Life: Crazy, Cold, And Possibly Sublime

I wonder constantly: Is this everything? “This” meaning the world as it seems, the place we wake up to and run around in every day—doing our work, having our fun, plowing through our various problems. Or is there more? Something… I don’t know… mystical, introducing forces or truths beyond the ones that seem obvious. Something that transcends natural law and the interpersonal relations that clearly emerge as we go about our lives.

Sometimes, this weird sort of click happens within my mind and everything seems like an unrelenting joke stemming from cold, random, unfeeling nature. When I’m in that state, if I consider anything at all about life, the world, or my situation, I can’t decide whether to scream in horror or laugh uncontrollably at the hopeless absurdity.

Take the bodies that house human souls. If they were uniformly attractive but diverse—a gorgeous panoply of skin tones, hair shades and textures, eye colors, and builds—it all might seem to stem from a mystical place. But bodies range from exquisite to horrifying, exposing the personalities within them to a range of reactions whose unfairness seems undeniable evidence for a callous, non-mystical world.

Recently, I found myself talking to someone whose physical characteristics unnerved me to the point where I barely concentrated on his words. His ideas were beautiful, but presented through a body whose lack of symmetry and grace distracted and upset me. You could argue that this was a spiritual challenge for me, and I failed. But I know I’m not the only one who would fail, and I also know that some would react in far more hurtful ways, with abusive comments or backing away.

Why should the human being within that body be doomed to a life of alienation, unsettling and sometimes even revolting people when he expresses his friendly nature? Even if, occasionally, someone reaches out to him and learns a lesson of acceptance, how could a world full of meaning and goodness allow this man to suffer so deeply in order to teach others—or even himself? It seems to imply a rough, science-based reality where sometimes genes, accidents, or other factors create disaster, and no supernatural safety net can intervene.

And consider the other extreme: human specimens whose physical shells inspire delight. They, too, sometimes distract conversation partners, who experience desires redolent of animals. Those who win the body jackpot can use their bounty to convince others that their internal qualities match their casing: that they’re capable, smart, kind, intuitive, creative. It strikes me as a sign that most humans are driven by natural instinct, like giraffes or hamsters—that, ultimately, the inner essence that seems like soul is overridden by physical urges and surface impressions controlled by biological evolution.

And there’s so much more. Money, for instance. What could possibly be spiritual about a world so focused on that stuff? Think about how money works in our world. Those who earn a lot of it are often those who have a ruthless spirit, who thrive on competition and proving their own superiority. Those with financial troubles disproportionately include people like artists, spiritual seekers, wanderers in search of meaning and passion.

Now, if money were merely a route to certain status symbols that only some cared about, it might be completely consistent with a spiritual world. In that case, as they become more spiritual, people could reasonably decide they don’t much care about their finances since there’s nothing particularly alluring about designer clothes or membership in elite clubs when you understand the true depths of the soul and transcendent meaning. But wealth brings freedom, leisure, and the ability to pursue all manner of glorious activities that are screamingly unremunerative.

Procure enough money and you can retire young, focus on your inner mind, travel extensively to experience cultures that might shake up your mindset and push you to greater, deeper, and wider understanding. Focus sharply enough on your business, rarely letting your attention wander into impractical pursuits, and your offspring might have the freedom to pursue their spiritual questions. Concentrate on your own spirituality, with little interest in amassing wealth, and your children will likely be saddled with school debt and forced to work, work, work just to survive. Get born in, say, a poor, rural, third-world village, and you may not have five minutes a week to ponder the big questions: you’ll be slaving over physical tasks for most of your waking hours to sustain your existence at a barebones level.

It’s outrageous and anti-spiritual. If I created a holy world, I’d let every single soul bask in pleasure and enlightening experiences; money would have nothing to do with it. What is divine about forcing a potential-filled spirit to spend a lifetime eking out survival through hard labor, with little leftover energy to focus on metaphysical truths? It puts me in mind of the jungle; it’s the natural, brutal world intensified to fit the proclivities of conscious beings aware enough to create intricate hierarchies of caste, class, and levels of freedom.

And then there’s the overall logistics of life. To thrive in this world, you have to organize things, keep records, clean stuff, choose clothing that fits your needs and makes a good overall impression… the list of necessary chores and menial tasks could fill a book. I mean… seriously? Let me just say that if I were a divine being creating a world, that’s not how it would be. Inhabitants of a mystically powered place would be free to think, indulge in pleasures that bring transcendent bliss, and share their thoughts and their love with other souls. The current world seems dry and devoid of ultimate meaning: a hive of spirit-deadening busywork.

I have a particular gripe against mean people, and I often think they add yet another nail to the potential coffin of the spiritual world hypothesis. Like most of my fellow humans, I’ve dealt with bullies, nasty characters, human beings who delight in making others squirm. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid the very worst possibilities: physical violence, abject emotional torture, etc. But even the mean people I’ve known seem devoid of anything other than a natural, non-spiritual, dull drive to upset others when I catch their eyes and listen to their words. They give me a sense of natural selection with no divine overlay: genes that have survived millennia of evolution because they promote selfishness and a tendency to lord powers over others in order to grab what they want.

