The entire human experience in 900 words

So to continue with last time’s Everybody Self-Harms.

One thing: I read in a few of the (outstanding because you guys rockethetheth) comments a reaction against my assertion that there is no fully independent consciousness without radical and complete individuation.

So just to be clear about that: There can be no fully independent consciousness without radical and complete individuation. That’s not a theory of mine. It’s not an idea. It’s not any sort of abstract concept. It’s like saying the sky is up. It’s just the simplest kind of fact. We are fully individuated. We are categorically distinct from every other entity in this world. There is and always will be actual, real physical space between us and everyone and everything else. We, and no one else, live our lives, in all of its spectacular, weird, largely noncommunicable uniqueness. We can only ever fully know all that it is and was to live one life, and that life is ours. No one else’s. Ours.

One shot. One mind. One experience: Ours. Then it’s show over.

I understand, of course, all the ways in which our lives are also necessarily about love and harmony and blessed interdependence and One World consciousness, and so on. I love that stuff. You all know I do. But first and foremost, always, primarily, we are alone. We come into this world alone—or separate, if that’s a less emotionally evocative word—and we die alone. That changes for no one.

And why does it happen like that? That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. I believe it’s because God designed it that way. And why would he/she/it do that? Because absolute autonomy is simply necessary for absolute free will. And free will is what most makes us human. It is the final mark of God’s love for us.

And voila: now you, and me, and all of us, are in a game that makes sense.

But (and I know this is a lot of philosophy/theology to cram into one blog post, so I’ll pretty much just zip right through this now) there’s one serious downside to the condition of being as separate as we are—as, in fact, we want to be. And that downside is guilt.

We’re alone, so we have free will. Having free will means we make a trillion decisions every single day. Being alone also means that a lot of those decisions are selfish, greedy, self-aggrandizing, self-advancing—that they’re about servicing our crazed desire to survive, basically. But because we are of God, because it is about love—because we are all interconnected, if you want to take the God right out of it—we necessarily feel at least some degree of guilt over any decision we make that’s grounded in putting ourselves before others.

Not good. Guilt not good. It is a necessary by-product of consciousness and free will, but it’s still not good. Think, again, of seeds in apples. (And side note: this is what the Bible really means by “fallen man”; this is what the core concept of “sinful nature” actually refers to: that we are, each and every one of us, born “sinful” in that at least, say—I dunno, a thousand times a day—we will act in our own interests, at some cost to someone else. We will sin, because we’re alive and alone. Again: that rule changes for no one; it’s the “fall” of all mankind.)

So (to summarize) we have this innate guilt in us, which is “just” a by-product of being alive.

We show up aware that, in some consistent, nagging, haunting, ineradicable way we can never quite get to so that we can solve and eradicate it, we’re guilty.

And to that natural, organic guilt within us accrues, in the course of our lives—and especially very early on in our lives, when we’re nothing if not impressionable—all kinds of horrible, caustic and flat-out wrong ideas about who we are, and how the world is, and what is and isn’t right and necessary and essential to all kinds of crap that isn’t right and necessary and essential at all.

We just learned that it was, from our parents, who also know shit about shinola.

And thus does life become the valley of tears that we all … well, live.

Now if you were God, and you looked down and saw what you had wrought, what would you do to once, for all, and forever solve the problem of human guilt and suffering?

Print Friendly

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is co-founder of The NALT Christians Project and founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here). His blog is here. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • catrenn

    I don’t think the guilt comes from putting self before others (unless you’re taught it’s evil). You can do that without *automatically* accruing guilt. Example: Two biscuits, I grab the first one. There’s still one for you, no harm, no foul. But sooner or later there’s only going to be one, and then SOMEBODY’S gonna get guilt. It’s just the inevitability of harming somebody in the need to survive, and having to choose (or ignore) whether that somebody is gonna be me, or you. Infinite soul in a finite body. We’re ignorant and mortal and limited in time and resources, and we came that way. Of course we’re gonna screw up. That’s how the system is designed. I used to feel Christ didn’t have the RIGHT to die for my sins. Then I realized the author of the system is the only one who does have that right.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      I said that’s grounded in putting ourselves before others. Because, see, that allows for all the subtitles and gradations and … oh, well. Anyway. Righto.

