Wednesday, March 17, 2010
There has never been a point in history when the “human condition” was universally good. Whether the enemy is our environment, each other, or ourselves, human beings haven’t found a way to eliminate suffering in the 20,000 or so years we have been on earth. Even at the height of the Renaissance, the plague swept through Europe while monarchs and bishops practiced politics by arranging for heads to be separated from bodies, villages to be sacked, and the poor to starve. And yet, there have always been a few beautiful souls who recognized that our species could be so much better than we are by being better to each other. Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha taught (and continue to teach) how we can find the good within ourselves, so that we might transcend the suffering and baseness of our earthly lives. The world’s great religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – promise salvation, eternal rest, paradise, or enlightenment as a reward for rising above greed, hatred, vanity, lust, gluttony, and envy.
Siddhartha is the wealthy scion of an important Indian family who dutifully learns his lessons and religious practices in order that he continue his family’s Brahmin legacy. The young man typifies the person who “has it all” but one day realizes that he feels empty inside. Rather than attempt to fill his emptiness with pleasures of the body, Siddhartha decides to quit his family and his caste to go searching for a path to enlightenment. At first Siddhartha believes that ascetism will make him more holy, but after a time he realizes that denying the body is itself a form of vanity. He leaves the ascetics and joins up with followers of the Buddha. Buddhists are more accepting of the body’s physical needs, but Siddhartha finds irreconcilable logic problems in their belief system. Weary of his quest, Siddhartha succumbs to the attraction of a beautiful and demanding woman. In order to win her, Siddhartha learns how to amass riches by apprenticing himself to a successful merchant. He becomes quite wealthy and after several years of hedonism, Siddhartha realizes that he can have anything he wants and he can make others do his bidding: his life has become a game. Once again, he walks away. At the end of the story, after following a zig-zag path from one extreme to the other, Siddhartha discovers that the secret to enlightenment is within himself and that only by letting go of people, possessions, and expectations can he get there.
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), best known for Steppenwolf, published Siddhartha in 1922. As a boy, Hermann was psychologically troubled, prone to tantrums and oppositional behavior, and at times suicidal. He bridled under his parents’ strict upbringing and did not share their Lutheran faith. Hermann sought better answers to life’s mysteries and paradoxes by reading the works of great European thinkers including Arthur Schopenhauer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Friedrich Schiller. Because of his parents’ missionary work in India, Hermann had access to Indian artifacts, literature, and art. This fueled a fascination with that culture and an interest in Buddhism.
In 1894, at age seventeen, Hermann Hesse became an apprentice mechanic; work he found so soul-killing that he began studying spiritualism in earnest. After completing his apprenticeship, Mr. Hesse supported himself by working for a series of book stores, and began writing in his free time. His first book, Peter Carmenzind, published in 1904, was so successful that Mr. Hesse was able to live off the proceeds. In that same year, he married Maria Bernoulli and they settled in a small German town on the shores of Lake Constance.
Mrs. Hesse bore three sons while Mr. Hesse continued to write. It was during this time that Mr. Hesse began reading Schopenhauer’s works on Theosophy (religious philosophy and studies of the unknown and unknowable) which were influenced by Buddhism. As his thinking evolved, his marriage fell apart and Mr. Hesse embarked on a spiritual quest to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. While he found no answers to his questions, Hermann Hesse did find inspiration for his writing, and published Rosshalde in 1914.
During the build-up to World War I, Mr. Hesse became troubled by a growing movement of fanatic patriotism in Germany, but voluntarily enlisted in the Imperial Army out of a sense of duty. Due to poor eyesight, he was not allowed to fight and instead was assigned to look after prisoners of war. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hesse published an essay entitled “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (Oh Friends, Not These Tones), decrying the nationalistic patriotism which preached German superiority and hatred of non-Germans. This essay, while important, made Mr. Hesse a pariah; he began receiving hate mail and found himself - unhappily - in the public eye. During the same period, his father died and his wife became schizophrenic. The pressure was too much and Hermann Hesse, himself, suffered a psychiatric breakdown.
