I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time making sense of what we’re going through right now. Of course, compared to what the people we have known have gone through, especially those who lived through the twentieth century with all the wars and ideological conflicts, it seems like a trivial thing. I had to wonder whether my expectations and the belief that we would overcome the experiences that caused so much suffering by becoming more reasonable were the cause of my difficulties.
The assumption that we would become more reasonable after the horrors of the last century was, I think, fostered by schooling in Germany, which was clearly an indoctrination away from the fascist mindset that had made Germany such a war machine. It was propaganda designed to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, and it was, of course, well-intentioned, and many of us believed it. A similar mindset accompanied me in my training as a geriatric nurse, where it became clear that gerontology, a relatively new field of nursing, was trying to overcome the appalling conditions in which older people with dementia had been kept until the 1980s, and to better educate caregivers. We had set out with the idea that our approach would make the world a little better, especially the world of people with dementia.
Many of us had not understood that people had a similar intention at the beginning of the 20th century, when they believed that World War I would be a war to end all wars and intending to make reason and science the tools with which to overcome the irrationality of religion, ignorance, and superstition. In a sense, it was an application of pure rationality that led to the atrocities of the 20th century, and a heartless determination took people’s breath away in horror because it seemed to consume people and make them burn for something that had the opposite effect of what they had imagined. It did not seem to matter in which ideological direction people moved, whether fascism or communism, people were captivated and those who were not indoctrinated were swept away.
The conclusion of the post-war period was that an evil had been overcome with the surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan, but the comparably rationalist indoctrination of communism had taken place in Russia and China, causing unimaginable suffering that surpassed that of World War II. An ideological struggle was still going on in many countries, and people continued to suffer until towards the end of the century. It is hard to imagine how I could have had such an idealistic worldview when I set out to make the world a better place, given the recent past. Not only did the world not make sense, but I did not make sense either.
Since then, it has become abundantly clear that while we had not defeated the evil that plagued the last century, at least in the West, we had driven it underground. We could have recognized this after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed victory over communism by noting a shift in power, but the problem was by no means defeated. In fact, the problem is our nature. Some call it a dualistic nature, some say it is due to the structure of our brain, and some say it is our shadow self which, if ignored, overturns the good resolutions we have carefully made. In whatever way we want to explain it, explanations do not free us from the consequences. To make sense of the world, we must make sense of our contradictory nature.
The strange thing that people discover is that there is a side of humanity that well-meaning people tried to eradicate at the beginning of the 20th century: Religion. Today, many people in Europe see religion as something outdated, something that is rapidly disappearing – especially since the scandals of the Church have been investigated and made public. It has cost the sense of faith the church sought to convey, and its maternal nature has been sullied by the behaviour of a minority among the clergy who have abused the trust placed in them. But, as studies show, we are a species that is primarily emotional, and our rationality comes later. That’s why we keep looking for something we think as an institution in which we can place our trust. For some it’s work, for others it’s the soccer club, for others it’s the vacation that is an expression of what they believe they are. That’s why we can get very emotional about some things, even though we suspect that it’s something else that makes us happy.
This is also the reason why we are so easily disappointed. Material possessions do not satisfy the need within us that seeks nurturing guidance to understand ourselves. It is the restlessness within us that makes us unbalanced, sometimes depressed, sometimes a little paranoid. It is the place where conspiracy theories are born, and blanket condemnations are made of certain groups or individuals. It causes hooligans to fight with a rival group, and other people to fight with their partners and leave them. It causes the cohesion of society to crumble, sows’ distrust of the authorities, and leads to the radicalization of groups that actually mean well. It is a hole that needs to be filled.
The trouble is, we can’t just go back. That is probably why there are numerous people who are seeking solace in other religions, or in other convictions and teachings. It may well be that our society has a number of areas that are clearly remnants of the Christian faith, but unless it is translated differently, our access is blocked by the typical. Our problem with other traditions, however, is often that they presume a social cohesion that is different to our own understanding. Other nations underrate the individual, and only sees the individual as subject to the group he or she is in. We celebrate the individual and the group works to give the individual his freedoms. That is important and the reason why we fail to understand people in those traditions. Their discipline often seems restrictive and limiting.
So, making sense of our self seems to entail finding something to fill the void, since we obviously can’t ignore it. I found a quote on the Internet from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees that addresses this problem:
“All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions.
A test which has gone on so long, without pause or change, really ought to convince us that we are incapable of attaining the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us very little. No two examples are so exactly alike that there is not some subtle difference, and that is what makes us expect that our expectations will not be disappointed this time as they were last time. So, while the present never satisfies us, experience deceives us, and leads us on from one misfortune to another until death comes as the ultimate and eternal climax.
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”
As St. Augustine said, there is a “God-shaped hole” in each of us. But what do we understand when we use the word God? What could be infinite and immutable? It is quite obviously not a “thing” since all things are finite. In fact, many Christians seem to make the mistake of making God a thing, something graspable, as though we were able to understand how this whole existence in which we live came to be – “it’s easy”, they say, “it’s in the Bible”. But it isn’t easy, is it?
So, how do we make sense of our existence? What do you think?