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Reverence for (Some) Life

Here is a tug-of-war.

On one end of the rope is our common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general and as a whole—is a good thing. For some this conviction is passionate and spiritual, for others it is a cliché. But in either case we lean hard towards life and away from the state of dust and stones. We ally ourselves with being alive and, in the abstract, with all things that are alive.

But tugging at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value very little or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle others, and we are indifferent, sometimes fatally so, to many others. We oppose abortion but accept capital punishment, and vice-versa. We cuddle some animals, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate many. We value plants only when they provide us with food or a desirable environment; the life of a plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual lives, we have favorites and losers, with life and death consequences.

In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s differentiation that usually wins. This isn’t surprising. We must draw distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no interest in revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we send a contribution to help poor children, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. None of that seems contradictory.

You might expect that after we had declared that we value life above all else, being alive would outrank any other feature of a thing, and we would care for that thing because, no matter what else it is, it is alive. Insects might be repulsive, but they would be precious because they live. Plants might be so abundant that lawns and streets could be overgrown but the right to life of plants would be defended. Obviously this is not how things go.

Perhaps tug-of-war is not the best metaphor. Compartmentalization might be a better label. We seem to keep reverence and preference in separate compartments. The compartment for reverence for all living things would be, if taken strictly, impossibly demanding. If we took it literally, we would starve from trying to survive on fallen fruit and dead animals.

What we do instead is to take such reverence out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and to try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other ethnicities or social classes or genders or sexual orientation—as well as to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Reverence for all life may be beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able. We may draw grim, unfair distinctions among other lives too easily, but as long as we remain a little uneasy that we do so, reverence for all life remains a cause that can be advanced.

 

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article Brock – an interesting issue!

    It seems to me that *survival* at all costs (of ourselves or others) is not the same as *life*. Everything alive will die at some point. Avoiding death is of little consequence in the larger scheme of things.

    I don’t really see the things you’ve described as being opposed to or contradictory with reverence for, and valuing of, life. That’s because I don’t see life and death as opposites.

    Life, rather, is a process that involves a cycle. The opposite of death is *birth*. These two are the coming into being, and going out of being, of forms (all of which are somewhat illusory anyway). The cycle of birth and death is what life is. So, quite literally, death is a part of life – integral and necessary to it actually. This is why we may often need to kill or die in order to sustain life (the process). There is no conflict in that and should not generate remorse, regret, or discomfort by itself.

    Instead, I think a reverence for life consists of asking ourselves when and why we take it or give it. Is it ultimately done for the right reasons and with an inward disposition that comes from a place of reverence rather than mere violence or greed? Along these lines, I think the different capacities of life forms of varying complexity to suffer may be taken into account too.

    Anyway, just my thoughts on your excellent questions. I look forward to hearing others 🙂

    • Daniel, thank you for the comment. It’s prompted me to try to think clearly about the contrast to my view.

      I think a portion of the issue here is the multiple meanings of the word “life” itself (shameless plug: my next post at 3.8 billion years is on that topic). Your view of life as a process that involves the cycle of birth and death makes sense for “life” in the very general and abstract sense of the word. In that sense, “life” is the opposite of lifelessness, death is part of life and not its antithesis, and individuals are fleeting instances of a larger reality.

      In contrast, I’m thinking of “life” from the point of view of the individual human who is conscious primarily of her own self, her being alive and the being-alive of those close to her, and for whom the antithesis of the life she is leading is her death. I suggest that from this individualistic perspective, we may be uncomfortable to varying degrees with the deaths that are imposed on other creatures for us and by us –not necessarily out of violence or greed but routinely or casually.

      The seed for this post was my thinking about the jumble of issues involving people’s inconsistent attitudes towards the losses of others’ lives—including abortion, eating meat, hunting, endangered species, capital punishment, deforestation. Everyone (including me for sure) has rationales for opposing or tolerating or being indifferent to such deaths, but at our best moments we try to extend our humanity. At such moments, from an individual-based, life-clinging viewpoint, the broader spiritual perspective that includes death as part of the life cycle may be too open-minded about depriving other living things of their existence.

    • Daniel, thank you for the comment. It’s prompted me to think as clearly as I can about the difference in our views.

      I think a portion of the issue is the multiple meanings of the world “life” itself. The view of life as a process that involves the cycle of birth and death makes sense when one takes “life” in the very general and abstract sense of the word. In that sense, “life” is the opposite of lifelessness, death is part of life and not its antithesis, and individuals are fleeting instances of a larger reality.

