"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Epidemics, Wars, And Human Arrogance–How We Never See Change Coming And Are Always Surprised


The "Trimūrti" ("three forms") is a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.


The cycle of creation and destruction revolves eternally, and the goal of spiritual enlightenment can only be achieved by accepting the its inevitability, by dismissing attempts to find purpose and meaning within it , and by realizing that the wheel will never stop turning.  The world, one of illusion and deceptive notions of progress, will always disappoint.  Only when the spiritual seeker no longer hopes or despairs, sees diminishing rewards in a perpetually recurring cycle, and accepts the universality and finality of God, can such enlightenment be achieved.

This promise of a better world is of course not unique to Hinduism.  Christ taught that the world was nothing but a vale of tears, a proving ground for those who aspire to the real kingdom.  Acceptance of the world as God created it,  a respect for its magnificent design, and the understanding that it was only the beginning of eternal life is at the heart of Christianity.  Buddhism preaches the same doctrine of acceptance and the meaningless nature of a world in perpetual change. 


Despite the profound faith of many who follow these religions, it is still a challenge to really embrace a doctrine of acceptance.  Even if God has a plan, and our salvation is entirely dependent on his grace; and even if we accept a more Eastern view of human futility, we still reject nihilism, refuse to retreat from enterprise and good works, and retain a faith in the importance of human action.
However, while we may accept the belief  in the futility of any human enterprise except that which confirms our faith in God and our eventual redemption and salvation, we are still a nation of joiners, volunteers, activists, and idealists.  The world may proceed according to God’s plan, but we can’t simply sit idly by.

If Hindus truly believed in the illusory nature of life, its meaninglessness, and the futility of trying to bring the cycles of cyclical change to a stop, there would be no economic miracle; no progressive dismantling of the caste system, and no accelerated integration into world affairs.

Most of us have rationalized the discrepancy and have conveniently determined to live on two planes with varying degrees of commitment to either.   Others have opted for one or the other and are either ascetics or hedonists.  The monks in the French alpine Carthusian monastery of La Chartreuse lead a silent, meditative existence, the entire purpose of which is grow closer to God, are on one end of the spiritual scale.  Modern epicureans who have forgotten or dismissed Epictetus’ warnings about excess, are on the other.  There are few true nihilists for whom nothing matters.

                     www.commons.wikimedia.org

This configuration, as much as it represents a scheme of belief or disbelief, ignores arrogance – that irrational and often enflamed conviction that human beings can affect or even stop the course of history whether it is cyclical or directional.  Worse still is the very American sentiment that the worst is behind us; or that we have conquered whatever nature, history, or the world has thrown at us; and we eventually will defeat all assaults on our integrity.

Francis Fukuyama infamously wrote about ‘the end of history’, a post-Soviet cold war period where liberal democracy would reign and bring social harmony, benign, responsive political regimes, and a mutual tolerance.  Until the appearance of of AIDS and more recently the outbreaks of Ebola, bird flu, and Zika, most Americans felt that they were standing before the last medical frontier.  A cure for cancer would be forthcoming and there was not telling how far life expectancy could be extended.
Just as the world was ready to settle down to a table of peace and prosperity, the household came apart.  Religious, ethnic, and regional rivalries now threaten both East and West with no resolution in sight.  Respect for national borders and for the principle of liberal democracy itself is eroding.


Just as we were prepared to relax in our confidence that nasty epidemics had been eliminated or kept at bay, three or four new ones have emerged.  The discovery of antibiotics was considered a miracle, and the goal of curing all bacterial infections seemed to be a reality.  Now, it appears, we are down to our very last antibiotic, the only one even partially effective against new virulent pathogens and it shows signs of flagging.  The age of a new human vulnerability seems to be rapidly approaching.

Arrogance is perhaps not quite the right term since there is nothing selfish or mean about the innocent, idealistic belief in human victory over all comers. Arrogance, or extreme self-confidence, is an expression of human nature, the engine of human activity.  In our natural ambition to create a strong, protective perimeter around family, tribe, and nation; and in our incessant drive to expand it, we can be excused for a certain hubris. 

Henry VII might be forgiven for thinking that now that a Tudor was sitting on the throne of England and that the War of the Roses was at end, that he could preside over a peaceful but dominant kingdom.  His successor Henry VIII could also be excused for his arrogance in believing that England’s conquests of the French, Spanish, Dutch, Irish and the Holy Roman Empire meant unquestioned rule.  Roman emperors during the many years of Pax Romana could never even imagine serious challenges to their supremacy.

                 www.en.wikipedia.org

Yet what other word can better describe that characteristically human belief in conquest?  Even a casual glance at history shows that no kingdom or empire ever lasts; that one epidemic follows another; that minority groups with singular purpose and will rise and threaten the status quo every generation; that one form or another of social dysfunction or pathology infects every country without fail.

There are of course the Doomsday-sayers for whom everything is a sign of the coming Apocalypse.  American progressives conflate every social with the current scourge of Global Warming.  Racism, income inequality, gender bias, corrupt capitalism, hysterical religious fundamentalism all somehow have either a causative role in the coming catastrophe or are a result of those factors leading to it.
Many others are on a playground swing, going back and forth between hyper-optimism and depressive worry.  Few of us, it seems, take it all in stride, revisit the Bible or the Rig Veda, or take a volume of Nietzsche , Schopenhauer, or Tolstoy off the shelf.   Like the insulin swings of a diabetic who cannot control them, none of this can be doing us any good.

So Zika, ISIS, Iran, and a renascent Russia are big players on the world scene.  Surprisingly, many world leaders, especially our own, have been sandbagged by recent events.  Their confusion and strategic disarray are clear signs that they never saw them coming.   The jungle and its wild animals have been repositories of disease for generations, so why are we surprised that a new virus has jumped down from the trees?

Sanity is defined as the ability to accommodate both threats and promises in a reasonable balance.  To be neither overenthusiastic nor overly discouraged, to become neither manic nor depressive. To sort through what matters and what doesn’t and live with the choice.   A good Buddhist in other words. 


Does the social confusion, divisiveness, and acrimony seen in every corner of America mean that we have lost this collective sanity?  Have we been beached by the surf and are floundering ? Have we lost our moral compass? No, but we sure should have seen this chaotic end to American exceptionalism coming. 

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