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Thursday, October 29, 2009

CHAPTER SIXTY THREE. CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY: TO GIVE IS TO RECEIVE










Written by: Rick Staggenborg, MD on Dec 24, 2009 6:32 AM PST

This chapter is dedicated to Charles Dickens. His empathy gave us A Christmas Story, a gift that enables us to remember at least once a year why Jesus was willing to give his life in the belief that through his example of sacrifice,  others might live.



This is the time where the vast majority of Christians put aside the pain of the past and worries for the future to focus on the blessings of life. The smiles of children, the love of our families and the memories of those who loved us and have passed to their reward are the real gifts of the season. Whether Christians or not, for those of us who try to remember each day the significance of the teachings of Jesus, all of these things remind us of the tremendous gift that he left us in the example of his life. As simple as his teachings seem in principle, they are difficult for most of us to put into practice.

Whether or not the promise of life after death is meant to be taken literally, the belief that it may exist inspires millions to try and live as if each moment is important and nearly every decision they make a moral choice. Some try more consistently than others and all fail at times, but Jesus taught that neither believers nor nonbelievers have to fear making a mistake if they strive to serve each other. We can be assured that we will be forgiven by any person of good will if we have searched our hearts and tried to the best of our ability to do what we believe to be just and faithful to our core beliefs. He argued that if we believe that God exists, we have no reason to fear its judgement if we try to live by the golden rule.

Those who are able to successfully keep the lessons of Christ's example in mind every day are rewarded with a life that is inherently meaningful. It is in serving our fellow humans that we become closer to what he called God. That is how we can create the kingdom he believed was beginning to manifest in his lifetime. With the belief in the possibility that we can create a world in which we govern ourselves according to the principles of liberty and justice for all, hope does not seem naive. Those who choose to live by these beliefs have the incomparable experience of living each moment at one with the whole of humanity and the universe we share. The world is as it should be in that moment. They see it as our duty to transform it into one in which universal love is a reality rather than a mere ideal.

It does not matter to me if we find reward after death for the good we do or recompense for the suffering we experience in this life or those past. If that is our destiny, so be it. Regardless of how it affects us, compassion dictates that we try to treat others as we would be treated ourselves. It isn't possible for humans to know their ultimate fate, but by compassion we find meaning, and that is reward enough. Humanity will only survive if a critical mass of individuals join the struggle to assure that all humans are treated with equal justice and compassion. If we can awaken enough people to that essential reality, the rewards will be immeasurable.  
         

It is this collective awareness of the need for compassion and forgiveness that is called Christ consciousness, but it is the same goal as in all religions and other spiritual and moral traditions whose core principle is that we must treat others as we would be treated ourselves if we ever want to live in a just world. Secular humanists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews and others have all discovered this simple truth in various places and times. Some claim this is God's will, while others see it as self-evident. Does it matter which is the case? 

Having faith that there is an inherent meaning to life is a choice. 
If one should choose to believe in a higher reality and it does not exist, what has one lost? To assume that one knows the answer to whether God and the soul exist is delusion, regardless of what one chooses to believe. I do not understand the emotional attachment to the conviction that the universe and human life arose by chance alone. It is logically impossible to prove a negative proposition.

While agnosticism is a logical position, to acknowledge that we cannot know the answer does not mean that we cannot or should not choose. Choosing to believe in an eternal soul connected to some higher consciousness need not be mere vanity. It can provide inspiration to keep struggling for justice when all seems lost. This may in the end determine the outcome of the struggle we now face to end the threat of the enslavement of the human race. I believe that Jesus, having lived in a time when his people were subjects of a cruel imperial power, considered his philosophy a means of freeing his people and eventually, the world. If so, it is possible to interpret his teachings in a way that suggests he was right.


