Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not?

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a9/John_Donne_house_Pyrford.jpg/500px-John_Donne_house_Pyrford.jpg

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, a few of my patients spontaneously offered some interesting commentary. It amounted to the following: they felt uncomfortable celebrating his assassination. They viewed the immediate and most visible response to bin Laden’s death as if the general public entered into some bizarre and gigantic adaptation of the scene from the Wizard of Oz  in which most everyone is singing “Ding Dong, The Wicked Witch is Dead.”

Please understand, none of them thought he was a good guy. They all believed he was an evil man on the order of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. All of my patients believed that the world would be a better place without him. And, they understood the sense of relief, exhilaration, and justice expressed in the streets and around Ground Zero of the 9/11/01 attacks.

But, he was still a human being, murdered with relatives — who included his children — close by. And here we were, waving flags, chanting “USA,” singing, and celebrating. It simply felt uncomfortable for the few patients who mentioned it, who were also aware of the bittersweet nature of this man’s death, especially for those who were most harshly affected by his life.

This got me to thinking about how we view moral rules and exceptions to those rules, including the biblical admonition not to kill.

What follows is a brief commentary on a few of the Ten Commandments — how they are understood and how most of us create some wiggle-room with respect to carrying them out or not. You will note that I skip a few:

  •  “… you shall have no other gods before me.” I find this interesting because it does not say that you cannot have other gods. Rather, you are told not to place any other gods higher than the god of the commandments. Remember that polytheism was common in the ancient world, so a relative ranking of gods might not have struck people as unusual at the time these rules were written.
  •  “… for I the lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me …” Here, it seems not only that are you in trouble if you reject the almighty, but so are your kids, and your kid’s kids, etc. Contemporary civil justice rejects this notion.
  •  “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slaves may rest as well …”

Relatively few among us in American society follow the letter of this direction. Even if we do not personally work (or study), we may employ others who work in our stead. Interesting too, that no mention is made here of the inappropriateness of slavery. Rather, it seems to be considered acceptable, and advises only that you give your slaves one day of rest per week.

  •  “Honor your father and your mother…” Well, does that include a parent who abandoned you or abused you, too?
  • “You shall not kill/murder.” This allows for no exceptions, but civilized societies commonly make exceptions for self-defense, justice, and war.
  • “Neither shall you commit adultery.” Although most agree that this shouldn’t be done, it is obviously done quite a lot. Some even justify it. See my blog: Infidelity and Its Treatment
  •  Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Boy, if we really could wipe out the “desire” mentioned here, Western economies would fall like dominos. Envy fueled by advertising is omnipresent. Without that desire, cars, jewelry, homes, clothing, and gadgets of all kinds would be valued only in terms of utility, not because they are necessary to “keep up with the Joneses.”

One of the toughest things in life is to match up what we say and what we do. Life is complex and some amount of compromise, not to mention relativism is inevitable: not every situation easily permits the use of a hard and fast rule. Certainly, these commandments have not been taken literally in every situation as we live them, whatever lips service we might give to their importance and guidance.

It is more than understandable that Osama bin Laden’s death would be celebrated in this country; or, at least, provide a sense of some relief and satisfaction, despite the biblical injunction not to kill.

Somewhere, though, in the fading sounds of the near festive gatherings surrounding the announcement of his death, is the quiet rejoinder of John Donne. The last four lines, in particular, just might capture a bit of the sentiment that my patients were referring to:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The photo above is part of the house which John Donne occupied in Pyrford, England; taken by Suzanne Knights, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

John Donne’s words come from his 1624 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17.

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”