Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What Makes Us Unique

My friend Hal gave me a copy of “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert. I’m only on page 3, but I already feel compelled to comment.

Gilbert speaks of The Sentence; that one line on which so many of us live or die: “The human being is the only animal that…”

Gilbert says humans are the only beings that think about the future. I don’t know if that is true, but, true or not, there are other ways to complete this sentence that I find more compelling: The human being is the only animal that… pays for sex; packs things with Styrofoam peanuts; and bothers to complete the sentence: The human being is the only animal that….

But these answers, while wildly clever, don’t mean much. Thinking a bit more deeply, I would say the human being is the only animal that imagines God cares about what he or she believes God cares about. We are the only animals that worry about heresy, blasphemy, and making sure that Passover matzah is baked no longer than 18 minutes.

Now you might argue that I am missing the point, and that we humans are the only animals that care about Truth. But I don’t think truth is what we care about. What we care about is belief. What you believe may be totally insane, but you will fight to the death (preferably someone else’s) insisting otherwise.

Most likely the insanity belongs to those who believe other than you do. For example, it is insane to think that a bit of dry cracker becomes the body of Christ, but it makes total sense that the sun stood still at midday to allow Joshua enough time to finish his military conquests. Or, it is ludicrous to think that God kept feeding lines to Mohammed in a cave, but the quintessence of reason to believe that He dictated a few lines to Moses on a mountaintop.

I am not saying that one person’s belief is another person’s heresy. I am saying that when it comes to religious belief people are nuts. And we like it that way.

Take the Buddha. He comes to a very simple insight: life driven by unquenchable desire is painful, so stop living that way. That is a very clear, testable truth. And then his followers spend innumerable hours decorating it with wild stories about cobras, demons and virgins over whose existence we can argue incessantly.

So here is another ending for Gilbert’s sentence: The human being is the only animal that prefers fantasy to reality.

Now it is your turn: The human being is the only animal that…

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