Someone said to me in exasperation, “If it’s not one thing it’s something else.” We all probably have expressed some version of this feeling.
You get the roof on the house fixed and the brakes wear out on the car. One child finds a job after a long search and another tells you he and his wife are divorcing. You get that second vaccination for COVID-19 and on the next visit to the doctor discover that the funny mole on your back isn’t funny after all.
I’m perhaps a little odd in that I find consolation in philosophy. Odd. But not unique. From the students of Socrates to the students of Maimonides to the students of Wittgenstein, scores of others have found consolation there too.
The philosophy I find most comforting arises in several faiths and philosophical traditions, ancient and contemporary, and it seeks peace not in escaping reality, but in facing it and exploring it and learning to let our hearts “be not troubled” by aligning ourselves with it.
There is a great burden, even torment, in demanding that life corresponds to our pleasure. You and I have doubtless known many people who desperately seek happiness by clinging to this or that experience, trying to replicate a feeling or make it continue endlessly, demanding that life conform to their wishes. And among the wishes many people have, as a condition for their happiness, the wish that things would stay fixed ranks right at or near the top.
I might be tempted to respond to the person who complained to me, that “If it’s not one thing it’s another,” by saying, “And how might life work better?”
Indeed I might be tempted to respond sarcastically by saying, “Well as long as we’re alive, things will keep changing. The only alternative is death.” But, of course, the truth is that change doesn’t stop when we die, either for us or the world.
It isn’t even that change is sewn into the fabric of life. Change is of the very essence of life.
Think of a time-lapse video of a garden plant growing from seed to maturity then withering dying and falling back to the ground to rot and to enter the cycle of nourishing the earth from which it grew. “A seed cannot grow unless it falls into the earth and dies,” said Jesus. Nature is change. Death and birth and death are natural. The ocean rises here and there in waves, some frothing with white as they peak, only to fall back again into the ocean from which they came and of which they never ceased to be a part.
What does it mean to seek peace in the nature of reality rather than either resisting reality, demanding that it conform to our expectations as a condition for our happiness, or constructing philosophies that flee reality in the construction of ideal realms?
If I remember correctly, it was in his satirical “Candide” that Voltaire asked the question, “Is this the best of all possible worlds?” He was attempting to come to terms with the problem philosophers designate with the technical word, “theodicy,” what some call “the problem of evil and suffering.”
For a very long time, I assumed the answer to his question was, “No! This is not the best of all possible worlds!” I preached angrily in reaction to his question. But something happened to me along the way. Something changed in me.
Maybe I made peace with God. Maybe I made peace with life. And maybe there’s no difference between these peace-making ventures.
I know nothing of another realm of existence. Whether in the mists of legend and myth, a golden age, a garden of Eden, or with Plato in the realm of absolute ideals, or elsewhere.
“Utopia,” as Thomas More knew, when he coined that word, really is “Nowhere.” That includes the utopias in our heads that keep us from coming to terms with the reality of this world.
I do, however, believe that God created this world and pronounced it good. And with all its heartbreaks and difficulties, its pains and accidents, its losses and decay, it is indeed good. It seems consistent with this belief to recognize that the world works in a God-given harmony, even though that harmony, in addition to beauty and freedom and wonders and joys, also produces painful consequences.
When dangers arise, we should bring these to God in prayer. When pain results, we should address it. When damages occur, we should try to repair them. But we should not demand that the world stop spinning just to make us more comfortable.
Peace lies in discovering that we are creatures. Peace lies in the compassion creatures feel for others and the world they share. Peace lies in aligning our hearts with reality.