Many, many years ago it was discovered that micro-organisms had a significant bearing in the spread of disease. Pioneering physicians introduced the practice of meticulously cleaning hospitals, especially cleaning hands before surgery. The results were, of course, spectacular; even if it took some time to convince everyone of the need for this level of cleanliness. Similar public sanitation had a huge impact in reducing epidemics in cities. These are examples of how recognising the limitations in the way we live has beneficial effects on the quality of our lives. We discover theexistence of bacteria and we take appropriate actions.
Knowledge of the objective limits inherent in reality sets us free. Ignorance leads tothe delusion of false freedoms. We must learn that there are limits to our power.
Jean Paul Sartre spoke of ‘bad faith’, of how modern man is haunted by the feeling of a wasted life yet he refuses to accept that anything can be done about this. He refuses to accept that he is radically free and fails to avail of his freedom. Life, Sartre claims, has an immense number of options and failure to recognise this and act on this is ‘bad faith.’ Now, while this may well be true, we will, each of us, at the end of the day, actually make a choice and this choice in preference to all the other possibilities. Was this choice the best option? Possibly not. But so what? Get on with your life. It was hardly the worst possible option. And life involves many options simultaneously in many areas. How does one always maximise the level of ‘good faith’? The truth is that one doesn’t; not on all fronts all the time. Real ‘good faith’ consists of not wallowing in a state of false guilt at the imperfections of the life we have ‘chosen’ and not pining for an impossible perfection.
We all have ambitions and dreams, some we outgrow, a few come true, often in ways we did not envisage. But life goes on. Some people, however, have a fantasy world within and devote their energies to changing the real world into this personal creation. Sartre’s freedom was bought at a cost to others. Radical freedom cannot but impinge on the freedom of others. For example he was famously contemptuous of monogamy. His partner Simone de Beauvoir, while supposedly a great feminist, was in a real sense merely his handmaiden. Her multiple abortions to service his needs is hardly a good example of ‘taking responsibility.’ I am not here advocating a ban on abortion but a ‘woman’s right to choose (to terminate a pregnancy)’ is not absolute because any human’s ‘right to make any choice’ is not absolute. Any choice, except possibly the most trivial, involves a moral dimension.
Ghandi once said that the world has ample means to supply our needs but not to feed our greed. And the Dali Lama – “happiness is difficult in poverty but the difference between modest comfort and immense wealth is negligible.” “When someone says ‘it’s not the money’ then it is the money,” said a wise woman. This is surely a fundamental slight of hand with reality. Working people do not so much ‘work for money’ as recognise the direct link between labour and payment. Higher up the socio-economic ladder many delude themselves that they have solved their money problem in absolute terms resulting in an underlying and inevitable financial anxiety.
Working people may earn less but mainly they recognise that this income is finite. The Green movement spoke of the dangers of endless economic growth in a finite ecosystem. The same insanity often exists at the level of the individual. Each of us is, in the limiting case, either in a state of recognising reality or in a dream state that is fundamentally at odds with reality. The fundamental delusion is that our entire reality has been ‘chosen’ by ourselves. That this results in extreme anxiety should be self evident. Decadent feminism results in both men and women striving to maximise material wealth, where only a few will succeed; a hollow success at that. A bartender was in a state of ‘bad faith’ because, it seems, he did not chuck in his (low status) job and launch himself on some reckless bohemian escapade, said Sartre.
Those who follow Sartre’s advice would, it seems, very often come to an unfortunate end. And what would they actually gain if they succeeded? There is a small task I perform at work, an adjustment to my tractor, which I perform 5 or 6 times a day. It is a bit of a pain. All jobs entail such less than pleasant aspects. Vacuuming my home is not my favourite either. An old friend of mine, a well to do businessman, once remarked that ones work should be just another part of ones day. Why should there be a difference in the level of ‘fulfilment’ whether one is on or off the job? The profound fulfilment of the ‘moneyed’ class is an illusion generated by a narcissistic relationship with their various job descriptions, and fulfilment of the bohemian is also elitist and probably just as illusory. There are no limits to the level of illusion possible to the human mind but reality, of course, has limits. A bartender who opts for a Kerouac-style bohemian existence may well be more fleeing reality than embracing it. The trick is, at all times, to accept the unpleasant aspects of our reality rather than eternally fleeing from them.
It is my firm opinion that happiness does not come from doing what we enjoy, but from accepting that we must, at times, do things we don’t like. On balance fulfilment comes from doing what one aught regardless of whether one likes it or not. How does one know what one aught to do? One does know.
Brendan Burke MA(Phil)
Unitarian Church Cork