Why People Suffer


Let’s go over the possible answers and see which is best. First, I’ll start with the worst: people suffer because they did something wrong, they had it coming, God is punishing them. Karma’s a bitch. I can see only one possible instance where this is true, and it’s nothing more than a psychological observation. When we feel guilty, we probably did something wrong. I suppose we could call that suffering. Guilt is the natural indicator and God is the Author of it. That’s as far as we go here. To say that God punishes people through earthquakes, hurricanes, or other natural, social, or political events is morally wrong and bad theology. C’mon, really? Do you really think God, the most perfect being imaginable, kills people? God is much better (thank goodness).

the Lisbon earthquake was seen by many as caused by God for the sins of city. Read Candide.

Karma, from what I understand, is misunderstood by most people. Saying “Karma’s a bitch” to someone who “had it coming” is not the right way to think about it. Karma is not something you justify another man’s suffering with. Karma, rather, is completely in the control of each person. It is the culmination and aggregation of a person’s deeds. You do good, you become good, you progress in the next life. You do bad, you become bad, you regress in the next life. It’s like heaven and hell, but not as final. You cannot apply Karma to another person, another group, another culture.

Second, people suffer as a test, as a way to build character, as a way to learn something, as a way to overcome. Soul building. Job was tested by God and he came out stronger in faith and material possessions. Thus the saying: God never gives us anything we can’t handle. I get it. I understand that this might be comforting or even uplifting  to someone suffering. It could help you overcome a particular hurdle. Perhaps it’s good to think of life itself as a giant test. Perhaps that motivates some people. Or not. What happens when several arbitrary, coincidental pointless things happen to you? How do you distinguish an accident from a cosmic test? People do break. Are you really gonna believe that God is picking on you? And when too much shit happens, and you find yourself on your knees, asking God why, why, why me – whence your faith then? What are you left with? Your faith is exposed, I think. Your faith did the harm more than the events themselves! You are left with a God similar to the one I described above: a God who uses nature to punish people, to teach them a lesson. I wouldn’t do this to my own son! Nor would God. You suffered more than you needed to. Rather than having a friend in God, who would guide you through this horrible thing; instead, you made God into the author of the horrible thing. Perhaps there’s a better way.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe in a God that’s right here, right now, inside me and outside me; ever-present, all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. I am not trying to turn God into a cold, careless, distant Creator. I simply believe that God does not play favorites; that he doesn’t arbitrarily mess with us, or worry about the small, daily events of our lives; that he lets the rain fall on sinners and saints (as Jesus taught). He’s eternal. We are not pawns in a game of chess; we are works of art within an unfolding work of art. I believe that God created a physical set of laws, which allows rocks to fall on human heads. And I believe that God created a moral law, which allows people to use their free will to hurt people. And I believe those two things – physical laws and free will – account for all the suffering in the word. God gives us the tools to overcome. In a way, he suffers with us (that’s what Jesus symbolizes). And I believe that God created an afterlife for those people who wrongly suffered on earth; for the people which God sheds a perpetual tear; the people Jesus referred to when he said “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” God’s gift of freedom was both a weakness and an act of love. That’s the God I want to worship. Theologically, I will have my cake and eat it too.


Okay, that’s enough for the religious answers to our question of suffering. But atheists and agnostics worry about suffering just as much as anyone. They simply take a more practical and political approach to the question. Which is excellent. So do I. For example, people suffer because of free will. That’s something all religious and nonreligious agree on. People simply make bad decisions sometimes. Second, people suffer because of a horrible upbringing. They were planted in bad soil. The biological and psychological effects of having bad parents, or an insufficient support structure, cannot be ignored. When a child is born addicted to meth, the odds are bad, through no fault of their own. Third, people suffer because of unjust laws, inept governments, and immoral systems of finance and control. This is big picture. This is the ultimate political and sociological answer to our question, requiring ultimate political and social solutions. This is our common worldly battle. We must save ourselves from the suffering of  hunger, and poverty, and disease, and we must do it through social and political agencies. Some day, cancer will be defeated. Some day, people will have what they need to live. This should be the call of both secular and religious people worldwide. This is the kind of suffering that doesn’t need to happen.

