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

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Commitment To Self, Family, Community–In That Order

Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House concludes after a lifetime of subservience to father and husband and unwilling responsibility for children and home, that her only duty is to herself.

HELMER: To leave your home – to leave your husband, and your children! What do you suppose people would say to that?

NORA: It makes no difference.  This is something I must do.

HELMER: It’s inconceivable! Don’t you realize you’d be betraying your most sacred duty?

NORA: What do you consider that to be?

HELMER: Your duty towards your husband and your children – I surely don’t have to tell you that.

NORA: I’ve another duty just as sacred.

HELMER: Nonsense! What duty do you mean?

NORA: My duty towards myself.

Other of Ibsen’s even stronger characters understand this sacred duty to self.  Hedda Gabler, Hilde, and Rebekka (Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm) all have a purposeful will and know that as women if they cannot achieve greatness, they can achieve it through others.  All three take their men in hand and drive them to what they see is their glorious end.

My favorite characters from Shakespeare – Richard III, Iago, Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, and Margaret, wife of Henry VI – have the same sense of self and will, and are ‘beyond good and evil’.  They understand that their only validation as human beings is the expression and satisfaction of individual will.  Otherwise they are part of Nietzsche’s herd, condemned to a life of monotonous, repetitious, routine.

There is no God in the thinking of these characters, nor in the mind of the playwrights who created them.  If this world is the only universe that one will ever know and no one will ever be judged by his actions by a punitive or rewarding divine being, then personal inspiration, insight, purpose, and will make all the sense in the world. Supermen die knowing that they have fulfilled the only mandate of their existence – the powerful expression of individual being.

I was once on a mission to Senegal, charged with helping the Ministry of Health to reform its nutrition programs to improve quality and extend access.  After two weeks of intensive investigation we found that the entire Ministry was an inefficient, irresponsible agency, indifferent to the people it was supposed to serve and to the donors who provided the funds.

One evening we were invited to dinner at the home of the Minister.  It was an elegant and sumptuous affair, and we were treated well.  At the end of the meal, while we were all reclining on the terrace looking out over the Corniche and the sea, our team leader, a naïve, inexperienced, and often clueless man, took the Minister to task.  How was it, he asked, that so little had been done with the generous grant from the United States? Why was there absolutely nothing to show in terms of training, new clinics, or pediatric equipment?

In what he thought would be the coup de grace he said, “So, where is the money?”.

The Minister adjusted the sleeves of his brilliant, elegant, blue bubu, leaned forward, and said, “Mr. Roberts. I have attained this position thanks to my family, my community, and my country; and I intend to repay them in that order.”  He sat back in his chair, took a sip of tea, looked out at the boats off the coast, thanked us for coming, and left.

Commitment to family is not as exalted a purpose as duty to self because it is part of the law of nature. The urge to propagate is animal and fundamental, and the consequences of children – both good and bad – are significant.  In poor countries children’s labor and family security provide the bulwark against penury and extinction.  In wealthy societies, children represent the continuation of the family line, inheritance, and reflected honors.  It is logical and normal, therefore, that we are committed to our families, and do all in our power to assure that they will survive; but there is nothing remarkable or exalted in that loyalty.  We are still part of the herd, doing what is expected.  We die having done nothing but only what billions of others have done.

There are three important reasons for commitment to community.  The first and most obvious is to enhance survival.  From hunts on the veldt to lobbying for tax relief, association with a large group of unrelated but likeminded individuals makes sense.  There is also safety in numbers, and like any animal colony, diversification of labor is easier the larger the group.  Commitment to community or group is a way of extending self-interest and increasing the possibilities of individual well-being through concerted effort.

The second reason for commitment to community is for public recognition, status, and self-image.  Anyone who belongs to a particular church, environmental association, or political action committee wears their badges proudly.  I believe in Jesus Christ.  I work tirelessly for the Earth.  I help poor and disabled people, those less fortunate than I.  I am a good person.

The third reason is religion.  Whether one is a Hindu believer in karma or a Christian believer in good works as a means to salvation, investment in the welfare of others will pay rewards in the next life.  It may assure you of ascension to heaven or at least save you one or two more rounds on the Wheel of Becoming. It is a way of hedging one’s bets in case there is an afterlife.  A few alms given to the poor on the ghats of the Ganges or a few hours at Martha’s Kitchen are very different cultural aspects of community service, but both with the same goals.

Most of us are like Nora Helmer whether we admit it or not.  Sooner or later our lives will be extinguished without a trace.  In fact, the world we think we inhabit may not exist at all.  Bishop Berkeley, Buddhist Mahayana monks, and Hindu ascetics, convinced that the world is maya or illusion, all share the same vision as Nietzsche – nothing matters but the individual.  Whether the world really exists or not, the only confirmation of life comes from Descartes - “Cogito ergo sum”. 

I am too much a Shakespearean, a believer in the endless cycles of history and the human nature underlying them to get exercised enough to ‘do something’.  How can one seriously become an anti-war advocate when the one thing that has characterized all of human existence is war.  How can one become passionate about climate change when it is seen within the context of the Earth’s 3 billion year history? If our world does succumb to climatic catastrophe, nuclear destruction, or overpopulation, no one will notice. As Hindus believe, there will simply be an infinitude of other expressions of God in the universe.  Or, as secular scientists might argue, change is the only constant.

In other words, I return to the advice of Ibsen and Nora, add it to the rich stew of Nietzsche, Bishop Berkeley, Descartes, and the Mahayana Buddhists, and restate and reaffirm my belief in the individual, first and foremost.

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