If the alternative to believing in an immortal soul is a meaningless universe and a life with no purpose but that which I assign it, 
I choose to believe that life is in some sense eternal. I must keep in mind that this is a choice, because that is the difference between fate and self-delusion. I choose to reject the idea that a life means nothing after a person has passed through earthly existence and to have faith in a higher consciousness to which I am connected. I feel no need to defend to others my choice to believe that life has meaning beyond what we assign it. I do not find this choice to be confining but liberating, for it requires me to free my mind to consider possible realities that science alone does not suggest.  Choosing to believe that that there is reason for hope that I cannot justify based on scientific principles may not make sense to the strict rationalist, but in the face of the existential threats humanity faces at this time in history, such belief has a logic of its own.



Like the child in the Ursula LeGuin's Going Back to Omelas who was locked away and made to suffer torment every day so that others might enjoy a pain-free existence, the story is that Jesus was willing to bear the agony of experiencing the pain of those around him rather than turning away. I find this an example that I want to follow. It does not matter to me whether he was the only begotten son of God or whether we all are children of God. It does not even matter if he is a real historical figure, though I find it hard to imagine that an apocryphal figure could create a movement with billions of followers. Even if that were true, it shows the power of the teachings ascribed to him.

We have all had our crosses to bear, though few have suffered as Jesus did for his unwavering compassion. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live with full awareness of the suffering of the world all my life. I recall as a child  thinking about the starving masses and the threat that the problem would only get worse if the population kept increasing. I could not tolerate living with this conscious awareness. I denied the suffering as best I could, but I am sure that it contributed to the ensuing decades of depression I suffered.

I was only able to function by telling myself that because their suffering was not the result of my choices, it was not immoral for me to enjoy my blessings. I did not know then that my lack of faith that we could heal the world made me share in the responsibility for their pain. I made the mistake of assuming that their suffering was inevitable. I was sure that no just God would create such a world, not realizing that starvation, like war, was the result of collective choices of humanity to accept the conditions that allowed them to persist.

Since my efforts to shut out the awareness of suffering from "natural" causes like famine and from the gross injustice of war did not provide relief and I could find no solace in the belief in a just God, I decided that the purpose of my life was alleviating the pain of others. I b
ecame a psychotherapist. In the course of my practice, those who benefited from our work together did so because of what I learned from others who came before them. As I began to understand how to relieve their suffering I came to feel that I had realized my life's purpose. What is more, seeing the positive changes in those I worked with changed my life as much as it did theirs. In giving of myself I had received much more in return, while they too felt they had received the best of the bargain.  

My last job was with the Veterans Administration. Most of my patients were combat veterans who had undergone unspeakable horrors from which they still suffered decades later. At first I felt that I could offer only limited help, but I refused to stop trying and eventually learned ways to help them not only accept the unacceptable but in many cases to thrive. In showing them how to honestly examine their lives and change the beliefs and behaviors that were at the root of most of their problems, I felt increasingly compelled to examine my own life with the same courage they showed. In particular, I came to question my rejection of the possibility that there was some higher consciousness that I was a part of. This came from my observation that of the strengths my patients had to work with, none was more powerful than the faith most of them has in the existence of God in some form.    

After a half century of doubt, it surprised no one more than me when after carefully examining my life experience and the course of human history, I concluded that it was more likely than not that there was a force working in the universe that science could not explain. I found it possible to truly believe in the possibility that God exists only when I learned to open not just my mind but my heart to the possibility of a benevolent force greater than ourselves.

In my childhood, when trying to convince myself that God exists, I decided to choose to believe that if there was a God, it must be the totality of good. In my simple mind, I imagined that the word itself implied that God is “the good.” This good had to be outside of ourselves, but was only maintained by our actions. Our decisions determined whether good would ultimately triumph over evil. 

The next choice was to believe that men and women were essentially good. I concluded immediately that it would be senseless to believe otherwise, for that would mean that all of our efforts in this life would be ultimately meaningless, and I had already determined that life was meaningful if we chose to make it so. Furthermore, this is an essential assumption in order to believe in democracy itself. If we were not essentially good, then surely we would not be capable of ruling ourselves and democracy would be an unrealistic dream. It comforted me to believe that if I defined God in this way, it was real in a very meaningful sense.

