I ended my private practice over five years ago. Four years ago, I left my part-time doctor job at Rosecrance and fully retired. I like to review my status annually to understand better where I have been and where I may be going.
This year’s review deals with concepts more than actions. I did not plan this post that way; it is just how it evolved.
As my retirement has progressed, I have been aware of a slow change in me as I grapple with more existential questions. Concepts of my significance have broadened to include the greater significance of humankind. I am not trying to determine why we exist; that question has been a philosophical problem for eons. Instead, my pondering has centered around several concepts that seem dissonant on the surface but are unified at a more intrinsic level. These thoughts are not meant to be a template for others to structure their lives. As I have written many times, you do you.
What is my significance? I have come up with two possibilities.
I am significant, and every action I make impacts my species, other organisms, the planet, and ultimately the entire universe. I consider this my George Bailey position. If I turn right instead of left, that impacts the world. Some of my actions will have a greater impact than others. At times, those actions will be deliberate; at other times, they will be random.
I exist because of prior generations. My children exist because of me (and, of course, my wife) and will impact our world in their own ways. Simple events, like typing this post while drinking a cup of coffee, change things in ways I’m incapable of knowing. In this view, everyone impacts the universe, regardless of their status.
I am insignificant. This is my existential nihilism position. Not only am I insignificant, but all humans are insignificant. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but the first primitive hominids appeared only 2 million years ago. Homo Sapiens have only existed for several hundred thousand years. Five mass extinctions have decimated most living organisms on this planet, and it is thought that we are currently in the throws of the 6th mass extinction.
The universe has existed for almost 14 billion years. During that time, entire solar systems have formed and have been destroyed. An average galaxy contains 100 billion stars. We know that many of these stars have orbiting planets. There are approximately two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. Galaxies have collided, and entire galaxies may have been destroyed or altered in that process. Everything that we can measure in the universe consists of matter and energy. However, we can only observe 15% of the matter in the universe. Eighty-five percent of the universe’s matter consists of dark matter. We cannot see or detect dark matter; the only way we know it exists is by how it impacts observable objects. If some catastrophic event destroyed our planet, it would have little impact on the universe. As a species or as individuals, we are exponentially less significant than that. No one significantly impacts the universe in this second possibility, regardless of status.
As humans, our ability to think is limited by our small brains. We define events by what we can observe, which we then try to explain with limited understanding. At one point, humans thought that the earth was flat as it was impossible to think that the world was so large that small segments would appear flat. Before the microscope existed, scientists felt that infectious disease was caused by miasma. Even today, individuals disregard known information as they cannot reconcile facts with other beliefs they may hold. A recent survey asked over 2000 Americans if Arabic numbers should be taught in public schools. The majority surveyed said that they should not be. This result is tragic on two fronts. First, most Americans didn’t realize that Arabic numbers are our 0-9 number system. And second is that those surveyed used a combination of bias, prejudice, and ignorance to reach a ridiculous conclusion.
Humans think in absolute ways. However, this linear logic limits us. We use simplistic thinking to determine good vs. bad. Are police good or bad? Who is right, the Republicans or the Democrats? What is the one true religion? It is impossible to develop a definitive answer to these and many other questions. However, this leads me to a conclusion about the above conundrum. It is possible to have two opposing ideas that are both correct. Therefore, we are both significant and insignificant. Based on the above, it is impossible to determine an objective answer to my life’s purpose. Instead, it is better to explore how I impact the world. For me, that is on an interpersonal basis. My significance is based on my direct interactions with others. How important those interactions are, I can’t say. Yet, I need to accept this as it is where I should place my efforts and energy.
How are we joined to humankind and our planet? Most cultures have employed a third factor that provides ways to explain the unknown, gives rules of behavior, and creates a framework for community. Enter the concept of the supernatural. Different groups may understand this differently. Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme god but talk about spirits. Hindus refer to a universal soul or Brahman. Pagans focus on a connection with nature, while Christians, Muslims, and Jews hold a monotheistic understanding of the supernatural.
I believe that there is something greater than ourselves. I refer to that entity as God. My beliefs are partially cultural and partially experiential. I was raised Roman Catholic and migrated to a non-denominational Christian Church, so I am most comfortable with a Christian concept of a Higher Power. However, my concept of God and Christianity, in general, may be in opposition to more traditional views. Unfortunately, religious beliefs carry even more passion than other emotional flashpoints, such as politics. I do not need to offend anyone. I am sharing my thinking process, but I don’t need to convert anyone to my thinking.
There are thousands of Christian denominations worldwide and dozens of prominent ones in the US. These groups are sometimes similar to each other, and at other times they are radically different. Critical concepts, such as necessary actions needed for salvation, can differ radically from one group to another. Acceptable behaviors are also wildly different. Denomination A may think it is fine to have an alcoholic drink, while denomination B bans coffee. Denomination C may believe in the Rapture, while denomination D may believe such thinking is heresy. Demonination E may only allow celibate men as religious leaders, whereas denomination F may feel that married men and women should serve in that role. Denomination G rejects the use of automobiles and electricity, whereas denomination H embraces rock bands and live stream broadcasts of their services, and so it goes.
