Life After Life

It’s one of my favorite places to go, that dirt road with the sun angling through the dust trail behind us, my friend and I talking and joking and sitting in silence and feeling the warmth of the afternoon as we hang our arms out the windows and sit tired and content after a day’s work.  He tells me about what he wants to be when he’s older and how his marriage is going and what it was like when his first child was born, and I tell him some things of my own, things I don’t tell others because we’re best buds and know each other more than anyone else.  Mostly we drive and listen and look around and chat about things that don’t matter.

(Picture credit to Lenzcap1)

(Picture credit to Lenzcap1)

It’s all a daydream.   He’s not here anymore and I never rode in that truck in that way but rode in the backseat as a grandson and he as a grandfather.  He was a good one and I was what I was but I go to that place in the country to wonder what it would have been like to know him as a friend and a confidant as I never could have in life.  He was my grandpa and I was his grandson and I couldn’t have understood him if I tried and I didn’t try very hard because I was young and didn’t know how much I should treasure the stories of the older and how much they had created my own stories and how much I would wish I had spoken more while he was here.

I go to this place to wish for a different world in which I could know my mother and my father and my grandparents and my cousins and every person I pass not by the roles we fill in each others’ lives but by the raw person within us, no walls to hide our inhibitions, no image we like and display for others to see, no need to teach or lead or correct or protect, but just an open and impossible knowledge of who the other is and what they think and what they worry about and hope for and who they hate and why.

A rebuttal to myself

I don’t want to get old.  Most of the time I don’t think about it, but when I do, when the image of my own short life is clear, I smother it as quickly as possible.  I don’t want to get to the point of losing more friends than I gain, of sludging through thoughts that used to be quick, of feeling my bones ache more than they already do and of no longer being able to say “This is what I’m going to do” but only “This is what I’ve done.”  I fear death and getting old, and I have to do what everyone does when these images become clear: I “seek forgetfulness in the dream of life.”  (from Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy)

But I’m not sure I need to.

A few months ago I posted an article entitled “The Death of an Atheist,” in which I portrayed my view of death and therefore the meaning of life, which could be summarized by this: to live fully and to enjoy the moment because no matter what I do I will be forgotten.  In a moment of waxing eloquent and somber, I said the difficult truth that “by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three” and then extended it to the bold but mistaken conclusion that “I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.”

Anticipating rebuttal from a positive-thinking reader, I went on:

“Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, ‘Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.’   You’re absolutely right.  But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley.  Open up an atlas and look at the world.  Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now.  Marvel at how small you are.  Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity, and were forgotten with everyone else.”

The truth in what I said is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, we shouldn’t lose out on life for career or money or fame but should focus on the things that make our lives more full, whatever those things may be.  With Whitman, I was lamenting the “loss of the bloom and odor of the earth and of the flowers and atmosphere and of the sea and of the true taste of the women and men you pass or have to do with in youth or middle age” that comes from a life lived for making money and passing it on, and I was rallying myself against the possible future of a “desperate revolt at the close of a life without elevation,” or the “ghastly chatter of a death without serenity or majesty.”  (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman)

While those things are freeing and true and important to realize, they don’t stand alone.  There is another half to this truth.

But it’s not as somber and it’s much more positive and less depressing, and seems to overcome death with too much ease, and so I wouldn’t see it before: my mind favors the somber over the positive, fearing to be let down by false promises.

I read a certain passage that changed my opinion, that gave such good imagery and argument that my somber mind couldn’t argue against its truth: a passage from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, who doesn’t believe in a “Christian” afterlife, slightly abridged here.

All that a person does or thinks is of consequence.  Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in a day or a month or any part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death but the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime.  The indirect is always as great and real as the direct.  The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body.  Not one name of word or deed . . . ever is or ever can be stamped on the programme but it is duly realized and returned, and that returned in further performances . . .  and they returned again. …

 

Little or big, learned or unlearned, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe and through the whole scope of it forever.  …

 

