Convergence: What Mary Baker Eddy, Viktor Frankl, Sam Harris, Marcus Aurelius, and Hamlet have in common
I've spent a lot of time considering the question: how should we live? My Master's program was essentially a two-year exploration of that question through the Western canon. Far beyond school though, I have continued to search, to read, and to discuss. What is life really about, anyway? I don't have the answer, but earlier this year I at last arrived at a framework of sorts. I now see that framework as the product of a convergence of disparate thinkers, writers, and philosophies.
Hold on to your seat, because we're about to go from Siddhartha Gautama to Marcus Aurelius to Shakespeare to Nietzsche to Viktor Frankl and all the way to the present with thinkers like Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. We'll even discuss (and this next one will really come back to haunt me) Mary Baker Eddy. Yes, that Mary Baker Eddy
In my arrogant youth, I often claimed to be an "Existential Buddhist." As I recall, my sole encounter with Buddhist thought at that point was an early College reading of Siddhartha. I knew it was something to do with the ego and the river, and moderation, and time. Back then I claimed to understand things which I knew I did not, at least not fully. But I was eager to define myself, philosophically and spiritually. Certainly I have never been one of those timid souls who refuse to act, speak, or think without 100 percent certain information, and so I applied the label anyway, premature as it was.
It was actually quite prescient.
In 1879, a New England woman named Mary Baker Eddy founded a new religion: Christian Science. It is not the same as the cult of Scientology, of Tom Cruise and John Travolta fame. Rather, Christian Scientists essentially claim that Eddy rediscovered the lost art - or more precisely, the lost science - of spiritual healing, as practiced by Jesus. Eddy wrote down this science of healing in her book, Science and Health, which is the foundational Christian Science text. Much like the Bible, it is a long, inscrutable, self-contradictory tome, the product of an imperfect human mind, albeit containing a few, occasional moments of profound truth.
You don't have to go read it, because I will summarize: God created man in his own image and likeness, and since God is a perfect spiritual being, that means man also is a perfect spiritual being, and conversely, our corporeal selves are an illusion. So are sin, sickness, and death. These things are essentially unreal. Jesus didn't technically "heal" the sick: he simply saw people for their true nature, as spiritual beings, and once he did that the illusion of disease vanished. Christian Scientists believe they can do the same, which is why they famously eschew traditional medicine. Rather than go to a doctor or take an Advil, a Christian Scientist will first seek to apply this method of healing spiritually - to recognize they are perfect spiritual beings.
[Please note for any CS-ers reading this: I stand by that summary. Leave your quibbles in the comments if you must. Otherwise, stay with me.]
I practiced Christian Science, or tried to, my entire childhood, through most of College. I attended Christian Science Church and Sunday school, and when I was 10 years old I began attending a Christian Science sleep-away Summer Camp in Northern Michigan called Leelanau. I was a camper there for seven Summers, and for three Summers during College, I worked as a camp counselor at another Christian Science camp in Maine called Owatonna. I also attended and graduated from the world's only Christian Science college, Principia (pronounced not like Newton's book, but with a soft "c"), which is in Elsah, Illinois, about an hour outside St. Louis.
The Problem of Evil
Ironically, it was a particularly good philosophy professor at Principia who finally turned me off to Christian Science, in a class called Philosophy of Religion, though my skepticism to Christian Science had been growing for years. For starters, it seemed to me that huge swaths of Science and Health simply seemed to make little sense. On top of which, I had never actually experienced a healing which could conclusively be said to have been "spiritual," and nor had anyone else I knew.
This professor, bless her soul, kept whatever personal beliefs she may have had out of the classroom. This was no religiously-motivated indoctrination. Rather, it was a deep, honest, rigorous dive into the major philosophical religious debates in Western history. First, we examined proofs for God's existence, some of which are pretty darn tough to rebut. It was this class that made me a little more receptive to the "intelligent design" argument that is so ridiculed by my fellow liberals. After all, look around you: the sunsets in New Mexico alone should make you think twice before claiming there is no God (not to mention the clearly divinely-inspired combination of a hot sopapilla and honey dipped in left-over green chile).