  • catrenn

    mmm. and on a rethink, I think you’re right. only it doesn’t matter whether you put self before others, or others before self – those are both errors in fact, if what you’re supposed to do is love others AS yourself. equivalence.

  • Don Rappe

    I’m not entirely certain that expressions like “fallen man” and “sinful nature” are so much Biblical as theological, perhaps Augustine of Hippo.

    • Don Rappe

      I am aware that there is a story of how the human ones became aware of good and evil by disobeying the will of God, listening to the voice of nature, and found themselves separated from paradise and capable of shame.

  • http://www.poesies.com Gina Cirelli

    About the whole individuation thing. After reading this I remembered something that I read in Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight”. She said that when she had her stroke, which was the left side of her brain shutting down, she said that she felt no individuation at all. She felt the cosmos, all of us, everyone, everything, and that it was loving and nurturing. Granted, it was imperfect, because she could no longer communicate or use her body correctly.

    What I took from that is that maybe it’s only part of us that are “alone”. Maybe heaven and being with God is just another state of being, something that is always within us, that we’ve somehow forgotten to use.

    I recommend that book very highly. Here’s an article about it: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/when-a-brain-scientist-suffers-a-stroke/

    • http://www.buzzdixon.com buzz

      I echo Gina’s recommendation. Once we lose our fear of dying as individuals we can become free to really live.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdparris

    I still remember when I first became aware that I was unique, truly alone, that I could not know what others were thinking, or feeling, and only when I was literally in their presence could I know what they were doing or saying. I think I was about 7 or 8.

    It was a shocking revelation, and yet such a curious one. Why couldn’t I do what I so wanted to do, get insight into what I could do so easily for myself, was something I pondered over for quite a long time.

    It took much longer to get to the point where I understood why I felt guilty. Until then I had assumed it was either someone had told me I’d erred, or someone had told me that God hated my actions. Guilt…true guilt came when I realized that my actions could cause harm for another in some way, just as someone else’s actions caused harm for myself.

    Then came the best revelation of all. Even though the only thoughts I am aware of are mine, the only view I see is mine, the only emotions I experience are my own, there is someone who has complete access to all of that.

    That accessor understands me better then I understand me, and I”m an expert. That individual understands my pain, my hopes, my strengths and weaknesses. To top it off, this entity, knowing all about me possible, despite my adeptness at keeping much about me hidden from everyone else, still loves me, more than I can ever measure, and has somehow gotten through this stubborn persona of mine to make that detail crystal clear.

    Yes, I am all alone, but that is only my perception.

    • Maria

      “That accessor understands me better then I understand me, and I”m an expert. That individual understands my pain, my hopes, my strengths and weaknesses. To top it off, this entity, knowing all about me possible, despite my adeptness at keeping much about me hidden from everyone else, still loves me, more than I can ever measure, and has somehow gotten through this stubborn persona of mine to make that detail crystal clear.”

      I like this. Thank you sdparris.

  • Jill H

    I suppose I mostly see it through the psychological lens, and I’ve known a LOT of co-dependent people. They may be physically disparate, but that’s about it. And then co-dependent types often have some manner of guilt recycling, where they find a way to dump it on someone else. I guess that people who own their individuality are, by definition, holding themselves responsible for the part they play including how they impact others.

    But as for guilt– doesn’t it by its nature show that a person has a functional conscience, and to a degree, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

  • n.

    Is something missing at the end of the post? At least a question mark? Sorry but my OCD is bothered by this.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      duh. sorry. fixed. thanks!

      • n.

        Cool, now why doesn’t it work? The whole karma thing? Why do most christians and possibly people who follow Christ in other ways, still feel guilt? Is that because of psychology? (hope this makes sense)

  • David S

    Ok. So is guilt categorically *not* good? I think guilt (or conscience, or…whatever) is a gift from God. Is it constructive (stop that ever loving behavior that is killing you) or is it destructive (you are a horrible human being who gets what you deserve for your weakness)??? It could go either way. But I don’t think guilt is automatically bad.