      In contrast, I’m thinking of “life” from the point of view of the individual human who is conscious primarily of her self, of her being alive and the being-alive of those close to her, and for whom the antithesis of the life she is leading is her death. I suggest that from this individualistic perspective, we may be uncomfortable to varying degrees with deaths that are imposed on other creatures for us and by us–not necessarily out of violence or greed but routinely and casually.

      The seed for this post was my thinking over the jumble of issues involving people’s inconsistent attitudes towards the losses of others’ lives–including abortion, eating meat, hunting, endangered species, capital punishment, deforestation. Everyone (including me for sure) has rationales for opposing or tolerating or being indifferent to such death, but at our best moments we try to extend our humanity. At such moments, from an individual-based, life-clinging viewpoint, the broader spiritual perspective that includes death as part of the life cycle may seem too open-minded about depriving other living things of their existence.

    • Daniel, thank you for the comment. I’ve tried to think clearly about the contrast to my view.

      I think a portion of the issue here is the multiple meanings of the word “life” itself (shameless plug: my next post at 3.8 billion years is on that topic). The view of life as a process that involves the cycle of birth and death makes sense for “life” in the very general and abstract sense of the word. In that sense, “life” is the opposite of lifelessness, death is part of life and not its antithesis, and individuals are fleeting instances of a larger reality.

      In contrast, I’m thinking of “life” from the point of view of the individual human who is conscious primarily of her self, her being alive and the being-alive of those close to her, and for whom the antithesis of her life is her death. I suggest that from this individualistic perspective, we may be uncomfortable to varying degrees with the deaths that are imposed on other creatures for us and by us –not necessarily out of violence or greed but routinely or casually.

      The seed for this post was my thinking about the jumble of issues involving people’s inconsistent attitudes towards the losses of others’ lives—including abortion, eating meat, hunting, endangered species, capital punishment, deforestation. Everyone has rationales for opposing or accepting or being indifferent to such deaths, but at our best moments we try to extend our humanity. At such moments, from an individual-based, life-clinging viewpoint, the broader spiritual perspective that includes death as part of the life cycle may seem too open-minded about depriving other living things of their existence.

    • I think what might be missing for us is to look at what it means to hold life in reverence. To me it means that life is dear, to view it as sacred, and to be thankful for it. To have to take a life, whether it is a dandelion, a microbe, an animal, or even a human, does not mean we hold it less dear or revere it less. It is how and why we do it that speaks to whether we revere it or not.

      Many of us have had pets we have had to euthanize, but we have done so with respect for them, to keep them from suffering, to give them a “good death” instead of one that came after much lingering and pain. Did we revere their life any less because we did so? I know I didn’t. If anything, to euthanize them was an act of love and reverence.

      I have no personal animosity towards any plants, but I do try to choose which ones I allow to thrive in my garden. I choose not just for their beauty or usefulness to me, but to the ecosystem and wild life I am trying to support and increase. I also look at things such as is this a native plant or an invasive non-native. Other considerations are involved as well. I have an apple tree in my back garden that is dying and that we will be cutting down. If I could, I would allow it to die naturally and then fall when nature took its course. But to do so means that it could damage someone or do property damage. I might be willing to risk that for my own property but not for the neighbors whose property it could impact.

      So I guess what I’m saying is that as in all issues in ethics, it is a matter of attitude, cause, and outcome that effects whether we are truly being reverent or not and that all things are connected. I believe we must revere, but we must all must be humane. I believe we must revere not only the lives of other living biota, but we must revere our own as well. It is rare that any living thing does not require the death of something else in order to survive.

      For us, the burden is to be conscious, be thankful, be humble, and to be thoughtful in our reverence of life wherever we may find it and not just take it for granted or take it carelessly, inhumanely, or thoughtlessly. This to me is in part to revere life.

      • Tony, I appreciate everything you say here, perhaps especially the paragraph about plants. Reverence for life is often over-simplified in controversies over abortion and euthanasia and the like. You explain beautifully the considerations and attitude that should be part of it. Thanks.

    • Daniel, thank you for the comment. I’ve tried to put my finger on—or at least close to–the difference in our views.

      I think a portion of the issue here is the multiple meanings of the word “life” itself. The view of life as a process that involves the cycle of birth and death makes sense for “life” in the very general and abstract sense of the word. In that sense, “life” is the opposite of lifelessness, death is part of life and not its antithesis, and individuals are fleeting instances of a larger reality.

      In contrast, I’m thinking of “life” from the point of view of the individual human who is conscious primarily of her self, her being alive and the being-alive of those close to her, and for whom the antithesis of her life is her death. I suggest that from this individualistic perspective, we may be uncomfortable to varying degrees with the deaths that are imposed on other creatures for us and by us –not necessarily out of violence or greed but routinely or casually.