If the savage or felon is wise it is well . . . if the greatest poet or savan is wise it is simply the same . . . if the President or chief justice is wise it is the same . . . if the young mechanic or farmer is wise it is no more or less . . . if the prostitute is wise it is no more nor less.  The interest will come round . . . all will come round.  All the best actions of war and peace . . . all help given to relatives and strangers and the poor and old and sorrowful and young children and widows and the sick, and to all shunned persons . . . all  furtherance of fugitives and of the escape of slaves . . . all the self-denial that stood steady and aloof on wrecks and saw others take the seats of the boats . . . all offering of substance or life for the good old cause, or for a friend’s sake or opinion’s sake . . . all pains of enthusiast scoffed at by their neighbors . . . all the vast sweet love and precious suffering of mothers . . . all the grandeur and good of the few ancient nations whose fragments of annals we inherit . . . and all the good of the hundreds of far mightier and more ancient nations unkown to us by name or date or location . . . all that is manfully begun, whether it succeeded or no . . . all that has at any time been well suggested out of the divine heart of man or by the divinity of his mouth or by the shaping of his great hands . . . and all that is well thought or done this day on any part of the surface of the globe . . . or that is henceforth to be well thought or done by you whoever you are, or by any one–these singly and wholly inured (hardened/fixed) at their time and inure now and will inure always to the identities from which they sprung or shall spring. . . . Did you guess any of them lived only its moment?  The world does not so exist . . . no parts palpable or impalpable so exist . . . no result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot.

The Indirect Life

I can’t go back and ride with my grandpa in that imaginary truck in our imaginary 20’s.  I won’t know him as he was internally, nor will I know you, or my mom, or even all the hidden thoughts of my wife.  As social as we are, we stand on the islands of our own experience, seeing the world through our own eyes, and those eyes alone, and it is for that reason that the world moves forward after we are gone and may indeed quickly forget our names.

But our actions–every single action, thought, or word–has an affect.  It lives on through others.  This isn’t meant to engender guilt in ourselves for the wrong things we do, but to fill us with the purpose of knowing our life goes on long after we live, an “indirect life” through those we’ve influenced in any of thousands of possible ways.  By choosing the good, kind, empathetic, loving, encouraging, and understanding thoughts, we leave behind a legacy of goodness that will never fade.  Truly.

Complexity/Rigidity Fallacy

We see the history of the world in all its complexity and it gives the present a feeling of predestination – that things couldn’t really have turned out differently than they had.  We predict the future based on the past and see the same things: mammoth political forces shaping a future in which we have little power or influence.

But our lives are better understood through the experience of the author of any great book.  Read any of these and the thought that will continually press itself into your mind will be, “How in the hell did someone think all of this up?”  The plot is beautiful, or tragic, or whatever it is, and we can’t see any other way it could have turned out differently.  It has been printed, the words fixed to the page and sent out over the world.  It is in the past.  But in the moment of creation, it was fluid.  Characters came into the story based on people the author had just met that week – some person who said or did something that stood out in the author’s mind.  Any little thing that happened in the author’s life would have surely influenced the story.

What would our world be like without some of our great leaders and thinkers?  What if Plato had never paused to think?  What if Dickens had never written?  What if Shakespeare didn’t think he could do anything remarkable?  What if Hitler had been ignored by the masses or if Churchill didn’t inspire Great Britain with his words?

The world would be different–immeasurably so–and we have no idea exactly how different.

The present is fluid.  It is for us to play with, to create with, to mold into what we will.  The words written tomorrow are being thought of today, and will be fixed and rigid soon enough.  But for now, it’s for us to decide what happens.

If you stop, today, and say “hi” to a child, and smile, and say they’re pretty, you’ve given them something.  You may not be the perfect person you want to be, or have the career you want, or have attained fame and recognition, but in that moment you’ve altered the course of their future.  That feeling of pride given to them on that day you stopped and smiled may give them the ability to ignore the other things they hear and believe in their worth and beauty.  They’ll pass that on to those they meet, and your little act of kindness will multiply.  It will live on and continue to ripple through the future forever.

GrandparentsMy Grandpa C is no longer around to drive in trucks with and to listen to and to ask questions and to tell my stories.  But his goodness, his industry, and every one of his words, deeds, and thoughts are still alive.  I’ve forgotten their source and utter them as if they’re my own, just as my grandpa did as well, but they continue to shape how I live.

That is what Whitman calls your “indirect life.”

So go, my friends: create as many good ripples as you can, start as many indirect lives as you can, and live forever.

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Sunrise

This morning there was a beautiful sunrise and I saw myself in it, my own insecurities and anxieties reflected back in a way that helped me understand myself. I thought about society and public opinion, about history and fame, about why none of us really understand each other.

Nature is like poetry in that way–vague and ready to be interpreted for our own use–but I don’t like to stretch symbolism farther than needed. What follows is simply an attempt to describe what I saw while watching the sun rise and the scattered thoughts that followed.

Sunrise1

Silhouetted trees, black with no leaves, set against a stark orange background of a large cloud, waves across its surface. The sun is at just the right angle that, much like the sand of a beach when the sun is low, the cloud’s low points cast shadows across the rest.

