The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, March 1996, Vol. XXXII, Number 8

A crazy world is a world without a moral order.  A moral order is different from a physical order. Laws of nature are part of the physical order. But the laws of nature have no moral agenda. The law of gravity is as willing to cooperate with good people as with bad people. It will allow food supplies to be dropped to needy refugees. It will, just as easily, permit evil men to throw innocent victims off of parapets. 

A meaningful world is more than an orderly world. The universe of modern science is an orderly universe. But its order grinds on with no apparent concern for the victims of its relentless march. Earthquakes rumble, volcanoes erupt, floods pour over their riverbanks, all them sweeping their human debris into the path of destruction. This reoccuring Holocaust is the result of a natural order which has natural and irresistible causes with natural, irresistible and inevitable consequences. But it lacks the kind of order that gives the universe meaning.  

Sadists are orderly. But a sadistic universe is not the kind of world we want to live in. We want to live in a world governed by moral law, a world in which everything that happens, happens for the good.  We want to live in a universe in which the powers that govern and control our destiny are neither malicious nor cruel. Simply knowing that they are orderly is little comfort at all.  

Geologists can demonstrate that the eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines was inevitable and unavoidable. But what comfort is that to the young mother of four children who lost them in all the deadly ash.  Meteorologists can explain why the expansion of the Sahara is the natural consequence of predictable climate change. But what consolation is that to a hardworking farmer and family member who has lost his only means of substance because of the drought? Air traffic controllers can estimate that there will be a certain percentage of fatal airplane crashes during a given year. But what kind of answer to a grieving mother who has lost her only child in a freak air disaster? Kismet only works if Allah has some good moral reason for doing to you what he does. 

Understanding why something terrible happens does not make what happens morally more tolerable. Knowing that Hitler was an abused child and that abused children can turn into murderers does not make the Holocaust less horrible. Becoming aware that criminally assaulted males may suffer from some malformations of the genes does not make their crimes against innocent victims morally more acceptable. Excusing them does not excuse the universe. A just universe would not allow such things to happen. It either would never have arranged to produce such aggressors, or it would have arranged to separate them from their victims. From a moral perspective, the order of the universe can definitely be improved. 

As long as we experience the world as unfair, and most of us do at some time or other, we also experience the world as “crazy.”  

CRUELTY 

A crazy world is a world that “teases.” It fills us with very intense desires and never allows us to fully satisfy them.  

The strongest human desire is the desire to live. The struggle for survival, whether our own personal one or that of the people we love is often relentless and sometimes bitter.  Around every corner we are confronted by the eternal enemy, the specter of death. There is a fundamental cruelty in a universe that fills us with the passion for life and simultaneously endows us with the inevitability of dying.  Contrary to the cliches, death does not become easier and less frightening with age.. It is often more painful because we are filled with regret for all that we failed to do and for all that we failed to see.  When there is no longer any hope of recouping our losses, expiring is no great comfort. Certainly, desiring death as an alternative to excruciating pain or to humiliating feebleness is little consolation. The universe could have arranged for no death at all or for dying to be easier. 

There’s so many things you want to do and experience. And there is never enough time to satisfy our desires. By the time we understand our mistakes it is often too late to correct them. By the time we are wise enough to appreciate the good things in life, we are too old to take advantage of them. By the time we discover who we really are, we begin to fall apart. It is true that youth is wasted on the young. But that truth precisely dramatizes the cruelty of the world. Reality does not fit our desires. Death mocs our passions. A crazy world is a world where desire is too strong, time is too short, aging is too relentless and death is too eager.  Sometimes the universe appears to be a bad joke. 

DISAPPOINTMENT 

A crazy world is a world where the best laid plans come to naught, where the finest of our labors turns out to be disappointingly different from what we imagined it would be.  After all, the good life is anticipation, looking forward to good things.  We love surprises, especially when they relieve the routine of daily living.  But we do not love surprises when they shatter dreams and hopes, when they turn the fragile order of our existence into chaos. 

What we want most out of life is to have a sense of control over what happens to us.  We want to feel that the world we live in is not chaotic, that the future is predictable, that there are certain guarantees which support our right to happiness.  No feeling is worse than feeling totally out of control, the victim of the passing whims of the world.  Pursuing success is too hard to have it summarily dismissed by a careless universe.  So much of our early childhood is devoted to convincing us that effort and determination are worthwhile, that they produce positive results, that they are justified by the success they bring. 

Losing control may make us feel crazy.  It can also make us feel that the world is crazy.  Unexpected surprises undermine our sense of security and order.  Indeed, the universe may be governed by laws that determine every event that happens, even the smallest and most insignificant event. 

Indeed, some complex underlying order may account for the trauma we are presently experiencing.  But that order is not something we can feel.  All we know is that the order which we sought to bring to our lives has collapsed, and the world seems chaotic and crazy.  We have lost control of our lives.  And for us that is disorder. 

Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, echoing the German philosopher Leibniz, maintained that this world was the best of all possible words.  Even the Lisbon earthquake could not shake his faith.  For him the human condition was a joint condition and this universe a just universe. 

But what if we cannot believe that?  What if we experience the world as not the best of all possible worlds?  What if we experience the universe as a slightly or extravagantly “crazy” place?  How do we cope? 

An excerpt from the new book by Sherwin Wine, Staying Sane in a Crazy World