As I watched my 40th birthday slowly creep up on me, I sought opinions on what I should do to commemorate it. One friend suggested I write a manifesto. At first I thought I couldn’t do such a thing, assuming that I would have some sort of answers about life when I don’t. But I looked up what a manifesto means: “A manifesto is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer.”
For whatever reason, the thought of it being about my own views rather than some fundamental truth made it easier. Since my thirties have been a time of re-evaluating my life, I thought summing it up could have value for me if no one else. I will not claim this is brilliant or insightful. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that these are things that some people deal with much better than I have. It’s just what I’ve been struggling with and the answers that I found helpful.
I meant to publish this on my birthday, but I didn’t manage that. So here’s the belated manifesto.
The Dirty Thirties
In 2006 I turned 31, and around that time (loosely) the foundations of what I thought was true began to fall apart and I also embarked on some new experiences. My trust in my marriage received a hefty blow and pushed me into the deepest depression I’ve experienced to date. I also experienced what I can only call a crisis of faith in connection to my Buddhist beliefs. I also started working at the County, which wasn’t as traumatic but was a definite change in my life and impacted how other things worked. And I started writing regularly for the first time in over a decade.
Since then my life has changed: I’ve divorced, remarried, dropped out of my old Buddhist sangha and struggled to find a new one, gotten fiction published, killed off one small business and started a new one. My work has been unsatisfying, but has at least been a stable source of income that has helped support my quest to figure out what I want to do.
The crisis of faith came to one basic shift in my beliefs that frames my manifesto.
- There is probably no God. And if there is, it probably doesn’t matter.
Before I explain that better, I figure I should explain my background on the subject. I like to describe my upbringing as “ethnically Lutheran.” I was mainly raised by my grandparents who had stopped going to church for whatever reason. I was told I was Lutheran, I was given many children’s books of Bible stories, and that was really it.
I didn’t attend an actual church until I was probably 9 years old. One of my friends invited me to his church where his father was the minister. It was Missionary Baptist. An elderly woman goaded me to go up to the minister to “ask to be saved,” even though I didn’t know what that meant. It was the first of many negative experiences I had with Christianity.
In high school, a couple things changed. First, I had a crush on a girl who turned out to be born-again. She didn’t date non-Christians. Up until that point I had always thought of myself as Christian, because as a white kid in a middle class neighborhood, I couldn’t imagine being anything else. But when actually presented with an opportunity to commit, I didn’t.
Around this time, I also got a chance to play Dungeons and Dragons. As someone who likes to tell stories, this was an amazing experience. By unrelated coincidence, the mother of the classmate I played D&D with was a professional astrologer. As they became something of a surrogate family for me, I started to explore a bunch of new-agey stuff. Mostly astrology, but I had passing knowledge of a lot of other stuff.
In my late 20s, a friend of mine passed away and I found myself re-examining my life. Mainly because my last conversation with him made me realize what a self-absorbed asshole I was. Wanting to find some way to be a better person, I took a meditation class through a Buddhist center. That got me interested in Buddhism. I ended up even being part of the council for the center, enjoying the fun of trying to figure out how to pay the bills for a non-proselytizing religious organization that could only ethically request donations and could not just demand payment for classes.
(This is a large part of why I don’t volunteer my time anymore.)
When I had walked away from Christianity, it was in large part because it didn’t make sense to me in the big picture. You look at the vast scope of the universe, how mind-bogglingly huge it is, look at all of the cultures on the planet, the thousands of years of recorded history. The thought that some guy 2,000 years ago, who was only influential in a very small stretch of land, was the sole source of information about the cosmological underpinnings of existence? That seemed absurd.
But astrology, reincarnation, and other new-agey stuff made sense to me at the time. In hindsight I can’t really explain why. But as unreasonable as I found Christianity, I somehow found new-age/neo-pagan and Buddhist cosmology believable.