Honestly, though, I can see it both ways. I can look around the world and see beauty and order (there are physical laws, after all! Natural, physical laws! How did those get here, eh?) and maybe those suggest intelligent design. But I can also look around and see the opposite: chaos and destruction and a whole host of things that just make no sense whatsoever. Ultimately, the universe can seem pretty darn random.
Then, our class came to the problem of evil. The "problem," is basically this: if God is both all-loving and all-powerful, why then does God allow so much evil and suffering to exist in the world? The usual Christian response, dramatically simplified, is that God created the world as a sort of "soul-making" laboratory. In order to reach the highest good, humans must choose the good, and therefore humans must have free will, but with free will comes the ability to also choose evil. Furthermore, it wouldn't make sense to create a world in which we could only choose a little evil. That would be like a soul-making laboratory with training wheels. It had to be a world where our free will allowed us to choose the greatest evil. Only then would this be a world in which our souls could truly turn toward God, toward the perfect and divine.
As part of the class, we had to keep a daily journal of our responses to the readings. I happened to find this journal in a stack of old College papers when we were moving this Summer. I re-read it as I was packing, and my explicit turn away from Christian Science - and Christianity generally - is right there in its pages. For the entire first half, I write as someone generally accepting of the Christian views of good, evil, and morality. In a long passage dated April 21, 2002, I walk through the Christian explanations for the problem of evil and essentially declare myself to be largely on board.
Worth Such a Price
However, two days later, in a journal entry dated April 23, I wrote this, in response to a passage we had been assigned from Brothers Karamazov (lightly edited for brevity):
What a downer. I can see why you would make a point of telling us to allow time to digest this reading…
There are several theories that Dostoevsky is attacking in this story. Though he speaks directly to the Augustinian theodicy, I think he is also attacking the Irenaean theodicy. Specifically, Dostoevsky speaks to the main objection that this supposed soul-making world does not justify the 'actual extent' of the evil in the world. And a strong case for this objection Dostoevsky indeed makes. Mostly, his language is directed at the Augustinian version of the fall from innocence, however, and the idea that our pain and suffering is the price we must pay for the knowledge of good and evil.
This price, says Ivan, is too great for him. He wishes to give back his ticket, as if he paid for a movie and realized it was too gory for how good it was supposed to be. Except that this is real gore, indescribably worse than anything seen on a movie screen. And he keeps coming back to the example of a child locked in an outhouse [smeared with excrement], banging on the door and crying, 'dear, kind God!' There is nothing, absolutely nothing that could happen, even complete harmony on earth and the revelation that everything is good and true, that could justify what happened to that girl.
This is a depressing story, obviously. The temptation here is to simply say, 'I cannot accept that man is inherently evil and there is no explanation for it.' The temptation is to turn away from something so horrible and cling steadfastly to your belief in good. Dostoevsky knows this, and perhaps that is why he begins with the bit about how the bad things in this world are easily explained from a distance, but when you get up close and intimate it is not so easy. It is easy to say you love everyone just as Jesus did, but when you are up close to the dirt and the evil and blood, it is not so easy. I believe Dostoevsky is quite right: loving unconditionally is not as easy when the bad things are staring you right in the face. Perhaps it is for this reason that I feel a certain unease about clinging to the belief that the world is inherently good, not evil. I have had to stare at far less evil than the average person. I have not been in war, in famine, or had to watch children being tortured. I was too busy being educated.
Here, I note in the journal that I took a break. Then I continued:
...I was about to write something about the power of positive thinking, but the image of babies being thrown in the air and landing on Turkish bayonets [a scene recounted in Brothers Karamazov] intervened. I find it curious and somewhat amusing how Christian Scientists enjoy quoting Hamlet, 'Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' One can say that about a rainy day, but one can hardly say that about babies being thrown on bayonets in front of their mothers. This is most certainly bad with or without our thinking.
So I'm not quite sure where to go from there. The only possibility that seems to make sense is that God created the world with the intention of having it be the perfect soul-making place, but after that the world got out of God's hands. Thus, God is not all-powerful. This is a difficult place to go and a hard idea to accept. My instinct and faith tell me not to go there, but my reason and thought tell me there is no satisfactory explanation. Like Dostoevsky says after the example of the dogs being let loose to tear the child apart, 'if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, than I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.'
That was the day I began to realize, like Ivan, that even if God existed, I wanted to hand back my ticket. I remain agnostic as a matter of principle - after all, who can really know for sure? - but I also maintain that, if this is the world God created, then I want no part of God's plan for it.