Why People Suffer

Love Chapter 3: Humanity

Religion begins here, at loving humanity. When it comes to love of self and family, Jesus assumes it, almost ignores it,  and actually warns against it: Who is my mother? He said. Who is my brother? My mother and my brother are those that do the will of God. He had bigger plans. He realized that the best way to love his family was to love everyone. Love is blind. His point was that the love for our family shouldn’t get in the way or interfere with our love for humanity. It often does. John Woolman, an abolitionist and beautiful soul, said that slavery was perpetuated by too much love for children. Slaveholders wanted to provide for their children, whatever the cost. And they did provide for their children: and guess who paid the cost?
A man named James Oglethorpe, the George Washington of England in the early 1700’s, visited a jail and had compassion on the inmates. It was dirty, nasty, disease-infested, little food, lots of booze, no medical care. James went up to King George II and said “give me 116 inmates and I will give them a new start in the new word.” And so he did. He called it Georgia. That’s compassion.
Between 1980 and 2003, the prison population of Michigan more than tripled (Collateral Consequences, 2). That’s not compassion.
To love humanity is to pass laws that support humanity.
Have you ever suffered through a book on the evolution of altruism? Some of these science writers bang their heads against the wall, wondering how in the world pure altruism could possibly exist? These writers assume a pathetic tone and, as they squeeze water from rocks, good people are swarming the streets.  In the meantime, they have done a good job trying to destroy the concept of altruism altogether, trying to explain it away rather than explain it. It’s hypocritical and short sighted. They have no trouble explaining aggression, and war, and all the nasty bits of our nature.
However, the new field of “positive psychology” is balancing the scales. We are born with the amazing gift called mirror neurons. When you watch a person suffer, your brain literally suffers with them. It’s the biological bedrock for the Golden Rule. Don’t let anyone tell you that loving humanity is not natural. A baby cries when another baby cries; that’s empathy taking root. The pessimists, as always, have have truths. Instead of reading them, perhaps we should read about Simone Weil, or Albert Schweitzer, or Keats, Mozart, Confucius and Socrates. Perhaps we should remember that yesterday your grandson learned to walk; he came over and gave you some of his chocolate bar; it almost made you cry. If the story of humanity is dark, there are bright lights that fill the sky. As Saint Francis said, all the darkness cannot extinguish a single light. And, as Yi-Fu Tuan’s book Human Goodness reminds us, there are many lights.
Let the skeptics talk about love as a product of evolution. Of course! I say it too: love is a product of evolution. I said it. So what? I’m a product of my mother. That’s a good thing. You could describe where I came from and you could describe how I am. Where am I going? Where should we go? Now we do ethics. Now we start living. That’s what George Price did.
George Price is the unofficial saint you never heard of. It’s the amazing story of a skeptical scientist becoming a moral saint and therefore proving himself wrong (or, I guess, proving myself right). It’s a very bizarre story of a genius who studied the evolution of altruism, tried to ‘explain it,’ became confused, went crazy,  and finally became infected with the love of God. Only feeling happy when he was helping poor people and alcoholics, he died alone; dirty and lovesick in some unknown flat in England. He killed himself, perhaps because he couldn’t help enough people, perhaps because he was lonely, or sick, or all the above. George Price went through two conversions. First, to Christianity. He began studying the Bible like Newton, looking for clues and hints and prophecies. He was still an arrogant prick and bad father. Then, he went through a moral conversion; what he called a love conversion. Then he became a saint.
The trick to loving humanity is to trust people in general. We are losing trust, it appears. Born for Love reports that only 32 percent of Americans agree with this statement: most people can be trusted. In 1960, 58 percent agreed with the statement (3). Perhaps it’s the media, coupled with technology. The media has always reported bad news disproportionately; now it does it much better. When bad news meets Jerry Springer and reality TV, we have a perception problem. We become infected with what Kant would call the pornography of human nature.
The trick to loving humanity is to see real people behind the numbers. People tolerated slavery because they couldn’t see the people behind the institution. Then came Harriet Beacher Stowe, and William Wilberforce, and John Woolman. Once you see the people, you are haunted by it. Here is what a writer said about Paul Brand, a doctor who dedicated his life to treating Leprocy victims in India:

“The great societies of the West have been gradually moving away from an underlying belief in the value of a single human soul. We tend to view history in terms of groups of people: classes, political parties, races, sociological groupings…After prolonged exposure to Dr. Brand, I realized that I had been seeing large human problems in a mathematical model…I had been wrestling with “issues” facing “humanity.” I had not, however, learned to love individuals—people created in the image of God” (Chosen Vessels, 39).

