I always believe what draws me back into issues of faith are what are called “meaning of life” issues. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? Knowing that I am here, what should I do? Is there a God? The issues are the issues that permeate religions as different as Judaism and Buddhism. Finding the common trait between the world’s religions can be difficult in all other ways–Is there a God? Are there many gods? Is there any God? Are we God?–but the idea that there is something in the world which transcends the material–that is an idea all religions teach. The only question is what that “Something” is. Perhaps ultimately it is something both transcendent and immanent.
The key to finding it comes in the things we do for others. Martin Buber said that when two people meet, the third person is always God. With this in mind, there are a set of three expressions that I find express where my place in the world begins:
To save a single life is to save a world.
You may not be able to save the world,/ but to one person you may be the world.
If you are not for yourself who are you?/ If you are only for yourself, who are you?/ And if not now, when?
I have never saved a world in one sense: I have never literally hidden somebody during a Holocaust, or in a battle zone of a war. Yet in another sense I may have: perhaps I have done a good deed some place, which if I had not done, the result would have been as dire as somebody losing their life. Is it egotism for me to believe so? That I may have “saved a life” without even knowing it? Perhaps. Why then would I believe it? Well, I will tell a story that explains it. As a child or teenager I heard a terrible story which has haunted me since. I remembered hearing that this poor woman was being accosted on the streets in New York. Yet it was all in public. Though she died, somebody who did the interviewing knew that there were people literally watching the terrible sight from their window sills. Finally, when it was too late, somebody called the police after the poor woman was dead, when he was throwing out the trash. Oh the inhumanity of man to man! Yet hearing this story and being haunted by it, I have thought since that a person should look at situations where there might be a person who needs the help and not ask “well, surely somebody else will do it.” I try to look to those cases where God is saying, “Do something!” and do it.
As for the next expression: always bear in mind when speaking to somebody how they might need you. “No man is an island unto himself.” This includes, of course, people you don’t even know, homeless people and lost tourists from out of town. However, it also includes that class of people that in my own life I struggle to understand let alone love sometimes: friends and family. Sometimes the estranged friend or relative is harder to reach than the person you barely know and do not plan to meet again. Sometimes even maintaining relationships is harder than finding a new acquaintance. Yet that is not always true for me: I have difficult in that juncture with people in between making an acquaintance and their becoming a friend. If a person is a “loner” it is easy to become depressed by the thought that you might end this world “loving no one and being loved by no one.” I am reminded of a Christmas story I liked in Middle School or High School by Truman Capote, where two friends–a young boy and a middle aged “old maid”–have an easier time with those who they meet momentarily and never see again and their family. I have often seen that tragedy in my life. However, I do not mean to whine: the point is that with friends a person must learn to give, to forgive, and to take correction. The person who never learns to love is the person whose life is empty.
The last expression is a psychology lesson as well as morality one. A person to live must learn to take care of him or herself. To get up to go to work is necessary to live. To learn to get to things on time is necessary to live. To be honest and work hard is necessary to live. Yes, these are the virtues that one must learn to survive. Or at least, I found in them the tools to finally become a good student and good worker at those jobs I have had. However, the next line “if you are only for yourself, who are you?” makes clear that there are traits a person has to develop that go beyond getting food and drink and shelter. For a person to discover how to be loving and kind, they must learn to look beyond the self, and to the needs and wants of others. I have come to believe that love is a transcendent virtue. Oh, there are people that say of romantic love, for instance, that there is nothing there except “chemistry.” Yet this is a great fiction. If all a relationship involves is romantic obsession, it will probably become a great “fling” or the love will find any number of other reasons to fail the two people who share it. To find real love is to find commitment. And to find commitment a person must at times sacrifice what they want for the other. More, I want to believe this sacrifice is more than just practical and “responsible.” I want to believe that true love–though it exists–includes giving and not just taking. I also believe there is no relationship where both sides occasionally need forgiveness of the other and healing for the self. Of course, biologists often insist that this is all biology, as is the bond of motherhood. Yet I have never noticed that there are not a plentitude of mothers in this world who are selfish and do not look after their child’s best interest. To truly love a child is a difficult task, implying alternately giving and discipline, but always a soft voice and the understanding that a child is not a little adult.
With that in mind, I believe that one good deed leads to another. More, the good that a person can do–like the evil–sometimes outstrips their intentions. A good deed–a mitzvah–can be a pebble thrown into a placid lake. It makes ripples and effects all of humankind, not just the person who threw the pebble and the person on the receiving end. Sometimes even our mistakes–when done with good intentions–have better effects than we suspected they would.
Yet the reason to study religion whether it be the Bible or the New Testament or the Quran or the Analects of Confucius or whatnot–that is to teach us what amount to the training wheels of ethics. It is true that simply reading cannot make you good–a person needs structure and discipline outside of their reading–yet it can teach a person to have a moral sensibility to which they can refer. A child learning the Ten Commandments learns it is wrong to steal. The adult who knows this will grow that way like a palm tree in his old age. That is what I believe, anyway. And practicing a person’s faith leads him or her to plumb the depths of its meaning.