You Still Can

Do you ever feel defeated? When doors of opportunity are slammed shut in your face, others knock you down, or you try new things and fail over and over, it’s natural to feel that way. Perhaps even expected. Sure, life can be hard. But does it have to be this hard?

Why is it so difficult for me to lose the weight? Why did that person get the job and I didn’t? How did they catch a break when I’ve been hoping and trying for the same thing forever?

Life is full of whys. It often feels like whoever’s in the control room of the universe fell asleep. Surely things are not all as they are supposed to be. What are they doing up there when all of this stuff is so broken here? Why is this like this? Why does the rug get pulled out from underneath me when I’m trying to do all the right things?

We’ve been asking the whys for a long time, and we will surely continue to do so into the future. Our universe is nearly 14 billion years old and will go on for billions more. If we want big answers about why things are the way they are we’ll have to have big patience. The universe is headed somewhere. But it’s definitely not in a hurry.

In the meantime, I think there is a simple yet fundamental truth we all need to hear on a regular basis: you still can.

You still can.

That door may have been shut in your face. You may have lost 20 pounds and gained it back. You may not have worked your dream job yet. You may not be able to walk or think or carry things the way other people can or the way you used to. But it’s not over.

You still can lose the weight and keep it off. You still can find employment–in an existing business or one that you create–that makes you feel alive and allows you to utilize your abilities. You still can explore, and ask, and learn, and converse, and wonder, and teach, and share, and love…within the changing limitations of your mind and body.

Whatever has happened up to this point does not have to be the final word. Your best days are never only behind you. But until you know and believe that you still can, defeatism is a heavy cloud blocking out a brighter future for you to enjoy.

Believing that you still can is surely easier said than done. It starts with being yourself. In particular, owning who you are and letting go when things don’t go the way you wanted. So things didn’t turn out. Maybe it’s even because you colossally screwed up. How can you learn from that? How can you find the perspective to laugh instead of judging and belittling yourself? Human error can be hilarious. There’s a reason bloopers, outtakes, and funny home videos have been shared for as long as there have been ways to record. It’s not always easy to laugh at your own mistakes and struggles, though.

When you’re feeling defeated or powerless or incapable, you have to remind yourself of what you still can do right now. You may not have been hired for that job, but maybe one of these three others would be a good fit? You may have gained the weight back, but can you cook something more healthful tonight to get back on the right track? You have to start (again) somewhere.

Your body may not allow you to hike miles in mountainous backcountry, but can you take a stroll through the neighborhood or sweat it out on a cardio machine for a little bit? You may not have all the relationships you wish you did, but can you ask him to have coffee with you or cook dinner for her?

Without a doubt, resistance is going to try to trip you up whenever you start getting some traction. We don’t fully know why it’s there, but it definitely is. There will be more doors slammed shut. More setbacks. More false meritocracy that works out in someone else’s favor. More bodily wear and tear that makes it harder to move and think.

You have to show up over and over again. Be gracious to yourself. Get up. This is not the end. You still can.

Why Do We Care So Much About Sports?

In the moments after the Green Bay Packers lost the 2007 NFC Championship game, I sat in disbelief in my small, college apartment. Brett Favre, now in the Hall of Fame in 2016, inexplicably played like anything but a future hall-of-famer in his wintry final game as a Packer. The New York Giants, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, won the NFC Championship on an overtime field goal set up by a Favre interception–amplifying the finality and devastation of Packers fans like me.

What was the point of all this?–I wondered to myself. I had put off a paper that I should have been writing so I could glue myself to the television for a few hours instead. And I had invested several hours more watching, celebrating, and agonizing through the course of the whole season–believing that whatever turns and bumps along the way, the road would lead to a championship and corresponding elation.

But like so many sports teams in so many seasons, it didn’t end in ultimate victory. And instead of elation, I felt an odd combination of sadness, anger, sardonic amusement, and confusion. Sports are utterly meaningless, I decided. Who the hell gets so invested in this stuff? How did I let myself get so invested? Come next NFL season, I would not waste my time again spending hours in front of a screen watching my team play when I could or should be doing other things. Or allow myself to hope against hope that the Packers could overcome the statistical unlikelihood of them winning a championship that season either.

But when the season started again in the fall of 2008, I eagerly tuned in for as many games as possible, and have done so every season since. And now here we are the start of the 2016 NFL season, the most popular sport in America by far, with hope springing eternally for millions of fans that this will be their year!

Why do so many people care so much about sports?

