Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bennett and Pi

I have spent some time thinking about faith, knowledge, and happiness. Philosophically I am an agnostic -- one thing all those Dartmouth classes taught me was that nothing can absolutely be taken for granted, and that for every perspective there is an equal but opposite perspective, the difference often resulting from basic, unprovable axiomatic differences. When it comes to the realm of feeling, though, I am unresolved. I definitely have much hope, strong instincts drawing me towards certain beliefs, and very firm moral commitments, but no definite cohesive faith. To put it another way, I have all the makings for a strong spiritual side that haven't been fully developed. So I have been spending some spare time reading and thinking about faith and how it relates to happiness. I have found that the simple act of thinking about such things has the effect of making the daily experience richer. Simply asking questions makes the world deeper, even if the answers don't come.

For instance, I am reading a book called "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, which tells the story of a boy who finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger. The beginning section of the book covers the peculiar spiritualism of the boy, who is a practicing hindu, muslim and christian all at once. The answers he gives to his devotion to each rests on the richness each practice adds to his life. For Christianity, for instance, he finds the story of Jesus Christ's sacrifice particularly compelling and fascinating. The idea that God would allow a section of itself to die in a very human way in an act of Love is an inspiring thing, and Pi is moved by this. He is moved by Muslim faith in its unflinching merging of everyday life and prayer, and the lifting of the spirit that comes from the daily acts of reverence. And his Hindu faith is woven into his way of thinking about the world -- he thinks about the unknowable world as brahman nirgana, and the concrete of that same world as brahman saguna in its various humanized forms: krishna, ganesh, shiva. For each religion that he embraces, he is experiencing faith as an act of life, rather than a category of belief. To have faith, to Pi, is to live with richness. To me this is a novel approach to faith, because I have thought of faith strictly in categorical terms -- one has faith in subject X if one believes in Y without proof Z. But for the character Pi, his faith is an act of spiritual living, and he embraces faiths in their spirit and metaphors to his own life, even if the beliefs of each are incompatible.

During this same period I had finished another book called "How To Live 24 Hours a Day" by Arnold Bennett, a self-help book I found on Project Gutenberg. His view on happiness is that one's life becomes richer when one challenges himself to look deeply at whatever interests him, rather than passively take it in and waste the hours. He urges you to train the mind to focus, and then take chunks of time out of every day and commit it to the pursuit of knowledge and craft in one's interests. The time spent on pursuing these things steadily over time leaves one with a life without regrets for not having tried to fulfill one's ambitions. But what ties this world to Life of Pi is the author's insistence that the singleminded pursuit of knowledge and excellence in any field leads to a deeper, more spiritual experience of the world. For instance, the act of pushing oneself to learn the principles and history of opera will make the next show one attends much richer and with more depth. The dedicated reading of poetry and explorations of metaphor will make one's experience more filling. Studying evolution in depth will turn a simple glance at the sea's horizon into an experience in one's mind of the vast, complex struggle for survival going on below the surface. The same goes for studying the business trends of the occupation one is in, or the history of the sport one plays. The act of enriching oneself with knowledge of our interests and actions makes our experiences richer, more purposeful, and spiritually fulfilling. Bennett starts to sound a lot like Pi.

It is remarkable to me how in my own life things tend to come together. Sometimes because I actively seek it, and sometimes because of all-too-common happy coincidences, but there are common ideas flowing through the books I'm reading and the people I'm speaking with. Part of me thinks things happen for a reason, and that somewhere in these common themes are the keys to happiness -- perhaps not The Key, but certainly some powerful wordless ideas that permeate the concepts of faith, fulfillment and spiritualism. As always, I will continue to read and think about it. I am now reading the works of the stoic Epictetus, and perhaps later this evening I will re-read Jesus's Sermon on the Mount and the passage concerning Buddha's revelations underneath the Bodhi tree and his telling of the essential truths. And I will read and think some more, and perhaps I can make the act of living more spiritual and hence more fulfilling -- like Pi, like Bennett.