Needless to say, I haven’t yet mentioned some of the most damning issues: horrible illnesses, demoralizing disabilities, horrific accidents, hopeless depression, and, of course, death. What kind of spiritual being or force would allow any of this in its world? We walk around realizing that we and our loved ones will perish but not knowing who will go when, or how. I recently watched a video showing a distraught grandmother calling out her young grandchildren’s names as their caskets were removed from the funeral home after an uncontrolled fire in their Brooklyn house. Really? No spiritual forces or underlying respect for love could stop this? Seems a strong plug for the “cold nature and nothing more” hypothesis.

Theologians have debated this sort of issue for many generations; the question of bad situations existing in a spiritual world has occupied many a tortured thinker. The Lubavitcher Hasidim I know tend to support an intriguing dichotomy: revealed goodness vs. concealed goodness. Revealed goodness is obvious goodness with qualities clear to most observers. A thrilling adventure, a loving family, and a confidence-building accomplishment are all examples of revealed goodness. But sometimes goodness is concealed from human understanding. God creates situations that seem negative or even excruciating to humans who experience them, but people only know so much. The all-powerful and all-loving God is privy to an ultimate truth that humans can’t begin to grasp. From God’s perspective, the deformed man locked in a lonely world is part of an overarching divine goodness; we just can’t see it.

Now… it’s possible. As are myriad other potential explanations—like real, divine forces that can’t fully combat natural problems because spirituality is benevolent but not omnipotent. But when I get into my “life is craziness” state, I step back and say: It’s a done deal. There’s nothing spiritual, just horrifying nature, followed by death. And I feel the most awful merging of hopelessness, despair, and anxiety.

Of course, many people do not find spirituality-free nature chilling at all. They see beauty in lives playing out, meeting biological needs, moving through youth to adulthood to old age and then dying to make room for the next generation. “It’s all part of a natural cycle,” some say. “We each have our time, and then our bodies go into the dirt, nourishing the grass and the flowers.” And if that gives them peace, far be it from me to criticize. Peace is wonderful; good for them. But when I try to commune with that mindset, I want to cry, vomit, and thrash my body around until no one who sees me can ever forget. I don’t want to nourish the grass and the flowers. I don’t even like grass. I want to live forever in some kind of spiritual realm, enjoying my mind, my soul, and other minds and souls. Nothing else will do.

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Here’s the lucky part: that mind-click I mentioned earlier, making the world seem absurd and utterly non-spiritual? Sometimes I go through the opposite process. My awareness shifts and I know, almost unequivocally, that I’ve tapped into some kind of supernatural realm.

A few times, I felt a bright light (I realize it sounds strange to say I felt something that’s normally seen, but that’s how it was) and had the overwhelming sense that it was my father’s deceased mother. I was terrified but awed and optimistic. Still, I sent the light away; I felt unable to take the full force of this kind of experience. I often wonder: If I’d been braver, would I have gone deeper into some kind of mystical communion? Would I have received proof of immortality or spiritual reality?

Shortly after my mother’s mother died, I had a vivid impression that my hands were dancing against another pair of hands even though I was alone in my apartment. While it was happening, I was absolutely sure that—brace yourself—the hands belonged to my mother, far into the future, after her own death. Later, I thought it just as easily could have been my maternal grandmother.

While these experiences were happening, I felt sure they were mystical. Afterwards, doubt set in. It’s not like they could be corroborated in any way. And I do have a desperate need to believe the soul survives death—maybe I played tricks on myself to push myself towards the convictions I want. I was terrified: if this had truly been wish-fulfillment, wouldn’t it have been all glory and wonder? But the mind is a funny thing. Maybe, subconsciously, I predicted my own future skepticism, and figured I’d create a situation that explicitly didn’t feel like the ideal metaphysical connection, precisely so I could step back and say: It was weird and imperfect, just like a real, messy spiritual encounter.

Some of my potentially mystical experiences are harder to explain away, since they involved other people and touched the world outside my mind. Take the Japanese albinos. When I was in college, I noticed one periodically: a slender, chicly-dressed guy who would bring his watch right up to his eyes and rotate it until he could make out the time. He wasn’t a friend. I wouldn’t even call him an acquaintance; I simply noticed him around campus and wondered about him. I knew he was from Japan because of his listing in the student directory. Because he intrigued me, I mentioned him to my parents a few times.

A few years ago, I was with my parents, brother, nephews, and sister-in-law on the Princeton University campus. Out of the blue, my father announced: “When Stephanie was in college, she knew a Japanese albino.” My mother and I laughed so hard we had to stop walking; it was such a random thing to bring up. We brushed it off as a quirky little comment until, about 10 minutes later, an albino student who looked Japanese walked right by us. He appeared suddenly; there’s no way my father would have noticed him when he made his comment. We were all stunned. It was bizarre, and there was no explanation.