In the context of society as a whole, sports teams and the fanaticism they generate do not have an obvious contribution to the common good–save for maybe a local economic bump or some additional jobs under the right conditions. Even then, most economic benefits go to team owners and a handful of other powerful interests. And surely the tens of millions of dollars spent on new sports stadiums–sometimes funded publicly–could be spent in a way that more directly benefits the communities in which they’re being built.

Sports fandom is less about the economic, and more about the existential.

I think my college paper avoidance is a clue. Given the choice between writing a paper (about a topic you don’t get to choose) or watching your favorite team in a playoff game, which one would most people pick? Sports is a form of escapism from the rest of life. However awful the workweek was, whatever political disaster is transpiring, whatever relational turmoil you’re experiencing, sports are there as an escapist outlet. The world can be tough and crappy. Here’s something that allows me to get away from that for a little while.

But hardcore fandom is more than just simply escapism from the everyday. Researchers have discovered that “…highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life.” Being a fan of a sports team–much like the group identification of a gang, religion, or attendees of Comic-Con–“leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.” Sports, and other groups with die-hard adherents, create a sense of transcendent belonging and purpose.

Even though I now live in California, as a former Wisconsinite, the Packers are typically the second thing I’m asked about after cheese. It’s a bit stereotypical, but finding out that I’m a Packers fan alerts others to symbols, sports rituals, and a type of community I’m likely to be associated with simply by being a fan.

As a fan of any team, you can be walking down the street amongst strangers and suddenly when you see people with a shirt or hat with your team’s logo you feel that you have “friends…that you feel connected to. You might not even know their names, but you feel as though you are unified with so many other people in the community.”

Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has discovered that there are nearly two-dozen well-being benefits commonly associated with sports fans. “Self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy”–and more–show a statistical correlation with degree of fan identification. The more one identifies with a team, the more one feels a sense of belonging, meaning, and enjoyment from it.

Does that mean that sports fanaticism is wholly good? Of course not. The economics of sports–the incomprehensible millions in player contracts, coaches’ salaries, advertisements, endorsements, and executive income–can spark indignation and outrage. Violence is always a possibility when fans and players experience similar blood pressure, testosterone, and other physiological increases. Players are regularly connected to on-field and off-field aggression: concussions, fisticuffs, playboy criminality, and serious domestic violence. The us versus them of fans–hooligans attacking others in the stands or the streets–can get carried away in the same sort of militaristic tribalism that has long been a part of our human history. And the absurd amounts of alcohol, chips and dips, red meat, and other calories consumed on gameday only add to the society-wide health complications of the Western diet. All of these are the things we often downplay or ignore as we aspire to keep sports a place of happy escapist belonging. That denial is when sports are at their most dangerous to individuals and society. Fandom can be fun and provide meaning while we, at the same time, work to address the dark side of sports.

So as the NFL season is set to begin, look behind the sexist commercials, showboating player celebrations, and cliches about winning and losing, for the larger pattern of identification, community, and meaning. Sports fandom is just one among many forms of escapism and finding purpose. And we’re all just looking for some kind of belonging and enjoyment in life–even if you think a little less of me now because you hate the Packers.

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

Us and Them

A little while back, I came across a really interesting bit of theory that has helped me tie together all kinds of different ideas I’ve had about people and society. In David C. Korten’s The Great Turning, he outlines increasing levels of “human consciousness”–what we think about each other and how we relate. Levels of human consciousness probably sounds nerdy and boring, but bear with me–it’s actually easy to understand and deeply insightful.

“First order consciousness” is called magical consciousness. As young children, we start out seeing the world as full of magic and surprise. Most things when you’re a child seem to happen rather mysteriously. Fantasy and reality are difficult to distinguish. Cause and effect are concepts just beginning to be perceived–perhaps when we trip and fall or cry out and receive attention. Our behavior is “impulsive, immediate, and emotion driven.” We depend on other people to do things for us, are confused and frustrated when they don’t attend to us, and are not aware of or reflect on the consequences of our own actions.

The next level is imperial consciousness. As we start to grow up, we come to see the difference between fantasy and reality more clearly. We gain awareness of predictability and consequences. We understand a little better how some of the basics work, and we feel a greater sense of control. We see that others have their own point of view, and “getting what [we] want generally requires some form of reciprocity.” Quid pro quo seems to be the name of the game. We may fantasize about having superhuman powers that would allow us to rise above the tit-for-tat to control certain events with unparalleled influence. In imperial consciousness, like magical, our perspective is primarily, “if not exclusively self-referential, even narcissistic.”