Loving humanity, just like loving your enemies, doesn’t require agreeing with them. It’s not that hard. It doesn’t even require understanding them, although that helps. As Kwame Anthony Appiah says in his book Cosmopolitanism, all that matters is that we get used to them, tolerate them, enter into conversation with them, extend our imagination to them. How about this: Not kill them. Think about that for a second: what would the world be like if we simply stopped killing? Contact, living together, spacial location, integration. Sometimes that breeds toleration more than anything. Young people tolerate gay people. Our parents don’t. Why? We went to college with them. Lack of spacial proximity explains the hope and failure of racial healing in America.
The skeptic says that it’s psychologically impossible to love humanity. Humanity is too big. There is no “out group,” no “other” that you can say “we are not like them,” which forms group identity. How can you form an identity with humanity if there is nothing to define it against? No; this is a fart of the intellect. What is this–high school football? There is a grain of truth.  Yes, it is true that, for example, some Christians feel a sense of identity by hating gay people. It brings them together, in a real way, but the hatred is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition. People form groups in many different ways; groups come together in many different ways. Human nature is not a teeter-totter. We are not hydraulic machines that once you pump a certain fluid here (love), an opposite fluid must come up there (hate).
Loving humanity takes moral imagination. This is our challenge. Adam Smith said that when we hear about the earthquake in China, we get sad; but when a “frivolous disaster” happens to ourself, the world turns upside down. We have more practice in the one and not the other. Globalization is new. We will learn. When I heard about 9/11 in high school I didn’t shed a tear. Now I probably would. I got better. Plus there’s the issue of emotion. The emotion of loving your mother is a little more concrete than the emotion of loving humanity (a beautiful emotion!). But it’s all good; sometimes you can love people more with your intellect, imagination, and abstract compassion.
Otto Keller was my kind of missionary: kind, loving, humorous, spiritual and practical. All of the things we don’t like about missionary people–he was not. He devoted his life to Africans. He learned their languages. He believed the Africans physical needs were as important and prerequisites for spiritual ones. He build houses and hospitals and plants. He saw them as equals and they him. His theology was simple; he preached by telling people about his friend, Christ. This is what his own son said of him:

“His was a totally selfless life poured out for others. He gave and gave and gave that others might gain life. This in essence is the very life of God, the love of Christ, demonstrated in the brief, shining life of a common man” (Chosen Vessels, 106).

Andrew Carnegie, the great steel baron, was a financial lover of humanity. “I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution” (Autobiography, 255). Before Obama said “redistribution of wealth,” Carnegie said it and did it. He revered and respected his mother and father and followed the moral pattern that they set. He also believed in the social gospel interpretation of Christianity—the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now. He was cosmopolitan, respecting the truth of all religions. He loved literature. I wonder: How many great men were also renaissance men?
It’s a paradox that sometimes the greatest lovers of humanity treated their own family badly. St. Augustine, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr.: all harmed their family to some degree. Don’t we all? The Buddha, Jesus, Teresa of Avila, Marie Guyart: all left their family to pursue a higher calling. It almost seems as though the hero must give up his familial love to serve a higher love, as if the one takes away the other. In The Matrix trilogy, Neo cannot decide between his love for humanity and his love for Trinity (his lover). He does the unthinkable: he chooses both.
We can choose both. There is no paradox. Only larger love. God does not make us choose. It’s an exaggeration. Jesus and Gandhi loved their friends as much as anyone else. The only finite thing when it comes to love is time. How shall we spend our time? On what? With Whom? Habitat for Humanity, or bring the dog to the spa?
It is a big philosophical question whether emotions have anything to do with our moral lives. Emotions have their place too, even negative ones. Simply put, emotions are used by the mind to perform moral actions. For example, when you see preventable suffering, anger is the appropriate response. Look at Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. They had a controlled, righteous anger; it fueled their compassion and nonviolence. When Jesus wept, he was overcome with compassion. Stoics use emotions to do their duty. Kant says emotions are “surrogates for the motive of duty” (quoted in Bagnoli 68). The person on the corner protesting war is angry. The man who gets cheated on is angry. What will they do?–now we talk right and wrong.
Some emotions are better than others. No doubt about that. Anger, hate, envy, pride, lust, jealousy–should be eradicated from your life as much as much as possible. Unless they are supporting good action, they are bad. Thanks to God and myself, I cannot remember the last time I felt a negative emotion. Other emotions–love, compassion, respect, sympathy, joy, sadness–these too can be used for good. I feel them from time to time; I consider it a gift, not an expectation. Did you cry when you watched the 9/11 towers fall? Did you cry when the first African American president was inaugurated? Thank God: your love of humanity was renewed.
To depend on good emotions for good action – that’s a mistake; it reminds me of a similar mistake – to lose faith because you ‘don’t feel it anymore.’ A billionaire gives to charity. He feels good and gets praise from everybody. All well and good. The praise eventually fades, and he feels nothing when he writes the checks. He stops giving. Why? Here is where Kant’s ideas are spot on. Emotions come and go, but our duty to right and wrong never goes. Sometimes feelings are associated with doing the right thing. Sometimes they are not. The problem is we can’t turn them on and off; we are not in control of them as we are with our rational thoughts. The greatest moral saints all helped people out of a sense of duty, a principle; not an emotion.
Which brings us back to the command to love your neighbor, and to love your enemy, which is also a command to love humanity. I won’t go into the meaning of the greek or anything, but suffice it to say we are not talking about an emotion here. God is not commanding that you feel an emotion for a perfect stranger. Kant said it best:

“So the saying ‘you ought to love your neighbor as yourself’ does not mean that you ought immediately to love him and [afterwords] by means of this love do good to him. It means, rather, do good to your fellow human beings, and your beneficience will produce love of them in you” (Met of Morals, p. 162).

