Sunday, December 9, 2012

To Live or Not to Give?

What is love and mercy ultimately when it comes to the question of existence? This is a problem I've faced for some time now in my attempts to answer it in a satisfactory manner. The dilemma is this: life (existence) offers us all we ever knew and perhaps all we will ever come to know. Do we then say, that life is worth the troubles, sorrows, suffering, misery, sadness, pain, and loneliness we face over the joys, beauty, happiness, enjoyment, entertainment, jubilation, and excitement it offers as well? Or do we say one is greater than the other; that life is skewed toward misery or happiness? Or is it balanced? How do our choices affect what it means to be merciful and loving toward non-existent, uncreated beings?

What is verified by our natural senses is that we exist right now. We were born at some temporal point and we will die at some temporal point after which, for all we know, we will come to a physical end though our memory may continue to exert influence on others for the time that our memory is shared with living people. Eventually that too will pass away from this world, and perhaps, we will then become essentially, non-existent to the world as we once were before we were conceived. This does not take into consideration that death may be an entirely other experience, or that life may well continue in some wildly different fashion from what this current existence offers. However, be that as it may, claims of existence before or after this one are not naturally verifiable but can only be taken on faith or theory.

Having said all this, can we say that life is worth bringing into the world in an ultimate sense? Does joy win out over sorrow in the long run? How can we guarantee either net joy or net suffering when most of the conditions of our lives that shape our development come to us outside of our ability to shape or reconfigure them? For it may well be that a person in evident dire straits, extreme difficulty, stress and lack of comfort may find net happiness and a person in evident luxuries, comforts, extreme ease, and lack of displeasure may find net misery; afterall, there is a question of relativism in this. A strict empiricist would say that life and all its experiences ends at death and that net happiness over net suffering could be tallied but its value is still undefined, for we can say John mostly lived a good life as he had X, Y, Z causes to be happy (things we may want ourselves) and undermine the A, B, C difficulties John faced in his life. But perhaps to John his A, B, C difficulties outweighed his X, Y, Z successes? The same could be true of the opposite and perhaps our assessment of John's life was more or less correct. In other words, we can guess whether a life was well-lived by tallying the quantifiable measures of what makes an average person happy or sad but that does not give us a subjective value for what those quantities qualitatively meant to the individual that lived them. In short, we can never know fully whether a life was well-lived or not.

As a believing man myself, I believe in an afterlife and in the abodes of heaven and hell. But with this belief the stakes of life are raised quite dramatically as one can either attain to the ultimate satisfaction above (or a culmination of) all of life's good pleasures combined for eternity or attain ultimate misery worse than (or a culmination of) all of life's sufferings combined for eternity - that is one hell of a choice! (no pun-intended.) If we subscribe to this view, we see that the question of net happiness and net suffering is not only extended but amplified in the so-called afterlife. What this means is that we have a fundamental choice in life- to be happy or sad- and that our actions will determine which side of that equation we will find ourselves in ultimately. There is, of course, relativism in this as well- that if we subscribe to belief in deity, a moral rubric, and metaphysical worldview we are being told what is 'good' and 'bad' and that we follow a course given to us not by our own dictates but by a tradition of those who followed these same guidelines. What is 'good' and 'bad' is inherited from previous people who have expired and sacred texts that cannot reason or think for themselves decide what is lawful and unlawful for us, and yet we are the subjects who experience the good and the bad and the ones who's judgments concerning them is what matters; not the past nor future peoples. Thankfully, most religious traditions evolve and allow for discussion of these topics to include our voices and make adjustments where deemed appropriate. But coming back to the question of what is good and bad, we may discover something ourselves (from our personal experiences) which gives us personal happiness but is traditionally accepted as something bad or something that gives us personal sadness yet is seen as something traditionally good. This would put our personal experiences at odds with the moral rubric we profess to follow and hence, lead us toward eternal misery. But did we deserve such a fate when we only discovered that what we like and dislike is at odds with what is deemed as such within the tradition? Maybe our ignorance got the better of us and we did not comprehend the wisdom behind what is traditionally good and bad. Maybe our passions blinded us to what was right and wrong. Be that as it may, and however misguided we may be, were we not seeking comfort over discomfort as all sentient beings seek? Is eternal punishment justified here? If we followed what was considered traditionally as good, but believed personally was bad or to our disliking, does that warrant eternal happiness? Those who are fortunate to have their natural dispositions in complete harmony with the moral rubrics of the religious traditions they follow should not have as much of a difficult time for they will find bliss in this life and presumably in the life to come for what they believed was in accordance with reality. But most people do not fit so neatly.

