Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Joe Omundson

Good and evil, eternity and NOW

Are people good or evil?


We associate good and evil with certain qualities we have assigned to other words. Generosity; kindness; provision; pleasure; safety; health; growth; strength. Destruction; violence; negation; death; neglect; pain; suffering; terror. All of these things are contained in the natural world, simultaneously and overlapping, without distinction.

Some animals survive in good health and abundance while others starve. Some animals eat, others are eaten. There are no rules. Parasites drain life from their hosts and this is OK. Dead bodies nourish the living. Some species can only come to life after a devastating fire, or they lay their eggs inside another animal and poison that animal to death so their young may feed. Mass extinctions happen. Some animals kill their mates immediately after mating. Animals rape and fight and kill. And yet they are innocent, all of it is natural.

Nothing lasts, even the rocks crumble and turn into dust. Rivers dry out, continents are submerged, frozen, desertified. A water molecule can flow beautifully from a rain shower to a creek and a waterfall and a river and an ocean, or it can be frozen in a polar ice cap for 500,000 years. Mountaintops are eventually subducted and melted into magma once more.

Stars are born and they die. They go supernova, collapsing into neutron stars and black holes. They destroy their planets. They smash into each other, they feed off each other like parasites. Entire galaxies collide in chaos. In the end of time all will be dark.

Is all of this good, or is it evil? What an impossible question. The universe is neither tragic nor magical, and it's both. It works itself out as it can, as it must, as it will be.

And people are the same. Nothing anyone does is really surprising. It is a reaction of what they are, to what they are around. Some people demonstrate behavior that we associate with good, others with evil, but everyone is a wide enough spectrum to contain some of both. Some people think only of themselves and are rewarded with health and money. Others care immensely for others and they die in a damn fire. Some are born to loving parents, others to neglectful and fearful ones; some know only abundance, some starve to death as children. And some come to see life as good while others see it as evil. Each of us is a small piece of the mosaic, and each of us is a mosaic of our own.

What does any of this mean? Who knows. But it seems wiser to acknowledge and accept the full contradictory complexity of our situation, rather than cling desperately to one selective interpretation or another. We can comfortably blind ourselves to the parts we don't like but it only leads to pain and confusion when our illusions are shattered. The only guarantee is change and impermanence, uncertainty and lack of control. The way to find true peace as a part of this system is to develop a healthy, practical, accepting relationship with the transient nature itself of life and the universe. To give up on illusions of control and importance, superiority and morality, eternal life and knowledge beyond human limitations. To instead experience the eternity that is contained in each passing moment.

THIS IS IT. Life is now! This moment is what you have. Can you accept it? Can you appreciate the fact that you are sitting here aware of yourself right now? You, made out of all the same kinds of things as everything else in the universe. Do you know that someday THIS MOMENT that you are in will be your last? When you are in that last moment, will you think back to this moment? To yesterday, tomorrow? What will you wish that you could tell yourself now? If your deathbed self could go back to who you are right now, what would you do? How would you cherish the fact that this is not your last day and not your last breath? Would you go outside and look at the sky and breathe deeply and be still? Would you hug someone and say that you love them? Would you value your curiosity and explore everything you ever wished you could? Would you forgive, love, encourage? Would you laugh outrageously?

Think about it! Your life is nothing but a collection of NOW moments. If you never learn to embrace the craziness of NOW, how will the overall picture of your life ever add up to something you want to experience? The past is worth remembering, and the future is worth preparing for, but these cannot replace the importance of what is happening NOW. Sit with now. Accept now. Enjoy now. Value now. Everything else in life is secondary.

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Alex Wall
August 25, 2017 at 9:52 AM delete

Agreed about the NOW.

I also agree that animals are innocent in every single instance.

The distinction I make for myself about humans is that they are the only animals who practice cruelty for sport. In this way, they are presented with a choice (something I have decided to define as part of "free will"--whether it really is or not): can I let another person or creature simply go about it's life in peace or just for shits and giggles can I mess with it/them, hurt them, tease them...kill them...just because they can?

Animals (animated matter) and objects (inanimate matter) can never be good or evil.

I see humans as being differentiated (while being animate like the animals and consisting of inanimate parts) in only the sense of their possession of free will.

While each of us can decide whether people are good or evil--whether these labels can be permanently pasted upon others--is up to each of us. Certainly it does not seem to be unreasonable (whether atheist or not) to label human *behavior* as temporally (being in the NOW) good (giving, loving without the expectation of receiving back) or evil (prosocuting undiluted harm onto others in order to satisfy selfish whims or wants).

Someone is not forced by natural instinct or evolutionary development to rape your sister or torture your mother, for example. No animal would do that. No object can do that. It is purely a choice made by a person who understands what they are doing.

Point? Humans are unique in that way. The rave may not be evil or good. Even individuals may not be permanently evil or good. But they, and they alone, are the only creatures I know of who CHOOSE to behave in good or evil ways.

My opinion. 😊 Love this blog!

Alex Wall
August 25, 2017 at 9:56 AM delete

Meant to say, "The race may not be evil or good."

Joe Omundson
August 25, 2017 at 10:38 AM delete

Thanks for the thoughts Alex, I agree with a lot of what you said -- but let me play devil's advocate for a minute :)

I believe Orca whales sometimes play with baby elephant seal cubs, tossing them around and injuring them, with no apparent reason other than sport. So maybe humans are not the only animal to torture for no reason.

I think we can generally get a sense of good/evil actions just with human nature and no need for religious instruction on the matter, but I also think different cultures have different ideas of good/evil, and even more importantly, people's sense of what is OK is highly dependent on the circumstances of their childhood. I don't think we can apply the same standards of what it means to be a good person across all people. If someone grows up and all they've known is abuse, injustice, and violence, then maybe yelling at 5 people per day is a huge improvement for them because they at least restrained themselves from physical violence, whereas for me yelling at 5 people would be a lot more negative than usual. So yes humans have more capacity than other animals to choose actions of good/evil... but there are also huge biases that people don't choose to have, nobody asks to be born and raised in dysfunction, so we have to be mindful of people's history.