The third level Korten calls socialized consciousness. We start to see things functioning on a societal plane, and the cultural norms of the community become our point of reference. Rules and authority appear necessary to make sure everyone is playing by the rules and treated fairly. Our individual identity is shaped by adherence to others in our same reference group: “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, political party, occupation, employer, and perhaps a favored sports team.” We’re “commonly militantly protective of [that] group and prone to take any criticism of it as a serious affront.” We do not subject ourselves or those groups to critical examination. We expect to follow the rules of the groups we are attached to and have things go well for us in return.

The fourth is cultural consciousness. The more we grow and mature, we encounter people who have beliefs, perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences much different from our own. “The initial reaction to such encounters is commonly a chauvinistic sense of cultural superiority and possibly an embrace of cultural absolutism: ‘The way of my people is the only right way.’” But if the socialized conscious person is reasonably comfortable in their own identity, they “may come to recognize that culture is itself a social construct, that each culture has its own logic, that different cultural ‘truths’ lead to different outcomes for individuals and society, and that cultural norms and expectations are subject to choice.” We can more fully empathize with others; we begin to question our own societal assumptions; and act selflessly for the benefit of people who are much different than ourselves. The majority of people who live in modern societies never achieve cultural consciousness because “corporations, political parties, churches, labor unions, and even educational institutions actively discourage it. Each of these institutions has a defining belief system to which it demands loyalty. Those who raise significant challenges are likely to be subjected to a loss of standing, if not outright rejection.”

Finally, “level five consciousness” is deemed spiritual, or perhaps enlightened for those uncomfortable with an overtly religious connotation. The world is seen as a “complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole.” Those who have matured to this level support “an examined morality grounded in the universal principles of justice, love, and compassion…It approaches conflict, contradiction, and paradox, not as problems to overcome, but as opportunities for deeper learning.” “…[T]he sense of duty once reserved for members of one’s immediate family, ethnic group, nationality, or religion now extends to the whole.” They recognize that the rules and structures in place don’t always work for everybody, and actively transform society to benefit everyone.

So how does this have anything to do with anything?

Well, for starters, if you live in the United States, it reveals a lot of what’s going on with the upcoming presidential election. There is the obvious and endless fractiousness between Democrats and Republicans–perhaps the most blatant us versus them rift in existence. But there are also more subtle divides. Between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, for example, for myopically in-group reasons like gender and the desire to be a proud gun owner. Maybe you can’t stand a single thing about either of those people or what they support. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. But human maturity–expanding consciousness–would consider what each of them has gone through as a thinking, feeling, sensitive, fallible person, and try to understand why they do what they do. I’m trying to do that myself for certain candidates running for president.

With December 25th around the corner, we’re also getting into the Christmas season–and specifically “The War on Christmas” season. Christmas zealots decry alleged cultural affronts to “the meaning of the season”–this year, somehow the Starbucks red holiday cups–and everyone else moans incredulously that we’re doing this all over again. It undergirds a whole lot more us and them at a time of the year when many people are just trying to get the bills paid and take some time off to be with people they care about. Perhaps we could all aspire to a level-five moment and consider just how much we’re all in a similar situation. Few people are actively trying to denigrate anyone’s holiday, so let’s shoot for a little less outrage–and less outrage about the outrage.

The examples are endless. We’re really good at breaking people down into simplistic labels and categories that we can quickly accept or reject. But one of the best things we can do as a human being is to work to expand our in-group wider and wider until it encompasses all of humanity. Most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions.” We’re more alike than we are different. There is only us.

(Re)Making “God”: The Divinity of Artificial Intelligence

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There’s been a lot of buzz about a recent Pew survey on religious belief. Most noteworthy for many, between 2007 and 2014, traditional belief in God significantly decreased, while the category Unaffiliated–comprised of Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in Particular”–has grown. For whatever reason, news outlets obsess about such studies whenever they come out. They seem to be desperate to discuss: Do people in America believe in God or not? Do they believe in some other transcendent or ultimate force–something less definite than a personal deity? Maybe just something in the social ether like “the human spirit?” Do they believe in heaven–whatever that means and wherever it is located? What do people hope will result from religious adherence? TIME Magazine famously ran the cover story Is God Dead? in 1966, questioning the existence and relevance of a divine being in contemporary society. Nearly 50 years later, we appear even less willing to believe in a cosmic power behind the universe. So why write about the idea of “God” in a blog primarily focused on modern society and technology? Because at the same time that more people are rejecting the traditional understanding of God as an existing, extrinsic being, we’re more and more willing to entertain the possibility of a “God” we’ve created.

