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Have You Ever Questioned Your Existence On This Earth?


By Enid Bloch


Delivered at Buffalo Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Interfaith Conference

September 14, 2014Printed pattern backdrops for child photography

When I received a call a few days ago, asking if I could speak this afternoon, I needed rather quickly to come up with a topic, so I looked at the reverse side of the card announcing this conference. There I found a number of questions, and the first one intrigued me: “Have you ever questioned your existence on this Earth?” I mentioned this question to a friend of mine, and she responded with a simple, “Who hasn’t?” Maybe she’s right, maybe this is something every one of us considers so routinely, that it’s no big deal. Yet I don’t think I can believe that, for over the years, whenever I have tried to discuss my own contemplations of existence, I have found that other people don’t seem to know what I am talking about.

For me, the question does not immediately elicit thoughts about why we exist, or for what purpose – certainly very important issues in their own right. Rather, it seems to refer to something yet more fundamental, and that is the astonishing fact THAT we exist. I often say to people, isn’t it amazing that I live within ME, and you within YOU? How can it be, that when I look out at you through my eyes, I see you looking back at me through yours? Isn’t that astonishing, an overwhelmingly strange phenomenon? Yet other people say to me, “What’s so strange about that? It’s just the way things are.”

“Just the way things are.” Why doesn’t this claim make sense to me? Is it simply that other people are more comfortable within their own skins than I am? Perhaps, but I doubt it. It seems to me that behind their easy acceptance of their own existence lurks a terror too difficult to face. What could possibly be more frightening than finding oneself alive and conscious, contained within a body, floating around somewhere within the incomprehensible vastness of the universe? How awesome and lonesome and very, very weird, if we really let ourselves think about it.

All of us start out as babies. We are suddenly just “here.” As newborns, we are easily frightened, and our parents do everything they can to reduce our fear. I remember when my daughter was no more than two months old, and one evening I carried her outside into the twilight. She took one look at a towering tree, bereft of leaves, its naked limbs entwined and reaching out in every direction, and she began to howl in terror. It was clear she was deathly afraid of that tree. Well, why not? When you don’t know anything about trees, isn’t the sight of one winding and swaying through shafts of moonlight altogether ghastly? Of course, I immediately held my baby close, whispering in her ear that there was nothing to be afraid of. But was I doing her a favor? Maybe I should have let her fearful apprehension sink in, as a stunning confrontation with the strangeness of existence. Instead, I was telling her to suppress her instinctive understanding and accept everything around her as “normal.”

By now, you probably think I am crazy. Would I really want to leave my child so deeply frightened? No, of course not. There really is no choice but to comfort our children on their scary journey through life. But I’m trying to suggest that deep down, even as infants, we already know how strange our existence is, but we soon learn to chase such awareness away. Maybe it’s not good to lose the innate astonishment we feel in early childhood. Think back to when you yourself were a baby. What was it like, to wiggle your fingers in front of your face and to realize they belonged to you? Or to discover your little toes, maybe even try to pull them into your mouth? We were fascinated by these weird appendages, weren’t we? But all too soon we came to accept our body as perfectly normal. Or at least we felt it to be so, until the unexpected alterations of adolescence shook us up again, or the wrinkles and infirmities of old age, or of serious illness, brought us back to the question of existence.

I’ve been talking so far about the “strangeness” of everything that is. Perhaps that word puts you off. Maybe we will understand each other better if I use a different term. Instead of strangeness, let me speak of the miraculous. It’s the same thing, really, for a sense of surprise and strangeness, or better yet, of wonder and astonishment, can – and should – transform itself into recognition of the miracles that surround and infuse us, everyday and everywhere. But I don’t think anyone can perceive a miracle without first going through the depths of fear, isolation, and surprise. You don’t see a miracle just because somebody tells you it is there, not even if a sacred text is telling you so. Only when you personally confront the incomprehensibility and terror of existence can you discover the miraculous for yourself.

How can it be anything less than a miracle, that I live within me, and you within you? There will never be another me or you, yet here we are together, at least for the short time our lives overlap. How is it that beings who have come into the world at different times can actually speak to one another? It doesn’t make sense. But I guess there’s a limit to communication, for we can’t talk to those who are already dead.

Yet the miracle of existence prevails, and it can be very beautiful and compelling. Can any of us look at a baby, or even a puppy, and not see in their gorgeous perfection something like the face of God? And does not the existence of someone other than oneself lead directly to a sense of morality?

If there were only one conscious being on the earth, wandering the globe alone, there would be no need for moral obligation. But as soon as I gaze upon YOU, another sentient being, and recognize that you are like me, yet not me, don’t I somehow immediately know I must treat you kindly, as I want you to treat me?

