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Measuring Up

by on November 19, 2014

                                                                   Measuring Up

                                                                by Marco M. Pardi

Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The COMMENTS sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments.  Comments that do not specifically address content will be trashed as SPAM.

“Recognizing the poverty of philosophical opinions, not adhering to any of them, seeking the truth, I saw.” The Buddha (6th Cent. B.C.E.) Suttanipata 4.9.3.

In primary school the nuns waxed on about the soul being pure white.  Venial sins appeared as black spots, to be burned off through penance or Purgatory.  Of course, I could go and make a “sincere” confession, do the 5 Our Fathers, 10 Hail Marys, and 8 laps around the church and have it scrubbed clean.  But that would last what, until the moment I felt sure my soul was pure?  Isn’t that the mortal sin of Pride?  Joseph Heller had yet to write Catch-22, but already I had a deep understanding of the concept.  Mortal sins blackened it entirely, sending it to unending Hell.  So I sat quietly in class, secretly pondering my leopard skin soul, wondering when it would turn to panther black.

I was recently recorded for an hour long radio program.  The central focus of the organization producing the program is personal development.  Keying off the Brittany Maynard case, the interviewer,  a well educated young man with an interesting background,  turned the discussion toward “life lessons” for the soul or spirit to learn.  However, throughout the interview I reiterated a principle I try to observe:  I do not engage in conversations which I feel are based on unquestioned presumptions.  I repeatedly paused the conversation in order to define and clarify key terms and ideas.  Life lessons was one of those ideas.  

The first presumption,  often unquestioned but lingering in the background is that there are spirits hanging around that take physical form in order to learn something.  Found in several Western and non-Western religions this is a non-rational article of faith (not based on independently verifiable evidence) not a demonstrable fact. That two sexually mature individuals of the opposite sex coupled and the haploid gametes of each joined successfully, resulting in a diploid zygote is a rational and demonstrable fact.  Any pre-coupling “purpose” for the zygote is conjecture.  This is not to pronounce the loitering spirit presumption incorrect, it is only to elucidate the ease with which teleological thinking is applied and unquestioned.  The rational approach answers the existential question of Why am I here by saying, “Someone screwed”; the non-rational approach, for many, answers this existential question by proposing that a pre-existing spirit had some lessons to learn which could only be done through a physical form.  Can’t do much with that, at least not from this end.

And so a co-existent presumption is the pre-existence of some sort of cosmic syllabus, complete with lesson plans to which the circumstances producing and surrounding the developing zygote have been tailored.  Essentially this is saying, “I had something to learn so these two sexually mature individuals were selected to produce me and to bring about those growing experiences, those life lessons, so I could complete my curriculum syllabus.”  Could we be any more self-important than that?   Would the nuns call this Pride?

This theme is also commonly employed as a palliative in times of grief.  A baby is stillborn and non-rationalists pronounce it as having learned (or delivered) its lessons and returned.  The same rationale is applied to any death “before its time”.  These pronouncements, rendered ex post facto, automatically place the assertion into a semantic realm which cannot be contested rationally.  That the parents of the stillborn child or the child that dies sometime in infancy may be devastated is somewhat secondary, though there is presumably a “lesson” in there, too.  And many non-rationalists will rush to render opinions on just what that lesson is.  Perhaps they’ve bribed a spirit student assistant in the spirit instructor’s office to pass them a copy of the test.

And so, looking at the development and the course of a life from this presumed schooling point of view,  non-rationalists will extend the lesson plan even into the most horrendous of personal circumstances, circumstances which will inevitably end in death regardless of anyone’s opinion.  Discussing the view, held by some, that Brittany Maynard and others like her somehow short circuited the learning plan reminded me of the wisdom revealed to us by none other than Tricia Nixon, that paragon of intellectual development.  When, during her father’s administration, she was asked her views on capital punishment she quickly asserted her support for it, saying, “Yeah, that oughta’ teach ’em.”  Perhaps no one told her the dead seem to show no benefit from lessons.  At least not that we can rationally see.  The old “This will make a better person out of you” seems not to apply to someone going through excruciating pain and agony only to come out the other end dead.  Unless, of course, one takes the non-rationalist position that “lessons learned” from pain and suffering in the physical realm carry over into the spiritual realm.  Kind of like those diploma mills that grant credits for “life experience.”  As one who has rendered palliative care to dying patients and their families, I would never say “This will make a better person” of the dying patient.

