Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why I Ask Why

My wife learned recently that her cousin's former boyfriend and father of their child was in a Bangkok jail for theft or some such charge. This news comes as no surprise to any of us, for this young man has been nothing but trouble for my wife's cousin and her family for a long time, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before he got in real trouble. No place is a good place to get in legal trouble, but Thailand is probably less of a good place than many to spend time in jail or prison.

I don't know what's going to happen to this young man, but I hope that, whatever it is, it serves as a wake-up call that motivates him to change his life for the better. That is, I hope he's hit bottom and now has nowhere to go but up.

My wife doesn't care what happens to him. She seems to feel nothing but contempt for him. She says he's now getting what he deserves or reaping his karma.

I asked her why she supposes he's acted the way he has, and she answered, "Because he's lazy. He doesn't want to work." I asked her why he's lazy, and she replied, "Because he wants to live the good life and enjoy expensive things, but he won't do the work necessary to earn them himself. He expects people to give them to him." I asked why he expects people to give them to him, and she replied, "Because his mom and dad spoiled him. He got everything he wanted when he was growing up just by asking for it, and now he expects the people around him to keep giving him what he wants." "So, he's the way he is because of the way his parents raised him?" I ask. "No," my wife replied. "He could still have turned out like his brother and worked hard and treated people decently. He didn't have to act the way he has." "Well," I ask, "if he could have acted differently but didn't, why do you suppose he didn't?" "Because, like I said before, he's lazy." "Yes, but why is he lazy?" "Don't keep asking me these questions!" she said in exasperation.

Of course, the purpose of these questions is not to exasperate, but to get others thinking about why people do the things they do. That is, what causes them to do what they do. Yet, people don't seem to want to do this. They seem to want to stick with simplistic answers like, "He did it because he wanted to," or "She did it because she's a bad person." If you ask, "Why did he want to do it?" or "Why is she a bad person?"people want you to shut up or change the subject. They want to stick with their finger-pointing blame games and to find any excuse they can for scorning not only misbehavior but also those who misbehave.

But what's the alternative? If one looks for the causes of bad behavior or bad character, does one do as my wife suggested I do and not hold people accountable for what they do? Should the young man I mentioned earlier face no consequences for his acts? If he doesn't, won't he go on exploiting people for his own selfish ends?

I think we can draw a distinction between who people are, superficially and deeply, and what they do. I think we can find certain acts wrong and do what we reasonably can to discourage them and still feel compassion and unconditional regard for those who commit them. Gagdad says this is madness and that people must be subject to the masculine principle of conditional love lest they become foolish and narcissistic "liberals."

But it seems to me that those who do wrong are more likely to do right if they believe that they have it within them to be good and do good, and that we convey this to them when, even though we condemn their wrongful actions and punish them appropriately for them, we go on caring about them and loving them as persons and as manifestations of God no matter what they do.

7 comments:

ned said...

I like your post.

"Why" is the most important question anyone could ask about anything. It's the most childlike and innocent question of all. If meaning is embedded in everything around us, as mystics say, then "why" is a question we ought to be persistently asking.

"I think we can draw a distinction between who people are, superficially and deeply, and what they do."

Yes! This is the essence of spiritual detachment -- knowing that no matter how much a person is distorting the Divine within them, the Divine is in fact within them, too. The manifestation may be imperfect but the Divine is still there. I quote my main man Sri Aurobindo again (from "The Synthesis of Yoga"):

"The ripened soul does not condemn but seeks to understand and master, does not cry out but accepts or toils to improve and perfect, does not revolt inwardly but labours to obey and fulfil and transfigure."

"I think we can find certain acts wrong and do what we reasonably can to discourage them and still feel compassion and unconditional regard for those who commit them."

Absolutely. In fact the ideal in the Bhagavad-Gita is that even in an extreme situation like warfare, when one is *forced* to fight and even kill, one *must* remain detached and see the Divine behind the appearance of the enemy. To not be fooled by masks, to have the courage and love and spirit of self-sacrifice to see behind the appearances, *that's* the secret of controlled action in the world.

"Gagdad says this is madness and that people must be subject to the masculine principle of conditional love lest they become foolish and narcissistic "liberals.""

*sigh* Someone needs to hold up a mirror to this fellow.

"But it seems to me that those who do wrong are more likely to do right if they believe that they have it within them to be good and do good, and that we convey this to them when, even though we condemn their wrongful actions and punish them appropriately for them, we go on caring about them and loving them as persons and as manifestations of God no matter what they do."

You've reminded me of a very interesting story. It comes from the 1971 war in present-day Bangladesh. I won't get into the historical details here (will post this on my blog), but what was happening was, as you can imagine, men were raping women left, right and center. One girl was stripped naked by a group of angry, uncontrolled men, but she managed to run out of her house and onto the street. An old man rushed out of his house, saw her, draped his shawl around her, and took her inside his house. He then stepped out to face the angry young men.

He said to them calmly, "If you want to hurt that girl, you will have to get past me first."

I don't know what happened but for some reason, the crowd of angry men suddenly broke down into tears, amazed at their behavior. They were only externalizing their own sense of powerlessness.

This story was published in a paper by historian Yasmin Saikia, who was collecting eyewitness accounts of what was happening during this war. (I'll link to it from my blog.) The story was narrated by one of the would-be rapists in the crowd of men. Reflecting on what happened, he exclaimed, "I don't know what had happened to us! We were behaving like animals!"

But quite a story, isn't it? The old man must have been remarkably mindful and still to have broken the power of anger over those men. So it just goes to show that even behind the most evil human beings there is a soul that is struggling to manifest. It is our job not to condemn or judge, but to harmonize and set things right so that they too can actualize their souls. Of course not everyone can do this -- not everyone has that inner stillness and it takes a LOT of practice and inner growth to cultivate it -- but it's the ideal we should strive for.