    • vj

      I think the distinction might be that ‘conscience’ is the ‘still, quiet voice’ within that lets us know whether something is right or wrong, and ‘guilt’ is what we experience as the result of doing what ‘conscience’ tells us is wrong? Sometimes, of course, our conscience can be out of whack, and we might only realize somewhere down the road that something we said/did was, in fact, wrong – at which point we suddenly become aware of the guilt for that wrongdoing…

      • David S

        Well said, vj. I think you are onto something. Guilt is sometimes the result of violating our conscience. I also really like Elizabeth’s comment about the difference between natural guilt and learned guilt. If I link the two thoughts, I guess one could say that some guilt – more likely to be constructive – occurs when we violate our innate sense of morality (i.e., you have caused hurt in yourself or others). And some guilt – more likely to be destructive – occurs when we violate some learned moral code (e.g., only wicked girls flirt with boys; you are wicked because you flirted with a boy).

  • http://www.buzzdixon.com buzz

    re not being able to relate to others, ever wonder about Ayn Rand’s sex life?

    It’s not a pretty picture…

    http://www.nerve.com/love-sex/why-liking-ayn-rand-makes-you-a-terrible-lover

  • Elizabeth

    That difference between true guilt and learned guilt is the key. Sane people feel when something’s wrong. No one had to teach us that. We heard another child cry and went to comfort him/her. We took a trinket and, before our mothers even noticed, we toddled back with it gripped proudly in our fists: “See how smart I am? I knew it was wrong.” That’s innate. That’s from the Creator.

    By the time we’re adolescents, we are overwhelmed by mixed messages from our families, communities, and peers. Who could make sense of that cacophony? I tell the truth in which social group? I’m allowed to cry when? If I want to kiss, I’m a slut, if I don’t I’m a prude, and everyone already knows I want to but him? And what do I wear? We rebel. We figure out we can cheat, steal, lie, drink, smoke, do drugs, or have sex without anyone’s permission. We stop listening. It’s exciting.

    It’s also exhausting. If you do it right – that is, if you excel at behaving badly while maintaining a façade of dutiful child, top student, and trustworthy friend – you learn the downside of rebellion fast. You learn that what you *listen* to is the little voice in your head. The right and wrong you knew as a toddler. You hear it clear as a bell. You feel it in your stomach. You recognize it drunk, sober, exhausted, hungry, or when you’re juggling twelve other priorities.

    The trick is applying that simple instinct to multi-layered, ever-shifting adult problems. I ignore what most others think and accept them without judgment. They have their own problems, and, at the end of the day, they can’t solve mine. I, alone, carry the guilt of the worst things I did for the rest of my life. I did it to myself. It can be destructive or motivational, but it’s all mine. The hardest part is letting my innate knowledge of right and wrong trump my intellectual reasoning. I can always come up with twenty “reasons” to do something wrong.

    As far as the societally-enforced guilt goes, let’s all embroider scarlet A’s on our chest and call it a day. My mother still quizzes me on stories I told to cover my tracks twenty years ago. Remembering those lies reminds me why I don’t anymore. As my favorite morality screenplay puts it: “Guilt is like a bag of f***in’ bricks. All you gotta do is set it down.”

    That was my guilty pleasure for the day. I’m supposed to be filing four cubic feet of paper. Thought-provoking post, John.

  • Matt

    I’ve been feeling the guilt rather acutely lately. The other night, my partner and I were on the way home from dinner with friends. I have PTSD, and became very dissociated and full of adrenaline. By the time we got home, I was (utterly without evidence) convinced that my partner wanted to hurt or kill me. I exited the car at full sprint and ran away into the night without phone or ID.

    I’ve never felt as alone as I did at that moment. I was terrified of everyone and everything, just running, no idea where I was or where I was going.

