Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Heart of Reality

I would like to articulate an experience I had that was so powerful that it has had more influence on my worldview than all the books I’ve ever read.  Perhaps it was the closest I will ever get to a genuine religious experience.  First the context, and then the experience.

Relatively speaking, my first seven weeks in the Mayo Clinic in early 2012 for leukemia were not overly unpleasant.  I nearly always had my mother or my wife there, friends visited, and importantly for this story, nurses visited frequently in my room to say hi and to chat.  At that time, I was able to leave my door open, thus giving me a psychological connection to a world outside of my room.  The open door also facilitated casual conversation with nurses and staff as they passed by.  Outside of immediate family and friends, the staff at the hospital eventually became an essential part of my social life, as they do for most long-term residents.

Then I finally got a notorious bacterial infection known as “Clostridium difficile,” which occurs commonly in hospitals.  Immediately, the nurses closed my door and kept it closed.  They could not enter the room without donning a yellow coverall with blue gloves.  I called it the “Big Bird” outfit.  The closed door was traumatic for me, and the Big Bird routine ended the casual conversations.  Then I had a horrifying question, so I asked the doctors.  They confirmed my fears—protocol demanded that the closed door and Big Bird outfits be a permanent feature of my stay from this point on, no matter what happens.

With this essential piece of my social life suddenly stolen from me, I entered a depression.  Shortly thereafter I had the room all to myself over a Saturday and Sunday.  The doctors didn’t visit over weekends, and the nurses were no longer visiting like they once did.  I was so overwhelmed by loneliness and thoughts about my potential death that I spent the whole weekend sobbing.

On Sunday afternoon, a nurse came into my room with Big Bird on, and we chatted for about ten minutes.  It was a great relief.  I said, “Oh, I’m talking your ear off.  You have work to do!  So, what will it be?  Are we doing a blood draw or something?”

And then she said two sentences that have changed my life.

She said, “I don’t have anything to do.  I just came in here to see you.”

I immediately collapsed into a full-body sob as I surrendered to what had just happened.  She started to cry and hugged me and just let me go and go.

When I reflect on that experience, here is how I can try to express it.  No other language can capture the power of it than to say that, in hearing her words, I had seen the face of God.  All of the suffering, pain, misery, and horrors of life shattered in this brilliance that had been unleashed upon me.  It is as if she had uncovered the divine spark within her that, like the singularity that preceded the Big Bang, expanded to create universes.

The experience abides.  Every time that I replay it in my mind, I have to control my emotions.  I saw the beating heart of reality in the kind words of a nurse, and reality is absolutely beautiful.

So now I know—I matter.  You matter.  This life has a significance so awesome that even a sideways glance at its radiance would make anyone blind.

And this is why nothing about my condition really bothers me much anymore.  Every one of us has the potential to give a gift like this to somebody.  And it can be as easy as “I just came in here to see you.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Atheist's Vision

I never had Ayer’s experience while fighting leukemia, although I wish I had.  The description of his experience moves me deeply because I am quite convinced that it corresponds to what I think is true:  First, there is a Supreme Intelligence (God) at the core of existence itself; and second, (I suspect that) there are other exalted intelligences, which I would call Gods and Goddesses (yeah, I know I’m in trouble here with some, but oh, well).

The second proposition strikes me as a hypothesis that would help to explain the multiplicity of religions as well as the diversity of religious experiences in the world, although I wish not to slide into the intellectual incoherence of claiming that “all religions are saying the same thing.”  That claim cannot be true, because different religions affirm mutually contradictory things, and contradictions cannot be true.

The first proposition explains the unity of it all—the consistency of the laws of nature, the universally binding moral absolutes that obligate us to behave in certain ways and not in others, the need for an ultimate explanation instead of a group of them without any unifying principle.

I have adopted the belief in the Divine for a wide variety of reasons, one of which is that I have come to the conclusion that metaphysical views that attempt to explain the mind solely in terms of unconscious matter are just not believable.  I am convinced that there are other existing things that are not at all physical, including numbers, propositions, laws (physical, logical, and moral), and minds.  I think that there is something fundamental and irreducible about consciousness itself, and that if anything would serve as a metaphysical ultimate, a supreme consciousness is a very good candidate, and is a better one than matter.

Because there are many (perhaps infinite) things that are not material in nature, we cannot say that because only matter exists, God cannot.

If we wish to dismiss the Supreme-Being hypothesis, it would have to be for other reasons.  Perhaps we could say that God does not exist because science cannot prove it.  But science cannot prove a lot of things that are nevertheless true; for example, it can never prove that it is always wrong to murder children solely for one’s own personal enjoyment.

I think the only atheistic argument that retains weight is the classic argument that a perfect being would not permit the suffering that we see in this life.  I wrote my dissertation (“Divine Abandonment and the Evidential Argument from Evil,” 2004) on this topic and have come to this conclusion:  If there really is a Supreme Being, it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that He would have reasons beyond our limited understanding for permitting the kinds of things that we see.  However, I don’t think that this response ends all rational concern here, and I do believe that the argument from evil does give us evidence that there is no Supreme Being.  I believe, however, that this evidence is not conclusive and is outweighed by other considerations.  I think that the evil in the world ought to keep a person from being smug about God’s existence, but I don’t think that he is intellectually required to abandon the belief.

And there is also my personal experience.  It is a story that has been told a million times with insignificant variations.  I have had a profound alteration in my perception of my life and my actions.  Everything feels so much more significant.  Everything is infused with a meaning that I deeply feel transcends the world.  The attitudes of the adolescent can no longer suffice and must be abandoned.  Wisdom must be accepted from any source, and foolishness rejected.

I have experienced a liberation so profound that, even though my lifespan has been significantly shortened, I would never trade the liberation for the extra years.  The liberation is the knowledge that the needs of my soul can never be satisfied by my possessions, my successes, or even my body itself.  Freedom from dependence on this ephemeral world, and the re-orientation toward the mysteries of the other, is a source of true bliss.

But I never became a fundamentalist or anything like that.  This is either/or thinking, to my mind.  The idea is that you must disbelieve everything or believe everything.  Well, I believe a lot of stuff, and I don’t believe a lot of stuff, and that’s how it is.

So I say that you do not and never will have absolute proof that you are just an accident and that life has no meaning.  This does not prove that the opposite is the case (that would be the Argument from Ignorance fallacy), but it calls to mind an important question:  Why live your life as if it has no meaning when you are not intellectually obligated to do so?  I refuse to live this way. 

Thank you, Death, because I have found you an intimidating, yet loving, teacher.

So let the wonder of Ayer’s experience feed your soul!