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What a Wonderful World

by Katharine Hunt

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds,
and the pessimist fears that this is so." — James Branch Cabell

What a terrible state the world is in today! Violent crime on the increase, teenagers dying from drug overdoses, family life breaking down. Look at the state of education, health, public services. Every week one hears of more job cuts. Our politicians are corrupt. The natural world is threatened by pollution and exploitation. The streets of our towns and cities are dirty and choked with litter; graffiti daubed across walls and buildings. Selfishness is now the name of the game so far as success in this world is concerned. People watch on television, and act out in reality, lives that are aggressive, immoral, ignorant, greedy. You can't help but be depressed by it all.

But it's also a very beautiful world. Look at the attractive and varied natural scenery all around us. We can enjoy the bright flowers in the springtime, hear the singing of the birds, watch the trees spreading their leaves in summer, then turning many-coloured in autumn. In Britain, most have easy access to clean water, fresh air, comfortable shelter from the elements, nutritious food and adequate clothing. We're really very lucky to have all these things. We can take our basic survival absolutely for granted. And there are many caring, thoughtful people who do so much to help others, through voluntary and charity work, or sometimes just by being there. The support and love of family and friends is one of the warmest, most valuable things we can experience in life.

Which is it? If we're being realistic, what is our world really like? Should we listen to the optimist, or the pessimist?

They are both right. The world isn't just awful, but nor is it just wonderful. It is wonderful and awful; both, at the same time — sometimes even in the space of the same experience. It's the same world that has both the beautiful flowers and trees in it, and the pollution and selfish ignorance — not to mention an awful lot of other things that are just sort-of OK.

This isn't to say that everyone gets an equal share of pleasant, nasty and indifferent experiences in their individual life. Clearly that's not true at all. Some New Age philosophies I've read about seem to suggest that people are 'never tested beyond what they can bear'. For example, here is Hector Christie, owner of the stately home Tapeley Park, from his book No Blade of Grass:

However, if we open our eyes — we will realise that the challenges we receive do not push us beyond the limit with which we can cope, if sometimes only just, to help us to grow."

But people do get pushed by circumstances, sometimes far beyond what they can bear; at worst it leads to depression, addiction, mental breakdown or even suicide. Conversely, some people seem to have relatively easy lives, keep healthy, live long and die painlessly.

How is it possible for the same world to contain such wonderful and such horrible things? They seem so closely bound together within it. I can't help but notice that my account of the wonderful things in the world concentrated to a considerable degree on the natural beauty of the world; while the awful things I enumerated are exclusively man-made. An erupting volcano isn't bad; it's just a fact of nature — although it's terrible when people are killed by lava flows and volcanic ash. But it's the loss of people's friends and relations that's awful, not the volcano. I don't wish there were no volcanoes in the world, but I hope no one I care about is ever hurt or killed by one.

The real source of the wonderful and the awful in life is people.

Can nature ever be so captivating, or so loathsome, or indeed so unremarkable, as people? A close friendship or loving relationship is more precious to us than the bluest sky, the greenest mountain pasture, the softest summer breeze. But human ignorance, selfishness, anger and greed are far more frightening than avalanches, volcanoes or earthquakes. Nature strikes without prejudice; it is amoral. But human malice can be aimed, quite deliberately, at you.

And if you are sensitive, you feel strongly the joy of the most wonderful things life has to offer — but you feel equally sharply the pain of life's unpleasant aspects. Your joy rises higher than the pleasure felt by someone of lesser sensitivity, but your pain is correspondingly deeper. This hurts. Is there any way to escape from this pain? Any method one can use, or a way of life one might follow, to avoid being hurt so much?

Some Eastern religions — Buddhism, for example — are popularly regarded as aiming at 'detachment'. At first this seems like it might be a way to lessen the pain caused us by negative experiences. We could simply detach ourselves from unpleasant feelings. But it's not as simple as that. Buddhism aims to reduce our clinging to our ego, our attachment to our individual identity and separateness — it makes no claim that it can protect us from experiencing emotion. John Snelling, in his introduction to the religion, The Elements of Buddhism, suggests rather that we need to be more open to feeling pain:

The person that desires to have only pleasure and refuses pain expends an enormous amount of energy resisting life — If we really want to solve our problems — and the world's problems, for they stem from the same roots — we must open up and accept the reality of suffering with full awareness — For suffering has its positive side. From it we derive the experience of depth: of the fullness of our humanity. This puts us fully in touch with other people and the rest of the Universe."

There seems to be no escape from this pain. Perhaps the only way to avoid it would be to detach yourself from people, who seemed to be the source of most of the unpleasantness in life. But even if that was possible, I'm not sure it would be a good bargain. Not feeling pain — but then, not really feeling anything much. What sort of a life would that be?



No Blade of Grass Hector Christie (Christie Publishing 1997)

The Elements of Buddhism John Snelling (Element Books 1990)

© Katharine Hunt 2002