Today, my buddy and I are having a discussion about the nature of reality. It’s been an on-going conversation for, wow I just realized, almost 20 years now. We’ve spent many late nights/early mornings pondering the meaning of it all.
When we met I was just starting to come out of a fundamentalist mindset. Kevin was leaning atheist. All these years later we seem to be merging toward some middle ground. We still have our differences. I would say I am still much more of a “believer” than he is, but we seem to be agreeing on more and more.
Today, we’re talking about the notion that Swedenborg calls “divine providence”. According to Swedenborg, everything that happens to us, down to the roll of a die, is slanted in our favor. God isn’t the author of evil, but God somehow only allows the agents of evil to do what is ultimately good for us. We have all heard the term used for the belief that people and/or circumstances are conspiring against us- paranoia. But, how many of us know the term that means the belief that there is a conspiracy in our favor- pronoia? Pronoia is a term that until a week ago I had never heard. I tell my buddy that this belief, coupled with the notion that we choose our own circumstances for the greatest good for our souls and for the growth of others, is what keeps me sane. It’s what keeps me grounded.
Kevin is a realist though. He’s not going to accept that what seems to be bad is really good just because we wish it to be. He posits “Maybe the universe really is cruel. Or maybe it’s just uncaring.” Well, it sure seems to be at times. The law of entropy sure seems to apply to my life. Everything is constantly falling apart or at least trying to fall apart. Life seems to be a constant struggle against disorder as I work hard to arrange things the way I think they need to be for my happiness and they always seem to be trying to work counter to my plans. This, I think, gives most of us an underlying sense of paranoia. Life is hard, and if you don’t watch out, it’ll jump up and bite you. We notice when things are going “bad”. But, do we pay as much attention when things go well? Do we notice the synchronicities that happen that put us in the right place at the right time to meet the love of our life? Do we notice the distraction that kept us off of the highway at the time a fatal accident occured? Do we think about all of the healthy days we have, all of the doctors’ visits when we don’t get the diagnosis of cancer or a heart condition? No. Those go largely unnoticed. That’s why we don’t generally have pronoia.
And, do we really know what is bad? Kevin asks: “If the universe allows bad things to happen to us, even for our greater good, if the universe has a choice in the matter, then is the universe cruel? ”. I fall back to an analogy that works for me. When we take our children in to get a vaccination from their perspective, we are taking them to a place where a stranger sticks them in the arm with a needle. “What is this, Mommy? You brought me to this place and put me in this room and let this person stab me in the arm?” As a parent, we know the vaccination is good for them. So, we not only allow it to happen, we take them. We feel their pain. We even wish we could take the shot for them, but we know it’s necessary.
As we go back and forth on this, I bottom line it. “We can never know which is true. The universe could be a cold uncaring place. Or, the universe could be a very safe place conspiring for our every good. Since we do not and cannot know- at least from observing from within, with our limited perspectives and seeing an on-going stream of what appears to be mostly random “good” and “bad” events, we have a choice to make. I play out the implications of both choices. Choice A- the universe is random, possibly cruel. This makes me a victim. I am powerless. It’s me against the world- actually the universe. Choice B- the universe is working to bring about the greatest good and happiness for everyone in it, but it’s playing a long game. This allows me to look at even the most dire circumstance and have some hope in it. Now, this works out OK for little things. Losing a job- maybe I’ll get a better one. Financial difficulties- maybe a better opportunity will come along or maybe I was too attached to material things. Where this breaks down is in death. The death of a child- what can be the possible good in that? I concede that, if there is no After, there is no redeeming value in the death of Shayna. Nope. None. Yes, Shayna touched many people’s lives and her passing has caused people to hug their own kids tighter and to realize they shouldn’t take anything for granted, but that does not outweigh what our family is going through. Some things cannot be fixed in time. My pronoia is dependent on the fact there is more.
So, Kevin brings up this choice is like Pascal’s Wager. This is the notion that we can live our lives as if God exists or as if God doesnt’ exist. The idea, as I understand it, is based on the assumption that we need to live a certain way to be “saved”. If we live a life based on God not existing and we die and God does exist. Uh-oh. If we live a life based on God existing and God does not exist, well maybe we sacrificed some things in this life, but we are blisssfully unaware of our non-existence, so we haven’t lost much. Might as well live as if God exists. This is hedging our bet.
I have to disagree with that. This isn’t so much like Pascal’s Wager. It doesn’t change the circumstance of my life to believe the universe is conspiring for me. It doesn’t really change my actions all that much, if at all. It changes my reaction to what has happened to me. It doesn’t even change my expectation of future events. It doesn’t mean I won’t get cancer or have an accident- the universe is not attempting to protect me from individual events I would deem bad. Choosing to believe or not believe this isn’t a matter of changing my behavior. Choosing to believe this is a matter of remaining sane in insane circumstances. Does that mean it’s just wishful thinking? Could be. I have no way of proving it and couldn’t think of an experiment we could design to prove it. We have testimony from those who have had NDEs and many of them tell us this is true.
So, given the choice, I choose to be pronoid. It’s not easy, especially right now. I meditate on it every day. I face the challenges looking at them like Navy Seal training. Navy Seals sign up to be Navy Seals. No one forces them to go. Yet, they go to training that pushes them to the limits. I’m sure there are times during the training when they just know they are going to die. There are times when they think they can’t take another step, swim another stroke, yet they push through. And they do it because they know that training is necessary to become the skilled warrior they wish to be.