Mr. Hesse’s breakdown and institutionalization coincided with the advent of psychology and psychoanalysis, and he became acquainted with Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Jung believed that within each human psyche there are echoes of a collective consciousness which make certain symbols universally meaningful and explain common thought patterns across cultures. It is as if each of us is born with memories created by our ancestors which replay in our dreams. Mr. Hesse’s experience with Jungian psychoanalysis enabled his spiritual beliefs and his quest for self-actualization to coalesce. Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, his two most famous books, describe respectively, a spiritual quest and a semi-autobiographical examination of a disintegrated personality. Hermann Hesse found the world of humans to be complex and frustrating and had difficulty making sense of life. While he felt alone in his struggles, his writing reflected the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) which had undercurrents of confusion, depression, and fear. Mr. Hesse believed that enlightenment would change the zeitgeist and thereby enable humanity to advance.
Enlightenment, according to Buddhism, is to be free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and only by achieving enlightenment can one find pure peace and happiness. But what would happen if everyone on earth suddenly achieved enlightenment? Thieves would stop stealing, wars and feuds would cease, and we would accept ourselves as we truly are. We might all join hands and celebrate our collective bliss by chanting “Om”. So far, so good. However, without greed, no one would want to work; without hatred, no one would have passion; and without delusion, there would be no art, literature, or fashion. The world of humans would grind to a halt and we would starve or freeze to death. We would, however, be experiencing a state of bliss. And then what?
There is something very satisfying about the daily struggles we must all endure, whether it is to get a bite of food, to stay warm (or cool), to find comfort, to finish a job, to make something, to sell something or simply get through another day. If we were all perfectly content in our present moment, doing nothing but being, life would be meaningless. And so, we must go on loving/hating, giving/taking, laughing/crying, birthing/dying. As long as we retain our living bodies, we are bound to life on earth and all that entails. What awaits us after death is unknown and unknowable, but most of us believe that how we conduct our lives will send our souls in one direction or another. To reach heaven or to achieve enlightenment requires giving up wealth, comfort, competition, vanity, and social hierarchies. That is a tall order for most of us.
Siddhartha spent a lifetime trying to become enlightened, learning important lessons each step of the way. It was only when he stopped trying and let go of everything that he finally understood the simple, pure beauty of enlightenment. Most of us go through life moment to moment – growing up, having children, trying to grab the brass ring, growing old, and dying. Some of us achieve a degree of wisdom, but most of us live lives “of quiet desperation”. What Hermann Hesse understood and communicated through his most important books, especially Siddhartha, was that in order to improve the “human condition” we need to act collectively to reduce suffering, and that requires that the human species become more enlightened. Whether we can, or will, depends on each and every one of us. Om.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010
Some kids never grow up. Randy Pausch, who departed this world at age 47, held fast to his ability to find fun in life, even after learning that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Dr. Pausch was at the height of his career as a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was married to the woman of his dreams and was father to three small children. While neither rich nor famous, Randy Pausch was successful in all the ways that mattered: he was happy at home and at work, by himself and with others. When physicians delivered his death sentence, Dr. Pausch – a perpetual child at heart – reacted in a very un-childlike manner. He skipped the denial and anger phases of grief and set about creating a legacy for his family which would enable him to remain part of their lives long after he was gone.
Carnegie-Mellon University sponsors an annual lecture by a professor who is considered singular, remarkable, and in demand. The idea behind this lecture series, entitled “Journeys”, was to ask great professors to share vital life lessons, as if this were a last opportunity to do so. In 2007, one year after his diagnosis, Dr. Randy Pausch, delivered his lecture to a standing-room-only audience. He called it “The Last Lecture” and began with a slide show of his diseased liver before dropping down to do push-ups. It was ironic, he said, that he could be so fit and feel so well while cancer was rapidly stealing the life from him. Dr. Pausch wasn’t interested in crying and he didn’t want his audience to cry either. So he made them laugh instead. Following the lecture, which became an overnight sensation, Dr. Pausch wrote a memoir, celebrating the people in his life whom he felt enriched by: his parents, wife, children, friends, colleagues, mentors, students, etc. The result of this rapture is The Last Lecture, co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal.