Love Chapter 3: Humanity

Love Chapter 2: Friend

In the show Survivor, the key to winning is making alliances. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Likewise, in the Hunger Games, alliances are needed to literally survive. This is probably how friendship evolved. As the book Moral Tribes says, back in the day, a friend “inviting” you over for dinner could have been a life and death situation; without dinner you are dead. Friendship, as some scientist say, is simply a weird kind of cooperation, weird because friends are not related through genetics but through good will.
But as we know explaining where a thing came from, whether that be friendship, monogamy, or consciousness, is not the same as explaining what the thing is. What is friendship? One of the greatest, selfless, most beautiful forms of love. It’s no wonder friendships last forever.
Jefferson and Adams had quite the interesting bromance. image source: history.com 1/15/15

It was raining out. My fists were clenched ready to punch this mother fucker. Beat the shit right out of him. I was drunk. He poured a beer over my head as I was taking a piss. We were at a party. He was upset that I was making out with a girl. I couldn’t wait to finish peeing. Time to fuck him up. He came outside and I landed a right straight to his upper lip, loosening his tooth and bloodying his lip. He wanted to “go out back” behind the apartment complex. Naively and stupidly I followed him to the back. He broke down crying. He asked: will I let him punch me in the face? I said sure, but I’m punching back.’ The only thing resolved that night was this: he may have been my friend at one time, but now he is my enemy. That was the last straw. I saw this coming.
Besides the fact that I resorted to violence, which I don’t believe in now (never should have), I feel very little shame in what I did. Paradoxically, I also feel no hatred for the man; in fact, I wish him all the best. In the beginning, we developed a friendship. Eventually, he developed romantic feelings for me. If he was honest, our friendship could have been salvaged. But instead, when the dust settled, it was all confusion and misunderstanding and hundreds of wasted, pointless, agonizing hours. The lesson I learned was sobering: you should trust people, especially at the start. But, eventually, when the evidence mounts up, you need to trust yourself. Not all people have good intentions. The gulf between you and your enemies is always a lack of understanding. In this case, a lack of understanding turned poisonous.
From the beginning, my brother has always been my best friend. If you take away my brother, I am nothing. Take that away, I am less empathetic, less smart, less open-minded, less inquisitive, less everything. We did nothing short of exploring the world together. We knew we were lucky. Later, I would study philosophy, but we were philosophers first, we were seekers. That’s what we did. There is absolutely no replacement for that kind of thing.
As we gain hundreds of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, it appears that we are losing real friends and best friends. The book Born for Love reports that “80% of Americans say that the only people whom they feel close enough to confide in are family members. A full quarter say that they trust no one at all with their intimate secrets. The proportion of people with no close friends or family members tripled between 1985 and 2004” (3). This is sad. Who are we without our friends?
Aristotle said “when men are friends they have no need for justice.” He’s right. Friends would make the perfect government and the most peaceful foreign relations. It’s a type of love filled with respect and mutual understanding. Justice and fairness and good government, on the other hand, all depend on a vague respect for humanity among strangers. This is hard, abstract, large. It’s much harder to betray your friend than to betray, say, those Mexicans over there — which explains our harsh immigration laws. Your friend has a face. You have to see them tomorrow.
In high school my best friend became addicted to pills. LIke all addictions, lying and stealing followed. I slowly distanced myself. I’m ashamed at my lack of bravery to face the situation. But it seems that friends either grow together or grow apart. Like a marriage, they become one or divorce. Aristotle said that only people with similar virtues can be friends. At that specific moment in time, we have different virtue, different habits. You can only be friends with someone you truly respect. But deep down in my heart I knew that Aristotle’s love was, in a way, superficial; that real love transcends pill addictions, stealing, and lying. I had failed one of my first tests. Jesus forgave his killers, and I couldn’t have a conversation. Yet the love for my friend still lives on in my heart, indomitable, lasting, filling my dreams and memories. I would reach out to him from time to time, years later. I said I was sorry for not being there. Of course he understood. His heart was large. I’m sure he thinks about me from time to time, has a flashback of some ridiculous phrase we used to say.
Our past girlfriends and lovers make permanent and beautiful marks on us. As I’ve mentioned in a past post, I find this utterly amazing. I celebrate it. One night, for no particular reason, I wrote this email to an ex-girlfriend:
“It’s so amazing that love seeps into our souls and never leaves. The love I had for you, although gone, remains, as it does for all the people I’ve loved. I find that such an amazing thing, that the people we love we always love, even if we never speak to them again. There is no stopping it, is there? My subconscious still dreams about you, and I still think about you. I have a happy life and a happy marriage, as I’m sure you do too. I’m so happy that I have no hard feelings at all about my past, and I hope you do too, and I just felt it necessary to express this as life is short, perhaps as a testament to the most amazing thing in this world–love. I felt it necessary to express the real joy of life.
God bless you [her name] and no response needed!”