This was no glorious opening of the sky, revealing mystical bliss. It didn’t necessarily say a thing about God, or the existence of a soul that transcends the body. But it seemed to reveal a beautiful order, a non-randomness in our world providing evidence of something more than mechanical nature. I’ve only seen three East Asian albinos in my life: the guy from college, a young man in Harvard Square, and this Princeton student. The odds that this would have happened in the normal course of events seem quite small. Although… strange coincidences do happen. At the time, I was astonished and elated. Everyone with me was shocked. Now, years, later, I feel less amazed and more open to the possibility that it was a simple coincidence. But that’s always how it goes. In the throes of the experience, I’m transfixed. Afterwards, doubts set in. There’s always a counter-argument.

The energy ball incident is perhaps more compelling from a “proof” perspective, since it seemed to confirm an allegedly spiritual phenomenon. I was at a workshop on out-of-body travel here in Boston. This had been an interest of mine for a while: an awareness that can leave its body can survive the death of its body, and my greatest hope has always been that the human soul is immortal. To prepare us for our journeys, the instructor led us through several attempts to create “energy balls,” which we could supposedly craft from some kind of force that exists all around us. It made no sense to me. I felt both scornful and inferior as I watched everyone else in the class describe their balls of energy. When my turn came, I told the truth: that I felt nothing.

As the instructor prepared us for the final energy ball exercise, I closed my eyes, fully expecting several minutes of energy-ball-free boredom. Instead, I felt a beating kind of energy; it seemed to be traveling back and forth between my body and some outside source. I was transfixed. When the exercise ended and I opened my eyes, I saw that the instructor was standing fairly close to me, looking right at me. He asked: “Did you feel that?” Um, yes, I did. My eyes had been fully closed throughout the activity; I had no way of knowing that this guy was focusing on me. Again… far from a big splash descending into my soul and convincing me of all-powerful love or divine splendor. But something to consider. A strong sign that this spiritual “energy” existed in a way I was capable of feeling. With that as a beginning, who knows what else might be possible.

Many who claim to have had major spiritual experiences connect them to love, saying their main takeaway is that love is the universe’s underlying fabric, or something of the sort. When I’m in my “life is a joke” phase, that sounds hokey and absurd. How could such a hard, unfeeling place, filled with randomness and cold-hearted people, be built on love? But I’ve been lucky enough to sense another possibility.

Since childhood, I’ve always felt sad when saying goodbye to my parents for an extended period. I was always game to try adventures without them: I first went to overnight camp in elementary school and enjoyed being away for a month. Now my parents and I live in different states. So it’s not like I want to be with them all the time (that wouldn’t do any of us any good). But I know that, one day, we will say goodbye for the last time. Morbid wreck that I am, this is where my mind often goes when we part after a visit.

A few times, while leaving my parents, I had a feeling of… something. Something beyond, a kind of energy that beamed kindness and caring. It happened just last week when I said goodbye to my mother after she visited me here in Boston. We hugged, and I felt a kind of pulsing emotion—something that went beyond touch and a physical sense of being embraced. It almost seemed alive—a real, beating entity—similar to the energy ball, but with an added dimension of deep feeling. When there’s a sexual element to physical intimacy, it feels completely non-spiritual to me, but with close family members, sometimes I have an inkling of how this “love is everything” hypothesis might work.

So what do I really believe? Is our world spiritual, or an artifact of natural forces? I don’t know. But I think I can say where I lean.

I believe in the possibility of believing in God—or at least something that sits beyond the reality we see all around us. When I consider large-scale, systemic issues, things seem quite random. When I try to imagine life in certain unfortunate shoes, I recoil from the notion that anything spiritual could be operating. But when I consider my own life and experience, sometimes I do sense spiritual potential—or even spiritual truth. At times I find myself bridling when I get into conversations with those who are certain there is nothing spiritual to the world. How could they know that for sure? How could they utterly dismiss all those who say they have sensed something more? Interestingly, I don’t bristle when talking with those who are sure there’s a God or some kind of mystical force, as long as they don’t tie that belief to closed-mindedness in other realms. I feel open and a bit envious.

I know I couldn’t handle certain forms of hardship. I won’t even mention them, for fear of raising some kind of vibration that could push them to appear. In some ways, I am actually quite superstitious. If anything like those difficulties transpired, I’m quite sure I’d lose faith in even the potential for divine power. May that not happen. Please, please, please. There’s a notion that God/spiritual forces would never throw you anything you can’t face. For all I know, those in situations I find unfaceable have resources I can’t imagine. If I can get through life handling everything, I’ll probably maintain hope in the possibility of transcendence and spiritual immortality. That in itself saves me.