I was done with Christian Science, which claimed that suffering was unreal. And I was done with all Christianity, which said that suffering was the price to pay for free will. I decided I would prefer not to participate. The extent of the suffering necessary for God's plan was simply too much for me to accept. The truth was not worth such a price.
And to think, Dostoevsky was writing all this before the holocaust.
The Post-College Years
I became a humanist. Humans were what mattered. Not God, not Jesus, not some religious view of morality or soul-building. My favorite philosophers became Bertrand Russell and David Hume. The opening line to Russell's autobiography pretty much summed it up for me:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.
If I were to be guided by anything, those three passions seemed as good as any, and with far more grounding in my lived experience than anything to be found in a religious text.
I became a teacher for a year, then I applied to grad school and was accepted to St. John's College. I also got in to the joint International Relations, MBA program at American University (imagine how different my life would have been!), but at the time it seemed like I should go to AU only if I wanted to be like all the other tens of thousands of international relations students that DC programs graduated into the world each year. Going to AU would be like getting on a fast-moving train to conformity that I wasn't sure I would be able to get off of. At the very least, I would've been saddled with upwards of $80k in debt when all was said and done. St. John's, on the other hand, seemed like it could be the education I had missed at Principia.
It was. From the opening seminar on Plato's Meno through next next two years I was riveted by the great texts. They are a 2,000-year-old conversation about the central questions of life. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Sartre, and Marx - they all sought to respond to and build on what had come before. I read directly from all of them, and from Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, Montesquieu, Kant, Hegel, Tolstoy, Heidegger, and many, many more. There are no textbooks at St. John's: only the texts themselves.
My humanism served me well in my early adulthood, first as a journalist and then as a do-gooder for various environmental nonprofits. I figured, like many others, that my work would be my purpose, and through meaningful work I would feel purposeful, and therefore fulfilled as a human being.
Alas, it was not so easy. As has been chronicled ad nauseam at this point, modern life can be excruciatingly lonely. The story goes like this: the institutions (church, government) which previously provided meaning in our lives ("do unto others as you would have them..." "ask not what your country can do for you..." and so on) have lost legitimacy. Social life, especially in big American cities, has become fragmented. We are all busier and busier, more devoted to our work, and therefore we have less time for the human connections that we crave, and meanwhile many of us suspect our work is not as effective a pursuit as it had promised to be. We move far away from our families, and our friends are all so busy that getting together even just for a drink or coffee can take weeks to schedule. Without the lodestar of religion to guide us on our path, we turn to... what, exactly? Secular life is stunningly devoid of the common understandings that used to reassure humanity that it was on the right track.
I worked, I moved up in my career, I made good money, I had an amazing kid, I bought a nice house, I lived in a nice neighborhood, I had hobbies, I drank, I traveled, I learned new skills, I read new books. Bertrand Russell's three passions still seemed correct - they just didn't provide any roadmap for actually feeling good about my life. Where was the happiness? Or if not happiness, where was the fulfillment? Most of modern life just seemed so off. As the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti put it: "It's no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."
It was true: I felt depressed, lonely, and purposeless. What was going on here?
Man's Search for Meaning
It was amid this renewed questioning about how one should live that, earlier this year, I traveled to Ecuador to study Spanish for two weeks. I brought with me a book I decided it was time to re-read: Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl had lived through the holocaust. He was more familiar than anyone with the extent of evil and suffering in this world. I wanted to remember what he had to say about it.
As it turned out, Frankl, a Jew, relied heavily on Nietzsche, an atheist, for inspiration while he was in the camps. Whenever they had the chance, Frankl recalled, it was important to remember Nietzsche’s words that, "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." In other words, people needed purpose. And each person's purpose was different. This I took to be the central passage in Frankl's book:
Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, 'I have nothing to expect from life any more.' What sort of answer can one give to that?
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. 'Life' does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man's destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross...
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe.
These, not surprisingly, are Frankl's themes: suffering, thinking, and purpose. As I read these passages, I was unsure: should I be encouraged? Should I question life and ask what its purpose for me might be? That seemed too simple. What was I to do, sit there on my sofa in my Airbnb in Quito, look up at the ceiling, and contemplate what my destiny was?