That was five years after not speaking to her. Love could care less about the boundaries of time and space, even of people. I didn’t send that email, thinking it may have been selfish. But we all have these emails, written on our hearts. It’s funny. Old people warn young people that sex is a special thing. They’re right.
Love Chapter 2: Friend

Offending Religious Infants

Deeply held beliefs will be called into question. That’s an epistemic guarantee, based on the nature of those beliefs. People will call them into question and, more importantly, so will you. What will you do about it? How will religious people respond? That’s the ethical question. In light of the killings that took place in Paris recently, I am reminded about the fragile nature of the religion of some people. As a lover of free expression and people, I’m saddened. As a lover of religion (including Islam of course), I’m forced to ask questions.

Who to blame? That’s the knee-jerk reaction. Most will blame the particular people. Crazy people do crazy things. That’s what John Stewart did on The Daily Show. Some will blame religion, calling it a disease that is plaguing our planet. That’s what the New Atheists will do. Others will blame Islam, misrepresenting it as religion of violence. That’s what some self-righteous Christians will do (and, I’m guessing, Fox News, in their own special way). Others will blame extremist ideology in all its various forms (secular and religious). Perhaps it’s a mix of the first and last of these.

note: I’m not picking on Islam here; a cross would have covered the mouth.

We are creatures who like certainty, and that’s what some people get from religion. I remember back when Christianity was taking root in me. Morally speaking, I got the message very early: love, forgiveness, sacrifice, random acts of kindness. After reading the Gospels, that was easy. But intellectually, it was a whirlwind of philosophical questions, most of which were exciting but many of which were confusing and challenging. What about other religions? Is the Bible the word of God? Early on, I do remember being threatened by other beliefs, rival systems, atheism, philosophical naturalism, even science itself (eek!). Intellectually speaking, they were the competition. I was using them to help define what I was. Which makes me wonder: Is this our default position? Is defensiveness the starting point of religious psychology? Perhaps.

But I grew up. All that disappeared. You face your own doubts. You question. You come back much better.  Morally speaking, Christianity has not changed for me. Not one bit. Intellectually, it has expanded quite a bit. Here’s the point. There is absolutely nothing anyone can say that could ever offend me regarding religion. Similarly, there is nothing anyone can say about my own son that would offend me. Why? Because who gives a shit, man! People who get offended, I conclude, are religious infants. They never grew up like the rest of us. In proportion to the amount they are offended, is the amount of faith they lack. In proportion to how angry they get, is the amount of insecurity they have. In proportion to the amount of cognitive dissonance they experience, that is how mentally weak they are. I pity them; they probably live in a scary world. When I was young, my mom had to shake me out of bed. I hated it. That’s infant religion. Now I get out of bed. That’s adult religion. I don’t know how many infants are out there. That’s a hard question. All I can speak for is myself. I refuse to make myself a special exception. That’s not right either. I give humanity the benefit of the doubt. Most of us are adults.

At the moment these extreme Muslim terrorists were killing people, the words ‘praise God’ was on their lips. They have no God. They have a reason to kill. This is a gang mentality. It is revenge dressed in religious language, the only justification they can muster. They never grew up. This is a primitive, primal, childish mindset. I actually don’t have tools to explain it; it’s beyond me. These are just my fleeting thoughts and guesses. But I do know one thing. The core teachings of the world’s religions is the Golden Rule, a common-sense rule based on empathy. In this sense, it is a contradiction to be religious and to kill people. Nothing could be more hypocritical.

However, I do understand that religion is a complex thing interpreted by complex people.  Here is where I partly agree with the New Atheists. There are parts of religious sacred texts that seem outdated and wrong, and in that sense I put some blame on the texts themselves; or, rather, on the infinite value people place on those parts of text. I cannot speak for the Quran and other religious texts, but the Old Testament, for example, interpreted by the wrong people, could spell disaster. God condones killing (for God sake!). When I read the O.T., I read about a primitive people and their primitive God. Partly. The New Testament, in my opinion (and Kant’s), is much better, but still could be used for horrible things like sexism (Paul’s letters). Again, I think religious people need to grow up, realize that these parts of text require careful interpretation (as St. Augustine noticed), and move on with the good parts, the core parts.

How do we deal with religious infants? Lightly, I suppose. How do we deal with dangerous and violent religion infant organizations? Through justice, I would hope. This is why we have United Nations, International Courts, Crimes Against Humanity, and so on. On a large scale, justice is the best alternative to revenge.

Offending Religious Infants

Lying by Omission

Lying is wrong, but most people think that lying by omission is special. I partly agree.

Lying by Omission is not

You don’t have to share every detail of your life with everyone, especially when they are not asking for it. For example, if you are afraid to tell your parents about your religious beliefs, you don’t have to (you also shouldn’t be afraid). If you feel compelled to tell a girl walking by that you want to have sex with her, you don’t have to (= shouldn’t). If you are gay and not ready to come out of the closet, you don’t have to (unless you have a girlfriend or boyfriend). If somebody expresses an opinion, and you don’t want to reply with your own, you don’t have to. However, in a perfect world, we would all be able to express ourselves freely to anyone. You also don’t have to tell people what you think of them, just because they are in front of you. That’s just being mean.
What about so called ‘little white lies,’ telling your wife she looks good when she looks bad? I don’t believe it. You married your wife. She’s always beautiful. End of story. If her new haircut sucks, tell her the truth.

A Simple Test

Lying is intentionally giving someone wrong information, while lying by omission is intentionally leaving out information that someone deserves. Lying by omission, I think, is wrong when you are asked a question and don’t fully answer it. You leave out facts that are relevant, details that the person asking would probably want to know. However, a person doesn’t have to ask the question. Some people simply have a right to information, whether they ask or not. When? A good test is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you want to know? Then yes, pray tell sir. The golden rule shows up again. The fact that your information will hurt someone is not the relevant consideration, although it helps to think about. Do they deserve the truth? – that’s more relevant.

“Nazis. I hate these guys.” -Indiana Jones

Immanuel Kant would say the same thing, considering this ridiculous example that breaks down the rule that lying is always wrong. Nazis show up at your door. “Are you hiding Jews?” they say. “No,” you say. “I’m not hiding any Jews.” But, secretly, in your head, you’re thinking: “I’m hiding people, but not Jews; I don’t consider them ‘Jews,” as you do. Well, that’s very crafty wordplay, but clearly that’s lying by omission. If you put yourself in their shoes (scary), they clearly want to know that information. And of course, looked at in hindsight with all the information about what the Nazi’s were up to, it’s the right call. You should not let Nazis kill people. When faced with radical evil, the rules bend I suppose. Statistically, a case like this will not happen to you. It’s just a philosophical thought experiment which helps to prove the rule it was intended to break: that lying is wrong (except when Nazis are at your door and you know the future).

Lying by Omission

Love Chapter 1: Self, Family

We are born with a beautiful thing called self-interest, the most basic evolutionary gift. Get what you need to survive. Babies cry. Paradoxically, this most basic selfish impulse is also the foundation for loving other people. Scientifically speaking, loving others requires that we notice ourselves first; that we notice ourselves as separate entities. Even bacteria have this trick. The God of evolution was kind, perhaps too kind. Self-interest can turn into selfishness. Adam Smith noticed that a man from Europe would be sad to hear about the earthquake in China, yet a small cut on his finger would feel way worse: “the most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance […] Human nature startles at the thought.” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, quoted in Appiah, 156). We lack moral imagination unless we flex its’ muscles. China is not that far from our reach. The seed of self-interest grows into enlightened self-love. Jesus’ parable of the seeds planted on different soils comes to mind.
Self-love is not selfishness. It’s nothing more than realizing how good you can be, treating yourself with the same respect as others. It is actually the opposite of selfishness, or self-interest. Selfish people actually have no self-esteem; they hate themselves.
It’s so obvious that we should love ourselves that it’s implied in Jesus’ greatest commandment: love God and love others as yourself. The skeptic says “what if I hate myself, shall I hate you then?” St. Augustine replied rather matter-of-factly: everyone knows we automatically love ourselves. Duh. Besides, Jesus gives us plenty of reasons to love ourselves. He had one of the most positive theories of human nature out there.
“The kingdom of God is within you.” One of Jesus most incredible teachings, Jesus said that God is in us and that we are in God. In the creation myth, God breathed himself into us. It’s not wonder, then, that Jesus thought we could do incredible things; that we could “move mountains” and do “even greater things” than himself! Jesus was the ultimate optimist.
We are worthy of love because we are good, because we can be better, and because our potential is unlimited. My potential haunts me. Does it haunt you? If you read Emerson’s journal, you see a man haunted by his own possible greatness. It’s God inside us, the Holy Spirit. George Fox (Quakerism) called it the “Inner Light” or the “Seed of God.” John 1:9 says it “lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
Yet self love is a paradox; the thing nature infused in us, we lost. We look around and see grown men hating themselves. We hear the degrading pessimism. The drunks, the losers, the motto: “I’m only human” and “I’m a sinner.” We hear it in church, of all places! Think of the pessimistic alcoholic, the addict who destroys his brain and body, the woman who gets beaten and keeps coming back. Benjamin Franklin was busy perfecting his morals, creating ethical clubs with his friends–and we sit here in a vomit of depression? If we are to go anywhere, we need our self love back, the kind that Jeremy Bentham said fuels all other love. We need respect and dignity and a healthy pride, the kind that Aristotle preached to his nephew in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Oh, the body! Precious! You must love your body! Without a healthy body and brain, what are we? Lumps of shit. You must stop smoking. Smoking costs America $100 billion a year in direct health care costs ((It’s Enough to Make you Sick, 135). You must stop doing drugs; we must drink and eat in moderation (if at all). Alcohol costs America $185 billion a year and of all the patients at a hospital, 25-40% are alcohol-related problems. This is not trivial but crucial. Eat healthy. No more fast food. Sadly, one-third of our kids are overweight and 17.6 are obese (135). The poor kids don’t have a chance! Eat vegetables and leafy greens and have your kids do the same. Will power first, then habit. Simple.
Make a real friend. Join a club. Find a hobby. Start doing. Will power is the spark inside; be diligent and get shit started. Make a plan. If you don’t have these preliminaries down, if you don’t give your body what it owes, how will you love your mind, humanity, God? Jesus said “how can I tell you about heavenly things, not understanding earthly things.” Can a starving man save a boy drowning, or will they both drown? Do not listen to the idiots that say “spiritual body” vs. “physical body.” You are the body of God. The body fuels the mind and the mind fuels the soul.
Loving the body is one thing. It’s not enough. Paul Brand spent his life repairing the bodies of leprosy victims in Africa. He realized there’s something more than a healthy body: “The most precious possession any human being has is his spirit, his will to live, his sense of dignity, his personality.” Dignity, purpose, respect–this is the ending place of self-love.
Have you ever surprised yourself by smiling? You were watching someone else smile, a happy event, and you automatically smiled without noticing? This is the amazing gift of mirror neurons, the building blocks of empathy – the building blocks of morality. When we see someone smile, our brain smiles. When a baby hears another baby cry, they cry. A beautiful evolutionary achievement.
At first, it’s the baby and the mother. Everyone else on the face of the planet is deemed “Other.” It’s well known that fathers can feel rejected by their newborns (luckily, because I had paternity leave, I wasn’t). That baby, in the end, will be in a casket someday, and will be judged by how many “Others” she has taken in; by how many “others” she has turned into “friend” or “fellow citizen.” Starting with our own fathers, we must take everyone in. Environment has a lot to say about if we will succeed.
Do we have free will? Given the laws of nature, our genes, and our upbringing, could we have turned out any other way? Doubt settles in, I must admit, the more I learn about a child’s tender first years of life. The love that a baby gets from their primary caregiver will decide the love they give for the rest of their lives, the pleasure they get from loving, and how they nurture their own children when they grow up. Simon Baron-Cohen calls this an “internal pot of gold” that stays with them always.
Lack of love can have devastating, permanent effects on the brain. I had a girlfriend that was abandoned by her father, which had devastating consequences on our relationship; she didn’t trust me, she couldn’t trust me. Something that came so naturally to me, was hard for her. Then you’ve got the orphanage baby, passed on from one caretaker to another constantly; they also don’t learn to trust. Take a particular example: in this case, a rich mother didn’t want to take care of her baby, so she kept hiring and firing nurses, because the mother got jealous when the baby got attached. The child in this situation would grow up to humiliate and rape a disabled girl in high school at a party. He was a sociopath (from Born for Love).
What’s the lesson from all this deterministic science? Forgiveness. That is why forgiveness is the ultimate practice of love. It’s not their fault. The gang member from South Chicago is the lady at the well. Jesus has pity, forgives them, and says “ sin no more.” Jesus, way ahead of his time, actually understands that people never wanted to be this way and they want a way out. Jesus didn’t understand 21st Century science, but his ethics were compatible with it.
Loving your child is not controlling their life, yelling at the coach at a baseball game, thinking your child is the best or perfect, expecting too much, or micromanaging their life. Do not be the parent that lives through your child. This is not love. This is pathetic and, ironically, will hurt the child more than you ever realized (see HyperParenting: Are you Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?)
The word kind comes from kin, meaning kin selection; our natural, evolutionary gift that says: love your family. In terms of passing on our genes, we love two brothers as much as eight cousins. They are so real and so close. How could we not love them? We have no choice. Closeness begets love. And hate.
I was woken up in the middle of the night. My dad was breathing on me, close. Something was wrong. He was threatening me, or yelling at me or something. My nightmare was coming true: your own family turning on you. Lightening shot through my body. “Why did you do it, Matt,” he said. Do what? He was drunk, really drunk. He seemed dangerous. At the time, I had no clue he was referring to the cans that spilt all over the kitchen floor, a bag of pop cans the cat probably knocked over. To him, it was a wiccan spell. He thought I was a witch, that I put a spell on the pop cans that were all over the kitchen floor. He was confronting evil. I was evil. My blood was coursing through my body. “Dad, get the fuck out.” This is the first time I ever felt hatred for my own father. I would have beat him up, smashed his face right in front of my mother. So would my brother. The next day he probably felt bad. But he did not apologize to me. Instead, he said “Matt, you should have seen those cans…,” as if that explained anything. At the time, he knew I was writing a paper on Witchcraft for high school English. My thesis was that the Wiccan religion, which got a bad rap by Christianity, is a positive religion. He didn’t want to discuss it, of course. He let it build, and then reacted. Now, of course, I love my dad. This is just one bad example among a mountain of good examples, examples of love.

