Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Does it Profit a Man?

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Mark 8:36)

"He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." (Matthew 10:39)

These two verses of scripture were embedded into my soul from an early age.  I first heard Mark 8:36 in Catholic primary school, and though a mere toddler at the time, it made as much sense to me then as it still does now. I later came across Matthew 10:39 while reading the Gospels in my mid teens. I built a wooden cross (because it was said that Jesus was a carpenter), typed out Matthew 10:39, and nailed it to my cross as a reminder that "no man is an Island":
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (A poem by John Donne, 1624)
These principles, if we can call them such, are actually abundant in the natural world, and no more so than in the Worker bee
A worker bee is any female (eusocial) bee that lacks the full reproductive capacity of the colony's queen bee; under most circumstances, this is correlated to an increase in certain non-reproductive activities relative to a queen, as well. Worker bees occur in many bee species other than honey bees, but this is by far the most familiar colloquial use of the term.
In essence, worker bees live to ensure that the Queen survives and reproduces, even though there is no apparent "reward" for them, other than the continuation of the species. This is a "law" of nature, and part of the process of evolution. No bee is an island, just like no man (or woman) is an island. Though we may seek individual-expression, rewards for "excellence", praise (which includes what Jesus critically called "the honour of men"); to "stand out" above our peers, we are actually dependent on virtually everything that surrounds us, from our parents, to relatives and friends, down to every goodwill smile and gesture that motivates us to be "better [or successful] people". Even without "mainstream approval", rebels and renegades depend on the approval and support of "worker bees", because humans are "tribal", realising their dependence upon the "tribe" for survival. Which "pockets" survive may not so much be a "divine process" as a "necessary process", and it can be random. Millions of species have gone extinct, and continue to go extinct right now (which could induce one to thinking that "providence" is very capricious), and while it may all seem meaningless, the "greater cause" is the survival of life on earth.  We advocate "causes" when we believe that those "causes" are not only beneficial, but necessary to continuation, to individual and group survival.

Our sun is supposed to have been formed some 4.6 billion years ago, which is quite astounding considering the average human life span of some seventy years. The sun is estimated to have a life of about 10 billion years, so we are about halfway through that cycle, before it becomes a "red giant"  and we will have been nothing more than a tiny speck in time in that enormous cycle. In a hypothetical life of seventy years, we are not even a tenth of the blink of an eye in cosmic terms, or as the Bible phrases it:
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower thereof falls away: (1 Peter 1:24)
If you're feeling a bit musically sentimental, perhaps Neil Diamond's I am, I said expresses our yearning for individual recognition, but the truth is we always were, are, and always will be "part of the process", never the process. Buddhists and Hindus refer to the concept of "self" as an "illusion", or Maya  , and if clinged to, this illusion brings great disappointment.
Each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternity, is like a brief, disturbed drop of water from an unbounded ocean. The goal of enlightenment is to understand this—more precisely, to experience this: to see that the distinction between the self and the Universe is a false dichotomy.
This isn't meant to be a curb or disincentive to individual ambition, which is healthy if one realises that such is only "part of the process" , and not an end in itself. Joan of Arc was not martyred "just" for a "cause", and in her incredible courage and death all humanity is ennobled and motivated by this act of selflessness, faith and devotion, because we are "programed" for survival, and even in the death of one, the survival and hope of many is ensured. We especially like heroes and heroines who espouse our particular "causes", which is why legends like Che Guevara live on.

We like to almost "worship" heroes as extensions of our better selves; to project ourselves into their place, all the while believing, even if it is a misguided belief, that this is what's "best for humanity".  It's the "survival gene", or even "meme", and survival contests are not rare - all, supposedly, for the "common good", from our individual perspectives.

So there's a lot more to life than basic sustenance and "animal instinct", and one thing I believe we've learned from history is that while individualism has flourished, it is never far from a "greater cause". We idolise our heroes and heroines because we see in them the virtures we cherish, and want to emulate. Life is far more than eating, drinking and being merry, and financial security won't necessarily bring peace of mind. We can horde riches and live in pompous style while ignoring the plight of the needy and the "less fortunate", which seems to be pretty much a rule rather than the exception in history. But one day, sometime in that 10 billion year sun cycle - our blink-of-an-eye existence will come to an end, and we ultimately be faced with the question:

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Mark 8:36)

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