Finding Fair Hope said...

I confess I can identity with your wife's exasperation because of your need to ask "why." Maybe it's a male-female thing, that to us (women) it almost sounds like one-upsmanship, or like the three-year-old's constant "why" which is almost a whine.

Why, indeed. I admire your tenacity in persisting on your search for that existential "why" at the center of everything. On the other hand, you have to be patient with those of us who do not have the need to press for the kernel of truth in every single incident. I imagine you are going over my first sentence now, saying, "Why do you identify with the exasperation? Why do you think it's a male-female thing? Why does it sound to you like one-upsmanship?

There is this sense that you feel you are doing the rest of us a favor by challenging our assumptions and always harkening back to Gagdad, whom we have chosen to disagree with years ago and see no reason to keep using as a sounding board. ("Why have you chosen to disagree?" "Why do you feel that I feel I am doing you a favor?")

Maybe the question is why don't you understand that there are times when "why" is not really the important question.

The question about the lad in Thailand is, is there anything we can do to help? If, as your wife says, there is not, are we better off understanding the forces that made him the way he is? Or is it more likely that we can neither understand nor make things better for him? He is on his own journey and will find his own path. If there is an answer to why that is, I don't have it. I also don't have such a crying need to ask.

Nagarjuna said...

Ned and FFH--
You both have written some very insightful and provocative comments. I will try to address them this weekend, when I have more time to give them the replies they deserve. Thank you both very much for what you've written.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Why do you like our comments?

Nagarjuna said...

Ned--
"This is the essence of spiritual detachment -- knowing that no matter how much a person is distorting the Divine within them, the Divine is in fact within them, too. The manifestation may be imperfect but the Divine is still there."

I love the way you put this! Shouldn't spiritual practice aim at seeing the Divine within everyone? And if we see or, at least, try to see the Divine within everyone, shouldn't we love or, at least, try to love everyone no matter what they do, even if we don't love WHAT they do?

Yet, if the Divine is not the whole person but only a PART or the essential core of the person, should we strive to love the whole person or only the divine part of the person?

As for the Gita's ideal of seeing the Divine within the enemy that one is trying to kill, how realistic is this ideal? How can one summon the will to wage war against those one sees as instantiations, albeit misguided ones perhaps, of God? In the Gita, Krishna soothes Arjuna by telling him that when he kills someone, he's only killing the superficial body and not the divine essence of the person which is not only imperishable but will reincarnate. But suppose you don't believe in reincarnation, and suppose you really DO see someone as an instantiation of the Divine and love him accordingly? How do you wage war against him?

What a wonderful story of the old man who stood up to the frenzied mob by mirroring their own divine nature and thereby calling them to it. "So it just goes to show that even behind the most evil human beings there is a soul that is struggling to manifest. It is our job not to condemn or judge, but to harmonize and set things right so that they too can actualize their souls." Wonderful!

Thank you, Ned.

Nagarjuna said...

FFH--
When I wrote that I planned to reply to you this weekend with the answer you deserve, I had lofty fantasies of writing something profound, but I've come to realize that I have nothing profound to say in reply. So let me just say this:

You raise two issues. First, Why do I write so much about another blogger who most people who read this blog could probably care less about? I'm not sure why I do it. I think I do it partly because the quality of his writing and his lofty attempt to create a systematic worldview draws me to his blog, and once I get there and start reading it, I always encounter some provocative point that I feel compelled to write about, usually to take issue with. And, as I wrote to Ned, I think reading Bob and writing about what I agree and disagree with him about helps me to understand and evaluate my own worldview better and to bring it more in line with truth.

But on a less philosophical and more psychological level, I think there may be other factors figuring into my motives that I scarcely understand. Perhaps I secretly fear that Bob is correct in his politics and spirituality, and I'm trying to dispel this fear by, in my own feeble way, proving him wrong. Perhaps I also see him as my intellectual and verbal superior, which he unquestionably is, but, by God, I'm still going to show him, myself, and everyone else who cares to look that I'm better than him at SOMETHING--i.e., I'm wiser than him at least about some things. Perhaps I also admire his intelligence, erudition, and writing skill so much that I want to draw him to my blog just so that I can have THAT much of a connection with him, even if the comments his various personas have left here at largely negative in nature. Perhaps I'm like the little boy for whom negative attention from someone he looks up to is better than no attention at all. I don't entirely know WHY I write so much here about what Gagdad Bob says and believes, but I find it to be a fascinating question, and, as of now, I don't know whether I'll continue to write as much about Bob says as I have been.

The second issue you raise is whether I should be more circumspect about asking WHY?

I don't ask people this question much in "real life" outside this blog or other philosophically oriented online discussions. And when I do it, I tend to do it with reference to my belief in determined or inevitable will, particularly the will or choice to do "bad" things, and in my efforts to lead others to see where I'm coming from. That was why I kept asking my wife WHY? the other day. Instead of just spouting my reasons for believing that when people do bad things, it's because they couldn't help it under the circumstances, which would probably go in one of her ears and out the other, I tried to get her to see for herself that our actions, bad or otherwise, are the inevitable manifestation of a complex chain or web of causes. However, I don't know that I succeeded in getting her to see this or, at least, to understand why I see it the way I do, or to care about it. Perhaps I need to go back to the proverbial drawing board for a better approach to sharing my view on this matter.

ned said...

Nagarjuna: have noted down your concerns here as well and will try to incorporate them into my essay.

Thanks for motivating and inspiring me! :-)