I had no freakin' clue what my destiny was. But I did agree on at least this much: suffering is one of life's most salient truths, and there is something important about how we choose to react to it.
Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson
Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson agree on a lot, their hours-long public debates on the nature of truth notwithstanding. Harris in particular has been an enormous influence on me ever since I read his book, The End of Faith in 2003 (about the same time I was taking Philosophy of Religion at Principia). One thing Harris and Peterson agree on is the primacy of suffering. Peterson, for his part, writes that much of his work over the years has come as a response to the suffering he knew was such a fact of human history, and specifically epitomized by the Holocaust. Anything that moves us away from suffering is good, and that is the good at which we should be aiming. Echoes of Bertrand Russell indeed.
Meanwhile, Harris in recent years has devoted increasing amounts of time to promoting meditation as a way to ease a specific kind of mental suffering. We build prisons in our mind, Harris has said. We are captive to our own brains in a way most of us are not really aware of. Our thoughts "run away" with us without us even noticing. We are in a state of constant anxiety because we have given ourselves over to our brain's tendency to drift, to obsess, to plan, to project. Simply by observing what our brain is doing - in other words, meditation - we can begin to develop the discipline to separate ourselves from the never-ending thought generating machine we all have inside our heads.
Meditation, obviously, is having a moment right now. Following a podcast in which Sam Harris interviews Dan Harris (no relation), I downloaded Dan Harris' app 10% Happier. If you can get past the cheesy name, I highly recommend it as an introductory guide to meditation for someone who has never done it before.
The first few times I meditated were a profound, awakening experience. I literally wept. I'm not sure I had ever focused attention on the thoughts themselves which came in and out of my head. I'm not sure I had ever before observed them. In order to do this, one must let go of ego, even if for a little bit, even if only for a tiny moment. It was deeply reassuring to observe a thought come and go as if I were simply paying attention to an ache in my back, or an itch on my arm. I knew there was some neuroscience behind meditation. It boils down to the idea that we have a much greater capacity to rewire our brain synapsis then we give ourselves credit for, and meditation is a path to doing just that. Just as we can train our muscles, we can play with the synapses in our brain. It is, after all, an organ like any other. Perhaps we should stop thinking of our mind in such sacred terms.
Sam Harris' latest book on meditation and the spiritual life is called Waking Up, and indeed there was something I felt I had woken up to once I started meditating. It's not a silver bullet by any stretch - I still feel the same things I did before - but it is a tool that I didn't have before that I do have now. I wasn't sure what to expect from practicing meditation, but one immediate effect was a noticeable reduction in depression. As many who have come before me have suggested: depression is connected to ego. Letting go of an inflated sense of our self, whether it has to do with what we have (or have not) accomplished, or what we hope to do one day but haven't, or our status amongst our peers, can help lessen that existential dread that seems to pervade a lot of our conscious hours.
For the first time, I began to see a potential path through a kind of mental suffering that I had been living with for more than a decade.
A few months ago I came across this quote from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius' book Meditations:
Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: 'What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?' You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.
This is the "Stoic" philosophy in a nutshell. And I must say, it seems really close to how I understand meditation. It also seems pretty close to what Frankl writes about the proper response to suffering in the camps. It also jives with what Sam Harris would counsel. Both Aurelius and Harris argue that much of our suffering is a result of how we are thinking about our circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. This is also, I should note, pretty close to that quote from Hamlet I referenced in my Philosophy of Religion journal, that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. And now it comes full circle: that Hamlet quote is also the epigraph for Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health. Every Christian Scientist knows it by heart and knows it as a sort of back of the napkin summary of Christian Science itself.
These thinkers from throughout my life and education wouldn't agree on everything. It doesn't all line up. Some of it is in direct opposition. But there does seem to be a sort of convergence. If I were to draw a Venn diagram of their belief systems and philosophies, there would be a not insignificant space of overlap. And inside the space, it would say something like this:
Suffering, both physical and mental, is a central truth of human existence, if not the central truth.
We can respond to all suffering - whether physical or mental - by changing our thinking about it.
Like I said at the start: I still don't know how to live, or what the meaning of life is. Perhaps there is no way, nor any meaning. But I do seem to have arrived at a framework of sorts.
Perhaps I am an existential Buddhist after all.