Sunrise2

It’s the small things that are so impressive, the things we usually don’t notice and that don’t last long enough to give us a second chance. Here you see loose fog at the bottom of the cloud, closest to me in the picture, that will soon be burned upwards or will become invisible once the sun is too high to reflect through it to my eyes.

Sunrise3

Each phase of this sunrise lasts only a few minutes. The waves on the bottom of the cloud are gone, the sun having risen behind and becoming only an orange glow, and the cloud now blocks most of the light from reaching my eyes.

Sunrise4

Wispy clouds high in the atmosphere now have their moment.  Invisible or unnoticed before, they are now bright, intricate, and delicate, set against a blue sky and above a dark red. These clouds now pull my eyes upward, halt my breath, stretch my mouth into a smile, move my hand to the camera, my finger to the zoom, and cause me to take eight photographs to try to capture their simple but intricate appeal. This is the signature of 7:30 AM.

The rest has been beautiful and unique, but this is my favorite. I can’t explain exactly why.

Sunrise5

Sunrise6

Sunrise7

As the sun rises more, the orange glow begins to disappear, the sun now almost completely darkened behind what has become a very large cloud. Above, the light’s reflection is too much for the intricacies of 7:30 – it too becomes indistinct, the light blending too much for detail.

Sunrise8

New clouds form above the large cloud, bright on the bottom and dark on the top, dotting the sky in a diagonal line.

Sunrise9

Sunrise10

The sun is now finally visible above the large, low-hanging cloud of the early morning.

Sunlight

These clouds were beautiful, but wouldn’t have been anything special without the low-angled sunlight passing through them. In fact, many of them were in the sky before I woke up. Had I looked out my window at four in the morning it isn’t likely I would have felt impelled to get my camera and go outside to capture the view; any clouds would have been dark, gray, or unseen. During the short time of sunrise and sunset the colors are so unique and fleeting that we have to either look at them or admit that we’re out of touch with nature.

Even these clouds were the only ones I noticed among hundreds of others within my view, and even then I only focused on the most brilliant among them for a few short moments before the sun, followed quickly by my eyes, shifted its gaze elsewhere.

Scattered thoughts

I am a lot of different things at once, and so are you. Since I don’t know you, and you don’t know me well enough to speak for me, I’ll speak of myself and hope you can understand. That’s the difficult thing – to be understood. Everything I am influences the way you hear me.

I’m an atheist ex-Mormon. To some, that fact brings an unexpected twinge of curiosity: “There must be a great story here.” Hours of friendly conversation follow. To others it brings genuine emotional pain, a feeling of loss, a felling that a friend is now an enemy, an ally now a critic: “Oh how and why did he do that? He was so faithful and strong.” To others–perhaps to the more insecure or controlling–it brings anger, and results in biting remarks most often unheard by me.

Religion, along with politics, is a topic where most people expect misunderstanding and conflict.

I’m also philanthropist. You are too, most likely – it’s not an exclusive term reserved for the rich or the hipster, it’s just about doing good for other people. I write my honest thoughts about poverty and nonprofits in a way I hope is helpful and interesting. Most find this inspiring: “That’s awesome, I want to do something like that too.” Other people are, as surprising as this has been to me, sincerely offended. I ignored them until I realized they really believed the words they said about me, and then I lamented our inability to be heard correctly and recognized how oversensitive and callous our society is at the same time – ready to react defensively but excited to criticize when we can: “This racist, pampered, pretentious fool actually thinks he’s making a difference. This slum-tourist, this sheltered naive prick, this self-absorbed idiot.” Still others are defensive and distrustful. Within their vague responses I hear what they mean to say: “Would you please just not ask as many questions or discuss our programs so openly? You might mess something up.”

I’ve felt misunderstood at many times in my life, but usually I’ve been able to explain it away. These reactions to writing about philanthropy were startling.

I’m a lot of other things too, some of them controversial, some boring, all of them important to the way I’m heard. I’m a banker for a large bank at a time when large banks are hated; I’m an American; I’m white, tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed; I’m a man; I’m bilingual; I’m liberal; I live with my fiance; I’m talkative when with friends and content to people-watch when with strangers. Each of these things–and thousands of others like them–are seen in a different way by every person who sees them.

Understanding

Sunrise11Consider this cloud. I love how each smaller, individual cloud is pressed together into one large body. It reminds me of a hand-drawn map of an archipelago or the rippled sand on the shore of a mountain lake.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the scenes shown above.  That has nothing to do with the clouds themselves, it has only to do with the sun and I, standing at a particular angle to each other that other clouds are more brilliant and these are more gray.  To someone else though, farther to the north than me, these clustered clouds are in just the right spot to be colored beautifully by the sun.  What is gray to me is beautiful to someone else.