    So I reached the end of the street, which opens onto a fairly busy two-lane road. I was further disoriented by the bright headlights of the cars, and for one horrible moment I wanted to run straight into traffic. But something inside me said: “That’s permanent. You can’t take that back.” And then I heard my partner’s voice. She had caught up with me and was shouting, just screaming my name in between sobs. I heard the pain in her voice, and it cut through my fear. I was still terrified, but I wanted to give her a chance. She approached me slowly and hugged me fiercely. She knows I can’t talk at first when I’m like this, so we just stood there for a minute while she cried with fear and relief. She sat with me on the sidewalk at midnight until I could speak full sentences again, then we walked until I could go back into the house with her family again.

    I felt truly awful afterward. I thought about how I would feel. I had gone without warning, she had no idea why, and she had no hope of catching me at full sprint. She said herself that had she not found me on the street, she would have been forced to call the police, and then it would have been out of her control.

    But she forgave me. As soon as she knew I could understand her again, she forgave me. Just like that. She even said she was proud of me for stopping.

    So if I were God, I wouldn’t do anything differently, except give every human being someone who can forgive them and make them feel a little less guilty, every day.

    • Jill H

      I’m really glad to hear you’re ok, Matt. Really glad.

      • Matt

        Thanks, Jill. That means a lot.

    • m

      I’m glad to read you’re OK. PTSD take us out of heads. Having someone to both love and love you back, and to help anchor, you makes all the difference. Hugs to you both.

  • mike moore

    I’ve often thought of the “3 wishes” scenario. Given 3 wishes, what would you wish for?

    Similarly, if I could play God for a few minutes?

    First and foremost: instill greater degrees Empathy in people . I believe that if people around the globe could deeply empathize with one another … deeply but not cripplingly … we would soon see greed, famine, and war go away. A Big pump of Empathy would change the face of our planet, maybe even to heaven on earth …

    Second, as long as I, God, am fine-tuning people’s neurons for Empathy, I’d also amp up Intellectual Curiosity. Too much of the world’s misery stems from fear of the unknown and peoples’ unwillingness to honestly question themselves and the world around them.

    Stop Being So Fucking Subtle. I’m God.

    Why it leave it to people — who have proven via their religions what complete imbeciles they are when they attempt to define God and then, worse, attempt to force those beliefs on to others– to define Who I am?

    Why does Jesus/God-come-to-Earth have be a one shot deal, at a time when there wasn’t even a camera around to catch some pics? Really, God, would a few, semi-regular, Tweets kill You? If I can stay in touch via phone and email with my semi-annoying brother, You can certainly pop in on “Ellen” or NPR for visit every now and then.

    (and yeah, there is a house in Malibu and very Sweet Ride I’d like … but I’ll settle for the first 3 wishes.)

    • mike moore

      I guess I forgot to state my conclusion: there’s not much room for guilt in the world I picture, as there’s is very little to feel guilty about.

      • Jill H

        *sigh of relief*

        God has the mouth of a sailor BTW. ;) I dig it.

  • Don Rappe

    I think I understand consciousness and being conscious. I also understand more conscious and less conscious. “Fully conscious”? I don’t have a clue what that means. When is consciousness full? Just asking. I am pretty individuated for a person who depends so immediately and intimately on the ocean of air. When I’m away from it, its not guilt or loneliness I’m feeling. The best orgasms within my experience have involved another person. “Free” will seems almost useless in attaining them. I cannot attribute them as characteristic of the individual. I have clear infantile memories and I was pretty damned conscious before I felt any guilt, not to be confused with remorse. I can remember discovering empathy in my early teens. It seems to be something I learned. Like most things I’ve learned, I cannot unlearn it. Fear, anger and joy seem to come more naturally. I have a fearful angry and joyful nature. Sin is more part of my consciousness, than my nature. The reason I like to “sleep on” a hard problem is because my very best thinking is done while I am unconscious. I believe the impression of “freedom” of the will is caused by the fact that the causes of my will are complex beyond my own comprehension. For instance, I do not know why my body gave itself a shot of adrenalin this morning and waked itself at three to allow me to return to this subject. Perhaps it was freedom.