“… the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854 CEHenry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854 CE
“I don’t understand what I do. I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate.”Saul/Paul of Tarsus, The Letter to the Romans, 7:15 (The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation), ca. 55 CE
(Photo credit – The Walden Woods Project)
Almost everyone can relate to the sentiments expressed by the two men quoted above.
In Thoreau’s case, he had chosen to go apart from the hurly-burley of everyday life and live in almost complete seclusion for two years as a kind of experiment. Thoreau was one of the early Transcendentalists, who were a group of American idealists seeking harmony and unity first within themselves, then with the creation, and finally with their fellow humans. Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most notable thinker and philosopher of this movement, but Thoreau has had the most enduring impact through his more accessible works On Walden Pond and On Civil Disobedience, both works still worth reading. The second is perhaps the earliest and remains one of the essential manuals for non-violent protest. Gandhi in India cited its influence on his own methods, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoreau found that in order to attain the desired ideal harmony of being within himself, he first needed to bring his soul into a state of peace and internal order so that harmony could take root. Before he could be at harmony with others, he needed to find it in himself. And part of that was to find out who and what he was within the greater order of being, in relation to the origin of all being.
Saul/Paul of Tarsus is better known as the Apostle Paul, one of the founders of Christianity. He underwent a tremendous personal upheaval about twenty years before he penned the words cited above in the mid-50s of the First Century CE. Born a Jew in Tarsus, an important city within the Roman Empire in what is now southern Turkey, he had nevertheless gone to Judea and become an ardent Pharisee. The Pharisees were a strict sect of Jews seeking to live a perfect life according to Torah, the way of God`s law, or at least according to an interpretation of the Torah that included a myriad of strict rules governing almost every imaginable scenario of life.
We need not concern ourselves here with the fine details of either Thoreau’s Transcendentalism or Paul’s journey out of Phariseeism to belief in Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret as Israel’s Messiah and God’s anointed Savior of the Cosmos. What we are noting is the divergent paths each chose. Each was seeking to overcome the tendency within to behave against the very principles they declared their lives to be rooted in. Thoreau and the Transcendentalists and Saul-Paul represent divergent answers to the personal scandal of the evil we find within ourselves.
Thoreau represents the way of self-effort, self-salvation. The “natural way” to seek to subdue the evil within is to strive to save yourself. This quest often takes a religious form, as in subscribing to fulfilling commandments, performing proper rituals and ceremonies, self-discipline and self-abnegation, and becoming a zealot for one’s chosen creed.
Alternatively, it can come out as a philosophy, such as Thoreau’s Transcendentalism or Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ (161-181 CE) Stoicism (a similar philosophy popular in ancient Rome’s intellectual circles), or perhaps Taoism. There are many variations of this.
Our modern socio-politico-economic ideologies also fit this category. With the right programs based on the right principles, implemented by the right people, we can fix ourselves by fixing our societies and eliminating the systemic roots of evil. The only problem is that since we have been using this sort of substitute for religion over the last two hundred or so years since the Enlightenment generated all our modern political religions, none of them have lived up to their promise. Some of them have been downright demonic when they gained total control over a nation. Some of them are still doing that, and killing thousands more every year to add to the tens of millions whose massacre they have sanctioned in the name of the “true path” to humanity’s ultimate future.
Humans are creatures born to seek meaning and find personal purpose. We can find no peace without putting something to live and die for in that interior vacuum. We will put something there. If it is not a “higher purpose” it will be a selfish purpose which will sanction our use of people and things to allay the emptiness – pleasure, power, esteem, “success”.
But, in the end, it all comes crashing down when we face the “vanity” of all that, as our old friend Qohelet in the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” – all the fantastic chase after wealth, power, sex, pleasure, fame.
Will running through the life-cycle over and over teach us to empty ourselves of all this chaff, as reincarnationist belief-systems suggest? Will doing extreme things to please god, such as persecuting and killing infidels in order to prove our worthiness? (I do not capitalize “god” in such a context, for the true Creator is not such a being.)
In all these chimeras, we are striving against the wind. For we cannot save ourselves. We cannot by main effort somehow remove all the selfishness in the human self so that we will never know it, feel it, or be overcome by it ever again.
Not that it is not worthwhile to discipline oneself to keep one’s worst things in check – such as a bad temper, a nasty mouth, a careless disregard for needs of others, etc. But all the greatest exercise of our wills will still leave us short of the mark and, upon occasion, experiencing the anguish Saul-Paul names: “I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate.”
What if we just accept that we cannot overcome this “heart of darkness” we find thrusting itself forward? But the more we let it have its way, the easier evil becomes, and the less it bothers us as we go along giving in to it. If that’s just the way we are, why not use it?
For one thing, if we all do that, we will degenerate into a chaos of violence and exploitation. The world will be a lawless hell. So we learn to accept limits in order to live together. Fear motivates us to be “good”. Or perhaps, having a “good image” is a good tool to gain some of those “good things” like wealth, pleasure, power, esteem, “success”, control. Moderation of selfishness allows one to get more in the long run.
And maybe there really is another realm after we die? So maybe the religious path will gain us enough merit to pass the Deity’s final “performance evaluation”?
As a Pharisee, Saul-Paul was all about passing the Final Performance Evaluation. He could boast about how well he dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the “t’s” in the Creator’r rule book. But he knew that, underneath all that, he still was a raging bull full of hatred and judgement for everyone who didn’t see or honor God the right way.
Until he was waylaid by someone he had judged as an imposter, a poser, a deluder, a fraud.
We do not have time or space to retell that story. It can be found in the Christian New Testament Book of Acts, Chapter 9.
Saul-Paul’s solution to the dilemma of overcoming evil in the human heart and soul is rebirth! The truth is that, no matter how hard we try, no matter what schemes of whatever formulation we devise, no matter how ingenious we are at conceptualizing what kind of nature we have and why we do what we do, we are still stuck with a heart and soul that is alienated from the Creator. Being alienated from our Creator, we are alienated from who and what we are really made to be.
On our own, says Saul-Paul, we can’t fix it. It’s simply impossible, no matter how hard we try, how zealously we work on ourselves or others around us or our systems and societies. We are spiritually dead! We have to be born again!
TO BE CONTINUED