Despite my effort to convince myself that this was enough, I found myself weakening again and again, falling every time into depression when I allowed myself to open myself fully to the suffering of others. 

As recently as 1990, during the Persian Gulf War, I fell into a profound depression so deep that I found myself seriously contemplating suicide for the first time in my life. I could not accept the reality that after the senseless suffering of the war of choice in Vietnam we would let ourselves choose war as the only alternative to questioning our dependence on oil to maintain our privileged and comfortable existence. 

At first I fought the acceptance of this reality but ultimately I gave up my job and spent every dollar I had or could borrow and every waking minute trying to create the Army of the Soldiers of Peace. When I found myself without monetary resources and the war and its aftermath a fait accompli, I allowed myself to fall into despair at the thought of my own powerlessness to get enough people to understand that we could choose another collective reality and change the world ourselves.

It took me years to recover from this depression and it was only the love of my family that saved me from myself. It took me even longer to accept that I needed to question my nagging doubt that God could really exist independent of ourselves. I had made the common error of assuming that the existence of God is beyond proving. The key to experiencing the events that changed the way that I viewed the world was to realize that if God is the totality of all that is good in human nature then God is not truly independent of us but each of us is a part of it.

Only when I accepted the possibility that I could prove to myself the existence of God did I begin to see the evidence with my own eyes. The fateful event that led to the death of my old self and the birth of the new was the discovery by my daughter of a church that did not expect its members to accept any interpretation other than their own of the meaning of the words of the men who had written the Bible and other religious works. I came to this church as a visitor, somewhat guiltily seeking the simple pleasure of sharing with my daughter her joy at finding a spiritual home, and to my surprise became a devoted member of the wonderful community of the Cedar Hills United Church of Christ in Beaverton, Oregon. 

At the same time, I began to explore other faiths in earnest, attending mosque, a synagogue and visiting other churches and places of worship.  I was looking for the common message that was God's will for us, if it was indeed speaking through the great prophets. The accuracy with which they described what we only  now understand about the physical universe hundreds and even thousands of years ago led me to suspect that revealed wisdom was real. I believe it to be  knowledge delivered directly to those most open to it from an intelligence that we cannot hope to fully understand in this life. 

The essential knowledge we call revealed wisdom is to be found in each of us, as we are all connected to this higher power and to each other through the holy spirit that is pure and unconditional love. We will find it if we seek it and if we have the strength to challenge all of our preconceptions about the nature of Man. I believe that we have both animal and spiritual existence, the nature of each of which is determined before we awaken at birth with no recollection of our true selves. I believe that is is our moral duty to not allow our animal desires to corrupt our spirits. At this point in human history the survival of human civilization will depend on enough of us realizing it.


I am sorry to say to those hoping to be saved by faith alone that it does not appear that Jesus will come down on a white horse to save us from the consequences of our own inequity. We must save ourselves by reaching out to all humanity in a spirit of forgiveness, love and respect.

This Christmas, I want to give to my friends and my family the gift of what I have found in my own life through my study of how we came to the brink of self-annihilation and how I became convinced that we are about to pull back, rescue ourselves from oblivion and create the family of man that we were and were always meant to become again. 

The miraculous journey that I have made in the last eight months as I struggled with every fiber of my being to make real the Army of Soldiers For Peace International has finally convinced me that I was right to believe that we are essentially good. I now see all about me every day that men and women all over the world are beginning to awaken to the reality of their own power to create for ourselves a reality that rejects the notion that we have to compete with one another for the resources that by necessity we must share with all.

It is impossible for me to explain in this brief essay how I came to believe this. I do not expect any reader to accept on faith that I am right. I only ask that my friends and family understand that I am convinced of this and that it fills me with such joy every day that I cannot contain it. I have to share it with each person that I meet to keep the enormity of it from overwhelming me. 

This is the gift that I have received and want all to know. If it takes me the rest of my life, I will work to see my vision become accepted as reality. This is the only way that I can imagine human consciousness evolving to the point that we will save ourselves, creating in the process a world fit to pass onto our children.





May God bless us, everyone.






Merry Christmas to all,


Rick

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