      The seed for this post was my thinking about the jumble of issues involving people’s inconsistent attitudes towards the losses of others’ lives—including abortion, eating meat, hunting, endangered species, capital punishment, deforestation. Everyone has rationales for opposing or accepting or being indifferent to such deaths, but at our best moments we try to extend our humanity. At such moments, from an individual-based, life-clinging viewpoint, the broader spiritual perspective that includes death as part of the life cycle may seem too open-minded about depriving other living things of their existence.

      • Brock, thanks for this message. I agree. Your motive in recognizing indifference to the deaths of others is noble and important.

        I think this concern can exist in harmony with the broader ‘life process’ view. In this way, we remain concerned for the lives of others, but do not forget that, ultimately, we don’t have the power to stop all impermanence. Virtue is required for happiness, which includes love and concern for all beings – but so to is making peace with Nature/Reality required for happiness. To me, that means we gain contentment from virtuous choices, but do not get attached to certain outcomes, which are beyond our control. Our motive, then would not be dissatisfaction with circumstances, but with ourselves.

  2. I suspect that technology will eventually fix some of the issues regarding the taking of life, especially the ones that seem the most inflammatory lately.

    For example, I think contraception will eventually be perfected to the point that it will be so cheap, easy, unobtrusive and reliable (for both genders) that unintended pregnancies will almost never happen, thus making abortion very rare.

    Likewise, I think by either the perfection of artificial meat, or by growing real meat in labs instead of animals, or both, we will all eventually become vegetarians as these methods become more cost effective and ‘greener’ than animal husbandry.

    Beyond those things, hopefully humanity will learn to settle our differences in ways that don’t involve explosives, but that isn’t something technology can fix, unless science finds some way to alter our brains to rid ourselves of violent impulses and negative/destructive passions.

    • Daniel, thank you for the comment. I’m hoping that I’m thinking clearly about the contrast to my view.

      I think a portion of the issue here is the multiple meanings of the word “life” itself (shameless plug: my next post at 3.8 billion years is on that topic). Your view of life as a process that involves the cycle of birth and death makes sense for “life” in the very general and abstract sense of the word. In that sense, “life” is the opposite of lifelessness, death is part of life and not its antithesis, and individuals are fleeting instances of a larger reality.

      In contrast, I’m thinking of “life” from the point of view of the individual human who is conscious primarily of her own self, her being alive and the being-alive of those close to her, and for whom the antithesis of the life she is leading is her death. I suggest that from this individualistic perspective, we may be uncomfortable to varying degrees with the deaths that are imposed on other creatures for us and by us –not necessarily out of violence or greed but routinely or casually.

      The seed for this post was my thinking about the jumble of issues involving people’s inconsistent attitudes towards the losses of others’ lives—including abortion, eating meat, hunting, endangered species, capital punishment, deforestation. Everyone (including me for sure) has rationales for opposing or tolerating or being indifferent to such deaths, but at our best moments we try to extend our humanity. At such moments, from an individual-based, life-clinging viewpoint, the broader spiritual perspective that includes death as part of the life cycle may be too open-minded about depriving other living things of their existence.

  3. Some would say a “way to alter our brains to rid ourselves of violent impulses and negative/destructive passions” has already been found. Whether we put effort into that way is another matter 🙂

  4. Daniel, the Reply under your first comment didn’t seem to be working so I’m putting this here. Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve been thinking about our contrasting views.

    I think a portion of the issue here is the multiple meanings of the word “life” itself (shameless plug: my next post at 3.8 billion years is on that topic). The view of life as a process that involves the cycle of birth and death does makes sense for “life” in the very general and abstract sense of the word. In that sense, “life” is the opposite of lifelessness, death is part of life and not its antithesis, and individuals are fleeting instances of a larger reality.

    In contrast, I’m thinking of “life” from the point of view of the individual human who is conscious primarily of her self, her being alive and the being-alive of those close to her, and for whom the antithesis of her life is her death. I suggest that from this individualistic perspective, we may be uncomfortable to varying degrees with the deaths that are imposed on other creatures for us and by us –not just out of violence or greed but routinely or casually.

    The seed for this post was my thinking about the jumble of issues involving people’s inconsistent attitudes towards the losses of others’ lives—including abortion, eating meat, hunting, endangered species, capital punishment, deforestation. Everyone (including me for sure) has rationales for opposing or tolerating or being indifferent to such deaths, but at our best moments we try to extend our humanity. At such moments, from an individual-based, life-clinging viewpoint, the broader spiritual perspective that includes death as part of the life cycle may seem too open-minded about depriving other living things of their existence.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

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