Remembrance Sunday

Children's Story
The Monk and the Scorpion

Once a monk sat on the banks of the Ganges River with one of his students. As they watched the water flow by, a large scorpion making its way along the steep banks fell into the water and began to struggle and drown. Without hesitation, the monk reached in and pulled the scorpion from the water. As he placed it on the bank it stung his hand.
          Several minutes later this same scorpion fell again into the river and commenced to drown. Again the monk reached in and again was stung as he set the scorpion on the bank.
          A third time the scorpion fell and a third time it was retrieved by the monk with the same results.
          The student could no longer restrain himself. “Master,” he asked, “why is it that you keep saving that beastly scorpion from drowning? Can’t you see that it’s just going to sting you?”
          “Yes, I know it is going to sting me,” laughed the monk. “It is the dharma of a scorpion to sting. But it is my dharma to save.”
                                      (Buddhist, from Doorways to the Soul.)

Over the years I’ve collected a number of statements from various writers - journalists and scientists, principally - which proclaim the pointlessness of life and the ephemeral nature of the human being. There almost seems to be a long-running competition to see who can express such sentiments in the tersest and most reductionist manner. Some years ago, the writer Marcus Chown declared that the vastness of the universe proved that human beings were ultimately of no account whatsoever, and last year I came across a beautiful example of the genre, which could well be a contender for the prize: an American scientist called Dean Hamer described a human being as ‘a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag’. In the summer I read a piece by the ecologist and political commentator George Monbiot, in which we humans were said to be ‘incipient compost’. I suppose this would win the prize for terseness at least, but I still think the bleakest vision must belong to Samuel Beckett’s uncle who said that life - all life - was just a disease of matter, and the sooner it was cured the better.
          With the exception of this last statement, which is simply a personal expression of world-weary pessimism, these comments are all scientifically respectable. In the light of what we know about the universe and the development of life within it, we have to admit that what these men are saying is true. Objectively they cannot be faulted. We do inhabit a rather small lump of rock which orbits a pretty undistinguished star in an obscure arm of a fairly ordinary galaxy, which is itself just one of many billions of similar galaxies stretching beyond the reaches of even our imagination. And our bodies are conglomerations of chemicals which have combined to create mobility and thought, and which will ultimately revert back to their constituent elements. In the 16th century, Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that cosmologically there was nothing special about the earth; in the 19th century Darwin showed that biologically there was nothing special about the human being. To deny the objective truth of either of these scientific discoveries is myopic and obscurantist, but one wonders whether these objective scientific assessments of the place of human beings in the universe are actually impeding our attempts to create a peaceful world, and it prompts us to ask, How do we establish a sense of worth - our own worth and the worth of others - in the light of science’s incontrovertible revelations? This, to me, is the most important question facing the human race today; it is not just that we haven’t got the politics right yet, or the economics. It’s not that we haven’t yet discovered the right formula by which to conduct our international relations; the fundamental problem which bedevils any attempt to establish peace is our inability, as a species, to consider the intrinsic worth of our fellow human beings.
          I can remember reading about the American serial killer Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women in the 70s and 80s. In an interview with the police he said something like: ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about. There’s plenty of people. What do ten or twelve matter?’ Bundy was a psychopath, one who cannot feel empathy, one in whom the sense of human worthlessness manifests most acutely. Bundy had it badly, but it’s in us all somewhere.
          A recent psychological report about the Abu Graib incidents of a few years ago highlighted this very problem. It says that the American soldiers were able to abuse and humiliate the Iraquis in their care, not because the soldiers were brutes, but because they couldn’t quite accept them as being like themselves. They were the enemy, with a different culture, a different language, a different religion. When we lump people together into categories - Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Russians, Germans, Viet Cong -we can perpetrate untold horrors upon them. And it would seem that we can only continue to conduct hostilities if we maintain this sense of distance and distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, if we invent demeaning labels for those whom we perceive as our enemies. During the Falklands War in 1982, the British were able to keep up a sense of enmity by referring to the Argentine soldiers as ‘Argies’. In the same way, Middle Eastern Muslims are called ‘Towel Heads’. It’s much easier to kill an Argie or a towel head than it is to kill a person with a name, with a mother, with a wife and children. Erich Maria Remarque, in his classic novel of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, brings this out graphically. A German soldier is looking at the body of the British soldier he has just killed:
          The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: ‘Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, Comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying, and the same agony - forgive me, Comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my bother like Kit and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, Comrade, and stand up - take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.

          This tendency to see other people as abstractions, as ideas in the mind may have manifested more destructively in the 20th century than at any other time in human history, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon. It seems to be built into our genes or, as the evolutionary biologists might say, it is ‘hard¬wired’ in us, perhaps it’s part of a primitive survival mechanism. Whatever its origin, the Gospels allude to it. In Mark’s Gospel chapter 8, a blind man is brought to Jesus, and Jesus attempts to cure him by rubbing spittle on his eyes. ‘What can you see?’ asks Jesus. ‘I can see people, but they look like walking trees,’ replies the man. So Jesus rubs the man’s eyes and now he can see clearly.
          This story shows acute psychological perception, because it sums up the human condition in a sentence. ‘I can see people, but they look like walking trees’, is the precursor of those statements with which I began. ‘I can see people, but they seem to me like bunches of chemical reactions running round in a bag’. ‘I can see people, but they seem to me like incipient compost’. ‘I can see people, but they are just abstractions in my mind’. Dean Hamer, George Monbiot, Erich Maria Remarque, the Gospel writer, are all saying the same thing. But the Gospel adds another dimension. Jesus rubs the man’s eyes again, to enable him to see another dimension. If all we see are walking trees then we are doomed to a world of hostility and strife. But, the Gospel implies, we are not necessarily doomed to this regardless of how ingrained it may be in our psyche, because we, uniquely among the species of the earth, have the ability to overcome our biological imperatives.
          Our capacity to reason, to think, to speak, to plan, to educate enable us to raise our perceptions and to transform our world. In the words of our children’s story today, we can change from creatures who sting to creatures who save.
          It is not the function of religion to fight against the findings of science, but to add a subjective dimension of feeling to science’s cold objectivity, to affirm the value we intuit in addition to the valuelessness that we deduce, to proclaim the paradox that, despite our apparent ephemeral, transient nature we are nevertheless of infinite worth. But we are not valuable because we are the special creation of some celestial potentate who wants to test our fitness for heaven, but because we are mysterious and wondrous creatures of consciousness, conscience, creativity, imagination, and memory, with a capacity for love, for joy, for pain, which sets us apart from everything else in the universe.
          The Jewish people say that each of us should carry around two pieces of paper. On one should be written: ‘I’am nothing but dust and ashes,’ but the other should say, ‘For my benefit the universe was created’. It is the function of religion to affirm the second part of this paradox, and affirm it we must because while we think of ourselves as chemical reactions, or incipient compost, or walking trees, we will continue to fight each other.

Rev.Bill Darlison
Minister Emeritus, Dublin Unitarian Church                            November, 2005