Sunday, April 06, 2008


A little while ago I mentioned the Christian scholarship of a former Professor of mine, David Skeel, now of University of Pennsylvania School of Law. As it turns out, Skeel and fellow evangelical William Stuntz of Harvard Law, have new blog called Less than the Least. Stuntz has some moving posts discussing his circumstance as a middle-aged man suffering with stage 4 cancer.

Though I am not a Christian and am skeptically and secularly minded, I would never try to debunk religion like Dawkins, et al., precisely for the type of comfort faith has provided and continues to provide to folks in precarious circumstances, which for most folks throughout humanity is most of life itself. I just want folks to be entirely free from faith systems in which they don't believe. I guess that's a big part of why I am a libertarian; such a system allows the most amount of "room" for folks of various ideologies and lifestyles.

Stuntz has found comfort in his faith. Though his philosophy of resigning himself to fate has something to it that, in my opinion, transcends Christianity, and is almost Eastern in its perspective:

I don’t have any previous experience with this sort of thing, but judging from what I hear and read, I’m supposed to be asking why all this is happening, and why it’s happening to me. Honestly, those questions are about the farthest thing from my mind.

Partly, that’s because they aren’t hard questions. Why does our world have gravity? Why does the sun rise in the East? There are technical answers, but the metaphysical answer is simple: that’s how reality works. So too here. Only in the richest parts of the rich world of the twenty-first century could anyone entertain the thought that we should expect long, pain-free lives. Suffering and premature death (an odd phrase: what does it mean to call death “premature”?) are constant presences in the lives of most of the peoples of the Earth, and were routine parts of life for generations of our predecessors in this country—as they still are today, for those with their eyes open. Stage 4 cancers happen to middle-aged men and women, seemingly out of the blue, because that’s how reality works.

As for why this is happening to me in particular, the implicit point of the question is an argument: I deserve better than this. There are two responses. First, I don’t—I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don’t seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world. Once again, it seems to me that this claim arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn’t so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today’s meritocracies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you understand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life’s lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.

George Washington likewise noted that the ways of Providence are "inscrutable." Neil Peart, the agnostic, secular lyricist and drummer of Rush, another one who has won more than his share of life's lotteries, wrote a song about resignation to fate, a few years later he likewise suffered a Jobian loss -- both his wife and daughter died within a year's period.

As noted there is something Eastern/Buddhist about letting go of your attachment to all worldly possessions including your life and the lives of others whom you love. Suffering is a constant and everything eventually passes from the world. The fact that you exist at all is a miracle. And you don't deserve anything good or bad that happens to you; it just does. Never feel cheated; because, comparatively, you probably aren't. Give up your resentments, most of them are petty anyway.

I know easier said than done. Anyway, enough of a Sunday sermon from me.

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