She laughs often and hard, in fact, when she laughs it often seems as if she’s wetting her pants. She lives far away in a big city on the east coast; I don’t see her very often. In spite of being one year older than me she always treated me like her older brother. Most people say she’s very different to me; I think so too and yet, over time, such differences seem less and less important to me.
We love each other very much, but, and this troubled me for a long time, always found it a bit hard to be together for more than a few days. She seems to expertly push mysterious buttons in me, buttons I never knew I had. I’m not sure, maybe, with all the inscrutable effects of family relationship she holds up a mirror for me and I’m puzzled, even a bit scared of what I see. She has an inexplicable way of inviting criticism, almost directly asking for it, especially from me. It’s not that she enjoys critique, she hates it. One time she told me that being in the position of receiving critique gave her the precious feeling of receiving attention.
She is very religious – I think that is an appropriate way to say it – she has a distinct system of beliefs her entire worldview is based on. The way she lives, the way she deals with reality can make sense when I try to put myself into her shoes, however, what she actually believes does not make sense to me at all. That is our problem.
But is it a problem?
Discussing her beliefs never led to anything but frustration and separation. She draws all vindication from a well-known book, and because this book, in spite of its cultural, historical significance, is not more than a man-made piece of paper for me, all attempts to find common ground converge there and end there. She has no difficulty to admit that belief is a personal decision based on feelings, a reaction to feeling comfort, a mere psychological phenomenon. There is a difference between truth and believing something to be true. But she has no doubt that her conclusions, her decision to believe might be wrong. It makes sense to her, and she has no concept that sense might be an illusion, that in fact all sense is a fabrication of the mind.
She believes there is a God, of course, that he undeniably has very human-like features like tastes, preferences, and wishes, and she claims to know what these are and does her best to live accordingly to please him.
Again, when I try to step out of my own belief system into hers, most problems dissolve. The trouble is: to be aware of one’s own beliefs isn’t that easy. Believing is to a vast extent an unconscious business; we mostly don’t know that we believe. We confuse truth with a feeling of trueness, and take suppositions for truth. I’m always alarmed and somehow embarrassed when I catch myself actually believing something. It does happen, more often than I like to admit, but over time I don’t take it so personally anymore. It’s what the mind does; I’m not my mind.
I learned to be careful with conclusions; not to be afraid of concluding, quite the opposite, but to continue being aware that any conclusion always was my very own conception. This is difficult and uncomfortable, to say the least; but it gradually and irrevocably leads to the insight of universal impermanence and uncertainty that, unbelievable as it may seem at first, is nothing but a fundamental law of nature. Nothing is for sure.
One little bonbon in her world story is that ‘they’ – the believers – are going to live forever while we poor devils will perish (very soon) because we don’t do what God wants. I agree that the future of mankind indeed looks kind of bleak at the moment, but even if the human race may end up eliminating itself I have trouble to see it as some punishment for misbehaving but rather as a natural result of our general biological makeup, which we did not choose and may or may not be able to change in time. The dinosaurs did not die out due to some punishment but because of other complicated natural causes.
This time she said at the end when we hugged each other at the airporter that she wasn’t sure after all if I would actually like it there where ‘they’ are going to hang out soon in ultimate bliss. “Why not?” I asked in astonishment. “Well, you are not the type who likes to follow rules and obey orders. There, it will be a crowd of people who enjoy following rules, good rules.” She did not say this to disappoint me; it was a relief for herself because she had been feeling guilty for failing to convert me.
I don’t think there is a paradise somewhere else, any proof of the contrary doesn’t hold water – and I’m relieved that I wouldn’t have liked it anyway. This conclusion is a belief; my confidence that it is the outcome of objective investigation is not enough. I base my view on the fact that the very instrument we use to make sense, to draw conclusions – the mind – is unreliable. It’s an amazing thing, this mind, but it is not at all reliable. The most amazing thing is: it is quite capable of seeing its own unreliability. I’m not an atheist; in this stupid game of labeling I would probably somehow fit in the camp of agnostics. I don’t know; but beyond that, I know that I don’t know. I learned to rest in this uncertainty.
In all those years I felt terrible when I imagined how my dear sister would wake up one day and discover that she was mistaken. That and her similar view that I would wake up one day and find that I missed the boat was the cause of our friction.
Today the ‘problem’ seems to have disappeared. She found I wouldn’t have liked her paradise anyway. I settled into the peace of uncertainty. I m not satisfied with stories (to speak Rumi’s words), I found that happiness doesn’t need reason.
I made an effort to meet her fellow-believers, they are great people, they may do strange things in sincere ignorance, as we inevitably all do, mostly they do beautiful things; that is what counts in the end.
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Here is a link to an older shot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40212066@N08/4658957244/in/photostream
Klaus July 16. 2011