Woody Allen, a keen but unusual observer of our world, once remarked: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” (“My Speech to the Graduates,” The New York Times, Aug. 10, 1979, p. 25)
Many people will agree with this observation. Our lives seem to be surrounded by war, destruction, hunger and illness – with no end and without much hope. Philosophers, scientists and physicians continue to seek solutions, but not only do we still suffer terrorist attacks in many civilized countries, and major disasters in nearly every part of the world, but we get the impression that the global situation is only worsening. Every illness that is overcome is replaced by one even more serious; and many peace accords are violated and invite more disastrous scenarios.
This, however, is only part of the picture, and it is based on a psychological condition from which many of us suffer. If we take a closer look, it reminds us of a type of lashon hara (gossip) – not about our fellow humans, but about our world.
Evil speech reflects a self-distrust that is rooted in our underlying insecurity. It is predicated on an optical illusion, similar to two adjacent glass elevators that move in opposite directions. When one descends, the passengers in the other elevator feel as though they are moving upward. Similarly, by emphasizing the faults of another, one tries to prove one’s own perfection.
But the world is also a place that contains an abundance of goodness. Most human beings are decent and law-abiding. Millions of people arrive home safely every night. Hundreds of thousands of planes land every day without the slightest problem. Most children are born healthy. The sun comes up every morning without exception. There is always enough air for everyone to breathe. Millions enjoy higher economic standards than ever experienced by their ancestors. Pain prevention has improved dramatically over time. International communication systems have brought us in touch with each other under all circumstances, wherever we live. Luxurious senior citizens homes have replaced the tragic scenes of the elderly languishing in the streets. Clearly, marriage is still seen as sacred, and helping each other as virtuous.
True, the world is far from ideal, but it seems that we view our globe as we would a white paper with a black spot on it. When asked what we see, we say, “a black spot,” completely ignoring the white paper. It is only the odd, the out-of-place that catches our attention.
Why is this? Because the good presents us with a problem. Goodness exposes us to a higher order of things. It demands of us that we think about the meaning of our lives, because it is the beauty of goodness that touches our souls. We hear a murmur coming from a wave that is beyond our average shore. Here, we cannot complain, we can only contemplate. And this embarrasses us, because we don’t want to respond. What if life makes higher demands of us than we want to hear? It is goodness and beauty that remind us that our lives do have a moral and religious purpose.
So we hide, dig in, and create defense systems. We make sure not to be exposed to all the beauty. We emphasize the black spot and deny the white paper. And we are all in good company. Our media help us by reporting the disasters and revealing the diseases. We all know that we need much more balanced reporting, but we can’t afford it. It’s too risky.
We speak lashon hara about the universe because the exaggeration of all that is bad in this world serves us well. We give it a bad name so that we can declare that we’re okay where we are. Life is hard enough, we’re barely able to survive; so who has time for meaning? We force the elevator of this world to descend so that we can convince ourselves that we are moving upward even as we maintain our mediocrity.
The purpose of genuine religious life is to protest against this optical illusion and to teach us to reframe our spiritual spectacles. It is not that religion shows us something new. It shows us what we have seen all our lives but have never noticed.
Its message is clear. When all is said and done, there is dazzling goodness in this world; there is order instead of chaos; there is diversity, not just monotonous existence; and above all, there is the infinite grace of the human deed.
The great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that we all see the world like a fly looking out of a transparent glass bottle in which it is stuck, limited by confines beyond its control. When asked what is his aim in philosophy, Wittgenstein replied, “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” (Des MacHale, Wisdom (London: Prion Books Ltd., 2002). The fly keeps trying to escape by banging against the glass. The more it tries, the more it flounders, until it drops in exhaustion. Its failure is that it doesn’t think to look up toward the opening.