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Let’s enjoy the freedom of uncertainty

What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything? 

I’ve spent most of my life looking for answers and have come to the conclusion that the questions are far more enlightening. The answer you get depends so much on the question you ask and, more importantly, when and why you ask it. The questions can tell us more about who we think we are than any answer we may then cling to for (a false sense of) security.

The problem with “answers” is that they are creative cul-de-sacs – discovery’s dead end. At worst, they are the source of delusion – the zealot’s certainty; at best, they lead to more questions. Somewhere in between, we can end up wasting our time trying to justify the “truth” of our “answer” in spite of any evidence that may challenge it – in extreme cases, hating anyone who challenges it. 

Or, in fear of the possibility that there is no permanent self, we may put on the uniform of this or that social, national, political or religious tribe to give us a sense of identity – even if it means wearing borrowed clothes.    

Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to remember what happens when people sacrifice their humanity on the altar of easy “answers”. 

The easiest, and laziest, of all “answers” to our problems is, of course, picking a scapegoat. On a world stage, this leads to horrors such as the Holocaust and the recent genocides in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. It results in the persecution of Tibetan monks in China and Tamils in Sri Lanka.

One day, the scapegoats are the Jews, the next it’s black people, Muslims, immigrants, Gipsies... the list goes on. 

According to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the path to genocide starts with a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the use of stereotypes, or excluding people who are perceived to be different. The scapegoats are then dehumanised and denied human rights and dignity – during the Rwandan genocide, for example, Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches”; the Nazis referred to Jews as “vermin”. The propaganda of fear and hatred may be repeated so often by the media that such views become acceptable and then accepted as fact. Final destination, Auschwitz.

As D Cameron Watt warns in his introduction to the Pimlico edition of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “It is so much easier to surrender man’s birthright to doubt, to hesitate, to be undecided and uncertain, in brief the right to be free, for the certainty provided by someone else’s faith, someone else’s authority, someone else’s inner vision.”

And therein lies the danger: the Venus flytrap of “certainty”. Any book, especially religious, anti-religious and political books which promise absolute certainty and demand blind faith, if swallowed whole and without question, can suffocate what makes us fully human: our compassion (meaning, to suffer with – that is, to feel another’s pain as our own and thereby feel compelled to do our best to alleviate their suffering).

The Buddha, simply a teacher whose name means “Awake”, warned his followers not to believe a word he said, but rather to try out the methods he taught and judge for themselves whether they had any validity in their lives.

I believe this is good advice for us all, whatever our beliefs. If we want to avoid another Holocaust, I believe training ourselves in compassion is key: using our quiet moments to remind ourselves that everyone, like us, wants to be happy and free from suffering; to wish happiness for ourselves, then for someone close to us, then someone we don’t know, then someone we dislike.

But don’t take my word for it – I’m just a fellow explorer sharing a discovery. Give it a try and see if it works for you.

Life is a living, breathing question mark. Enjoy the freedom of uncertainty.


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