In this week’s Brainpickings
- a web site dedicated to interesting articles about writers and writing - there is a very interesting article
about C.S.Lewis. Lewis is the famous author of books such as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. He was both an author and a Christian philosopher. In the article, focussed on his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, Lewis poses a fundamental moral and spiritual problem:
The problem of pain, in its simplest form was the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that "God" wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we'd have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in "either goodness, or power, or both."
It’s a tricky question. In a nutshell, it is: ‘If God’s full of love, why’s he put us here in a place full of suffering, misery and pain?’
There are lots of possible answers to this question but here's three popular ones:
- God is good and he wants suffering in the world for a good reason. Unfortunately, we can’t understand why because God purpose is beyond our limited understanding. In other words, we’re too stupid to understand why we have to suffer.
- We’re fundamentally bad; it's our own fault there’s suffering. We basically deserve what we're getting.
- God doesn’t exist and the universe is what it is because of physics. There's no Big Reason nothing to ponder. This is the materialist or atheist solution and is fully believed by such academic luminaries as Richard Dawkins.
Unfortunately, none of the above answers are particularly positive. In fact, they’re all pretty depressing, which doesn’t improve the lot of anyone who's already unhappy about ‘the problem of pain’ in the first place.
But there is another answer! Hooray! If the Influence Idea
is correct, then we, as thinking minds, are separate to physical reality and influence physical reality in order to make Life happen, including the functioning of our own bodies. This is a scientific idea,
grounded in fact and logic, so there's no need to actually believe anything in order to say, with confidence that God exists (a.k.a. Original Mind, Tao or Atum) and there's Life After Physical Death etc.
But if we don't originate in this physical reality and we can leave it, why are we all going through all the suffering that comes as part and parcel of living our lives? What's the point? An answer may lie in reading the reports of people who say they've temporarily stopped living their physical life and visited the AfterLife…
In previous centuries, there have been reports about this other realm from people that had temporarily died but then reawakened in their bodies (known as an NDE or Near Death Experience), but these were sketchy and anecdotal. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology and solid research, we have several recent, comprehensive studies to draw upon. I personally recommend the books ‘Heading towards Omega’
and ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’
, which are both written by highly experienced doctors and academics.
In both books, many people who survived NDE events report what they experienced and the testimonies are highly consistent. Almost all the survivors report that the after-death realm is an absolutely wonderful place. They state that our physical lives, by comparison, are just awful, full of pain and constraints and suffering and problems. Physical life, according to the NDE subjects, is actually even worse
than we think it is; it’s only the fact that we’ve forgotten how wonderful the inter-life realm is that makes Reality for us even remotely bearable. Crucially, the NDE survivors also add that we have all willingly
decided to live our physical lives because we believed that the experience would benefit us.
Such an idea leads to a simple but highly meaningful question; ‘what should we do to improve ourselves?’ Most of us would agree that we want to become better people during our lives, to be more courageous, more compassionate, more charitable, but how would we go about it? If we were in Heaven, we could perhaps ask God to transform us into ultimately lovely people… but there’s a problem with that. If we did that, we wouldn’t have improved
, we’d have just been changed into someone else by another’s hand. This is where living a physical life full of challenges and difficulties starts to make sense. By living such a challenging life and succeeding
in it, we have really improved as people.
In the classic film ‘Casablanca
’, the hero Rick
, played by Humphrey Bogart, faces all sorts of challenges and choices. Eventually, by the end of the movie, he becomes a better person. In the film’s climactic scene [plot spoiler]
, he surprises Elsa by telling her that she should leave with Victor Lazlo and not run away with him. He still loves her but he realises that she’ll only be truly happy if she gets on the plane with another man. If she doesn’t, she’ll regret it, maybe not today but soon and for the rest of her life. It’s a famous scene and a famous line and it’s meaningful
; Rick has turned the corner, walked away from bitterness and anger. He has acted selflessly and improved the world.
But what if the film had been different? What if Rick had asked a Higher Power, five minutes in, to transform him into a wonderful human being? The net result would have been the same (freedom fighter escapes, woman is forgiven, man shows he cares) without a lot of talking, wearing of raincoats and singing of the Marseillaise. But such a transformation would have been rubbish, false, pointless
. For Rick’s story to touch our heartstrings and stir our souls, he had
to face challenges in that story. He had to resist the temptation of stealing Elsa away for himself. He had
to face the option of wallowing in self-pity and bitterness, but instead rise above that and do the right thing and it was hard for him to do it; he had to reach down and pull himself into a good place. The challenges he faced were tough and we, the audience, didn’t know, until right at the end, which choice he would make but when he did make the right choices and become a better person, it meant everything to him and to us. It gets me every time. I practically blub when they sing the Marseillaise.
The same ise true of our own lives. Deep down, many of us want to become better people through our own experiences, our own choices and actions. Just as with Rick, we have to experience all sorts of challenges to be sure we are great people. A wise person would say that we don’t know how good we are until we are challenged; it is only when we’re challenged that we find out. We can’t just ‘talk the talk’, we have to ‘walk the walk’ to be sure.
This idea, that we are living physical lives to improve ourselves, has interesting consequences. For example, if Reality is a construction created by minds for personal improvement - a therapy environment - then the only things of real importance to us in Reality aren’t actually the physical things of reality at all - they’re just props. The only important thing in Reality is the state of our own minds
. All extrinsic things like money, attractiveness, material goods etc are ultimately irrelevant and only of use if their presence helps us improve our minds. Anyone in Reality who is preoccupied with material things is akin to someone spending all their time playing a computer game because they're obsessed with amassing as many gold coins as possible. Such an attitude by game players often invites pity and ridicule but Reality is an artificial environment too, an immersive, affecting environment that we only temporarily experience.
It seems that Reality is the film 'Casablanca', only we don't know the ending. It is an immersive environment that we have all chosen to experience, from birth to death, and by doing this, by living our physical lives, we hope to rid ourselves of negative thoughts and negative reactions. Just as Rick had to face temptation, overcome bitterness and choose selflessness during the two hours of ‘Casablanca’, we are spending four-score-years-and-ten here because we want to achieve the same goals, only possibly with less raincoats…
trying to live out 'Casablanca' is tempting too, but kind of dumb, but Woody Allen was very funny when he tried it in his film 'Play it again, Sam', which is definitely worth seeing.