Until I didn’t. It dawned on me one day that all religions are born out of some small part of the world and grow out from there. And the odds of some localized belief system being the Truth, when there are so many Truths out there, is low. I was stuck with the image of the world as billions of souls living and dying for thousands of years, all with the same hopes and dreams, being born, living, and dying over and over again. A 3.5 billion year long self-perpetuating chemical process with delusions of grandeur. It gave me little hope that any group of people had insight into the cosmology of the universe.
Astrology and other forms of prognostication had an extra problem: If there was a reliable way to predict the future, wouldn’t it be everywhere? I mean seriously. If businesses could reliably know what would happen, wouldn’t they use it to make more money? When that was pointed out to me, I just couldn’t let it go. (The response from those who believe astrology or the like is usually a belief in some sort of vague conspiracy of haters who want to suppress the truth.)
As an aside, a book that got me through this period was Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, and it’s why I still identify as Buddhist. I’d read it with my Buddhist group’s book study group and was one of two people who liked it. Everyone else reacted very negatively to it. It’s one of the reasons I ended up leaving the group. It strengthened my feeling that there is value to symbols and metaphors, even if it’s not a literal truth. They can be an invaluable lens to examine our lives through. The hard part is the frequency with which people think that it’s a literal truth.
This also isn’t to say that there couldn’t be some higher intelligence that made the universe. But given the complexity and vastness of the Earth, I can’t believe that it has anything to do with human speculation on divinity. Or really humans in general. So if it exists, humanity is more likely to be a footnote than some precious and special creation.
I didn’t mind the thought of losing God. But losing some sense of destiny or cosmic purpose unnerved me. Without karma or merit or rebirth or whatever, I felt pretty rudderless in the world. Which brings me to my next point.
- There is no Absolute Should.
When life is an elaborate chemical process clinging to a rock hurtling through the void, there isn’t an inherent morality in the world. There is no divine judgment for wickedness. Atrocities committed fade into the grinder of history. There is no higher power that proclaims one group of people superior to another. There is also no higher power that proclaims two groups equal.
Whatever we hold to be true is something we choose to hold true. The choice may be invisible, lost in the social conditioning, mental health, and genetic predisposition that sculpts the sense of self to which we cling. Sometimes our particular brain chemistry makes it impossible to choose something else. As someone who takes a fistful of drugs every day to deal with depression, I know how limited choices can seem when I’m not medicated. But my main thrust is that these things don’t exist outside of us.
For the pedantic readers, I’ll add a couple provisos. This doesn’t mean that physical laws don’t still apply. You can’t counter gravity through the Power of Positive Thinking. And there are what I will call Provisional Shoulds: If you want to be able to pay your rent, you should probably do something to earn money so you can pay it. If you want to run a marathon, you should probably run regularly to build up stamina. Provisional Shoulds form a lot of the social contract that keeps me from living out in the street. But even then, Provisional Shoulds are not guaranteed to be accurate.
For me, a lot of Buddhism is a Provisional Should. It outlines a course of action for dealing with existential angst like mine. There are other routes. Some involve playing “Let it Go” on loop. But Buddhism is not a mandatory/absolute thing. It’s just a provisional thing.
I suppose a more noble person might ponder what the path of virtue is in all of this mess, and that sometimes creeps up in my brooding. But really it makes me wonder what to do with my life. I’m sort of selfish that way.
In my teens, I worked the obligatory dead-end fast food jobs. I got through it by believing that I was so inherently awesome that I would leave these knuckle dragging barbarians in their redneck backwater. This was bolstered by assurance that astrology suggested I would be financially successful!
But I’m forty now. No signs of greatness. I’m not the next Neil Gaiman. It’s statistically unlikely that I ever will be. (Though he was not much younger than me when Sandman came out.) This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But I can’t pin my worth on being some definition of “successful.” There’s no way to know where my choices will lead. There is no fate or destiny awaiting from me. Just a series of events until I die.
“Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” That’s a quote that has come up in various forms in Buddhism. Probably other places. And it haunts me. I know it doesn’t haunt other people. I’ve pitched that question onto social media a few time to see how people react. Either they misread it to mean that you have 24 hours to live or something, or they don’t find the question meaningful. “You mean, the way life is? Yeah, I’m already doing that. Had that insight already.”
“What should I do?” That question freaks me the fuck out. That horrible sense of, “If I don’t do this important thing that I hate doing there will be long term consequences. Unless of course I die tomorrow, in which case I will have spent my last night on earth doing something I hate.”
It makes me want to run around and scream, “Why does anybody do anything?” The answer I came up with is not entirely helpful.
- Do the things you want to do, to the best of your ability, so long as you’re not hurting other people.
That’s the best truth I’ve found. But it’s not easy. People are not simple. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably wants to sell you a book. (Granted, I’d gladly sell you a book, but that’s not what this is about.) I don’t mean for this to be a dewy-eyed platitude about “pursue your dreams, no matter the cost!” My attitude is that life is shorter than you would like, so you may as well do something you enjoy. But there are consequences to your actions. You also need to take care of things for which you are responsible. Because pursuing your dream is not as helpful if you are miserable and making other people miserable.
This truth is not entirely helpful for me because it’s not really satisfying, and it’s not easily answered. So much of my last decade has been trying to figure out where the line exists between what I personally want and what other people have convinced me that I should want. What I can do and what it will cost me. We get all sorts of messages from TV or our parents or whatever, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to what makes our lives worth living. That’s just someone else’s suggestion.
I have a mountain of debt and I work at a job that can help me pay off that debt, as well as provide my wife and I decent health coverage. It doesn’t nourish my soul, but it supports me enough that I can squeeze in doing stuff I enjoy on the side. Unless I become someone like Neil Gaiman (who I bring up a lot because he seems like he has a cool life) then that’s really the world I have to live with. Until I can finagle some way to get someone to pay me full time to dink around with story ideas and occasionally play games, that’s life.
- “Why would you want to save the galaxy?” “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!”
If you’re the sort of asshole who has to actually ask, “Well why the part about not hurting other people?” Then first I would like to ask you to go fuck yourself. Secondly, Guardians of Order provided me with a phrase that has stuck with me over the years. It’s not as good as being paid for the work I did, but it’s a pretty good phrase: enlightened self interest.
If you cannot find it in yourself to help others because it is nice to help others, then there’s always enlightened self interest. You can help others because it helps yourself. I’m not talking about cosmic rewards or something. I’m saying: If people are happy, then the world you live in is better.
If people have food, lodging, health care, education, and freedom from harm, then the world is a better place. There can be less crime, less addiction, people able to make changes for the better. In the United States especially, we have so much surplus it seems ridiculous to have these problems.
If everyone is allowed to live free of the suffering caused by not having the necessities of life, then that means that the starting point for accomplishing great things is that much closer to everyone. Even if you don’t give a shit about people being happy: What if everyone was better educated? What if they didn’t need to bend or break the law in order to get food or shelter?
One acquaintance of mine, to whom I no longer speak, got really wound up when someone said that if you were stranded on a desert island, you were more likely to survive if someone else was with you. Somehow he twisted it up into his only value being breeding stock or something. It derailed the whole conversation in a different direction, so I didn’t think to point out the obvious: If you break your leg, you have a better chance of surviving if there is someone else there who can splint your leg and help you out until you heal.
We are where we’re at by luck. You can try to tell yourself that you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, but really you’re just a chemical process that has been shuttled into a place of comfort by the world’s most elaborate Rube Goldberg device. But we have the benefit of being a chemical process that can choose to create a safety net so that people overall are better.
So there you go. That’s what I’ve managed to bungle into a coherent belief system over the last decade. Hopefully in the next decade I’ll come up with something better. And if you think you know better than me, write your own damn manifesto. Somewhere else. Far away from me.
Now get off my lawn.