Friday, February 17, 2012

The Beginning of Chaos

     I recently joined a blog directory, an online community with a primary goal of increasing your blog's readership and meeting other bloggers. There is a discussion board upon which you can generate conversation regarding just about anything under the sun, from a topic as simple as "What's your favorite dessert?" to something a bit more obscure, such as "How do you deal with disillusionment?" or "Is beauty a human invention?" If the subject matter piques another blogger's interest, you'll get a response, and maybe a stimulating discussion. Like any other online community, this directory has its share of old-timers, some who function as "wise sages" in the discussions, as well as a few loose cannons with religious or political agendas. Navigating through these discussions is usually a refreshingly provocative experience, leaving you with food for thought, and sometimes, a chuckle or two. Sometimes, it's like stumbling through a minefield; you never know just who's going to explode.
     One of the old-timers, whom I'll refer to as Wings*, recently wrote a powerful, beautiful piece about how he lost his faith in God. In the first paragraph, he disclosed that he grew up Catholic. He described learning to pilot an Ultralight plane as a teenager, making his first solo flight in 1983 after three years of instruction from his father, during which he crashed and was severely injured. I'm not sure if he had a near-death experience, but he noted that he was "dead on arrival" and received aggressive resuscitation from the paramedics. He was in a coma for 3 1/2 weeks, surviving 73 broken bones, including his jaw, wrists, arms, and legs, a punctured lung and a fractured kidney, followed by months of recovery during which he endured great physical and psychological pain. He was tube fed for months, and had to relearn how to walk. Watching and re-watching the videotaped footage of his crash seemed to provide evidence that God had indeed wanted him dead, leaving him confused and angry, lamenting the fact that he'd been cheated out of death. After his rehabilitation was complete, he moved to a different state to live with his father, who ironically, was killed a week later in a similarly ill-fated small plane crash. He poignantly expressed his sense of survivor's guilt, questioning how and why doctors were able to save him, but not his father, as well as his pervasive and overwhelming grief, which led him to reject any possibility of a loving God. Despite the fact he's afraid of flying, he enlisted in the Air Force, but hasn't flown for pleasure since his accident. While reading through his story, I was moved by his candor, his raw emotions, his ongoing search for the truth, and his open challenge to humanity to provide proof to him (and itself) that God exists.
     About a day later, Wings initiated another discussion, entitled, "Why are some Christians so uptight and self righteous?" In it, he described being browbeaten by a particularly defensive in-law, who presumed that because he desires objective proof of God's existence, he is ignorant and misinformed. This is interesting because one would assume that his in-laws knew about his tragic accident and the subsequent loss of his father, that they'd somehow understand why any previous belief he'd had in God was so severely shaken, and that they'd utilize a more supportive approach in assisting him with reconciling his loss of faith. Throughout the post, he acknowledges that he doesn't have the answers, he is simply looking for them, and that accepting God's existence on blind faith alone is not enough to convince him. I didn't construe what he wrote to be inflammatory in any way; he was mostly just asking questions. The discussion which ensued was pretty tame, with some folks pointing out that it's not all Christians or only Christians who are moralizing, self-righteous, and defensive, it's an issue of people in general, believing they are right and everyone else is wrong, which perpetuates an attitude of closed-mindedness and intolerance for the opinions held by others.
     Later that afternoon, Wings received an anonymous, threatening e-mail message from a self-professed "Christian" who launched into a rage-filled, full-on character assassination of him, heavily punctuated with expletives. Anonymous informed Wings that he had no right to an opinion on the subject of Christianity, and went on to state that he didn't need to justify his personal faith to Wings or anyone else. If that was really the case, why did he feel the need to denigrate Wings' family and his presumed "Godless" upbringing, accuse him of being a Nazi, inform Wings that he was going to burn in hell, but that first, he should be publicly stoned, and specifically threaten to find Wings in Houston, assuring him that he'd be begging for God's mercy after their meeting? I was disturbed by the shockingly violent tone of the email, but even more perplexed that the author of these strongly spoken words, throughout which he professed to embrace Christian love, chose to remain anonymous. Hmmm...WWJD? Wings reported the email to Yahoo, and the response he got was that Anonymous would be blocked from sending any further emails to his account. One has to wonder how many people Anonymous terrorizes daily, in the name of God, his fragile framework of beliefs so tenuous that he cannot tolerate anyone whose faith, or non-faith, deviates from his own. As far as I know, Wings did not respond personally to Anonymous' email, relegating it to the category of cowardly-zealot-making-idle-threats.
     I unwittingly stepped into my own minefield yesterday. I was the first to respond to a thread by TexArt** entitled, "The Story of Human Rights." TexArt asked, "What are human rights? Do we all deserve them?' and provided a fascinating educational video, also entitled "The Story of Human Rights." The video gave a succinct history of the evolution of human rights throughout civilization. It highlighted the United Nation's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights", which Eleanor Roosevelt assisted in drafting after WWII. This document married natural law with principles of universal rights for all human beings, rights which are often acknowledged, but not easily enforced. The video ended by admonishing viewers that the promotion and protection of human rights is the responsibility of all individuals, not institutions, because it is individuals who assign value and weight to the concepts of equal justice and opportunity, and freedom from discrimination. My response included this quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher who helped inspire the French Revolution: "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains." To me, this aptly sums up the problems inherent in enforcing human rights...we think everyone should have them, but we can't all agree on exactly what they are. I followed by saying, "All human persons deserve equal rights, but the definition of personhood among humans seems to be a persistent area of dispute." TexArt asked: "What do you consider a person, klandt?" I should have known then that this was a big red flag.
     If you've watched the news or listened to NPR recently, you're probably well aware of the legislation taking place in Oklahoma and Iowa, which seeks to legally redefine personhood as beginning at the moment of conception. This definition would effectively illegalize abortions and many forms of contraception, as well as imposing complex restrictions on the termination of life-threatening ectopic and rape or incest-related pregnancies, reproductive and fertility medicine, stem cell research, and gene therapy. It would also raise interesting legal questions regarding a woman's voluntary consent, as well as whether a pregnant woman can use carpool lanes or if a fetus could inherit property. In essence, this legislation separates a woman from her pregnancy, endowing a fertilized egg, by virtue of its DNA content, regardless of whether it actually results in implantation and the subsequent development of a fetus, with the same rights as the mother herself. Both pro-choice and anti-choice*** groups share a common goal of reducing the number of abortions, and statistically speaking, the pro-choice side has a better track record in this arena by providing women with options to prevent pregnancy, including abstinence. While the anti-choice proponents typically base their assertion that abortion is wrong in religious dogma, seeking to force their own morals and philosophies on all women,  pro-choice supporters respect women as individuals who are capable of making their own informed reproductive decisions and accepting the consequences, whether it's practicing abstinence or using birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancy, completing a pregnancy or terminating it, or keeping or giving up a child for adoption. In short, being pro-choice does not necessarily imply that one isn't also pro-"life." I am glad I never had to make that choice for myself, but I value and support every woman's autonomy with respect to contraception and pregnancy.
     Back to the discussion...I responded to TexArt's question by stating, "Well, to put it bluntly, I happen to be pro-choice. I'm glad I never had to make the choice to have an abortion, but I would never deprive another woman of her right to have one. In obstetric anesthesiology, one saves the life of the mother first. Obviously, among members of our society, the definition of personhood isn't clear cut, otherwise there wouldn't be so much ongoing debate about it. So, in my statement about the ambiguity over "personhood", I am referring to the personhood bills which are currently being legislated in Oklahoma and Iowa. This is not just a big deal, it's a potential violation of basic human rights, in my opinion." Here's the response I received:

"Blunt is fine, but I believe abortion is murder. But I also think it's the choice of the woman whatever she does...and she will have to suffer the consequences of her choices. Just like we all do.
"..it's a potential violation of basic human rights, in my opinion."
But not of the unborn child, right? Because they are not a 'person' yet?
It does seem confusing thing to some people.
According to the law ...anyone who assaults a pregnant woman and harms her unborn child can be charged with murder, manslaughter, assault inflicting serious bodily injury or battery, depending on the severity of the injury. *There are exceptions in the law for medical procedures including abortions.* ~only you can kill your own child?"

     Hmmm. Well, is he pro-choice or anti-choice? He contradicts himself in the first two sentences, and then utilizes inflammatory lexicon ("murder, killing") in an attempt to prove his point. I'm not sure which "law" he was quoting, because, as another poster pointed out,  the laws on assault and manslaughter differ with regard to each state." The idea that life begins at conception isn't a simple one; conception doesn't necessarily result in implantation or a viable pregnancy. To define personhood in this way could theoretically make it a crime to have a miscarriage or to dispose of a soaked tampon; there could be life clinging to it. It's not an issue of black or white. If TexArt really believed that each woman had a choice in managing her reproduction, why didn't he just leave it at that? There is no need for sanctimonious moralizing if you truly respect someone else's autonomy. You may not approve of his or her decision, and if it doesn't directly affect you, why take it personally? I told TexArt that I'd have to politely agree to disagree with him. Of course, as anyone who is unsure of himself tends to behave, he had to have the last word: "As is your right, but I don't need any agreement, I'm simply stating what I believe on the topic." Duh! This kind of reminded me of how kids will resort to repeating, "I know you are, but what am I?" when a playmate says something they don't like. If he really believed what he was saying, would he feel the need to goad others into accepting his opinion as the correct and moral one? Wouldn't it already be self-evident?
   
     I've come to learn that the most highly opinionated people also tend to be the least open-minded to other viewpoints, making engaging in intelligent debate with them completely futile. They can't listen because they don't know how; they are too busy telling you how it is or how it should be. This is one case where a stereotype seems accurate: the fanatic political or religious zealot who quotes scripture to validate his moral fortitude or, even worse, remains anonymous, thinking he's won the argument just because he's had the final word. I try to choose my battles carefully. In general, I don't feel an overwhelming need to defend my beliefs because they're constantly evolving. The more I listen, the better I understand myself and other people, and the less likely I am to react explosively to opinions which differ from my own. Opinions are like fingernails, we all have them. The people who require the most approval from others always seem to be the ones least able to tolerate opinions which deviate from their myopic perspectives. I'll conclude with some wisdom from Lao Tzu:
When the Way is lost, there is goodness
When goodness is lost, there is morality
When morality is lost, there is ritual
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos...
When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion
When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend on authority...
Wise men don't need to prove their point;
Men who need to prove their point aren't wise.

* and **: names changed
***Where the issue of a woman's autonomy is concerned, it makes more sense to use the terms "pro-choice" or "anti-choice", both of which can also be "pro-life".

2 comments:

  1. A wise man once said "Never argue with a fool, other people may not be able to tell the difference between you". That being said, another quote comes to mind (And I paraphrase)"All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent". Thanks for your well written and considered essay.

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    1. Both of those are excellent quotes to keep in mind when choosing one's battles in life. thanks for your comment! :-)

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