The very day I was born, I made my first mistake, and by that path have I sought wisdom ever since. — Ganesha, in The Mahabharata
When I was in college, I wrote a poem that became somewhat popular in certain circles. I forget the exact title, and don’t feel like fishing out my old poetry notebooks from the closet at the moment. But the premise is this: as uber-responsible First World citizens eager to create utopia and heal our wounded planet, we … should starve ourselves to death. That’s right: just off ourselves and let nature and the oppressed peoples of the world have it all.
Now, I was around 20 years old at the time. Radicalism and 20-year-olds are natural partners, like gasoline and matches. But still, even then, I wasn’t personally serious about what I’ll call the “Jain solution.” I struggled — and still do — with the concept of right action, of living up to one’s ideals, of creating a just society, a fair world. My interior engines have always run off a certain high-grade idealism.
Our individual choices can change the world, we’re told, one person at a time. But even then, I saw the limits and frustration inherent in that philosophy. You can make all manner of personal sacrifices, follow an OCD-type checklist of “right things to do,” drive yourself absolutely batty in pursuit of ethically appropriate food, housing, professions — and still, the glass jar of the world remains cracked, and Pandora’s ill spirits are still buzzing around. People suffer and starve, hurt one another and themselves.
It’s almost natural, then, that we question our value as a species. Wouldn’t the universe be better off without us? How many conversations have you had, fellow Pagans, which involved the sometimes-yearning concept that humans will eventually kill themselves off? How many times have you groused about groups you consider ignorant — religious, political, nationalistic — and mused about whether humans deserve to exist at all, considering those groups?
I’ve been guilty of it, too, says the redfaced poet. But I’m trying to be more mindful.
If the behavior of certain Americans or Syrians or what-have-you makes you doubt human worth and continued existence, does that mean Canadians deserve annihilation too? The Swedes? Poor people in Burkina Faso? If you think a certain political party or religion should be wiped off the face of our Mother, what about person X who is a member of this group and has done X number of good things for his or her neighborhood?
When I’ve brought this up in anti-(fill in a group) conversations, I’ve been told I’m an apologist for said group and that I’m making it personal and thus missing the point. The point, I suppose, is to paint with a broad brush: This is evil, bad, “Other,” and above all, Not Us. But the broad brush really should be reserved for houses, ceilings and other surfaces, not living creatures.
The point is: It really is personal. The people whom you hate or disagree with are, indeed, just that: persons, with names, pasts, loved ones, and good qualities along with the bad. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean those positive qualities aren’t there. Hell, even if they aren’t, there is the potential for beneficial action, and that’s something. No one and nothing is pure; we are all vases laced with cracks, water flecked with mud. Christians may call that sin, but I call it simply the reality of living creatures. We aren’t Platonic constructs and can never be.
I regret that poem. It was cheap, an easy shot, an easy solution. It’s a lot harder to do the messy work of life — which is all about mistakes, reparations and compromise. The work is what makes any endeavor — spiritual, physical, creative — valuable. And it ain’t easy.
May I continue to learn from my mistakes.