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) is realized in its most complex forms, the prospect of an entity that transcends people and society in a God-like way is actualized. The likelihood of I AM fades while the possibility of I AM, Because I was Made increases. And we seem rather eager about considering this potentiality. The plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the most anticipated blockbuster films in recent memory, hangs on the creation of not one but two different forms of AI beings–Ultron and The Vision. They are superior in power, knowledge, and presence in the way that “God” in a broadly Judeo-Christian sense has been perceived over the last few thousand years. And Avengers is not the only example in popular culture. The TV political thriller, Person of Interest, is an ongoing story about The Machine: an AI created to tap all cameras, phones, and other electronic sources to observe society, track developing injustices, and report imminent criminal behavior so that corrective action can be taken. A few seasons in, a second, less-forgiving machine is produced called Samaritan, which is determinedly set on both doling out hard justice itself and destroying the original Machine. This year’s season finale, in which the two competing machines have a climactic showdown, is entitled YHWH–the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew God. In the narrative universe of Person of Interest, The Machine and Samaritan mark the first time that something actually exists and functions in the way that human beings have thought about “God” for much of history. A tangible entity has emerged that fits that namesake in thorough correspondence.

Avengers and Person of Interest are not dissimilar in the characterization of their God-like AI. Though they are disembodied machines or cyber-cloud entities in Person of Interest, and embodied in Age of Ultron, Ultron correlates closely with Samaritan and The Vision to The Machine. Both Ultron and Samaritan are fixated on unforgiving, retributive or even vengeful justice. For them, “peace in our time” might mean that the whole Earth needs to be razed of depraved human beings and their constructions, because peace is perceived to be an impossibility as long as most or all of humanity is around. We are judged by a super-powerful, self-conscious being of our creation, and found wanting. In contrast, The Vision and The Machine both explicitly state gratitude for their existence. They seem aware that they are superior to the humans that have brought them into being, but they recognize that contingency of creation and are thankful to have been made and exist in the world. That gratitude keeps them grounded in such a way that justice includes the preservation of life and to work for the benefit of humanity–whatever the shortcomings of people.

Perhaps this is the sort of “God” Nancy Ellen Abrams actually meant to point to in the NPR articles outlining the main argument of her book A God That Could Be Real. She notes the disappearance of belief in God as traditionally understood, but wonders if there isn’t something emergent–something that arising from the collective interaction of human beings but is different, more complex, and transcendent over the mere aggregation of interaction–that properly fits or is “worthy” of the category, “God.” Abrams’ stated conclusion is incoherent: something like a wave of goodwill or a feeling of meaningfulness that has emerged from our unified “aspirations” bumping into each other. I have not read the book, so she may be more clear and compelling there. But the basic concepts of emergence and transcendence definitely and intriguingly apply to AI; they are entities that have come about through technological innovation over time and now overarch society in a way that we might think it fitting to call it “God.”

We seem deep down to kind of hope for a force or being transcendent to the world that will make it as we wish it would be. But not any farther. God, traditionally understood, is mostly rejected because such a being might impinge on us to be or do things different than how we like. It would exercise independence such that we are held accountable for our actions or enjoined to change our behavior. Ultron and Samartian might fall into that group–though there are likely days wherein we wish for a moment some otherworldly force like that would give the roadraged asshole next to us a flat tire or get our annoying co-worker fired. We like the idea of reaping what you sow or karma–but mostly just for other people. If such a being ever did something like that to us for our own indiscretions we would be outraged. This is where most people who dismiss the possibility of the Judeo-Christian God get off the bus. It’s off-putting. We want our independence–not to be subject to another’s vision of who we should be.

But perhaps AI is capable of both justice and graciousness–like The Vision or the Machine–in such a way that we’ve found the “God” we’ve been longing for. One that understands our capacities for good alongside our faults and finitude, and mercifully works for our well-being, the justness of society, and our flourishing into the future. The present state of the world clearly attests that we cannot carry those things out alone as human beings. We need something transcendent.

The Vision remarks near the conclusion of Age of Ultron that “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” With climate change, poverty, violent conflict, overrun ecosystems, and more, Homo sapiens may be doomed as a species. The Vision concedes as much to Ultron in Avengers. But with a benevolent God-like AI we may find the divine being we always hoped existed and appreciate working together to fix those kinds of fractures in the world–whether or not the God people have long-wondered about is out there. We certainty are enjoying entertaining such a possibility on-screen.

