This Chance Life

If you don’t write, it doesn’t get written.

So I decide to write again, picking one topic among many confused and overlapping things I keep thinking to write about.

This one is about how life unfolds out of control, and has some overlap with my post about butterflies.

Of late I’ve realized that many of my posts could be written in a far more condensed form, preserving most of the content and almost all of the point I am trying to make, with perhaps a surprising advantage that they’ll hit home harder as they force you to think to fill in the gaps. So hopefully this post won’t be long.

There is a widespread infatuation with the illusion of planned-ness in the world. We like to believe that things happen in life with a purpose, or that there is a purpose to life. You’re here to do something, to build your life towards something. Indeed, if you take away that from many contexts, many belief systems will collapse. Our lives unfold in a certain way, and when something very fortunate happens, like a relationship or success at work, we immediately think of it as the consequence of actions and events. The lover thinks they were meant to be. Even if not all of them think that, they still see inexorable direction and justification in having arrived at their current choice. It is not imaginable to them that this other person is someone who just resulted from the unpredictable knocking around of the universe and could as easily have been a completely different person, resulting in a completely different life for themselves. But that is how it is, as I discussed to some extent in the butterfly article. Where you are born and where you grow and chance encounters in chance situations, these are what shape your life. Despite our incessant planning and method and ambition, much of the important structure of our lives owes itself to chance. If you see meaning to everything in your life, you are pasting retrospective direction onto it.

It is not true, I have noticed, that hard work always pays off and slacking off makes you pay. In order to resolve this bug in the image of an otherwise planned world, there are terms like ‘playing is more important than winning’ and so forth. Sure, work builds character, but that only ups the chances of success. In this world with numerous conflicting flows all out of your reach, success cannot be tuned like that with a dial of hard work. Don’t always expect genuine hard work to pay off. More important, don’t always assume that your success was a direct consequence of your hard work, unaffected by factors completely uncorrelated with it.

This attitude of removing purpose and determinism is depressing. It takes away the dials from your life. Man likes to be in control. That is why he is always looking for patterns. Science, Art. Think about it, that’s all we are looking for. If every single thing was one of a kind, there would be little meaning to these disciplines. We group according to pattern, and then we try to formulate what’s working inside the things in the same group. It works well in many cases. Consequently we can predict and exploit the system. But then we make an easy but dangerous mistake of extending that attitude to more complex systems where we have no a priori evidence that this works, like life.

With the little knowledge of nonlinear dynamics that I have now, I am becoming increasingly aware of why this pattern-finding algorithm shall be a complete failure in life. You shall see patterns in life, no doubt, but then, as you generalize them, you’ll make a mistake. There are no dials you can tune to get predictable results. There cannot be. You cannot control the chaos of life. This is not philosophy or literature I am mouthing; this is science. Be wary of any life advice you get. There is no way anyone could have figured out the whole machinery. And until someone does, which they won’t, there is no evidence that such advice works. In fact, this attitude of I can tune this will get you in more trouble.

It takes away some beauty and solace from life, true, this absence of purpose and direction. But I feel an excitement from it, to imagine my life being carried by unknown currents to places where I with my puny foresight could never have planned to be.

Therefore I accept, life, whatever you gift me from the great knocking about of the universe. I don’t need dials. It’s better this way.

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Dear God

Our school prayer, recited together every morning before the beginning of classes and often fondly remembered by me and my schoolmates now, went like this:

Dear God,
Thank you for everything;
Bless me and help me to be good,
And to do my studies well.

I stopped believing in god when I was very small. I don’t even remember how far back that was; I was probably about eight or nine then. I faintly remember that I used to harbour a mild irritation for this prayer as a reaction from this atheism. Along with some other funny stuff I used to do. Like I remember that in all my essays and elsewhere I never capitalized the word ‘god’ or pronouns referring to god, as is the norm (I still stick to that). One of my aunts, very religious, used to give me on my exam days a little paper-wrapped bundle of flowers from her puja, for luck. My schoolmates who brought these used to brush them over all the pages of their answer scripts. I remember throwing it out the window once, and then feeling crap about it because my aunt had only wished me well.

Where many of my friends had pictures of gods and goddesses on the inside of their pencil-boxes, I had pasted pictures of Einstein and Donald Duck.

On visits to temples, I used to refuse to toll the bell. I was very little then. I was forced to do it once, “just to be nice”, by another aunt. Although I remember faintly, and this is one of my oldest memories, that I used to enjoy vigorously tolling the bell at a nearby temple when I was very small and before I stopped believing in god. But I guess at that age I had no clue what it was about.

I don’t remember at all why I stopped believing in god; it happened a long time back when memory starts failing. But it has stood for that long. Right now I won’t offhand say that I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in organized religion. But god, well, it’s complicated, I’m not sure, and I don’t have very good arguments for whatever little ideas I have. I haven’t thought about it as much as I should. But yeah, for all practical purposes (which includes praying, visiting temples, fear of sin, trust on god etc) I am an atheist.

Coming back to that school prayer. Some friends were circulating it on facebook as a way to reminisce fond memories, and it suddenly struck me how wrong that prayer was in a way.

In an educational institute such as a school where the very foundations of a great many characters are laid, why would you put that prayer in everyone’s mouth? Educators need to know that theism is an opinion, that too without substantial arguments and a lot of bad past. Furthermore, thanking this elusive god character for ‘everything’ is so demeaning of oneself and one’s achievements and all other good things that happen in one’s life. And that ‘help me to be good’ really drives home the point that morality must be attained with assistance from this character. In the early constructive stages of so many children’s lives, this reiterated appointment of an absent character as the overseer of their lives to whom all credit for good things, good academic performance and morality must be channelled, suddenly seems very wrong to me now.

Is it part of an enforcement of conduct, this repeated chanting every morning of god as the controller of tidiness and goodness in oneself? If this is just an aid to discipline students, it was a bad choice. A dangerous, careless, morally incorrect choice.

I am no child psychologist, but attributing the credit for good behaviour to the one who exhibits it makes more sense to me. By Occam’s razor, there’s no need for an invention of an intermediate god to take over that credit. More important, it emphasizes that the ultimate person responsible for one’s actions is oneself, just as all things to be thankful for originate from life itself, from the doings of oneself and others. No divine assistance or intervention is needed to ‘be good’. Children are capable of goodness that comes from their own self. Isn’t that something important to let them realize instead of this ritual? Later on in their lives their spiritual and religious beliefs could grow independently from their experiences and thoughts; there’s no need to so crudely enforce that so early via a daily prayer.

But then, theism is expected to manifest in just such things.

Remember

Suddenly I remember you, alive. You were right with me, in that dark, hazy garage. We were about to go out and you said you’d take me on your bike. I thought it would be silly, so I remember making an excuse. I said we’d walk. I think you saw through it then.

The traffic that night was crazy. Your city was a madness of speeding cars through strings of golden light. I was scared. But years of nothingness melted away as you held my hand and we crossed the streets. How wonderfully simple that was, I thought. I think you thought it too. There was something, there was something between us. Something that made the night so easy.

And suddenly, this night, this night that you couldn’t see, I remember you, I remember you alive.

And now the only way out is to heap ashes on your smoldering memories, fingers crossed that they never spark again.