Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.

Another Peek at the Past

One moment I remember where I felt like I belonged was after I had my first visit with the director of the graduate program in the philosophy department at Loyola University in Chicago.  It was late August of 1982.  I had driven over from Detroit the day before, with all of my worldly possessions packed into a slightly aging 1975 Mercury Monarch, purchased for $2,350 cash in 1980 from money I saved while working in the basement vault of the National Bank of Detroit.  My parents were generous enough to give me free room and board while I worked for a year and a half, a transition time from a brief but beautiful life as a young religious man in a college seminary to a new life, a life filled with who knows what, but at least beginning with finishing my college education.

The bank job was a time when I didn’t really have to be burdened by the pain and sorrow of no longer being part of the religious life, whatever that was, to be free, to be free-floating, to take what felt like being adrift and see if it couldn’t feel like something else, something satisfying, something fun.  I experienced a miserable depression when I first came back to Detroit, miserable that the door to the religious life was permanently closed, stunned and no clue what to do next, so dazed and confused that I thought maybe God wanted me to be an accountant, that I should sign up with the Detroit College of Business and get to work on the business degree.  I was in bed for three days, didn’t get up, slept or didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, didn’t talk with anyone, not even the sorts of little internal conversations I have with myself today to keep me from falling on a knife.  But three days of such a black hole was about all I could stand—maybe out of sheer boredom, I finally got up.

I was twenty-one years old.  I started looking at the want ads to see if any of the banks in town were hiring.  I think I remember thinking something of the old bank robber’s response to people who asked him why he robbed banks:  “’Cause that’s where the money is.”  To be in the world, not just to survive but to live, to flourish, one needs money, and lots of it.  So, having a job where the money is might lend itself, I thought, to gaining wealth (what people now like to call ‘financial independence’).  After about a month of reading the ads, going to banks, filling out applications, giving them resumes (the only thing more pathetic than resumes from applicants with no previous work experience are resumes from ex-seminarians with no previous life experience), NBD decided to take a chance on me and hired me as a currency teller for their afternoon (4:00 pm to midnight) work shift.

Fall ’71 – Part One

We spent the summer getting ready to pack up and ship me off to the high school seminary in Edgerton, Wisconsin.  It’s not really fair to say “ship off” – I already had three brothers before me attend the place.  The parish organized a bus to take a whole bunch of interested eighth graders out to Wisconsin (maybe a seven hour drive) in the spring for a weekend to get an idea of what the place was like.

From what I can remember, I was looking forward to going there.  Of course, once you were there, it was a slightly different story.  There was the expected homesickness, but nothing intolerable.  I don’t think the fathers made us write home every so often, but I do remember writing home fairly regularly that first year.  Some years later, I remember Mom telling me those letters were some of the nicest things she ever got from us – just a few short pages every so often from her boys telling her about the latest goings on, how they missed her and loved her and was looking forward to coming home for Christmas or summer break.

It was a small high school.  There were around seventy, eighty students that fall, maybe sixteen seniors, and a lot of freshmen, forty of ‘em.  As far as priests and brothers go, these are the folks I remember:

Father Leo was rector.  His brother Robert was also a priest, stationed in my home parish in Detroit; he recruited many Holy Redeemer eighth graders for seminary.  I didn’t know Father Leo very well; I think we thought of the rector as CEO, president and king of the joint all wrapped into one.  He might have been approachable, but how would you ever know?

Father Walt was second in command, the school principal.  He was fun to know; very friendly, a full melodious FM radio kind of voice, pleasant to hear.  Occasionally he would dress students down every so often for unacceptable behavior – part of his job.  I’ll tell you more about Father Walt in the senior year Parents’ Weekend story.

Father Martin was the school bursar; he handled the money for both the school and the religious community.  He wasn’t unfriendly, but he didn’t have much interaction with the students, so it was difficult to get to know him.  Father Marty was a tall guy, very sturdy too – not heavy, not thin, sturdy.

What Breaks YOUR Brain?

I’m kicking myself for at least not trying to chat with the woman who was sitting maybe twelve feet away from me but left the room maybe thirty minutes ago.  I’m not sure if she’s gone for the day or not – still have a little less than four hours remaining for today’s free “write in” – but I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t on my mind right now.  Tall slim brunette, around 40?  I can never tell, especially when some people take such damn great care of themselves.

I like pretty (beautiful? gorgeous?) women – sue me.  I spent a huge part of my life trying to ignore that – otherwise, women will obviously think I’m just another one of those superficial men who care only about what a woman looks like, not who she is.  Frankly it took me a long time to allow myself to even look at women, for fear that she or someone else might catch me “gawking” at her and call me out about it.  And even before that, I shared the feeling with Jimmy Carter (and the Bible, I guess) that whenever you look lustfully at a woman, you commit sin in your heart.  I wanted to respect women, even though I had no idea what that really meant.

I’ve resolved the matter at least a little bit by believing that you respect others when you get to know who they are and, regardless of whether what you come to learn pleases or displeases you, you accept them as they are.  And I think that works in nearly every area of life, except for one:  sex.

Sex is the brain busting puzzle of my entire existence.  Being raised Catholic didn’t help matters, of course – in what other religion can you have so little information about sex and still wind up with so many kids being born?  Although, come to think of it, perhaps that’s EXACTLY what to expect with so little information.

Six of the seven boys in our family went to seminary.  The one that didn’t go is married (now over forty years, with three kids, four grandkids).  The next six boys:  married, then divorced (and now deceased), priest, married (two kids, nearly forty years), never married (me), married (two kids, twenty years), and married (two kids, thirty years).  My three sisters:  never married, married (one kid, now divorced) and married (no kids).  What did they figure out that I (and maybe my older sister) didn’t?

A Bit of Human Kindness

My experience with online dating over the years has been just awful.  This e-mail (posted as received) from one potential connection is an exception among those experiences:

[from her to me]  hey, i just have to say your photos are really impressive…i have found on this site that most guys (probably women too), post older photos of themselves where they look younger and more attractive. for some reason i came across your profile and your pics are amazing 🙂 you seem to just get better looking and in better shape as you age, and i am impressed that you included all the older photos as well., you seem like a real genuine guy..wow, seriously not sure what you’ve been doing, but keep it up….i hope in 5 years i can look that much better than i do today. i don’t really see us as a match, but just wanted to reach out to you and tell you i thought it was really cool and i hope one day you meet a great lady

[from me to her]  Hi _______, thank you for your kind and generous remarks.

I had something of an epiphany a few years back … overweight, out of shape, no love life – not a pretty picture.  I decided to do something about it, dropped some weight, joined a few clubs (books, art, writing) …  I posted the older photos because I wanted to show folks that I’m still a “work in progress.”  I’m still working on losing weight, stretching resistance bands to build a little muscle and tone up.

You’re a terrific looking, awesome woman yourself – I have no doubt that you’re living a healthy lifestyle and you’ll look at least as good as you do right now (heck, better – I honestly believe there’s some truth to the claim that we don’t get older, we get better) with every passing year.

My only regret is that you don’t see us as a match.  Such kind and generous support is a rare thing in this world – you’ve really given my ego a boost!  If you ever have a change of heart, I’d love to spend some time with you – nothing better than having a mutual admiration society!

Thank you again for reaching out – you’ve renewed my hope in human nature.  If I meet someone half as kind and thoughtful as you, I’ll consider myself a very lucky fella.  I hope you meet that terrific guy who gives you the care, affection and love you so clearly deserve.  My best to you, always …

I’ve traded online dating for more face to face group activities, enjoying the activities for their own sake.  If I meet someone during these events, terrific – and if I don’t, that’s fine too.