The course of things

Why are we uneasy? What is the source of our nervousness? Even of our (Kierkegaard called it) “fear and trembling”? We may think our worry is on behalf of another’s well-being or the success of some long-term project dependent on a series of tenuous decisions. Ultimately, our anxiety is a matter of control, even of power.

We want to control outcomes — outcomes for others, outcomes of our decision-making, outcomes for our life goals. We tell ourselves that the good for all is at stake, that love is our motive, that from love springs our interventions, intentions, fears, prayers, wishes.

But seen from without, even ourselves looking from outside, we know that love and intentions cannot change anything, that our desire for control or power over outcomes is a vanity we entertain for ourselves, telling ourselves that the purity of our intentions justifies our concern. But concern hovers around outcomes which we desire. How will we measure control and success? How will hopes avoid wants and wants be reconciled to the natural course of events?

Or is there a “natural” course of events? The dilemma of predestination and free will is not resolved in our secular world anymore than in the past. We still don’t understand outcomes, what makes for given outcomes. We cannot know all of the contingencies, the panoply of what is called karma in the East or the mind of God in the West. Science maintains that evolution is mindless, random, and chaotic — while pointing to a universal body of physical laws, necessary mathematics, and behavioral explanations of mind. And while we witness the character of human beings over thousands of yers, or over the course of our lives in society and social circumstances. And into such an ontological swirl is to be put the petty insistences of one human being?

The better course is clearly not to insist, hope, desire, or demand. We guide our lives like slow craft, making micro adjustments as the terrain or lapping waves show ahead. Yet there are major adjustments demanded of us — not us demanding of life. These are of diet, disposition, discernment, peace of mind, security. We think that we can stop taking stock of our spiritual and mental resources, make a few amendments as needed — but then go back to the same dependent course.

We may object that such adjustments to the course of life may take a lifetime. And indeed they will. We may never leave our metaphoric port at such a rate. Or we may venture a bit and go back discouraged, afraid, or dejected. But if all the work of preparation is done, or even if we know that the right assembly is progressing, then we will arrive at our destination sufficient to our mind and spirit, sufficient for our self. We will arrive just in time, even as we are found to be in the midst of preparation.

Crafting ethics

From whence comes ethics? Society and culture assumes that morality is unnatural and external in origin, received by human sensibility reluctantly as a mysterious code or formula, however flawed and violated by those who have received it. From this point of view, the derived nature of morality, the truculence, the begrudging of strictures, reveals the tumultuous nature of evolutionary accretions in the human mind and heart.

That codes of conduct are intermingled with the social task of curbing evolutionary instincts is clear, but the sorry understanding of self in swinging between conformity and avoidance only justifies power. Aggrandized taskmasters seize advantage over the mass of humanity to lord over them, an historical feature of society and culture that suggests that an externally-imposed morality, while sufficient to maintain order and decorum, is not enough to attain wisdom.

But wisdom is not the object of most people’s lives, so ethics is a system of law, not justice, less wisdom. The capacities of individuals never evolving, neither does ethics or common human behaviors.

Codes of ethical thinking derived not from legalistic reason but from the heartfelt inspiration of experience and insight, are what is lacking in historical thinking. The best ethical system reveals itself gradually; it unfolds, evolves, with the capability of the individual. It can function as stern strictures or wisdom guides — though not at the same time and not for the same person. As a social code, strictures, prohibitions, taboos, and punishments are inevitable societal controls over evolutionary remnants suffered by society. But codes and laws have an affinity with their violation, breaking, flaunting, and avoidance. The lawgiver is fascinated by the lawbreaker, a symbiotic relationship.

Most moral or ethical system are circumstantial in application. Once satisfying a minimum, the individual is safely absconded within that minimum if their lives and thoughts are not very sophisticated, if their intellectual curiosity is dull, if they are insensitive to aesthetics and willingly follow whatever mass society pursues. This circumstantial nature is based on the degrees of control required in society. If there is little tolerance for wisdom because it challenges lawgivers and authorities, then a rudimentary morality equivalent to laws is all that is needed.

Buddhist ethics offers an example of how simple strictures and disciplines can evolve like a spiral, keeping the foundation of simplicity but ascending in complexity to be able to address the more sensitive and insightful individual. Thus, the foundation of Buddhism is not external to the most universal and yet most intimate human experience, that of suffering.

Yet all religious traditions confront suffering, usually much later in their history because the efficacy of their morals has not brought solace, comfort, or wisdom. Thus Job would not arise had not Greek thought challenged Jewish fatalism, and had not the luck of the people floundered against the growth of empires that extinguished the on-going militancy and arrogance of a primitive people. Social collapse always witnesses questioning, and questioning invariably asks, “Why do we suffer/”

There are two ways to answer the question of suffering. One is to ignore the suffering, or take it as an affront, a goad to action, usually action against others weaker than oneself. The other way to answer is to reflect upon the universality of suffering, to realize that while all human beings are connected through evolution and genetics, the most intimate connection is the universality of suffering.

The admission of suffering is not a cause, excuse, or pretext for aggression. Wounded or sick animals sense the profound challenge of pain to their survival, but they do not (at least most do not on an evolutionary scale) exhibit the self-awareness of suffering, distinct from pain. Certainly animals will not have a physical pain, yet suffer emotionally from grief or loss. But they are not able to make something of it, so to speak. Unfortunately, neither do most humans. What is to be made of suffering is, in fact, the first step in the crafting of ethics.

From a reflection on suffering can come a reflection on survival, death, and impermanence. This must stir the constructive desire to make of one’s life a revealing and insightful experience. Not an experience of the irrational mind that goes about devouring things, enjoying power over others and pleasures as they come. Such a reaction belies even animal instinct, for no animal with our equivalent understanding of suffering would react that way, it would seem. So we edge closer to nature by reacting, in this case, with animals in their suffering, rather than to many in society that only strengthen their biases, their aggression, their hatred, their penchant for violence. The instinct for survival quickly overrides the reasonable need to simply reflect on life, its vicissitudes, its sufferings.

Ethics then begins as a project in crafting a way of life that will best yield an understanding of self and of things around one. A blunt code of commandments is unnecessary for the sensitive individual, whose relations with the world are built on doing no harm, on not interfering, on avoiding power and its expression, avoiding power over others and over nature. What need to be told not to abuse that which one is seeking to understanding as is?

These are some foundational elements of ethics, but perceived not as dictum but in harmony with the evolved potential of human beings. Crafting ethics means developing a way that will provide optimal understanding of the most difficult challenges of life, especially suffering, the avoidance of suffering, and the resolution not to cultivate suffering, either in the self, in others, in nature, or the world.