negative choices.  In either case, we may move in the same direction.  The difference is in the quality of the feelings involved.

You want to muster as much power over your life as you can.  There are different kinds of power, different degrees of survival and well-being.  I wrote a previous post on how you can be sovereign in your own life.  In this post, two suggestions have been offered to deal with the apparently random, iconoclastic horrors of human civilization.

Kim Phuc, the naked girl pictured in the famous photo from the Vietnam War, is pictured here in 2001.

Kim Phuc — the burned, naked girl running down the road in the photo from the Vietnam War — is pictured here in 2001. She now lives in Canada and runs a foundation that provides medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war. (Photo, Nick Ut)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *