Preface – All of the following, as is true of anything I write, is only my opinion. I share it with no intention of having it viewed as universally true. In fact as you will see as you read, I do not believe in universal truth or certainty. To be completely honest each sentence should begin with something like, “In my opinion...” or “In my experience...” Feel free to add such word salad if you like. If you do it will take you longer to read my text, but who am I to deny anyone the pleasure of prolonging the agony of my words?
Many days it looks like the world is hopeless and that I am powerless to do anything about it. Worse, there are even moments when I feel that it is my fault that things are the way they are, and that my inability to change them is due to a lack of moral courage and faith. Thankfully, I know that these feelings are based on false assumptions. They are lies.
It's true that today millions of people will starve, be abused, maimed and killed. Many more will suffer silently from despair, hopelessness, guilt, anxiety or any number of other conditions that will sap their strength and in some cases, their willingness to continue with life. It is true that much of what surrounds me is driven by fear and anger; that many people (including me) focus on immediate pleasures rather than long term health; that we often feel trapped in an inescapable prison with bars made of DNA, environment, religious laws, cultural history and “scientific” confusion.
It's true that today I probably will eat some things that damage my heart, body and brain. It's true that I will not exercise as much my body needs to achieve maximum health. It's true that I will not be kind to everyone I meet. It's even true that I likely will intentionally hurt others and that they will return the favor.
All of these truths, all of these facts can lead me to see little but darkness ahead. This matrix of “reality” can cause unending pain and despair. But there is happiness as well.
Once I found solace in believing that somewhere there was a magical God, book or teacher; some being or knowledge that could suspend the laws of nature for my benefit; a path to be free from suffering and even death itself. I spent decades searching for such a person. I read and discussed hundreds of books, I attended thousands of religious and “spiritual” meetings and workshops. I prayed. I begged. I struggled. I “failed”.
I did find some relief. I did find some hope. But eventually, always, these practices gave me no lasting peace. Suffering returned as soon as I asked questions. I was told not to question, many times. But telling me not to question is like telling a bird not to fly. Asking questions is the core of who I am. If I stopped asking questions I don't know what I would be. I might even be “truly happy” as many people define it. But, I would not be Dale. Perhaps this desire or insistence on questioning things is at the heart of my suffering. I don't know. For whatever reason, unquestioning faith or belief is not my path. Either through choice, destiny, or as some might have it – from being possessed by Beelzebub himself, I neither wish to nor know how to cease questioning.
I am especially driven to question anyone who says they know for certain how to attain happiness. Usually such gurus require acceptance on “faith” without questions or evidence. When I encounter these “dudes” and “dudettes” you may as well slam the door shut and call me late for supper. My questions mean the land of certainty far from my reach. One by one each religious or spiritual path has faded from my life, obscured by its resolute certainty and dogma. Each religious or spiritual path I've encountered has a set of steps, laws, beliefs or practices that they claimed will result in happiness for “anyone” who chooses to follow them. The only condition is that I followers accept the beliefs without question. If this condition is met, the paths and teachers claim the followers will receive happiness and joy, if not in this life, then at some future time and place where the “faitful” will experience joys that cannot be imagined by those trapped on this material plane.
I have been told numerous times that the reason I question things is that I am egotistical and have narcissistic tendencies. This likely is true. Frequently these criticisms are delivered by people wearing funny robes and hats, who believe the world is 6,000 years old, or who have memorized ancient texts and yell out verses whether I ask for them or not. There are those too who have been “overcome” by deep feelings of enlightenment, who speak in tongues and who dance filled with “rapture”. I have a hard time accepting the criticism that I am egotistical from these people. When someone wearing multicolored robes in a 21st century city or who claims Noah's Flood caused the Grand Canyon calls me narcissistic it is difficult not to laugh out loud.
To be fair, I have felt holy and happy when practicing some religions or following spiritual or transcendental paths. I also felt pity for those who did not see the light of my wise practice. Some of those I pitied, took issue with my sanctimonious certainty and called me a tight assed little shit. I blessed them. I prayed for them to be freed from the “hardening of their hearts”, that prevented them from accepting the “love” I was so freely offering.
Each religion and spiritual path I have encountered places absolute, unchanging and unquestionable conditions on happiness.
They say,“Follow us and you will be happy, or at least happier, if you follow our path. It is after all the ONLY one true path for ALL people, for ALL time.”
They cannot all be correct. Yet certainty is never in short supply among religious and spiritual leaders. I have experienced this certainty and it was comforting. Eventually, however I found myself wondering, “Why do the leaders have such prejudice against those who do no follow the path?”; “Why is there such a resistance to changing our views when we find out new information?”; “Why isn't it okay to say 'we don't know the answer to that'?”; “Why am I asked to reject any opposing points of view without investigating them?”
Once I realized the metaphysical paths were closed to me, I felt condemned. I was doomed to live in this awful material world to live under the rule of fang and claw. Clearly there could be no happiness in this dog eat dog world. But, wait a moment, perhaps I was being too hasty. What if one were to become top dog, or at least a member of the ruling pack?
I dove into the business world with a vengeance. I worked hard and partied harder. Much to my surprise I had a knack for selling air. As a consultant, I won't say that I never delivered value to my clients. I did help bring about some positive changes in my client's organizations, but I soon realized that much of the time I was gathering information from those doing the work and repackaging it for digestion by upper management. If executives had the humility and openness to listen to their employees, if they took the time to look honestly at themselves, if they carefully observed their customers and competition, using consultants would be like selling coal in Newcastle. Instead, many executives spend more time on the politics of becoming and remaining top dog than they do listening to the “ignoramuses” that work for them. Not every executive fits this bill, but there are enough of them to guarantee a good living for consultants. I've met more than my share, and have even tried to become one. My fangs were too dull and my bite was too weak for me to achieve the highest levels of management, but I did get close enough to get a taste of the red meat.
Eventually, I found myself sitting in a house the size of a small hotel within walking distance of one of the Florida's premier beaches. Professional golfers lived down the road. My suits were tailored from Dormeuil. The leather for my shoes and belts came from exotic, nearly extinct species. I spent more on meals and single nights in hotel rooms than I paid for a semester of tuition at university. If material success was the condition for happiness I should at least have been mildly buoyant on most days. For a time I was. Then the questions returned.
How could I justify having so much when others had so little? Why was it alright for me to live as I lived while millions died from lack of a vaccine costing less than 50¢? Shouldn't I feel guilty? Was life in the end just dogs eating dogs? What would happen if a bigger dog decided to eat me?
My travels took me to places in the world where I had tread carefully to avoid having my shoes soiled by human excrement. I once worked in an office where every morning I walked past a homeless mother with a baby on each hip. She sold packets of plantains fried in a hubcap over a fire made of dung. I bought a packet every day and pretended to eat them until I got inside and tossed them into the trash. I told myself that such situations were an unavoidable part of the human condition, that in fact by “doing business” in the mother's country I was improving the chances that her children would have a better future. I was bringing civilization to them. I was helping them. Somehow, at night when I went home to a compound guard by men with machine guns it was hard to convince myself that my motives were “pure” and that I was in fact making things better.
Life, by means of cancer and mental illness, removed the career that gave me a sense of purpose. I woke one day to find myself cast out of the pack. I still had some money, but it was clear for the first time in a long time that I was not in control of my fate. Fear and depression set in. I was still surrounded by material comfort, but the tangible certainty it once provided was gone.
I dove headfirst in to the program that helped me give up recreational drug use in 1990-91. I worked hard to “help” others to realize and practice its spiritual principles. Once again, I found myself looking for the right conditions for happiness in a “spiritual path”. Once again, it proved useful. Once again, the questions undermined its effectiveness. As soon as I began viewing the program as a source of happiness. Some told me this was because I gave the program more importance than the spiritual power that was the programs inspiration. In their view if I only would give myself more fully to the program and its spiritual power, if only I met those conditions I would be happy.
Religious conditions, material conditions, psychiatric conditions, program conditions – which conditions will yield the greatest happiness for me? How long will they last? But wait. I am mentally ill. Should I try to find a medication that eliminates my questioning? Should I undergo more ECT treatments? Is there a stronger pill?
I began driving, a source of great comfort to me. On one trip I found blackness darker than any I had ever encountered. I gave up. I went into a gas station bathroom firmly convinced that it would be best to end things. As I stood before the mirror, looking at my reflection I was slowly overcome with a sense of great peace. Maybe there were no conditions. Maybe I was forcing conditions on my happiness. Maybe I was just tricking myself into believing my happiness required conditions.
I stopped staring. I looked around at the bathroom. What a mess. Why do gas station restrooms always look like the scene of an interrupted circle jerk or a turd flinging festival?
“Oh, well”, I thought, “...may as well clean it up a little for the next guy. May as well be kind.”
As I cleaned, the old familiar questioning began. Did I want my happiness to be based on conditions so that I could control it? Did I simply want the certainty of telling myself - “I'll be happy when I find someone to forgive me for my sins?”, “I'll be happy when I 'work the program' well enough?”, “I'll be happy when I am mentally, spiritually and physically fit?”, “I'll be happy when I find the perfect mate, have the perfect child and become the perfect old fart with grand kids on my knee?”,”I'll be happy and fulfilled when everyone in the world is happy and fulfilled?”
I only had a sliver of soap and paper towels to work with, so my cleaning took quite a while. As I worked I imagined how I would have enjoyed finding a clean restroom, rather than the mess I was cleaning. I began to hum. I was happy. Evidently, the “condition” of trying to be kind helped me to be happy.
Perhaps there is a set of spiritual or religious conditions that will bring the world to happiness. Perhaps there is a magical text to be studied. Perhaps we will learn enough through science to create a “heaven” on earth. I don't know. I likely never will know. But I do know that I will keep questioning. I know that I kindness does not require me to accept anything blindly. I know that acting with kindness greatly improves my chances of happiness. I have evidence. A whole string of evidence that began may have begun the day I was born but that came to focus in a gas station bathroom.
When friends take time out of their day to speak with me I see kindness. When I send an email to my friend in Uganda and we discuss how he might sell coffee with a friend from Uptown Bill's I see kindness. When I recall my friends in Egypt taking in a stranger, treating him as if he were royalty, calling him friend and “brother” I see kindness. I am happy.
For me, there is no magic. There is no mystery. There is no path. There are no conditions other than kindness. I knew kindness before I could speak. I know it now and I practice it (at least some of the time), not to be good, not to be saved and not to be admired although I like feeling good, holy and famous. Kindness for the sake of these things these things may be useful, but they are the enemies of the kindness I value most. If my kindness depends on conditions, if you have to earn it, if you have to get a degree in it, or if it is linked to recognition it becomes something else – it starts to smell like dogs eating dogs to become the “kindest” dog. The kindness that brings me happiness comes in moments I cannot anticipate, and is best done when and where no one else can see it. The happiness I receive from this kindness has no conditions that are controlled by me. Like gravity it simply is. At long last, I can accept that. Any questions I have about the power of kindness are easily tested by simple practice – the opportunity to gather and create evidence is all around me.
There is much suffering in the world. I did not cause ALL of it. I cannot cure ALL of it, perhaps none of it. But my kindness can relieve a little of it. With kindness I can be happy, if only for a little while. (And I can still ask questions!)