Who determines the rules? That varies. In most cases, at least with western Christianity, it is white men. However, the way that they command their authority can also vary. Many will convene a meeting or conference. Naturally, leaders with the most power will have the loudest voice. Power doesn’t always equate with correctness.
Beyond consensus, there is usually some other ultimate source of truth. Catholics believe that the Pope is infallible regarding questions of morals and faith. Mormons believe that their leader is a prophet. Some protestant religions will note that the Bible is inerrant. This opinion isn’t conclusively stated in the Bible; it was decided by a conference of Evangelicals held in Chicago at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare hotel in 1978. Specifically, they cited the King James version of the Bible as the absolute inerrant source. Many non-Evangelical Biblical scholars would say that there are more accurate translations of the Bible that use better methodology and source materials closer to the original, but that is a discussion for another day.
Religious leaders throughout history have made decisions based on a variety of motivations. I do not doubt that some of their determinations have been based on their interpretation of God’s will from reading scripture, personal prayer, and other methods. Sometimes, bias can radically impact an individual’s or group’s thinking process. Both Copernicus and Galileo said that our solar system was heliocentric and were deemed heretics by religious leaders. The Inquisition tried Galileo because this finding contradicted the interpretation of scriptures that the Earth was the center of the universe. Beyond interpretation issues, some religious leaders have used their authority for personal profit or to push their agenda. Here some tele-evangelists who ascribe to prosperity theology come to mind.
I see no evidence that God has granted certain individuals the ability to be infallible. Likewise, I see the Bible as a highly significant work containing Christianity’s elements. However, I don’t see it as inerrant. I base this opinion on the many inconsistent histories given in the Bible that range from the birth of Jesus to His crucifixion and death. Various Gospels were written decades to almost 100 years after the death of Jesus. Before that time, his teachings were spread by oral traditions, which would be modified as time and situation commanded. You can see this effect by reading the first written Gospel (Mark) and comparing it to the last, the Gospel of John.
The Bible was written during a different time when enslaving others was acceptable and when women were expected to be completely subservient to men. These were the cultural norms 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, some have used these and other Biblical references in modern times as justification to oppress entire groups of humanity. Others have used incorrect translations of words or their personal interpretations of passages as rational to damn groups of humans.
The Catholic Bible includes books that the Protestant Bible omits. Are those books of lesser value? Other writings were considered and rejected for the Bible as they were inconsistent with the determining group’s ideology. Some of these books have resurfaced and offer a different view of early Christianity. Should they be included in our understanding of Jesus’s message?
At this point, you are likely asking, “So, what is your point?” My point is that I think spiritual life is vital for me as it not only gives my existence meaning but it also connects me with our greater humanity. It is the glue that makes sense out of the dichotomy that my life is both meaningful and meaningless. However, I cannot accept something just because some authority told me that was what I am supposed to believe. I find too many flaws in such an argument.
As I mentioned earlier, I consider myself a Christian, which is the set of beliefs I resonate with. However, I have some issues with religion and religious leaders. This may seem heresy as many Christian religions emphasize that only their beliefs offer the golden ticket to heaven. Further, some threaten eternal damnation if you stray away from their dogma. There are benefits to belonging to a religious group, community being one of them. However, once any religion feels it has the right to damn and condemn others, it has moved from being a spiritual guide to a quasi-god.
I keep returning to the message that Jesus gave us based on his actions. It is very simple. Love all, forgive, include all, don’t judge, be kind, and be generous. Jesus went against the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath. In doing so, he demonstrated that we should not let the self-proclaimed leaders of the day prevent us from having a relationship with God by overloading us with their rules and regulations. When religion moves against His tenets, they serve their needs rather than God’s will. I cannot continue with any religion when I see an organization professing inclusion but practicing exclusion. Professing forgiveness but practicing damnation. Professing charity but practicing greed. Professing equality but damning opposing opinions.
This last year of my retirement has focused on these issues. I accept the uncertainty of my existence. I exist, and no further rationale is necessary. My relationship with my Higher Power is stronger now than in the past. That connection feels truer as I have been able to release me from many of the things taught me, but that made little sense. As my connection to my Higher Power deepens, my acceptance of the duality of our existence strengthens. I will continue to move forward as I attempt to contribute to society and those around me, not for heaven points, but because it is the right thing to do.
Lastly, this year I have been thinking about life goals and legacy. I’m certain that some don’t give these concepts a second thought, while others may think about them all the time. For some, their life goal is to acquire. They may want to acquire experiences, the latest restaurant meal, or travel location. Others want to gain property, money, or power. For these folks, the more they have, the more they want. Still, others want to leave a tangible marker that they have been “here.” That could be anything from a recipe to a university building.
For me, a life well spent has moved humankind in a positive direction. Most of us won’t be able to make global changes. I don’t think that is important. However, what is important to me is if my overall efforts were more positive than negative. As a doctor, did I help more people than I harmed? As a friend, relative, husband, and father, were my interactions more beneficial than detrimental to those I love? Were my connections with acquaintances and strangers more positive than negative? If I can generally answer yes to the above questions, I feel that I have lived a worthwhile life.
In a few weeks, I’ll turn 70-a major birthday. Upward and onward, one step at a time.