This kind of moral knowing forms the basis of all the great religious traditions. For thousands of years, what we now call the Golden Rule has been discovered and rediscovered by many different faiths. As a Jewish person, I am most familiar with ancient Jewish formulations. In an early chapter of the Torah we are told, “Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” [Leviticus 19:18] There is so much packed into these two simple sentences.

I especially treasure the words of Rabbi Hillel, whose life slightly overlapped that of Jesus. (The rabbi died when Jesus was ten years old.) According to the Talmud, a remarkable text containing oral law, stories, and rabbinic teachings, someone once asked Rabbi Hillel to summarize as briefly as possible the entirety of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. He quickly responded: “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

By the time of Hillel, there seems to have been a practice, already centuries old, of compressing the meaning of the Torah into this one ethical principle. It is interesting to note how aware Jesus was of its central place in Jewish tradition. In the New Testament, in Matthew 7:12, we find Jesus preaching: “Do to others what you want them to do to you, for this is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.” Paul repeated it in Galatians 5:1: “All the law is fulfilled in one phrase – thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

It is fascinating to me that the Prophet Mohammed expressed the same thoughts in much the same words. I have come across a very appealing hadith (i.e., a report of the Prophet’s words and actions, passed on from those who knew him), from the second volume of Kitab al-Kafi. This hadith seems to echo the Talmudic story of Hillel. One day, it reports, a Bedouin approached the Prophet and grabbed the stirrup of his camel. “O Messenger of God,” the man pleaded, “teach me something with which to go to heaven.” The Prophet responded, “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them. Now, let go of my stirrup!” In other words, be on your way, you have heard everything you need to know.

Lest we think, however, that the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – cornered the market on the Golden Rule, we need only look to faraway places around the world. The great Chinese sage, Confucius, advised, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” An ancient Buddhist text proclaims, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” I especially like a Jainist formulation, in the Acaranga Sutra. “Nothing which breathes, which exists, which lives, or which has essence or potential of life, should be destroyed or ruled over, or subjugated, or harmed, or denied of its essence or potential. In support of this Truth,” the author continues, “I ask you a question: Is sorrow or pain desirable to you? If you say, ‘yes it is,’ it would be a lie. If you say, ‘no, it is not,’ you will be expressing the truth. Just as sorrow or pain is not desirable to you, so it is not with all which breathe, exist, live, or have any essence of life.”

But if the Golden Rule, so simple and yet so profound, is virtually universal among human civilizations, why has it proven so difficult to follow? I know there is much that stands in the way of adherence to moral imperatives, such as the selfishness and belligerence that unfortunately seem to be as much a part of human nature as love and compassion, at least in many people. But I have to wonder whether moral failure also has something to do with the supposed “normality” that people see around them, their inability to discern how miraculous is their own and each other’s existence. How could Nazi SS officers have regarded as perfectly normal their extermination of millions of their fellow human beings? When they looked into the eyes of their victims, they certainly didn’t see marvelous beings peering back at them, but worthless creatures fit only to be ground down into nothingness. How long did it take Ruandans, who had lived side by side for generations, to turn upon their neighbors, finding it quite normal and natural to hack each other to pieces? If only these murderous people had trembled in fear before the exceeding strangeness of their own behavior, and had turned away.

I am deeply afraid that this inability to see the miracle of human life will lead increasing numbers of us to accept as normal, as nothing to worry about, the very realities which should terrify us to the core. We have suppressed so much that is frightening about existence, I fear we may look with equanimity upon the possible demise of the entire human race. We go on blithely poisoning the earth, stirring up catastrophic climate change, killing off ever more species of animals, battling each other at every turn, and creating increasingly devastating weapons of mass destruction. It really is possible, I hate to say, that through our own actions we human beings could render the earth an empty shell, arid and lifeless, where the sounds of laughter, the pitter patter of little feet, resound no more. Sadly, we do seem to be headed in that direction, ignoring the moral responsibilities we surely know we have.

You may have noticed by now that I have not spoken much about God. That’s because I am not comfortable with the linguistic limitations of that term. But with or without a name, the miraculous still surrounds and pervades us, if we but allow ourselves to see or feel it. Let us transform our fear of existence into wondrous appreciation of the majesty – the divinity, if you like – of the awesome world within and beyond ourselves. Is it not up to all of us, of whatever faith, to protect and preserve the loving presence on earth of human beings, and with them, the beautiful green and blue orb on which the life of mankind is sustained?

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