Sadly, much of the negative rhetoric being directed to and about Brittany’s family, and about her choice, seems to come from people who have not taken the time to separate what they believe from what they know.  They then attempt to impose their beliefs on others as “knowns”, not as beliefs, as if they are prima facie obvious to everyone.  And from there it is only a short step to “life lessons”.

But life can be long.  Mine has certainly been longer than some people hoped.  Looking back over a life of some length, how is it possible to isolate an event and elevate it above the rest as a life lesson?  Here’s the rub: There will always be someone willing to provide that answer for me.  There will be someone who will cite a mating choice that went in a direction different from what was expected and will solemnly intone to me that this was surely a lesson from which I must have learned.  There are two problems here: The observer projects their own values of what is or is not momentous onto my life; and, the observer has the benefit of hindsight.  I was around 40 when “stress questionnaires” became popular.  At least two colleagues administered them to me and, after tabulating the results, opined they could not understand how I was not a gibbering wreck.  I’m not the “What, me worry?” type.  But someone else’s ideas of stress had very little relevance to the life I had been and still was living.  Or, perhaps I had just learned something.

People familiar with my work in Death & Dying and with my own non-corporeal experiences I have mentioned sometimes seize on those as surely life changing experiences.  After all, the mundane literature is filled with testimonials from people who claimed their lives had completely changed subsequent to these experiences.  Yet, in answering if that was the case for me,  I simply say what I feel: The answer is No; I did not experience a life changing epiphany, I simply gained yet another affirmation of something I knew all along. 

What about events as they happen?  How can I say what I experience in the present is a lesson for my future if I do not know my future?  And so, what value is a lesson if you can only look back to find you had it?

Obviously,  for me the concept of life lessons is another of those aggravating New Age woo-woo jobs, fraught with potential for misuse and abuse.  For me, the syllabus in the sky, the need to cycle through lives checking boxes, the hubris of thinking there is a Path and one is on it,  the misery often unnecessarily imposed on the self or on someone else can be summed in one statement:  It does not measure up.    


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  1. Pam Wedding permalink

    This post made me smile, Marco. It reminded me of a bumper sticker I stuck on one of my journals years ago – Oh No! Not another learning experience!

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Thanks, Pam. I like that sticker. Sometimes the deepest thoughts can be captured in the simplest sayings. Bothered by people following too closely on the road, I had a sticker that said, “Hitmen love tailgaters”. End of problem.


  3. There is much wisdom in this piece, but hard to put into practice. Human nature is to try to offer comfort to another person suffering. With that desire I have said some of the stupidest things ever. I’m really working on “I’m so sorry” being the extent of solace I offer.


    • Thank you, Mary. I sympathize with the difficulty of “saying the right thing”. I try to say something like, “This affects me deeply, but I can only imagine how deeply it affects you.” You are right; it is usually difficult to live by these principles even in the face of some awful surprises.


  4. If we do not agree completely on this subject, I am at least wise enough to concede that you are as likely to be correct as I am. Like Schrodinger’s infamous cat, all things are possible until the truth is known. Truth is empirical and belief conjectural; we may suppose all we like, it is not proof.

    What is or is not a lesson would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. Maybe we just roll about, with random bits of useful clinging to us along the way. Maybe things are hard-wired into some people, but not others. Maybe, just maybe, we seek out (consciously or otherwise) that which helps us grow. Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-roll Pop; the world may never know.

    *or as my daddy used to say, “that’ll learn ya, durn ya”


    • Thank you, Rose. I really enjoyed the imagery as you led me through this. As Tonto used to say, Quien no sabe (“Kemosabe”). Marco


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