The very people that we love the most—our family—we treat the worst. This is shockingly sad. Most homicides are crimes of passion, usually done by someone close [verify this]. My parents loved each other, just like most divorced parents do. We lie, we take people for granted, we become selfish. Our souls become filled with rubbish. We need a clean slate. We get one. What shall we do?
Love Chapter 1: Self, Family

Love: Introduction

Go into the woods. Go meditate or pray. What do you come up with? What is the meaning of life? What is the solution?
It all comes down to love, doesn’t it?
In the closet of your mind, burning with humanity, stricken with joy and pain, we all think of love. At our greatest moments, we know that love wins.
“Love is a circle.”
Have you felt it?
Me too.
The man on his death bed–him too.
Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha, Mother Teresa–them too.
Anyone who was ever for peace, social justice, sacrifice, virtue, righteousness–they have all preached love.
It’s comically simple and cliche as the Beatles song All You Need Is Love. So simple that we forget and take it for granted. And come back to it.
Don’t be confused with words. Compassion, respect, care, sympathy, loving-kindness, forgiveness, sharing. It’s all love. Old Christians called it charity; the Enlightenment called it sympathy; now we use the word empathy. Love is just the word I use for all these things. For academic purposes there’s a reason to treat each word differently, but it’s important to remember it’s all the same sort of thing. It’s the feeling you get when you look at your wife or kids. It’s when you pass someone on the street and they nod (it still surprises me!). Love is when you decide to give blood or help an adult learn to read. I don’t have to tell you what love is.
In this book I treat love by its’ various targets in this particular order—self, family, friend, humanity, world, enemy—but of course this is artificial too. Love has no targets. The point of this book is to say that one love isn’t better or worse than the others; it all hangs on each other and, in the end, becomes one. A person who loves humanity in spite of their family has a flawed character. Love cannot be mastered, it takes over your heart; you let it in. Einstein called it a “circle of compassion.” This book is a circle; a new chapter, the circle gets bigger.
Love is a historical force just like hate and greed are. People are historical forces. Emerson said “properly speaking, there is no history, only biography” and Carl Jung said “the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history” (quoted in The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, front). We forget this. We forget that actual people in history made actual history. When a man named William Willberforce was born, the slave trade existed. When that man died, it didn’t. Perhaps history is also driven by complex “historical forces”–natural, economic, or otherwise. Sure. But stop and read the very first sentence in John Woolman’s autobiography:
“I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God…and before I was seven years old I began to be acquainted with the operations of divine love” (quoted in The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, 13).
It is no wonder this man went on to dedicate his entire life to ending slavery, by literally walking around the country talking to slave-owners.
This book began when I embarked on a reading journey, a “love study” of sorts. Basically I read tons on the history and concept of love. I was getting married. From Aristotle to Buddha, Plato, Faulkner, Christ, Dante, Hobbes, Martin Luther King Jr. From philosophy to brain science, poetry to prose. The greatest people who have ever lived disagree on many things, I noticed. But they all agree on one thing: love is the greatest thing. Call it the universal law of wisdom. Paul said that “God is love” and Jesus made love the greatest commandment because love is the closest we can get to describing perfection–which is God, by definition. Even Jonathan Edwards, the stereotypical angry hellfire preacher, said this: “all Virtue…is resolved into Love to Being; and nothing is virtuous or beautiful in Spirits, any otherwise than as it is an exercise, or fruit, or manifestation, of this love” (quoted in Heroic Colonial Christians 40).
All good men and women on this earth share two things: love and wisdom. Wisdom is what happens when knowledge meets compassion. Aristotle said to contemplate virtue every day. He was right. Love swallows virtue. You can’t just read it; you must think it and especially do it. If I was a better man, I would stop writing and start doing.
I make no arguments. They won’t work here. Love simply is; it enters your heart through inspiration. The philosopher Peter Singer argues that you should only keep twenty thousand dollars and donate the rest. Okay, sure. We find that interesting. But the fact that Peter Singer actually does it…now that’s an argument! Let’s throw logical fallacies out the window. “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation that I can receive from another soul,” way Emerson. This book inspires and provokes, or does nothing. If this book were an argument, the argument would be nothing short of this: love is the only thing that can and will save the world from its many problems. Love is the only thing that can save you, me, us, them. This is the oldest truth – “as old as the hills” says Gandhi – still as true and powerful as ever.
Love is the only thing. We have tried other things. We tried religion, which helped a lot. Religious people treat their own very well. But religions clash and tons of people die. The Enlightenment gave us Reason, which helped a lot; but Reason can blow up buildings too (Ted Kaczynski). Philosophy and moral thinkers helped a lot. They gave us the virtue ethics of Aristotle, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Mill’s greatest happiness principle, Rawls veil of ignorance. But philosophy will not make you write checks to Oxfam, or make you give blood or volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. None of this will make us get along.
Love never presents an argument, but it does suggest the greatest way to live this life. This book inspires, or it does nothing.
Love: Introduction