The Last Lecture is a delightful 206 pages of how to approach life positively, and can be read in one sitting. It is the kind of book which easily could have been maudlin, morbid, or both. Rather, its purpose is to inspire all of us to retain or re-find our childhood dreams, because it is these dreams which can lead us to a happy and fulfilling life as individuals, and on a larger scale to save humanity from our baser nature. That was the essential message Randy Pausch imparted to his audience. So, what were Randy Pausch’s childhood dreams?
“Men first walked on the moon during the summer of 1969, when I was eight years old. I knew then that pretty much anything was possible. It was as if all of us, all over the world, had been given permission to dream big dreams.”
During a visit to Disneyland in 1969, Randy decided that when he grew up he wanted create experiences that were equally fun and inspiring. A life-long “Trekkie”, young Randy wanted to be Captain Kirk. Most of all, geeky Randy Pausch wanted to be the “coolest guy at the fair”, the one who won the giant stuffed animals. His other dreams included playing in the NFL, being published in the World Book Encyclopedia, and experiencing zero gravity. While, none of these dreams was aimed at saving the world, the point is that whatever your dream is, don’t leave it behind with your childhood toys.
Before succumbing to pancreatic cancer, Dr. Pausch realized all of his childhood dreams, perhaps not in the way he originally envisioned, but in the end that didn’t really matter. Dr. Pausch worked for Disney Imagineering and Electronic Arts, helping to create cutting edge virtual experiences for modern Disney patrons before establishing innovative programs at Carnegie-Mellon; he and William Shatner became friends and communicated frequently; and on numerous occasions he won the giant stuffed animals at many fairs by doggedly keeping his eyes on the prize. He published the definitive entry on virtual reality in the Encyclopedia Britannica. As far as playing in the NFL, shortly after delivering his “last lecture”, the Pittsburgh Steelers invited Dr. Pausch to attend one of their practices. In his lecture, Dr. Pausch had related the most important lesson he had learned as a child from his first football coach: with twenty-two players on the field, and only one touching the ball, the emphasis had to be on the other twenty-one players. That ended up being a parable for how he dealt with his cancer. Rather than letting the cancer drive his life, Dr. Pausch focused on everything and everyone else. He wasted no time feeling sorry for himself because he wanted to enjoy every second of the time he had left.
Whatever your political or religious beliefs, this book will make you feel better about being here, now, in America. We have great differences which politicians and lobbyists exploit (for their own benefit) at the expense of honest, decent, citizens struggling to get through life one day at a time. Reading this book made me remember that wonderful feeling of optimism in our country before President Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War created social and political divisions which have yet to heal. The Last Lecture also reminded me that in spite of that turmoil, visionaries, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, dreamed of a world in which one’s race and ethnicity were facts rather than barriers. Today we have a president whose father was Kenyan and whose wife is the descendent of American slaves. Whether you voted for him or not, President Obama represents a great step forward for our nation in terms of moving beyond the painful legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism. Without one great man saying to one great nation: “I have a dream…” Barack Obama would never have become a senator, Mike Steele would never have been Maryland’s lieutenant governor, and culturally we all be rather boring.
Reading this book reminded me of the poem by Langston Hughes, entitled “Dreams”
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow
I can’t help but think that Randy Pausch read this poem in high school and took it to heart. Without dreams, wishes, and aspirations, he would have quietly died, leaving a widow and three children with little more than Social Security benefits. By dreaming and reaching out, Randy Pausch created an enormous support network for his family, wrote a best-selling book, and inspired countless thousands of people to reorient their priorities.
The Last Lecture reminded me that life is a gift that we should make the most of because we never know when the end will come, and it would be terrible if we left our loved ones wondering how we felt about them. When confronting his demise Dr. Pausch said, "I don't know how not to have fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day I have left." Dr. Pausch’s wife, children, friends, and others all knew how he felt about them. Before he died, he cleaned up after himself so his wife wouldn’t have to and wrote lots of thank you notes to people who had done kindnesses to him and his family. Until he drew his last breath, Randy Pausch was loving life. We should all exit so gracefully.
To access Dr. Pausch’s lecture online, visit http://www.cmu.edu/uls/journeys/randy-pausch/index.html.