And that’s the truth I want to give here, the only words that really matter to this whole article: understanding is impossible. When I write something, the way it is received by others has far more to to with society and with the prior position of the listener than it does with the words I say.

Consider the scriptures. I used to read the scriptures and get a great spiritual feeling. Now I don’t read them at all, but when I do I notice all the destructive things in them, like the stories that glorify murder in the name of god or the verses that make all other lifestyles seem terribly unhappy, for example. How different my experience is now than it was before. The book hasn’t changed, I haven’t even really “changed,” but my perspective has. Now I get my spiritual feeling elsewhere.

We each interpret the world through our own experiences. What would a life-long atheist understand about the feelings of a Mormon boy reading the scriptures? He might become familiar with the doctrines and the scriptures themselves, but he wouldn’t understand what it was like, not fully. The imaginative and empathetic person can feel a little of what someone else feels, but that has its own limitations. If I had never felt good while reading scriptures, how differently would I view my Mormon friends? How much less would I understand them?

Likewise, how can Mormons understand me and my experience?

Consider politics. A conservative friend hears a speech about protecting the second amendment from “Barrack Hussein Obama” and it rouses within him a righteous anger against those who are attempting to “weaken America.” That feeling is real. I hear the speech and make fun of it right away, titling the speaker as moron, idiot, zealot, dogmatic, and ridiculous. The words we heard were the same, the simplistic meme was the same, but the response it received from me and my friend are completely different.

We’re prepared by society and by our former training to accept some things and reject others instantly. I could list a hundred other examples, but I don’t think we need to bore ourselves with repetitive detail.

If it sounds like I’m playing the victim, I am. I’m realizing now how impossible it is for us to all understand each other for how we really are. We are perpetually prone to misjudge. We’re each victims of our own training.

Being offended

Realizing that full understanding is impossible (with almost everyone) doesn’t relieve us of responsibility to explain ourselves well. Words are powerful – the smallest of them can change the tone of a sentence and affect the way we react to it. Ignoring accountability for the words we choose is silly.

I’ve heard the LDS phrase “It’s your choice to be offended” enough times to cringe when I hear it now, and this seems like a good place to rant about it for a second.

No, it isn’t my choice to be offended. Linguistically it doesn’t even make sense. It’s no more my choice to be offended by someone than it is for me to be slapped – it is an action done to me by someone else. It is my choice how I react to that offense, or whether I’d like to remain upset, just like it’s my choice whether to slap someone back after they slap me, but let’s keep the language clear.

I’m sure the person who authored this unfortunate LDS phrase didn’t realize it was going to be used as a license for members to say whatever they wanted without consequence.  They may have meant the phrase to be used to say a state of mind like “being upset” or “being angry,” in which case it is true that I choose the emotion of being offended.  But if you say something racist or homophobic you can’t toss your hands in the air, repeat this LDS phrase, and avoid apology. Nor can I, after watching people misunderstand me, simply throw my hands in the air and blame it all on how impossible it is to be understood.

So it is that there are two truths, existent at the same time: it is impossible to understand others perfectly and it is my responsibility to make myself as easy to understand as possible.

The best writing

The best writing is true, and that doesn’t necessarily mean people will like it. After all the frivolous words fade from human memory–the vain, the dogmatic, the pretentious–these true words last because people continue to be influenced by them across generations. I wonder which words about our day will survive the passing of time and how many of them I would have agreed with.

If I want to write something true, I have to strike a delicate balance between disinterest and interest in how society responds to my words. On one extreme I would constantly be thinking about how people might react and my writing would become fickle and easily forgotten. On the other extreme I could become pompously disconnected from reality, too sure about my own conclusions.

I think I’ll leave the flatness for politicians that need votes and just be myself. Maybe then I’ll say something true enough that others will appreciate it and it will last. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll be a cloud that will shine resplendently when society becomes aware of my words (and when I’ve written my best). Or maybe I’ll be there in the sky, saying true things but going unnoticed, a midnight cloud with no one to see or a mid-day cloud with few to care, while brighter clouds give porch-sitting watchers their morning thoughts.

All I can do is live my life honestly and explain myself clearly, as disinterested in the sun and the porch-sitting watcher as that 7:30 wisp was in me.

*******

Oh, and here are some more awesome Texas clouds 🙂