When we take our advantage, indulge our desires, or pursue our passions, the implication, like the fact, is that this always comes at some cost to others. No matter how benign we may mean to be there is nothing benign about living and most of the world’s religions tell us we’re in for it. It could be eternal damnation ---but in good Calvinist terms we can’t know that--- or bad karma in this or subsequent births. We can’t really know that either. All we do is assert such consequences as if they are true. But one way or another, the threat provides more than incentive or admonishment: it’s a warning from The Beyond in the here and now.
I’m no believer in The Beyond of any ilk, at least not one we live to experience. Others may have to cope beyond our lives but, gratefully speaking, I’m glad I won’t. By this I mean we can ask how such claims provide something that empowers us without having to decide if they are true or not, or whether our answers aren’t more than just another empty platitude. Empowering would mean something like we feel better doing the next thing that addresses our needs and that we really do have the option to care now about what carries on beyond our finite lives, not for ourselves but for those who survive us.
As if we don’t suffer enough the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we create for ourselves haunting conscience, guilt, ghosts, and karma-knows-what because we can. I’m not given to dismissing those feelings or emotions just because they are “negative” but rather to wonder aloud how to address a life in which nature has no concern for the future whatsoever and so invites us to contemplate that fact. If hope is for a future then it can’t be grounded on anything nature provides as the basis of life. Mr. Darwin put it succinctly enough, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” We should refuse to live in fantasies or dreams of what could be without grounding ourselves in how nature does her business. Nature is a “her” in the same way that hope is a reality: it’s something we say, even something we may feel, and so is real enough to make a difference in what we do no matter how little it tells us about our nature as natural beings. I want to know how hope can be efficacious in some way that invests in happiness (whatever that might be) as we humans imagine it. For how we live in our imaginations is what is vital to the reality of hope, if it is to contribute something of value to our lives. I need neither faith nor charity to realize this need. What I need is to learn is how to imagine more vividly.
Hope may only exist as a cultural peculiarity of we humans and it matters not to this argument if other living beings possess it. Whether it aids or betrays us requires us to consider it in light of the fact that it plays no part in nature’s actions. I may need to believe this not only because it is true but also to create a more fecund imaginary life. Whether I do or not will not come naturally. However nature nurtures us, culture is learnt, willfully and, of course, despite our choices.
My teacher was both an empathetic historian and a revolutionary with little need to espouse dogmas much less romanticize religious beliefs. He never begrudged people their beliefs and spent a lifetime learning and explaining ideas he did not himself maintain. This is what good scholars, especially scholars of religions, do. They imagine lives they have never led and aren’t likely to lead. When I say he was a revolutionary, I mean he did far more than defy social conventions to trust that I would live in his home respectful of a culture he was determined to change. I mean as well that he welcomed, nay, demanded that the conversation of his own understanding of yoga go far beyond the claims, assertions, ideals, and values of the past. If something is true because we know more about the natural world now than at any time in the past and if something is wrong because culture has created mechanisms of oppression or false beliefs (including religious beliefs about nature), then the revolution must deliberately put in jeopardy any cherished belief, hope, or claim that prevents us from learning these greater possibilities. If we can’t put our beliefs at risk then they aren’t worth having.
It’s important, I think, to note that we aren’t obliged to believe anything, much less support the advocacies of others. Rather we invite the understanding that people will live with and act upon their beliefs no matter how they found them. And that includes on groundless grounds. My teacher also understood how orthodoxies provide the boundary of permission and prohibition that is the mark of “sacred.” Sacred isn’t things or any thing; sacred is how we understand and act in relationships.
We all confer the values of sacred on beliefs: we assume a stance, knowingly or not, that asserts, sometimes with empirical evidence, honest skepticism, and experimental means and sometimes by mere conviction, what we believe we know. We make our cow sacred when it is the position from which we cannot retreat no matter how deeply we engage the doubt that even that position could be mistaken. Given that beliefs are best designed when we permit them to be revised, changed, abandoned, or refuted, the agency of knowledge isn’t so much slippery as it is subject to terms.
What I’m suggesting here is that we can’t rely on the past alone to tell us what we need to do unless we abandon the present or believe that the future somehow already knows. No one, no thing, nothing knows the future: that is why we are free. The consequence of that is that nature makes no promises even if we can imagine into being. We need not give in to either fantasizing that those in the past knew it all or that the future knows what we cannot. We can become more willing to imagine what more there is, what more we can create in culture given what nature is providing as her terms.
Can we hold beliefs that root us in unrealized hopes that aren’t mere fantasies, well-wishing when we know ---because experience tells us so--- that so far as we know our reality-based choices must prioritize evidence of actions? What we may want or wish is one thing; what we do may require us to address more complicated choices, complicated not just because the variables are complex but also because they require us to be compromised rather than create compromise.
I have in mind the recent public discussions of our American President’s decision to kill Americans living overseas, particularly or, as it is claimed, exclusively those plotting to kill other Americans. We espouse in our most cherished documents both ideals and forms of accountability, we even hold public hearings and talk about how we are supposed to stand for better, that we are in fundamental violation of our principles, etc. I think we actually do understand the dangers, the folly, the compromised values, and the immorality of the choice to act. That we can talk about them, however couched in agendas, dramas, and dissimulations of partial facts, we know we are compromised. We then ask and perhaps should in the very same breath: do we want to leave bad guys alone while they are happily planning to kill? Where do ideals meet The Road? Cormac McCarthy gets this. Philosophers and politicians rarely address the discomforts of reality as well as the storytellers. This is because the storytellers aren’t obliged to solve problems but rather help us understand them. I think the storytellers know something else: we can’t solve these dilemmas because they are real.
Of course, it’s disappointing that reality-based choices invariably compromise cherished hopes and trample values. Who would not love if we all loved our neighbor as ourselves or if we could relieve the suffering of all beings? We hold these truths to be self-evident and then we realize that there is nothing self-evident about the choices we make in the world. Should we espouse ideals that we know don’t work well in a reality-based world of compromised choices? Who would not wish for equality and justice with transparent accountability? And yet short of being reduced to venality, we understand that the stakes dictate asymmetries, invite our bias, and cause incongruities of values. Nothing about hope is going to make situations that compel compromised choices untrue, much less alleviate them.
When Machiavelli tells us that “"It needs to be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain," I can only disagree to the extent that it is sometimes the case that the inverse is just as true. People can be grateful, altruistic, and self-sacrificing as they are naturally selfish. Both realities may be demonstrated with more than anecdotal examples ---we humans seemingly have always been this way. Sometimes when you need it, the exaggerations like the plaintive, sometimes sanguine claims of hope are welcome intrusions upon reality.
When my surgeon corrected my last waking words, “Good luck in there…” with “There is no luck. Only skill,” I knew he was wrong but you gotta’ love the attitude. He imagined more world than the one that exists, he imagined a world where skill alone would produce his results and he wasn’t about to act without clinging to resources of imagination just as fiercely as reality fiercely refuses to acknowledge them, and so kept himself on task. Since there is no way to create flawless skill much less luck ---good, bad, or indifferent---if what we mean is really beyond our ability to control or to fathom, we can prioritize the powers of imagination, forego fantasy when it’s unhelpful (but not when it’s just too little fun) and get on with it. That doesn’t mean the lucky doesn’t exist or that we can’t wish for it anymore than we are determined only by the facts of nature. The reality we imagine determines as much the culture we hope to create when we give nature her due.
When does hope bring us an advantage if it can’t bring us an outcome? Everything of value will come at some cost. Perhaps when we realize that Machiavelli was only half right because he spoke with brutal candor of the natural state of our humanity. What is the next half? That’s up to us.