The Qur'an acknowledges this and addresses this dilemma quite openly, "It may be that you detest something which is good for you; while perhaps you love something even though it is bad for you. God knows, while you do not know." [2:216] As believers we accept this statement that God knows what He is talking about and we do not know everything as He does. So we see that our personal "good" and "bad" is not the good and bad that takes precedence. For the majority of us who believe, we find then that often our personal good is matched with what is divinely bad and that our personal bad is matched with what is divinely good and hence, we feel guilt and shame for not fitting in neatly into the divine moral outline. We have solace in knowing that God is forgiving and overlooking of these deficiencies and accepts our intents to mend our personal good and bad to His divine good and bad. This should suffice as enough for the believer to find hope and happiness that ultimately he/she will be lead to ultimate happiness but for many this is still not enough to bring happiness, and certainly the devil has succeeded in making such people feel defeated and unworthy of the divine forgiveness. "Certainly no one despairs of Allah’s Mercy, except the people who disbelieve." [12:87] As believers we must be careful in avoiding this pit of falling into despair.

Coming back to the discussion of net happiness and net sorrow, we cannot know whether one is ultimately saved or ultimately ruined as hadith informs us

A person among you may do deeds of the people of Fire till there is only a cubit or an arm-breadth distance between him and the Fire, but then that writing (which God has ordered the angel to write) precedes, and he does the deeds of the people of Paradise and enters it; and a man may do the deeds of the people of Paradise till there is only a cubit or two between him and Paradise, and then that writing precedes and he does the deeds of the people of the Fire and enters it. (Sahih Bukhari)

So we see that ultimate/net happiness or suffering is unknowable, both within this life (as it is a qualitative distinction over a quantitative one) nor do we know where we will end up in the final analysis as mentioned by the above stated hadith. Coming back to why I wrote this essay, the question of having my own children some day made me wager in my mind whether the safety of nonexistence was worth forfeiting for the vulnerability of existence.  In other words, is no sensation at all better than sensation if it entails both suffering and happiness, and what if misery were the end result? (God forbid.) It is too late for me as I am already here on this Earth, my decision to exist was made for me, but the decision for my children can still be made and hence this debate. I once believed that life offered a balanced mix of happiness and suffering, but that the danger of facing the possibility of eternal damnation was worse than the option of being non-existent. And so for me, being loving and merciful to my children meant not having them to begin with. I felt that, at this point in my life and for various reasons, I was no longer in the optimal position to provide the best for my children; that whatever factors in their lives that I could shape and control, were no longer favorable for them, and that would probably translate to more suffering than happiness. But now I am not sure. Some could rightly say that I need to have more faith and that most of these things- in fact all of these things- are in the hands of God and there's no telling what degrees of happiness and bliss await my future children God-willing. If my faith has any meaning at all I should place my faith in God that the life He created is more merciful and loving ultimately than a bleak scenario of endless suffering and misery. I should have faith that my vitality and providence for myself and my children all come from Him, again, it's the quality (blessing) within life not the quantity of things. How can I even make the assumption that nonexistence is safer than existence because existence involves pain when nonexistence does not- how do I even know what nonexistence feels like or indeed if it is painful, more so than existence? I do not. Maybe what we call "pain and suffering" are actually gradations of happiness relative to nonexistence, which may be the most miserable state one can imagine? I confess, I do not know. After having examined my life, I can clearly state that I do not know my future and I do not know my ultimate end. I know that I've been provided for and blessed throughout my life and that others I know have as well. I do know there are many in this world with less than I have but they also have more than me in ways I cannot perceive as easily. God has provided and compensated for us all in different ways. Life is a gift, after-all, and now I see that giving that gift is not in my hands to decide (to have children or not) nor whether it will be a good gift (of life) or a bad gift, as a gift is a gift; you make of it what you will. We can only be hopeful for the best.

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