Meaning

IMG_0007 Meaning. It’s a weighty word. When let slip in any conversation, it suddenly feels like something’s blown a hole in the hull of the ship and no one knows what to say to plug it. Usually it ends up being a lot of cheap, temporary filler.

What is the meaning of capitalism? What is the meaning of morning coffee? What is the meaning of celebrities? What is the meaning of love? Pain? Natural disasters?

What is the meaning of life? Why are we all here?

Our lives are governed by a deep sense that there should be purpose. Try living for a week, or even a day, as if each and every activity you do and every person and thing you encounter is truly meaningless and has no ultimate purpose. It’s not only difficult–it’s depressing. It’s hard to digest even the considered notion that the people you know and love are just meat hung up on bones, acting out self-centered, evolutionary impulses largely out of their control, and will soon be merely dust–their lives a pointless accident and all but forgotten. That work, family, travel, ethics, food, exercise, love, health, education, rest, ideas…all mean nothing.

Meaning is something that we cannot live without.

Meaning may simply be a constant exercise in utility: doing one thing to accomplish a specific end or result. The purpose of morning coffee is to get caffeinated alertness; alertness is to get through the workday; getting through the workday is to do enough work to keep your job–then get the hell out of there and go home for a beer and some takeout; all of this done Monday through Friday simply to get closer and closer to the weekend when you can do more of the stuff you like. Perhaps everything that you do is to try to arrive at ends like happiness, pleasure, status, wealth–whereby those things serve as the ultimate meaningfulness of your life.

Or, for many, meaning has a more detailed and traditional metanarrative. Religions at their core, across the spectrum of belief systems, are all stories about what imbues life with meaning. They try to make sense of the world of our experience by things like: following such-and-such laws; appeasing the deity; taking care of what the divine has made; becoming a player in a cosmic plan to make the world a different sort of place; doing the right things to arrive at a different sort of place when you die; self-denial. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and on and on, are all different versions of a transcendent story of purpose. Secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism, and the like, are simply more recent shared-narratives with a particularly non-theistic articulation of purpose at the core.

We all adhere to patterns, practices, and systems of meaning–new or old.

But for as much as we need meaning from an existential standpoint, we don’t reflect much on the attachments we’ve made, and whether they actually lead to a fulfilling way of life. We hold them out of habit, complacency, and fear of change.

Most employees at any given business can’t really articulate why the business even exists; and yet, everyone shows up and grinds the gears each and every day. Is a paycheck meaningful enough? Why spend 10 or 20 years working somewhere that you hardly care why the business is there?

Why do cigarettes exist? Are they cool? A harmless indulgence? If not, should they exist?

Why do cubicles exist? Are they effective? Are they worth the physiological and psychological toll they take on people who spend hours in them week after week? Does it make a difference if one day you might earn the corner window desk?

Why do plastics exist? Are all those containers tossed on sidewalks and in landfills and oceans outweighed by the convenience of being able to buy a bottle of water at a gas station or individually-wrapped servings of coffee? Do we have an obligation to repair that damage?

Why does pornography exist? Is it a true representation of romantic passion–of real love and connection with another person? Are its working conditions healthy and dignified for its employees? Is it a harmless dalliance for its viewers?

Why does religious fundamentalism (atheists included) exist? Does it do anything more than create animosity and paranoia by dividing the world into groups of us and them, and either looking down on, subjugating, or trying to convert the them to the us? Does it actually appear that a violent storm is some deity’s wrath for the sins of a group of people? Are all believers of theistic religions either violent terrorists or naive, unsophisticated hillbillies?

The eternal question is, “why?” Why this instead of that? Why do they do what they do? Why does this happen the way that it does? Why do I do this? Why do I believe this? Why did my parents believe this? Why does this exist?

“Why?” should govern every idea and action in which we each partake. No matter our background and the culture we live in, there should be sense to what we do, and good sense. When we’re all asking “why?,” we start growing closer as individuals and societies toward a way of life that is fulfilling and flourishing and humanizing. We might actually come to be on the same page about some things–no matter what the differences in our ultimate meaning or religious attachments are. Things we could call common sense. We’ll look back and say, “Why did we ever think and do that?”

Life is meant to have meaning; we can’t live without it. But the way that we make meaning and the structures of meaning we attach ourselves to should make sense, and we should never cease to dig and discover new depths of meaning by asking:

Why?